Back to school may mean a choice among secular or religious private schools, and regular or charter public schools. Unfortunately, having a choice does not mean getting a better education. For, in all types of schools, the quality of education has, on average, markedly declined for the past 45 years or so. The primary reason for this decline is the dumbing down of the curriculum. One result: students learning less, and those who have become teachers, knowing and teaching less. Another result: negative synergisms, with the dumb making others dumber. The challenge for responsible educational reform is to reverse these downward trends.
Yet none of the critiques of public education and none of the proposals from the educational establishment for reforming it address these problems. The latest fashion in curriculum, the Common Core State Standards, prescribes what students should be able to do, not what they should learn or what teachers should know well enough to teach to ensure a value-added education.
Critiques and proposals from the business community and those under its spell frame their analyses in the easily understood, but clearly irrelevant, terms of the traditional struggle between management and labor. Its reform efforts promote recommendations from successful businesspeople like Bill Gates who know no more than what most people know about education; and conservative think tanks which have economic and political agendas to advance by influencing public education.
From its distorted perspective, the business community regards education as a good or service like any other to be prepared, packaged, and delivered; made competitive because of consumer choice; and measured in terms of producer or product performance. To enter the “education market,” it uses a two-step strategy. First, it denigrates public schools for monopolizing and, without competition, undermining public education; and it demonizes teachers’ unions for obstructing its reforms. Second, it promotes competition by privatization with charter schools, which operate with public funding, private management, and loose supervision by local or state boards of education; and it advocates reforms through flexibility to find better means to better educate students.
This analysis and approach are wrong. First, education is not a commodity. Second, public education is not monopolistic or monolithic; it has private-school competition in many places, and offers a variety of schools and programs to meet student needs. Third, teachers’ unions have little influence on public education; state politicians and officials in departments of education make the major decisions in public education.
Worse, charter schools have not lived up to their hype, which could not be confirmed or refuted when they were new and few. Now, however, that they have existed for years in numbers, reliable, independent studies show is that, on average, public schools perform better than charter schools do. Thus, the growth of the education industry of privatized education actually increases the threat to the quality of education.
Public education is hard enough to reform because it involves so many disparate parties with different interests. Privatized education will be even harder—indeed, virtually impossible—to reform because it involves an already powerful education industry of shared interests in profits and with the power to ensure those profits. If privatization of public education continues to grow, that industry will dominate public education.
The private businesses of this industry or their trade associations will have big budgets to make big investments to make big profits. They will hire lobbyists to influence politicians and bureaucrats powerful in shaping legislation, budgets, programs, instruction, and curriculum. They will oppose regulation to direct, monitor, evaluate, and hold accountable their schools and their students for their performance. They will make campaign contributions to encourage support of their interests and sponsor school board candidates or department officials sympathetic to their interests.
Privatization of public schools is private-sector parasitism. Educational businesses know that the market for tuition-based schools is saturated, and that the number of parents who can afford private school for their children is limited. They know that their only market is diverting students from public schools and having the state collect tuition in the form of taxpayer dollars and shift these public revenues to their private coffers.
The continuing surge in charter schools will accelerate the deterioration of public education, not its improvement. The political power of companies owning and operating charter schools will establish a potent and persistent constituency which will increasingly oppose government regulation, oversight, and accountability because they will impair profits. Successful weakening of government responsibilities will eventually erode the breadth and depth of academic offerings to achieve of profit-enhancing economies. Courses with small enrollments—for examples, honors and AP courses; art, music, and theater; and journalism, cooking, design, automobile repair—will be limited or eliminated. Courses with contested content—literature, history, economics, government, and biology—will be neutered or made partisan.
Privatization will impoverish public education as traditionally and broadly conceived for careers, citizenship, and personal growth, by reducing it to the lowest common denominator of education, mere training in literacy and numeracy.