School Privatization: Kelsie Lamb

This summer, seven of our undergraduate teacher education students and one intrepid faculty member are spending a month in Peru studying the educational system and discussing their own philosophies of education. They are writing and reflecting on their journey, and we are following along! Read on for excerpts and blurbs from Dr. Gibson and the students’ blogs. You can read more on Marquette Meets Peru and check back for updates here.  

Kelsie Lamb

As the land of opportunity, America promotes the idea that anyone, even the poor, can work hard and attain success; but the increased privatization of schools is ensuring that some of the nation’s most marginalized students continue to trail behind their more privileged peers by making a quality education more difficult to attain.

Other than my two years in preschool, all of my schooling has taken place at private, Catholic institutions. My parents felt that our local school district was facing too many setbacks and challenges, so my brother and I would have a better chance at success if we did not attend our neighborhood public schools. Many other parents who have the financial means to send their children to private schools make the decision to do so. However, with many advocating for increased privatization of education and the rise of “school choice” programs, more and more parents are choosing not to send their children to public schools. School privatization is not exclusively an American issue; countries all over the world are facing similar debates and challenges. With the current U.S. administration pushing for school privatization and its global popularity, it is important to consider the implications of privatized education and the defunding of public schools through school choice programs. The current privatization of U.S. schools, while intended to benefit even disadvantaged students, ultimately upholds the nation’s long-lasting systems of inequality.

Various factors have led to the privatization of schools, culminating in the current U.S. administration’s push for school choice and the defunding of public schools. Joanne Barkan describes the rise of privatization in her comprehensive piece “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” In the 1950s, Economist Milton Friedman was a pioneer in the school voucher system, proposing that students use vouchers, which would be funded by the government, to attend their choice of private school. However, Barkan notes that from 1954–1959, in an attempt to avoid integration after the Brown vs. Board decision, Southern states “adopted whites-only versions of Friedman’s voucher system” that allowed white students to attend all-white private schools using public funds. Another factor that supported school choice was the rise of neoliberalism, which asserted that competition and choice create an increase in quality and efficiency. In the 1980s, this led to economic deregulation, cuts in government spending, and increased privatization, including privatized education. The desire to privatize was further exacerbated in 1983, when “A Nation at Risk” was published, a report written to show how American schools were failing. The panic about failing schools, combined with neoliberal thinking, led many to demand an overhaul of the education system and greater support for privatized education. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, today, fourteen states and Washington D.C. have voucher programs, and all fifty states “provide parents the ability to send their child to a school outside their neighborhood in some way,” whether it be charter schools, open enrollment programs, education savings accounts, or scholarship tax credit programs. School privatization in the form of school choice has been years in the making and continues to expand.

While some private schools, were founded to avoid forced integration, many privatization efforts have had good intentions. As Corey Iacono writes in his piece “Three Reasons to Support School Choice,” supporters of school privatization argue that it will improve “academic outcomes and save tax payers money.” Better results at a lower cost would be ideal, but in reality, the private schools that vouchers can be used towards often fail to yield higher test scores than their public school counterparts, says Joanne Barkan. Looking at charter schools, Barkan cites one report’s findings: “about one half of all charters perform at the same level as district schools, about one quarter perform worse, and about one quarter perform better although often by a minuscule amount.” School choice programs can give some parents, who may not have had the opportunity otherwise, to select what they feel is the best school for their child, including high-performing schools. But at these schools, Barkan says, many students who have behavioral or academic issues are “counseled out” so as not to bring down the school’s test results. As the product of private schools myself, I cannot say that a private education is inherently bad; I am grateful for the education I have received, the values I have learned, and the experiences I have had during my fifteen years of schooling. But as a future educator, I must acknowledge that not all students have access to the funds and resources necessary to attend a school other than their neighborhood school, and that the increased trend towards privatization is perpetuating the inequality that has left America’s marginalized students disadvantaged for years.

