The Privatization of Public Education

The New York Times‘ article recently listed the educational background of the major players in the current ed reform movement. David Guggenheim, producer and director of the widely acclaimed and pro-charter school documentary Waiting for Superman went to Sidwell Friends School, the same one that President Obama’s daughters are attending, for example. Accountability advocate and financial backer Bill Gates went to private Lakeside School in Seattle. Former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee went to Maumee Valley Country Day School in Toledo, Ohio. Accountability hawk Jeb Bush went to highly acclaimed independent school Phillips Andover in Massachusetts. Apparently, they all had private school education and have alternately advocated for stricter teacher accountability, charter schools, vouchers, or tying teacher pay/tenure to performance; in essence, the privatization of public schooling.

This observation is interesting on two fronts.

First, the privatizing of public education (traditionally a conservative and Republican doctrine), has been equally adopted by democrats as a way to address the educational slide raised by the report A Nation at Risk and current international performance comparisons of PISA. Such alliance was largely responsible for the relatively easy passing of No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 and its expected reauthorization this year by the Obama administration. Though bi-partisanship is generally welcomed, it signals a potential danger to teachers’ rights, particularly since the profession has been steadily weakened.

Second, conspiracy theorists might suggest that this privatization movement was designed to dismantle public education all along. NCLB originally mandated that all students will be proficient by 2014; however, with Secretary Duncan’s announcement that 82% of schools will be labelled “failing” this year (unless amendments are made to the existing Elementary and Secondary Education Act), it is tempting to believe in a hidden agenda when NCLB was first authorized. Conservative scholar Chester Finn further inflamed advocates of public education by recommending, “Blow it up and start over.”

With the increasing presence of venture philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Sam Walton, who contribute vast amounts of money to research and education, public education policy is being influenced in ways not seen before. Joanne Barkan’s essay, Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools brilliantly uncovers their intricate connections.

As such, the privatizing of public goods has always been the divisive issue between the haves and the have nots; simply put, those in power will always seek to curtail or dissolve social services since they have other means and resources, while those without it seek to keep and expand them. So what is the answer?

Balance.

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