The Privatization of Education–The Hidden Political Battleground of the Conservatives

The United States of America was an early adopter of public education – free education paid for by tax dollars, and managed by local governments.  Now conservatives want to change that and privatize education – free education paid for by tax dollars, but run by corporations.  Education costs, both K-12 and higher education, are skyrocketing into unaffordable realms.  You can’t really blame big business for looking at very large public budgets and thinking there’s a gold rush in education.

K-12 education has been getting bad grades for years, and resentful taxpayers want change.  K-12 education is a fascinating concept.  Basically it prepares each new generation to function in society.  We spend monstrous amounts of money on education, and we’d like to produce very functional citizens.  But does anyone know what constitutes a good education?  The new trend is teaching core content, and that sounds like a dandy idea.  But the history of education is a trail of dandy ideas that have failed miserably.  Will shifting teachers paid by the city and states to profit making corporations solve our educational woes?  I have no idea.  I do think it’s a fascinating problem – but we need some ground rules.

Conservatives and the rich have been hard selling the idea of charter schools and vouchers for some time with no real data supporting their ideas.  Their sales pitches are appealing.  Their ideals are appealing.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure their motivation is anything other than greed.  Conservatives have a one track mind:  pay less taxes.  It galls them to pay for anything that other people get for free.

To reduce the education tax requires reducing the costs of education, but because these corporations also want to make money, lots of money, and reduce taxes, they will have to slash educational costs dramatically.  That means cutting teachers salaries, using fewer teachers, shrinking administrative systems, shrinking the infrastructure of schools, and shrinking every other line item that goes into funding education.  I can’t help wonder how they can produce a better product.

Of course, if they can do more for less, shouldn’t we welcome their revolution?  Sure, but they haven’t proven their methods work, and it appears all we’ll get is badly educated students and new class of teachers that are paid more like fast food workers than professionals that teacher deserve to be.

Like I said earlier, we should have some ground rules for this great social experiment.  I think the number one key to analyzing the success or failure of this experiment and all future educational experiments is doing away with grading by educators and moving to national standardize tests that are administrated by other private corporations that have no ties to the public or private education systems.  This would allow any city to try out any new-fangled educational system they want and tell if it’s effective or not.  Of course, this means experimenting with a whole generation of kids.

Back to that core content idea.  At a national level we have to decide what every kid should know.  Most people will think about the academic content, but I think we also need to add social skills, work stills, health and physical education, etc.

The next idea hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that’s responsibility.  I don’t think the weight of education should fall totally on the educational system.  I think students and parents should be held accountable too.  There is no pedagogical system that produces 100% success, even if teachers, students and parents give 110%.   I believe public education often fails not because of teachers, but because of students and their parents, but the teachers get all the blame.  So in setting up this grand experiment, I believe we need to assign a degree of accountability to students and parents.

Students need incentives to work harder, and grades are no real incentives.  Nor do students equate education with later success in life, because such delayed rewards are no incentives to young minds.  We need to find ways to reward kids for working hard.  Parents should have the built-in incentive to work harder for their kids, but that genetic incentive isn’t trustworthy either.  Parents need their own carrots.

If I was a kid and was told summer starts as soon as I finish the core content for the year, even if that’s two months after the academic years starts, I think I’d study harder, especially if failure means no summer and Saturday classes, ever even Sunday classes for falling behind.  Or if I was told I could play sports, video games, take music lessons, read, or pursue other free activities each day as soon as I finished up my assignments, I’d study harder.  I believe the real incentives for students to get a better education is the reward of less schooling.  This will only work if the core content is practical, manageable, and efficient.  One failure of education is we try to teach too much.

Many of these corporate ideas for schools involve virtual schools and online education.  Most parents want K-12 schools for free daycare, so there’s going to be a real clash there, except for the parents advocating home schooling.  Many of these corporate teaching systems advocate fewer teachers and larger class sizes – and that’s only going to work if students are motivated by self-study.  Their hope is video lectures will replace live lectures, and teachers will be used as guided homework helpers.  Whether this idea has merit is yet to be proven.

If all privatization of education is going to give us is overcrowded schools, with low paid teachers, we can’t really expect much.  And the only way these privatization advocates can prove cheaper education is better is by test scores.  However, anything less than standardize tests conducted by separate national corporations can be scammed.  Grade inflation and cheating is the scourge of education.  Separating educators from testing is the only possible way to solve this problem.  And this kind of testing only works if we have a national core curriculum.  Many advocates of privatization of education secretly want to control curriculum for religious reasons, so this will be another battle.

There will be other corporate opponents too.  Education involves a lot of money and lots of people want get their hand into the pie.  Textbook costs add a lot of red ink to educational systems.  A national core curriculum could hurt the textbook industry and they will fight that with all the lobbyists they can buy.  Privatization advocates know you can’t make education cheaper without reducing all the factors that go into the total cost of education and textbooks are a major issue.  Since many cost reductions depend on the Internet and online education I expect the core content to be public domain in the future.  However, there will be a booming business to sell supplemental textbooks, computer programs, videos, and other training material to parents of affluent students that will give the rich an edge competing with the poor.

There will be side-effects to the core content theory.  If everyone has a good core content education how can the exceptional stand out?  With standardize national tests, with no grade inflation, we’ll actually know what every individual is capable of and comparisons between individuals will be easy, but will an array of standardize scores covering a variety of subjects really let employers hirer the right people they need?  Maybe, if they want math wizards and science geeks, but I image they’ll want more, and thus even with national core content we’ll find ways of making society un-egalitarian.

