How Privatization Perverts Education

Profit-seeking in the banking and health care industries has victimized Americans. Now it's beginning to happen in education, with our children as the products.

There are good reasons - powerful reasons - to stop the privatization efforts before the winner-take-all free market creates a new vehicle for inequality. At the very least we need the good sense to slow it down while we examine the evidence about charters and vouchers.

1. Charter Schools Have Not Improved Education

The recently updatedCREDO studyat Stanford revealed that while charters have made progress since 2009, their performance isabout the sameas that of public schools. The differences are, in the words of theNational Education Policy Center, "so small as to be regarded, without hyperbole, as trivial." Furthermore, the four-year improvement demonstrated by charters may have been due to theclosing of schoolsthat underperformed in the earlier study, and also by a variety of means to discourage the attendance of lower-performing students.

Ampleevidenceexists beyond CREDO to question the effectiveness of charter schools (although they continue to have both supporters and detractors). InOhio, charters were deemedinferiorto traditional schools in all grade/subject combinations. Texas charters had a muchlower graduation ratein 2012 than traditional schools. In Louisiana, where Governor Bobby Jindal proudlyannouncedthat "we're doing something about [failing schools]," abouttwo-thirds of charters received a D or an F from theLouisiana State Department of Educationin 2013. Furthermore, charters inNew Orleansrely heavily on inexperienced teachers, and even its model charter school Sci Academy has experienced a skyrocketing suspension rate, the second highest in the city. More trouble looms for the over-chartered city in alawsuitfiled by families of disabled students contending that equal educational access has not been provided for their children.

2. The Profit Motive Perverts the Goals of Education

Forbesnotes: "The charter school movement began as a grassroots attempt to improve public education. It's quickly becoming a backdoor for corporate profit." AMcKinsey reportestimates that education can be a $1.1 trillion business in the United States. Meanwhile, state educationalfunding continues to be cut, and budget imbalances are worsened by thetransfer of public tax moneyto charter schools.

Education funding continues to be cut largely becausecorporations aren't paying theirstate taxes.

So philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad and Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch andJeff Bezosand the Walton family, who have little educationalexperienceamong them, and who have little accountability to the public, are riding the free-market wave and promoting "education reform" with lots of standardized testing.

Just Like the Fast-Food Industry: Profits for CEOs, Low Wages for the Servers

Our nation's impulsive experiment with privatization is causing our schools to look more like boardrooms than classrooms. Charter administratorsmake a lot more moneythan their public school counterparts, and their numbers are rapidlyincreasing. Teachers, on the other hand, arepaid less, and they havefewer years of experienceand a higher turnover rate. The patriotic-sounding "Teach for America"chargespublic school districts $3,000 to $5,000 per instructor per year. Teachers don't get that money, business owners do.

Good Business Strategy: Cut Employees, Use Machines to Teach

The profit motive also leads toshortcuts in the educational methodspracticed on our children. Like "virtual" instruction. The video-game-named Rocketship Schools have $15/hour instructors monitoring up to130 kids at a timeas they work on computers. InWisconsin, half the students in virtual settings are attending schools that are not meeting performance expectations. Only one out of twelve "cyber schools" met state standards inPennsylvania. InLos Angelespublic money goes for computers instead of needed infrastructure repair.

K12 Inc., thelargest online, for-profitEducational Management Organization in the U.S., is a good example of what the Center for Media and Democracycalls "America's Highest Paid Government Workers" -- that is, the CEOs of corporations that make billions by taking control of public services. While over86 percentof K12's profits came from taxpayers, and while thesalariesof K12's eight executives went from $10 million to over $21 million in one year, only 27.7 percent of K12 Inc. online schoolsmet state standardsin 2010-2011, compared to 52 percent of public schools.

It gets worse with theCommon Core Standards, an unprovenGates-fundedinitiative thatrequires computers many schools don't have. TheSilicon Valley Business Journalreports that "Next year, K-12 schools across the United States will begin implementing Common Core State Standards, an education initiative that will drive schools to adopt technology in the classroom as never before...Apple, Google, Cisco and a swarm of startups are elbowing in to secure market share." States are being hit with unexpected newcosts, partly for curriculum changes, but also for technology upgrades, testing, and assessment.

