Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face?


Some believe the backbone of the US was founded on public education, but that democratic ideal is now being threatened. As the US public educational system struggles to stay relevant, corporations like Pearson, and billionaires such as Bill Gates push for the privatization of public schools.

But are they right? Is privatizing public education the solution to the problems public schools face? What are the problems? Many educators, including myself, recognize that public schools are worth saving, and the problems are not what they first seem to be.

In the simplest terms, public or state education is free, and private education, think parochial schools, are not. Most public schools are funded by property taxes. Yet, as we know, some neighborhoods, states and counties are wealthier than others - creating an inequality of funds and monies.

Another interesting problem free education faces is no one wants to pay more property taxes. Yet costs of materials, like the cost of living, have risen, and government programs that were implemented in the past to help level student inequality have been eliminated.

There has also been a sharp increase of charter schools in America as part of the “solution” to “failing” public schools. Unfortunately, these independent schools have also diverted much of the funds that would have gone into public schools.

As a result of less funding, public classrooms, class size, curriculum, students and teachers have been, and continue to be, deeply affected. In fact, public schools are closing. Meanwhile, wealthy and privileged children are enjoying a higher quality education that does not include reduced spending on building maintenance, equipment, or program cuts like music, art and geography that public school peers are experiencing.

School vouchers were introduced as a remedy to this public school problem, and it’s a highly controversial system that essentially allows parents to choose any school, public or private with government monies.

The biggest proponents of school vouchers believe in the “free market of education” and trust competition between schools will force failing schools to work harder or die out completely, and reward good schools. Pro-voucher advocates, in addition, feel private schools will become more diverse places, and strengthen educational quality. In essence, vouchers are all about promoting school choice. 

But a problem to consider is private schools can reject students.  By their distinctiveness, they are selective. What made public school a great equalizer was, children with disabilities, learning challenges, or those from poor economic conditions were still able to go to a school. But even with a voucher, there can still be a financial deficit for lower income families to overcome. Vouchers are not free tickets; they are coupons for a specific amount of money to be applied to their school of choice.

Another concern is what competition will foster for our children and our schools. What privatization of public education truly creates is a “survival of the fittest” climate, and a “race to the top” as Obama calls it. Consequently, free and public education for all becomes education for the privilege, few and select who can play the game and who can compete. As Diane Ravitch, an education historian, astutely points out, there will be winners and losers in the competitive market of education.

For me, this analogy comes to mind. Let’s pretend we’ve really trashed and ruined a city, so we decide to move to somewhere else. Vouchers and privatization are in theory, moving to another city, and leaving the mess behind. Instead of figuring out a way to save public education, we're hoping a corporate model will be our savior. Unfortunately though, corporations can be corrupt and with no one to answer to.

In the world of learning, I don’t want winners and losers, I want the guarantee that every child can go to school and receive a quality education. Vouchers and privatization feel like a good answer, but there are too many families and children who will pay the consequences for our inability to keep education free.

References and further Reading:

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  1. What a complex topic. I was homeschooled, and plan on homeschooling my children, so this topic is a bit weird for me to be so passionate about, but I am. Are you familiar with Sir Ken Robinson? He's done some talks on TED and he's written a few books as well. He's very passionate about changing public education, and I believe his ideas are the key. He doesn't believe in privatizing them at all - he believes in a change from the ground up that helps teachers become better, that helps learners thrive in an environment suited to individual needs, and that throws out the old system of rigorous testing and the stratification of subjects. I can't begin to outline all his ideas, but he really is brilliant, and I truly believe his ideas would work. The problem lies in that the system is so large and so grounded already that it would be nearly impossible to do a massive overhaul of the type needed.

    Oh I could talk about this forever, and probably will in some blog post eventually, but I really encourage you to check him out if you haven't. He's a lovely speaker and hilarious to boot.

  2. Homeschooled! Well, well, Miss FancyPants :P

    I know about Sir Ken, but I didn't know he was against privatization, so that is very good news indeed. We need influential folks to spread the news and save public ed.

    And I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you are on the same page as me, as we seem to have a lot in common :) Glad to hear it, looking forward to your posts, and thanks!

  3. Anonymous10 July, 2014

    Hey Lani,
    Been reading your stuff for a while, as a former Board member and parent of children who went to charter schools, I have a slight correction. Charter schools are public schools. So they are not diverting much needed funds. The difference(at least at our charter school) is that the local school board has less to say about how the school is run, and the parents have more to say about how the school is run.
    I sent my children to a charter school because it was a better choice for them, not because we have poor public schools in my area(they are actually excellent in my town). I liked the curriculum better and the class size, and the uniform policy as well.

  4. I think there are a people out there that would argue that charter schools are taking away monies from public schools. At the same time, charter schools vary greatly, not only from State to State, but within each State, too.

    I'm glad you had a positive experience with your charter school. But I have a hard time believing leading experts like Diane Ravitch are not fully invested in educating the public on this issue. As you can see from the links, I also did a lot of research before putting my thoughts out there. Here's a recent link:

    Thanks for reading, and stopping by...

  5. Here's a video, if you want to watch a Bill Moyers interview with Diane Ravitch: