US school privatisation – a glimpse of our future?

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a long review by Diane Ravitch of two recent books  on school privatisation. The review provides a stark warning about the consequences of turning locally run schools into state-funded independent institutions. The first paragraph of the article sets a chilling scene.

The New York Times recently published a series of articles about the dangers of privatizing public services, the first of which was called “When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers.” Over the years, the Times has published other exposés of privatized services, like hospitals, health care, prisons, ambulances, and preschools for children with disabilities. In some cities and states, even libraries and water have been privatized. No public service is immune from takeover by corporations that say they can provide comparable or better quality at a lower cost. The New York Times said that since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms “have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life.”

Donald Trump backs privatising the nation’s public schools. He said that he would turn $20 billion of existing federal education expenditures into grants which states can use for vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, private schools, or public schools. Unsurprisingly, he sees choice and competition as drivers of school improvement.

About half the US states have enacted voucher legislation or tax credits for non-public schools, even though in some of those states, like Indiana and Nevada, the state constitution explicitly forbids spending state funds on religious schools or anything other than public schools.

The ideological pressure for privatisation comes from conservative ideologues and institutions. But that said, the scope of their thinking goes well beyond their immediate circles (sounds familiar?). The Obama administration has been enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools. In 2009, its Race to the Top programme offered a $4.35 billion  prize that states could compete for. To be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low test scores.

In response to pressure from the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools. Thousands of neighbourhood schools have closed to be replaced by charter schools. There are about seven thousand publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, enrolling nearly three million students. Some are run for profit. Some are online schools, where students sit at home and get their lessons on a computer. Some operate in shopping malls. Some are run by fly-by-night characters hoping to make money. From 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties.

Powerful private interests are at work in promoting the privatisation program but there are signs of resistance to the trend. Bill Gates spent money to promote charter legislation in his home state of Washington. When three state referenda failed support charter schools a fourth was held which favoured them with a margin of 1.5%. However, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools are not public schools because their boards are not elected. So in the recent election, Gates and his allies supported opponents who ran against the justices who were responsible for that decision. The voters were not convinced and so re-elected them.

One of the books reviewed by Ravitch (Education and the Commercial Mindset by Samuel E. Abrams) considers the experience of Sweden and Chile, which embraced school privatization under conservative leadership. In both countries school performance declined, and segregation by race, class, religion, and income grew. The result of school choice was not increased school quality but increased social inequity. Abrams says that Finland, which has rejected the choice/competition approach, has, on the other hand, produced excellent schools and highly respected educational outcomes for its pupils.

The other book reviewed (School Choice: The End of Public Education? by Mercedes K. Schneider) Considers the history of the idea of school choice starting with economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay advocating school vouchers. Schneider shows how the idea was taken up by southern conservatives as a way of evading desegregation legislation. He details the encouragement given to the charter school industry by Presidents Bush and Obama as well as the millions poured in by private foundations such as those of Gates and Wallmart. The scope for for-profit educational business has expanded enormously and with so little in the way of checks and controls that high levels of fraud and graft are the inevitable result.

Investors in charter school construction can receive a 39 percent federal tax credit over seven years. Foreign investors in charter schools can get privileged access permanent resident status for themselves and their families by investing in charter schools. Charter operators have developed a neat trick in which they buy a building, lease it to themselves at high rentals, and get rich from their real estate. Former tennis star Andre Agassi joined with an equity investor to build and open charter schools across the country, even though the Las Vegas charter school that bears his name is one of the lowest-performing schools in Nevada.

Diane Ravitch concludes her review with a positive note about what she sees as growing resistance to the privatising programme.

As the recent state election returns in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Washington State suggest, the tide may be turning against privatization as the public recognizes what is at stake. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People helped to promote resistance with its call in October for a moratorium on new charter schools until they are held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as public schools, until they stop expelling the students that public schools are required to educate, until they stop segregating the highest-performing students from others, and until “public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.”

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