Banker's Ethics in the Principal's Office

Finally, the profit motive leads to questionable ethics among school operators, if not outright fraud. After a Los Angeles charter school managermisused funds, the California Charter Schools Association insisted that charter schools areexempt from criminal lawsbecause they are private. The same argument was used in aChicago case. Charters employ the privatization defense to justify theirgenerous salarieswhile demanding instructional space as public entities. States around the country are being attracted to the money, as, for example, inTexasandOhio, where charter-affiliated campaign contributions have led to increased funding and licenses for charter schools.

3. Advanced Profit-Making: Higher Education

At the college level, for-profit schools eagerly clamor for low-income students andmilitary veterans, who conveniently arrive withpublic moneyin the form of federal financial aid.For-profit collegesget up to90 percentof theirrevenue from U.S. taxpayers. Less incentive remains for these schools after tuition is received, as evidenced by the fact thatmore than halfof the students enrolled in for-profit colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma.

As with K-12 education, the driving need for profit directs our students to computer screens rather than to skilled human communicators. AColumbia Universitystudy found that "failure and withdrawal rates were significantly higher for online courses than for face-to-face courses." The University of Phoenix has a60 percent dropout rate.

The newest money-maker is the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course). Thanks to such sweeping high-tech strategies, higher ed is increasingly becoming a network of diploma processors, with up to a90 percent dropout rate, and with the largest business operationslosing the most students. For a 2012bioelectricity classat Duke, for example, 12,725 students enrolled, 3,658 attempted a quiz, and 313 passed. Yet'schools' like edXare charging universities $250,000 per course, then $50,000 for each re-offering of the course, along with a cut of any revenue generated by the course.

4. Lower-Performing Children Left Behind

The greatest perversion of educational principles is the threat to equal opportunity, a mandate that was eloquently expressed by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education: "Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments...Such an a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." But we're turning away from that important message. TheNational Education Policy Centernotes that "Charter schools...can shape their student enrollment in surprising ways," through practices that often exclude "students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty."

The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), perhaps the most acclaimed charter organization, says it doesn't do that. KIPP has itssupporters, and it proudly displays the results of an independent study byMathematica Policy Research, which concluded that "The average impact of KIPP on student achievement is positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial."

Butfundingfor the Mathematicastudywas provided by Atlantic Philanthropies, the same organization thatprovided$10-25 million infundingto KIPP.

According to a 2011studyby Western Michigan University, KIPP schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities (5.9%) than their local school districts (12.1%), enrolled a lower percentage of students classified as English Language Learners (11.5%) than their local school districts (19.2%), and experienced substantially higher levels of attrition than their local school districts. For charters in general, the CREDO study found thatfewer special education studentsand fewer English language learners are served than in traditional public schools. And charter schools serve fewerdisabled students. According to aCenter on Education Policyreport,98 percent of disabled students are educated in public schools, while only 1% are educated in private schools.

InNew York City, special-needs students and English-language learners are enrolled at a much lower rate in charter schools than in public schools; andOver the Counterstudents - those not participating in the choice process - are disproportionately assigned to high schools with higher percentages of low-performing students. Special education students alsoleave chartersat a much higher rate than special education students in traditional New York public schools. InNashville, low-performing students are leaving KIPP Academy and other charters just in time for theirtest scores to be transferred to the public schools. And Milwaukee's voucher program, which has been praised as a model of privatization success, has had up to a75 percent attrition rate.

Equal Access to Education?

It's been 60 years since Chief Justice Warren declared education "a right which must be made available to all on equal terms." Belief in theAmerican Dreammeans that anyone can move up the ladder. But today only4 percentof those raised in the bottom quintile make it all the way to the top as adults. Two-thirds of those raised in the bottom of the wealth ladder remain on the bottom two rungs.

Compared toother developed countries, equal education has been a low priority in America, with less spending on poor children than rich ones, and with repeated cutbacks in state funding. But there's no market-based reform where children are involved. Education can't be reduced to a lottery, or a testing app, or a business plan. Equal opportunity in education ensures that every child is encouraged and challenged and nurtured from the earliest age, as we expect forour own children.

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