Over the past decade, I have heard educators I respect, even admire, say quietly among themselves that public schools were on the road to being privatized. Others, mostly among progressive educators, had no reluctance to speak out publicly about this march toward privatization.
These educators had seen the explosion of charter schools since the early 1990s, the rush of entrepreneurs into preparing teachers and principals, pay-for-performance schemes, and grant-making agendas of business-oriented foundations founded by billionaires like Walton, Gates, Broad, Bradley, and Olin. They concluded that these developments were a direct outgrowth of business-friendly education policies that Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush had championed since the mid-1980s. They pointed to the rise of vouchers (now constitutional but unpopular except in Republican circles and the Cato Institute), the spread of restructuring schools (as had occurred in the manufacturing sector) in the 1980s, the actual outsourcing of public schools to private corporations (Edison, Green Dot, Education Alternatives, Inc.) and advancing choice in public schools (charters, home schooling, and small high schools) as evidence of business influence on educational policymaking. They cited educational entrepreneurs’ anti-union rhetoric and simmering antagonism toward career teachers and administrators.
Rumors of deals cut in corporate offices, gossip about grant-makers, and a touch of paranoia about the traffic between foundation officials and entrepreneurs and the current administration have convinced many thoughtful educators that reform-minded policymakers and grant-makers were determined to privatize public schools for middle class and highly-motivated working class families and leave unmotivated have-nots to fend for themselves in chronically low-performing neighborhood schools.
I do not subscribe to conspiratorial theories. Nor do I believe in cabals of billionaires and policy elites deciding behind closed doors what needs to be done for other people’s children. What I do subscribe to is the gradual drift in the past thirty years of the nation’s schools–like other public institutions as hospitals, the criminal justice system, and public services–to copy successful businesses. While U.S. schools have had an off-and-on romance with business practices since the late 19th century, aping successful corporations has again reappeared.
A convenient marker for when the drift accelerated is the business-dominated Nation at Risk report (1983), and subsequent commissions, often chaired by CEOs, that hammered home
the decline of U.S. schools compared to other nations, the lack of skilled graduates, and becoming less competitive globally. But the reported decline in U.S. schools also mirrored a decline in trust for other government supported social institutions.
The constant drumroll of anti-government rhetoric beginning with Ronald Reagan– “government is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem” —has been non-stop. The alternative for too much government is to trust the free market to solve social, political, and economic problems. Market-driven champions said: Look at how the Soviet empire–a society based on the premise that government leaders knew best–disintegrated in the early 1990s. Market-based societies triumphed over state-run socialism.
It is no accident, then, that U.S. campaigners for state and federal office have intoned the anti-government message for decades–don’t tax because what’s collected gets misspent and wasted. Even incumbents rail against the very government they serve. Is it any surprise then that everything from publicly-funded roads, parks, and courts to hospitals and schools are suspect and not deserving of further taxation?
And so public schools, along with other tax-supported institutions (except the military), have been flailed constantly by both Democrats and Republicans for ineptness, corruption, bad judgment, and waste. The solution: rely on market-based competition and copy successful businesses that provide choice to their customers, “incentivize” employees to work harder, and focus only on measurable results. And the outcomes thus far: After the 2008 Great Recession and colossal bad judgments of very smart but greedy people committed to market solutions to problems, county and state governments have had to make cut after cut in public expenditures for roads, social and medical services, and schools.
This three-decade long anti-government campaign harnessed to unrealistic perceptions that schools have to introduce market-based practices and copy businesses to be effective have led to cuts in services that, as Paul Krugman points out, “everyone except the very rich need, services that government provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling.”
No conspiracy among business and policy elites to privatize schools exists. What does exist, however, is the continuing mindless imitation of business practices–a romance that deserves to sour–amid unrelenting anti-government rhetoric from both Democrat and Republican administrations. Both have contributed to sustaining an inequitable three-tiered system of public schooling where urban and rural poor districts now compete for Race To The Top dollars ladled out by state and federal officials.