The United States prides itself on being a nation of opportunity and choice, so the ability to choose what school one’s child attends should embody these ideas. But for some opponents, the privatization of schools threatens some of America’s most important ideals; those who oppose school privatization say that school choice comes at the expense of not only public schools, but also democracy. The National Education Association, whose tagline is “Great Public Schools for Every Student,” argues that “Privatization is a threat to public education, and more broadly, to our democracy itself.” As Joanne Barkan discusses in her article, vouchers and charter schools receive public funds for each student who enrolls; therefore, public schools are receiving both less money and less students, leaving them to “inevitably deteriorate.” The deterioration of public schools is something I am familiar with. The school district of my city, North Chicago, has been overseen by a state-appointed superintendent for over twenty years due to poor performance and the mismanagement of funds. The district has been reorganized several times, and multiple schools were closed. Within this time, two charter schools were opened, one of which is now located in the building of my old preschool. While the charter schools are getting attention, no more funding is being given to the public schools whose test scores continue to fall well below average. The other abandoned schools serve as a physical reminder of public schools’ underfunding. As the land of opportunity, America promotes the idea that anyone, even the poor, can work hard and attain success; but the increased privatization of schools is ensuring that some of the nation’s most marginalized students continue to trail behind their more privileged peers by making a quality education more difficult to attain.

While school choice may be aimed at giving students new and better opportunities, ultimately, the privatization of schools leads to increased inequality. According to an article on school choice by the Washington Post, critics of voucher and charter schools say that the neediest children are being harmed by these programs because their parents do not have the means to “shop around” for schools or cannot afford transportation to schools further away; therefore, they are left attending their local public schools that are lacking in resources and funds. As discussed previously, the academic results of private schools who receive public funding are usually not any higher than the public schools. In the United States, the schools with high performance, as well as a wealth of resources, are usually the elite private schools whose tuition would not come close to being covered by a choice voucher. This trend is echoed throughout the world, including in the South American country of Peru. While spending a month in Peru, visiting both public and private schools, I saw that they too are facing similar challenges with privatization. For example, I visited two elite private academies, whose tuition could not be afforded by the vast majority of Peruvians. These privileged schools have libraries, computer labs, one has two 3D printers, and the other has a zoo, which houses endangered animals. Like the U.S., some Peruvians also have the option to send their children to privately-run but publicly-funded schools. Unlike the elite schools, these other types of private schools have limited resources; in the schools in the most impoverished areas, some of the classrooms sit empty for want of teachers. Maria Balarin describes this in her working paper “The Default Privatization of Peruvian Education and the Rise of Low-fee Private Schools.” Balarin argues, “Without the balances brought into public education by public funding and more direct regulation, private education goes from high-end schools educating the children of the global elite, to low-fee ‘garage schools,’ offering an education of sub-standard quality” (13). Both in the United States and Peru, school privatization not only highlights inequality, but also supports it by ensuring that the privileged continue to receive privileges, while the poor continue to struggle to have even the basic elements of schooling met.

In addition, the inequality caused by school privatization often takes the form of school segregation, as Nikole Hannah-Jones describes in the NPR interview “How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By ‘Individual Choices.’” In this interview, Hannah-Jones describes how the overpopulation of a majority white public school in New York City meant that white students would attend her daughter’s majority minority school. Many white parents were unhappy about this decision, and with privatization and school choice, they could opt to send their students to other schools where they would continue to be surrounded by their white peers. Just as those in the 1950s used school choice to avoid integration, similar situations happen today. Like New York City, Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. I have had field placements in three private schools in Milwaukee, two of which were part of the Choice Program and one which was a charter school. These three schools were either majority African American or majority Latinx. I have only been in one Milwaukee public school, and it too was largely African American. It is important to acknowledge the role that individual choices play in maintaining this segregation, as Hannah-Jones suggests. According to a report done by the Century Foundation on school vouchers and integration, “90 percent of transfers in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increased segregation in private schools, public schools, or both sectors.” Segregation and school privatization is not exclusively an American issue either. The U.S. News article “Worldwide, Public Education is Up for Sale” by Diane Ravitch describes how education has affected nations such as the U.K., Chile, and Sweden. According to this piece, Chile provides an example of how nationwide privatization leads to self-segregation “by religion, social class, race, and family income,” with limited educational benefits. In addition, Maria Balarin cites a report that “found that Peru — the one country in which default school privatization has been most marked in Latin America — is the country with the highest levels of educational segregation, and also the country in which pupils’ SES is most strongly correlated with their learning achievement” (12). The situation in Peru mirrors the U.S.’s, emphasizing some of the detrimental effects of privatization.

