The Big Picture: Privatizing Education (Part One of Three)
The “education reform” sweeping the nation right now isn’t reform at all. It’s privatization and deregulation. This three-part article explains what privatization is and who benefits from it. The forthcoming Part Two will explain the strategy being used, and Part Three will show how the different aspects of “education reform” work together as a process — and how it can be stopped!
Part One: An Introduction to Privatization
Since the 1800s, public education has been free and available to everyone. It held the promise that allowed people to strive for equal education and equal opportunity for everyone. But there is now a strong push to privatize every element of our public education system, including our schools, teachers, and curriculum. By the time my children graduate high school, will it still be universally available? Will it even be called “public education” any more?
The parents, teachers, and students who support public education can fight privatization through widespread, coordinated, and sustained opposition.
But there’s one big obstacle standing in the way of this opposition: the process is big, complicated, and sneaky. It involves a lot of money going a lot of different places – including but not limited to, lobbying dollars, propaganda in the mass media, and “astroturf”, fake grassroots groups – and supporting a lot of seemingly unrelated education policies.
To fight privatization, we need a holistic understanding of the process. To that end, this article provides a short overview of the privatization efforts currently underway, who’s behind them, and how the privatization process works. The results may surprise you!
What is Privatization?
Privatization is a process of shifting the ownership and management of public services from the public sector (the state or government) to the private sector (businesses that operate for a private profit and privately funded nonprofits). Proponents claim that by encouraging competition, privatization can improve the efficiency of public services. But there can be serious drawbacks. For instance, before fire departments were publicly run, groups of firefighters sometimes set fires just to earn money by putting them out!
Another drawback is that privatization also takes away democratic public control of our public services. If government officials mismanage public services, we can vote them out of office. But when private corporations mismanage them, we can’t. Only the shareholders have the power to fire the CEOs. Even worse, privatization undermines the basic fabric of our democracy for years to come by putting rote learning ahead of critical thinking.
Yet another drawback is that privatization opens the door for deregulation, which is the lifting of restrictions that provide for health, safety, and quality control. Whenever a private corporation runs an industry, it has a strong financial incentive to lobby the government to deregulate. Recent examples include the deregulation of the mortgage industry, which led to our current financial crisis, and the deregulation of the oil industry, which led to the catastrophic Deepwater oil spill.
A final drawback is that privatized and deregulated schools are neither required nor expected to create equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. That’s why the UCLA has reported that charter schools are increasing segregation in the United States.
Charter schools can also do an “end run” around requirements to provide special education for high-need students. They can serve a special few while ignoring the greater good.
Despite these drawbacks, the rich and powerful have been pushing for privatization of a wide number of public services, such as public utilities, national parks, universities, and even social security. The push to privatize public education has been going on for decades and includes school choice, vouchers, charter schools, the privatization of curriculum, and more. There are also efforts underway to deregulate schools and teaching, replacing protections with the illusion of quality control through standardized testing.
Who Benefits from Privatization?
The business that takes over the public service benefits directly from privatization. Billionaires and large corporations also benefit, if it means the government will cut taxes for the rich. Politicians and bureaucrats with connections also benefit through kickbacks.
Who’s Pushing for Privatization?
Billionaires (such as the Walton family, the Koch brothers, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Eli and Blythe Broad) and corporations are pushing heavily for the privatization of education and other services, both for financial reasons and ideological ones.
From the point of view of billionaires, the free market is ideal. It made them rich, after all. To the extent that they want to improve education, they want to remake the system in the image of a corporation, with top-down management, competition, decreased spending, and a focus on results. Of course, the view from the top is nothing like the view from the bottom. How can billionaires who have never gone through the public education system have any idea of the challenges that teachers and students actually face?
As for corporations, they don’t “want” anything in particular. They can’t; they’re not human beings. They are essentially machines whose primary goal is to maximize profits. To further that goal, corporations have an interest in lowering taxes. They also have an interest in directly controlling exactly what is taught to tomorrow’s workforce. They do not have a need for equal opportunity in education, because not all workers in tomorrow’s economy need to think for themselves or to read beyond basic literacy.
Finally, there are companies that simply profit off education, taking taxpayer and grant dollars to produce a product. This includes charter schools, teacher preparation programs, online learning systems, standardized tests, and test prep curriculum. Privatization helps them because it creates new markets. Opening a charter school, for instance, means that brand new teachers can be hired and brand new curriculum can be sold. (Of course, this also means that existing teachers must be fired and curriculum thrown away.)
Part Two of this three-part article will continue by explaining the strategy that billionaires are using to push for privatization and deregulation: using nonprofits.