The Big Picture: Privatizing Education, Part 3

By Kristin

The “education reform” sweeping the nation right now isn’t reform at all. It’s privatization and deregulation. Part One of this three-part article explained what privatization is and who’s benefiting: billionaires and corporations. Part Two explained how they’re getting power: using nonprofits and leveraging public funding. This part shows how the process of privatization works and how it can be stopped!

How Are the Rich and Powerful Privatizing Education?

The process by which our education system is becoming privatized is fairly complicated and includes a number of different parties acting in different ways and for different reasons. Some are explicitly calling for privatization and underfunding of schools. Others are working toward privatization secretly, and still others have been tricked into working toward privatization. So you can’t always pick one person or organization and say, “They want privatization!” But if we understand privatization as a system, we can look at a particular activity and say, “Yes, that is contributing to privatization.”

The groundwork for privatization was laid decades ago. To get a sense for how privatization works over the long term, let’s go back to Brown vs. the Board of Education. That’s when the Supreme Court said that all Black children could attend the same public schools as white children. Some people celebrated that momentous decision, but others immediately took their children out of the public school system and began advocating for private schools, charter schools, school choice, and vouchers. Right then and there, public education found a potent enemy, one that’s been working against it both openly and secretly ever since.

Now let’s step ahead a couple of decades to the year No Child Left Behind was passed. What was that all about, anyway? Who, besides President Bush, wanted it? And why, if the stated goal was to support struggling students and schools, did it punish them with high-stakes testing and school closures? And why, if the stated goal was to help schools, did Bush cut funding by enacting tax cuts for the rich?

Figure 2 shows how, after desegregation, the rich and powerful have been laying the groundwork for privatized schools. They have used private funding and vouchers to strengthen charter and public schools. At the same time, they have been using tax and funding cuts, as well as No Child Left Behind, to weaken schools.

Figure 2: Laying the Groundwork for Privatized Schools

In the years since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, billionaires and corporations have continued to stack the deck against public schools by underfunding public schools and funding private and charter schools. Some charter schools are heavily showcased and then promoted as charter school successes; but this is a “bait-and-switch” tactic, because such money wouldn’t be available to every school after privatization.

At the same time, billionaires and corporations have been funding propaganda in support of private schools through mass media PR, grants to nonprofits, and faulty think tank research. This propaganda encourages legislation that deregulates schools, allowing charter and public schools to break into new markets.

The number of charter schools in the United States has been increasing, and legislation allowing them has been introduced in most states. Wherever they appear, they begin to drain resources (students and per-student funding) from public schools, gradually replacing public schools. As they become more powerful and gain more public and private funding, they can keep the ball running all by themselves, joining with billionaires to market the concept of charter schools and lobby for charter-friendly legislation.

Add Charters, De-professionalize Teaching, and Impose High-Stakes Testing

But even with the heavy lifting of billionaires and corporations, charter schools can’t compete with public schools unless they’re cheaper or look better. That’s where two other two aspects of privatization come in: the de-professionalization of teaching and the imposition of high-stakes testing. Figure 3 shows how they work together to strengthen each other.

Figure 3 The Big Three: Charters, Testing, De-professionalized Teaching

The de-professionalization of teaching leads to the availability of less expensive teachers who have less power in the workforce. Such teachers can staff charter schools more cheaply and are more willing to “teach to the test.” Teaching to the test also means that charter schools can use prepackaged curriculum that requires no professional input from the teacher. Billionaires and corporations are de-professionalizing teaching in several different ways:

  • Deregulating teaching by attacking National Board certification and proposing “alternative” forms of certification
  • Attacking the rights of teachers to bargain collectively, which reduces their democratic voice in the workplace
  • Attacking teacher seniority.

“Alternative,” or weakened forms of certification, pave the way for poor-quality teacher training programs. More rigorous teacher training programs do exist, but they are showcased in a “bait-and-switch”that justifies legislation allowing alternative certification. This lays the groundwork for teachers who have received as little as five weeks of training, such as Teach for America, to lead a high-need classroom all by themselves.