Personally, I think a good education for all will cost more and not less, but I can’t prove that.  It’s only a hunch.  However, I believe the tide is shifting quickly towards the idea of educational privatization.  We’ll just have to try it out for a generation and see how it works.  I don’t think most people know about the political battles that are going on right now.  It’s not a very newsworthy topic, but the battles are being fought and won in state capitals around the country.   Liberals don’t have a clue.  Liberals don’t work at politics like conservatives do.  That’s why I think the conservatives will get their way.  Most people focus on presidential politics when the real political decisions are being made in the shadows of the political limelight.

Keep an eye on ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).  ALEC is leading the effort of the privatization of education.  If you do a Google search you’ll find many conservative and libertarian think tanks devoted to this topic.  This is a very political topic.  And ALEC is revolutionary, so many other corporations oppose it because ALEC ideals conflicts with their efforts to make money from education the old fashioned ways.

To understand more, read these links:

For more, just search Google for “ALEC Education”

JWH – 5/14/12

7 thoughts on “The Privatization of Education–The Hidden Political Battleground of the Conservatives”

  1. Education is expensive, especially good education. Conservatives barely want to spend money to educate their own children, let alone anyone else’s. Yet, should a good education be limited to those who were lucky at birth?

    Corporations want to make money. Conservatives want to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. Put it together and that doesn’t bode well for our education system.

    But there’s another side to this, as well. The right-wing doesn’t approve of education, because reality often contradicts what they want to believe. They’ve become anti-science. They’ve become anti-history. They despise other nations and other ethnicities. So learning these things not only isn’t a priority for them, it’s actually a danger to their belief systems.

    It’s no wonder that they rely on home-schools and despise universities as “liberal indoctrination.” And it’s certainly no wonder that they want to “starve the beast.”

    1. That’s all true Bill, but conservatives are effectively working their way through state capitols getting laws passed and changed to bring about the privatization of education. It’s happening unless liberals organize and fight back. They have already pulled all sorts of shenanigans in my state so the local school system will use Teach for America teachers.

      I think the only way to push back against this tide is to demand testing standards and core content curriculum. We need evidence based standards, and not educational systems created by razzle-dazzle rhetoric.

  2. Well said, Jim. But I am not sure that all conservatives want privatization – mainly because many cannot afford it (ever see what the Harding Academy or St. George’s costs?). You can witness what those less-well off but conservative parents ARE willing to do in the municipal schools seeking their own suburban districts rather than stay with the MCS/SCS merger.It is thus not all about privatization – but it sure as hell is about SEPARATION. And I am not even sure that it is about conservative parents only – not in this case. It’s simply too easy to place a huge spotlight on a school district serving a mostly poor, minority population and say, “See? It’s a MESS that I don’t want my kids to be involved in”. It will be very interesting to see how those micro-districts fare, eventually – they might even have to merge with each other lest the residents become overtaxed to support each one. THEN we’ll surely see civil rights-based lawsuits…

    1. The ALEC people aren’t wanting everyone to go to a private school, but for corporations to run public schools. So, they would still be free to students and parents, except that taxpayer dollars would be paid to corporations to run them. Sort of like how for-profit corporations are now running prisons and providing lawyers for juvenile court systems.

      The Memphis and Shelby county merger fight is about old fashioned school districts. That’s what these people want to get away from. They believe publically run schools are huge tax sinkholes. They think there should be alternatives that cost less, which means they’d pay less taxes. The start for all of this is to get people to use Teach for America teachers and force public higher education teaching schools out of business. Then they want people to switch to charter schools, vouchers and virtual schools. They also want to get rid of unions and teachers that cost too much. Basically they want fast-food schools. Of course they claim they can deliver a better product for less.

  3. I agree completely that for-profit colleges need to go away. I read a study somewhere (tried to find it but couldn’t) that charter schools fared worse on academic standards overall than public schools so I don’t think they are the answer. That being said, if we could find a way to keep the government out of schools (other than tax-dollars) and corporations as well, then perhaps we’d have a workable solution. Unfortunately I don’t see how you can have it both ways…you are left with one or the other right?

    I personally am all for my tax dollars going to education. I’m all for teachers earning more money. I don’t want those extra tax dollars going to unions however and I certainly don’t want any more government involvement in my children’s education. I like the Teach for America initiative and I like the idea of virtual schools/homeschooling. These of course won’t work for all so as options, they’re good but not necessarily a “fix-all”.

    As with everything else going on in this country right now, there are no easy solutions but the reality is that education needs to be reformed in this country as you point out. Government hasn’t done a good job…this is a fact. Corporations haven’t done a good job either in my opinion. If we made all schools non-profit, my guess is that the corporations and wealthy would find a way to profit from this somehow…scandals would undoubtedly ensue, etc. And the problem I have with standardized testing is that teachers are left teaching the test with no room for teaching of other subject matter…we’ve seen this with current standards. The idea of a national curriculum is terrifying…that’s certainly not a solution as you mention. If we are going to teach to standards, than those standards need to be raised SIGNIFICANTLY with no curves. This is all very complex and is something I’ve been contemplating ever since you posted this. Much to think about for sure.

    1. Keep the government out of schools? We are the government. The ‘government’ is just how we people organize ourselves.

      But I agree that there are no easy solutions – no cheap solutions, either. We have to want a superior education system. We have to demand a superior education system. As long as it’s not important to us, we won’t have one.

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