Although beneficial in theory, school privatization, when implemented, presents a series of challenges that cannot be ignored. Therefore, it is essential for educators to seriously consider the implications privatization has on both their pedagogy and practice. For example, those who claim to be social justice-oriented educators must actually act as teachers for social justice. Just as Nikole Hannah-Jones made the decision to send her daughter to a public school, educators must decide where their services are most needed. A private, suburban school may have more resources and better pay than a public, urban school, but educators must consider more than just that. Quality teachers are essential to a quality school and could positively impact on underfunded public schools. And if an educator does decide to teach in a private school, especially in one that is segregated, whether by social class or race, it is important to implement a diverse curriculum that will expose students to ways of life that they would not encounter otherwise. Educational philosopher and social activist Maxine Greene discusses this in her piece “Diversity and Inclusion: Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings.” In her philosophy, Greene reaffirms “the need to reject single dominating visions or interpretations”; instead, educators should expose their students to multiple viewpoints and cultures that are different from their own (218). Additionally, Hannah-Jones’ idea that her daughter is no less deserving than her poorer peers is also something that teachers should adopt; even in publicly-funded, under-resourced schools, the students are not only capable of academic success, but are also deserving of it. The potential and equality of all students is something that teachers must acknowledge. My experience with publicly-funded Peruvian schools is limited, but the teachers in the two I observed in demonstrated a genuine commitment to the success of all their students. Teaching with compassion and holding high expectations of all students is one of the ways to promote equity, even in segregated, marginalized schools. While teachers may not be able to implement new policies to decrease privatization, they can help combat its negative effects through their philosophy and practice.

Many politicians have argued for the privatization of schooling because by running schools like a business, they will be more cost effective and efficient. To supporters of this viewpoint, increased school competition will lead to increased school quality. However, this type of thinking is flawed. Schools are not businesses — their purpose is not to generate revenue, nor should it be. Students are not customers. Education is not a commodity. It is a right, as declared by the twenty-sixth article of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. If the education system operates like the free market, then the poor will continue to be at a disadvantage because they will be unable to afford a higher-quality education. One of the roles of public schools is to give all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, a quality education that will help them succeed. If schools become businesses, this cannot happen and the cycle of poverty will continue. School privatization is a decisive issue and is being heatedly debated, and with the current president being a businessman, the push towards privatization will not go away anytime soon. But solutions and compromises need to be made in order to improve the integrity of America’s public schools, protect the interests of all students, and ensure the long-term success of our nation as a whole.

Works Cited

Balarin, Maria. “The Default Privatization of Peruvian Education and the Rise of Low-fee Private Schools.”

Barkan, Joanne. “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” Jacobin Magazine. June 16, 2018.

Brown, Emma. “‘School choice’ or ‘Privatization’? A Guide to Loaded Education Lingo in the Trump Era.” December 27, 2016.

Coleman, Emily K. “North Chicago, LEARN Reach Deal for Second Charter School.” Lake County News-Sun. May 11, 2016.

Cunningham, Josh. “Interactive Guide to School Choice Laws.” The National Conference of State Legislatures. June 15, 2017.

How the Systemic Segregation of Schools is Maintained by ‘Individual Choices.’” NPR. October 13, 2017.

Greene, Maxine. “Diversity and Inclusion: Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings.” Teachers College Record. 1993.

Iacono, Corey. “3 Reasons to Support School Choice.” Foundation for Economic Education. January 26, 2015.

Potter, Halley. “Do Private School Vouchers Pose a Threat to Integration?” The Century Foundation. March 21, 2017.

Privatization.” National Education Association. 2017.

Ravitch, Diane. “Worldwide, Public Education is Up for Sale.” U.S. News. August 9, 2016.

Strauss, Valerie. “What ‘School Choice’ Means in the Era Trump and DeVos.” The Washington Post. May 22, 2017.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The United Nations.

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