Privatization of Public Education: A Joint Venture of Charity and Power

The Choice that isn’t a Choice

In the end, the idea behind CEO/CSF – and the private school voucher campaign – counts on success at selling two false promises. The first is choice. Supporters of private school vouchers and “scholarships” say they want to give poor parents the same choice that rich parents have. Yet most of the voucher or scholarship amounts don’t provide sufficient funds to enable the poorest parents to “choose” the elite private schools favored by wealthy parents. And most voucher legislation reveals the sponsors’ desire to protect all private schools from the standards that can provide parents with the necessary information to evaluate a private school. In practice, the only meaningful choice in these voucher or private grant programs belongs not to the parents but to the schools that choose; first, whether to accept voucher students at all and, then, whether to accept – and retain – each individual student who applies. There are growing numbers of private and religious schools that have indicated that they would opt not to accept public vouchers if they have to agree to basic nondiscrimination standards in admissions, or subject themselves to requirements for testing, reporting, and other accountability for their use of public funds. Some religious schools have objected to the idea of allowing students to “opt out” of religious services. And investor-owned schools, in order to return a maximum profit, will always seek to maintain the right to select students based on any criteria they choose and to design programs that accomplish this goal. The choice for parents and students remains limited and unsatisfactory.

The second false promise is that “competition” will create marketplace dynamics that will cause the public schools to improve. As used by voucher and privatization advocates, the concept is tortured. True competition requires a level playing field, but a change to publicly funded vouchers would not create one. Private schools will have access to capital; public schools will lose capital. Private schools will have the ability to pack up and leave when it becomes tough to educate students on the funds available, just as HMO’s do today when a particular market becomes unprofitable. Public education must always be available – profitable or not. Private schools will ultimately find multiple ways to limit their customer base (already evident in Milwaukee as schools have avoided the randomization provision), and public schools will take all comers. Private schools will have the freedom to design a profitable product, choosing programs, capital equipment, and courses based upon their marketing value. Public schools have a longterm commitment to all, and therefore, they can’t play the profit maximization game.

Taking a handful of students out of an urban school district does not reduce such fixed costs as building maintenance, staff salaries, school supplies and administration. Reducing funds from already impoverished schools already unable to afford basic necessities such as textbooks and safe buildings, and preventing teachers from having access to the very tools they need – including community support – is exactly the opposite of a spur to improvement.

Nor do private schools guarantee a quality education. Perhaps the best illustration is a recent example from Cleveland: voucher advocate David Brennan created two new schools specifically to utilize the newly available voucher money. Contrary to expectations predicted by market theory, an Indiana University study concluded that student performance at these schools is “significantly and dramatically lower than both public school and other scholarship students.”84 And private scholarship programs sometimes fare no better, as witnessed by a Wall Street
reporter examining CEO America’s flagship program in San Antonio, Texas. Visiting schools that CEO authorized to accept their vouchers, the journalist found the Sword of the Lord Academy to be “a ramshackle cottage with trash cans in the front, old cars in the back and a sticker reading ‘Property of Jesus Christ’ across the door.” According to CEO America, it’s up to the parents to determine quality.85 Voucher programs do not address key questions pertaining to educational quality that affect both public and private schools, such as teacher and principal training.

CSF and CEO America share many things: founders and board members, donors and advisors, regional affiliates and state policy think tank support. Most importantly, they share the same goal: to move money. In order to make that politically feasible, they determinedly claim that vouchers will “fix” our nation’s education problems. This requires them to ignore the realities of public schools and competition, the many successful reform programs in place in the country, the good news of many kinds coming out of public schools around the country, and the benefits to schools and students when financial resources and community support are generous.

CSF’s success in cultivating a diverse support network does nothing to contradict the underlying free-market and right-wing ideology that inspired its creation, or the dedication of those pursuing the parallel political strategy to win public funding for private schools. The bottom line remains the same – diverting money and support from public schools through publicly funded voucher programs provides new barriers to the improvement of those schools.

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