The dangerous rise of privatization and corporate education reform

The charter school industry and their allies in the corporate education reform movement are making unprecedented gains in their effort to privatize public education in the United States.

With Betsy DeVos on the verge of becoming the United States Secretary of Education and President Donald Trump promising to divert $20 billion in federal funding from public schools to privatization through school choice programs, the movement to undermine public education must be deliriously excited about their prospects over the next four years.

Of course, the proponents of corporate education reform have been riding high for more than two decades thanks to the policies and politics of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom used their time in office to promote charter schools and the broader corporate reform agenda.

Although the corporate reform movement has made unprecedented gains in the last twenty years, its roots go back more than sixty years to Milton Friedman’s essay, “The Role of Government in Education,” which laid out the call for privatizing public education in the United States.

Friedman argued that the nation needed to scrap its historic commitment to local public schools and replace these hallowed institutions with a system in which parents could use public funds to send their children to “private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, religious schools or even ‘government schools,’” a derogatory term corporate education reformers use to describe local public schools.

For decades, Friedman’s proposal was relegated to academic debates about the potential advantages and pitfalls associated with privatization.

However, the situation started to change when the state of Wisconsin enacted the first large-scale school voucher program in 1989 and Minnesota adopted legislation allowing for the creation of charter schools in 1991.

Today, 43 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws paving the way for charter schools and the number of charter schools in the country has reached about 6,900, enrolling a total of almost 3 million students.

And corporate education reformers claim that they have only begun their effort to privatize the country’s public schools.

So what are the fundamental elements of corporate education reform?

Educator and journalist Stan Karp, who works for the Education Law Center and serves as an editor of the  Rethinking Schools magazine, addressed this issue in a stark and direct way more than six years ago in a presentation that was reprinted in the Washington Post.

Stan Karp wrote;

“Corporate education reform” refers to a specific set of policy proposals currently driving education policy at the state and federal level.  These proposals include:

  • Increased test-based evaluation of students, teachers, and schools of education
  • Elimination or weakening of tenure and seniority rights
  • An end to pay for experience or advanced degrees
  • Closing schools deemed low performing and their replacement by publicly funded, but privately run charters
  • Replacing  governance by local school boards with various forms of mayoral and state takeover or private management
  • Vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition
  • Increases in class size, sometimes tied to the firing of 5-10% of the teaching staff
  • Implementation of Common Core standards and something called “college and career readiness” as a standard for high school graduation:

Together these strategies use the testing regime that is the main engine of corporate reform to extend the narrow standardization of curricula and scripted classroom practice that we’ve seen under No Child Left Behind, and to drill down even further into the fabric of schooling to transform the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.  Where NCLB used test scores to impose sanctions on schools and sometimes students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are increasingly targeted at teachers.

A larger corporate reform goal, in addition to changing the way schools and classrooms function, is reflected in the attacks on collective bargaining and teacher unions and in the permanent crisis of school funding across the country.  These policies undermine public education and facilitate its replacement by a market-based system that would do for schooling what the market has done for health care, housing, and employment: produce fabulous profits and opportunities for a few and unequal outcomes and access for the many….

Standardized tests have been disguising class and race privilege as merit for decades. They’ve become the credit default swaps of the education world.  Few people understand how either really works.  Both encourage a focus on short-term gains over long-term goals.  And both drive bad behavior on the part of those in charge.  Yet these deeply flawed tests have become the primary policy instruments used to shrink public space, impose sanctions on teachers and close or punish schools. And if the corporate reformers have their way, their schemes to evaluate teachers and the schools of education they came from on the basis of yet another new generation of standardized tests, it will make the testing plague unleashed by NCLB pale by comparison.

Let’s look for a minute at what corporate reformers have actually achieved when it comes to addressing the real problems of public education:

First, they over-reached and chose the wrong target.  They didn’t go after funding inequity, poverty, reform faddism, consultant profiteering, massive teacher turnover, politicized bureaucratic management, or the overuse and misuse of testing.

Instead, they went after collective bargaining, teacher tenure, and seniority.  And they went after the universal public and democratic character of public schools.

Look again at the proposals the corporate reformers have made prominent features of school reform efforts in every state: rapid expansion of charters, closing low performing schools, more testing, elimination of tenure and seniority for teachers, and test-based teacher evaluation.

 If every one of these policies were fully implemented in every state tomorrow, it would do absolutely nothing to close academic achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, or expand access to college.

 There is no evidence tying any of these proposals to better outcomes for large numbers of kids over time.  The greatest gains in reducing gaps in achievement and opportunity have been made during periods when concentrated poverty has been dispersed through efforts at integration, or during economic growth for the black middle class and other communities, or where significant new investments in school funding have occurred.

Or take the issue of poverty.  Most teachers agree that poverty is no excuse for lousy schooling; much of our work is about proving that the potential of our students and communities can be fulfilled when their needs are met and the reality of their lives is reflected in our schools and classrooms.  But in the current reform debates, saying poverty isn’t an excuse has become an excuse for ignoring poverty.

Corporate reform plans being put forward do nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70/80/90% poverty that remain the central problem in urban education.  Instead, educational inequality has become the entry point for disruptive reform that increases instability throughout the system and creates new forms of collateral damage in our most vulnerable communities.

The “disruptive reform” that corporate reformers claim is necessary to shake up the status quo is increasing pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting.  The latest waiver bailout for NCLB announced recently by Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan would actually ratchet up that pressure. While it rolls back NCLB’s absurd adequate yearly progress system just as it was about to self-destruct, the new guidelines require states that apply for waivers to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnaround” interventions, “charterization,” or closing.

Teachers and schools, who in many cases are day to day the strongest advocates and most stable support system struggling youth have, are instead being scapegoated for a society that is failing our children.  At the same time, corporate reformers are giving parents triggers to blow up the schools they have, but little say and no guarantees about what will replace them.

The only thing corporate ed reform policies have done successfully is bring the anti-labor politics of class warfare to public schools. By overreaching, demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, corporate reform has undermined serious efforts to improve schools.  It’s narrowed the common ground and eroded the broad public support a universal system of public education needs to survive.

Since Karp’s assessment in 2011, we’ve seen the rise of the Common Core and its associated Common Core testing scheme, a system that is turning classrooms into little more than testing factories and profit centers for the testing industry.

And that is all before Trump and DeVos introduce their own brand of radical corporate education reform in the marketplace call American public education.