Charter schools use these fast-track and five-week programs to cut labor costs. This forces public schools to consider them as well. At the same time as competition is established between fast-track and National Board-certified teachers, legislation is introduced that attacks seniority rights and propaganda is introduced that magnifies public frustration with “bad teachers” who are said to be protected by the union. Legislation and propaganda also attacks teacher’s rights to bargain collectively, which for decades has been safeguarding teaching as a profession and giving teachers a democratic voice in the workplace.

As charter schools and fast-track teacher preparation programs have gained ground, they’ve been able to more cheaply educate, or at least warehouse, children. This creates a false impression that schools need less money, which leads to further underfunding of schools. The underfunded schools then look bad in comparison to the charter schools. And when competition is encouraged between schools, public schools lose students and the funding that goes with them.

High-stakes standardized testing adds its own influence to the mix. Since the days of No Child Left Behind, high-stakes standardized testing has been punishing struggling schools and students. Although standardized testing has the potential to identify areas needing improvement, adding a high-stakes component undermines that potential and intensifies competition between schools. Using test scores to measure schools also opens the door for a misuse of statistics.

Race to the Top and various state initiatives go beyond NCLB and punish teachers and principals for student performance. They also provide an excuse to fire experienced, National Board-certified teachers, which opens slots for inexperienced teachers.

Finally, forcing schools and teachers to compete for less and less funding weakens charter schools and public schools alike. But there’s one important difference. When a school is forced to close, billionaires and corporations are ready to step in and support a new charter school. They don’t support new public schools. Sometimes public funding isn’t even provided equally. Thus, competition between schools leads to more and more charter schools. The same is true of teachers. When teachers are fired, underfunded districts have an enormous pressure to hire inexperienced, fast-track teachers. That’s why the number of charter schools and fast-track teachers in the United States has been increasing.

How to Stop Privatization

This article provided an overview of privatization, but that’s only the first step. The framework built here is not meant to be used on its own, but to give some context that will allow a concrete understanding of how real people and organizations are affected, right down to the level of the classroom. That is a project all on its own. The good news is that anybody with a keyboard and a healthy dose of skepticism and a computer can help fill in the blanks.

For starters, whenever a nonprofit or grassroots groups ask you to “help” public education, look at who is funding them and who is on the board of directors. Consider what strings may be attached.

Also watch out for propaganda, especially when it involves “glittering generalities” such as “education reform” or “effective teaching” — terms that may have very different meanings to you than to the person using them.

Finally, watch government activity at the federal, state, local, and district levels. Whenever legislation is introduced and whenever the school district proposes a new policy, could it be used to promote privatization?

It’s helpful for one person to understand privatization in a concrete sense, but it’s not nearly enough. Large numbers of people need to understand it, too. To some extent, people have only gone along with privatization because they’ve been tricked and lied to. And that’s where we can effect change: by informing ourselves and then sharing our knowledge with our friends and neighbors.

Remember: in a democracy, it’s the people who dictate public policy. Simply put, we outnumber billionaires. If we work together as a community, we can stop privatization, reverse course, and head toward the dream of fully funded, democratically controlled schools for all.


  1. This is a really great series on the efforts to privatize public ed. It really puts a lot of the pieces together.

  2. Jana, that’s a thought-provoking article. Let me just pull a couple quotes out of it:

    “And this is the same organization tremendously invested in redesigning the American public school system starting from the basis of blaming teachers for the damage wreaked by corporate-influenced bipartisan legislation, and whose dominant suggestion for solving the multivalent problems in education is to introduce still more technology to our classrooms?

    Do we really want a college dropout, who has amassed a vast fortune from technology, dictating the critical thinking abilities of future generations? Do we have a choice?”

    and, even more thought-provoking:

    “As long as we continue to confuse democracy with capitalism, we will continue to confuse democracy and fascism.”

    I will add to that: the United States has not yet met democracy.

    1. Why, thank you, Kristin. If I am able to provoke thoughts at all, I owe that ability mostly to my education in K-12 public schools (thankfully pre-NCLB), university at a state institution, and grad school at still another state institution. Without that grounding, I would not have been prepared to learn nearly as much as I did from my college students, the first generation to have grown up through NCLB. The horror! The shock! And, because I was teaching in the visual realm, the trauma that our nation’s students have experienced and are reenacting.

  3. Jen, thanks for your comments. I agree that quality charter schools can and do exist, but as Dora mentioned, so do quality public schools. Given the choice between fighting institutional racism in public schools and agitating for every last school to be fully funded, versus leaving the state and forming one or two high-quality charter schools, though, I would take the first option. (Only partly because I don’t have the money to start a charter school in the first place.) I find the concept of “school choice” morally and ethically bankrupt because it encourages parents to look for greener grass elsewhere, leaving the underlying problems at their old schools intact. Meanwhile, the grass may or may not be greener on the other side, but you won’t know it from the marketing brochure.

  4. Jen,

    That’s why we have alternative schools and option schools in Seattle, to address the needs of all of our students. These alternative schools have been very successful, Nova High School has had the highest SAT scores in English for the last two years, and have withstood the test of time. The first alternative school was opened in the late 1960’s.

    Charter schools could work if they were open to all but from the first ones established in Chicago during Arne Duncan’s time there as CEO of the CPS system and the ones that were initially the model for charter schools to follow, the intention was to further segregate, not integrate, Chicago schools. The intent was to re-gentrify the Southside of Chicago, as is explained in this article, Arne Duncan and the Chicago Success Story: Myth or Reality?. These charter schools were established so that the well-to-do new residents would have a place to send their children to school. That further evolved into the charter franchises which would take district money but these schools were not held accountable by the democratically elected district school boards. In fact, these charter schools, even though they use public funds, do not have to answer to anyone including the tax payers whose money is being used. The CEO’s of these charter schools take home 6 figure salaries and pay their staff very little. It’s a scam that has taken over our educational system. The worst part is that they aren’t any better than most public schools.

    If we were to allow charter schools in our state, that would open the flood gates for just the kind of schools that you would find abhorrent. I would suggest sticking with what we have now, alternative schools and option schools, strengthen those schools and create other option schools that are available to all and do not provide the opportunity for the amount of corruption that we have seen elsewhere in this country.

    You can also check out information on Seattle Ed about charter schools,, an excerpt from The Shock Doctrine which shows exactly how charter schools have been used by big money and corporate interests to further their own needs. Duncan, et al see New Orleans as a model for charter schools around the country, Blank is Beautiful, Failed Promises: Assessing Charter Schools in the Twin Cities, Schools Without Diversity, etc.


  5. Some highly qualified people in education have left the state to start charter schools elsewhere in order to address inequity issues that the school district has chronically failed to address. This state has two options, private schools for an elite group of children and public schools, which in urban high poverty areas have consistently failed their students in so many ways. Charter schools offer an option for community members and parents and educational specialists who don’t have the financial means to get together and form a school of their own envisioning, not defined by the mandates of the district. Not all charter schools are for profit nor are they intended to segregate, but rather to answer a need for students that has not been met by the existing public school system. Many charter states require the same teaching certification process as public schools, and it is the public schools that are lowering their expectation for quality teaching by requiring standards based education and restricting teacher autonomy. I agree that some charter schools have a negative effect and serve to further the divide between have and have nots, but depending on how the law is written, charter schools can help to level the playing field for students who are being dissed by public schools. Charter schools are not in and of themselves evil. They, like private schools and public schools, depend upon the vision, mission and expertise of those involved.

  6. Chris, you stumped me! The charter schools will push for 100% of market share. But what will the local billionaires and corporations do? And whichever of the Powers that Be actually benefit from the segregation caused by having some charters and some public schools? How strong is the resistance? What do you think?

  7. This is very nice Kristin. I have a leading question – where does the charter school trajectory theoretically end? My impression is that New Orleans, with 60% of schools being charters, is the leader. Will they go for more? Why or why not?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s