by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Critics of educational freedom increasingly use the threat of privatization to shine a negative spotlight on school choice programs. This two-part series responds to the claims of those critics. The first part showed how the growth of school choice in North Carolina has not led to empty schools, depleted budgets, or enriched private schools. This part raises objections to the privatization argument by focusing on how privatization is defined and the relevance of the common-school argument. Let’s now explore these issues.
Our problems with the privatization argument start with how the term is defined and interpreted. Public Schools First North Carolina (PSFNC) is a local public school advocacy organization. The organization’s annual conference was focused on privatization. PSFNC’s web site takes a stab at defining privatization with the following paragraph:
Privatization of public schools refers to efforts by policymakers to shift public education funds and students into the private sector. It is an attempt to contract with private, for-profit entities for various responsibilities, like education, that have long been the responsibility of the public sector. Many think of privatization as the “corporate takeover” of our public schools because well-funded corporations and business leaders are driving this four-decade long coordinated effort that is altering how America’s children are educated. Tax dollars that would otherwise be invested in local public school systems are instead being spent on private schools or for-profit entities.
School choice critics frequently make the argument that North Carolina’s large voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), siphons public dollars away from the public schools and directs them to private schools. That claim, however, has been rebuffed. Hart v. State (2015) upheld the constitutionality of the state’s voucher program. The court held that the state constitution does not preclude the General Assembly from appropriating money for educational programs other than the public schools. Also, since money for OSP came from general revenue — and not from funds specifically allocated for the public schools — the claim that funds are being taken from the public schools is simply not true.
Choice critics tell us corporations shouldn’t be running the schools. If that is the case, then why aren’t privatization critics telling companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft to take back their contributions or cancel their contracts with traditional public schools? Why aren’t they objecting to school districts who use private vendors to provide food services, payroll, or transportation services? Why aren’t critics objecting to the development of PowerSchool, a huge platform for storing student data? PowerSchool was previously owned by Pearson, one of the largest multinational publishing and education companies in the world, with revenues of about $4.3 billion in 2020.
Why don’t they object to the growing contracts for professional services from private companies that handle a range of services from consulting to mental health to academic testing? Does the silence imply agreement or merely highlight what we all know to be true: their indignation about “privatization” is selective?
School choice critics are also sounding alarms because they believe privatization is eroding the notion of the common school. The common-school idea emerged out of the 1840s when the nation was facing waves of immigrants and wondered how best to assimilate residents while teaching them to embrace American ideals and democracy. Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, believed a uniform common school was the best way to create citizens and build one nation out of many people. That idea led to educating generations of Americans in our civic ideals and democracy. The idea of the common school, however, is so embedded in our history and culture it’s difficult to think of public education in any other way. It worked for a century. However, cracks are now beginning to emerge in the foundation.
There are obvious signs that something is amiss in the schools. Flat or declining test scores and poor preparation for college or the work world are some of the most visible; however, the problems run deeper. Inherent in the idea of the common school is that schools teach a common set of shared values. But do they? Schools say they reflect values that are ideologically neutral, but in fact the values most schools represent reflects a progressive tradition rejected by families. The public schools are often in conflict with religious values and frequently viewed as anti-religious. These realities have made fights over religion commonplace and have helped to fuel the growth of school choice.
Choice critics fear that privatization will undermine the foundations of our republic and encourage social fragmentation and isolation. Those predictions are based on two errors. First, critics assert that only public schools can work to advance public purposes. This view reflects a brittle and inaccurate view of public and private schools. Religious and private hospitals uphold the common good by treating the poor and destitute. In the same way, don’t private schools further a public purpose when they educate their students, many of whom are from lower classes and come from disadvantaged backgrounds?
Critics believe the public schools are the only schools that can properly teach shared values and democratic ideals. Such ideas are not supported by the research; in fact the opposite is true. In his 2007 study “Civics Exam: Schools of Choice Boost Civics Values,” Prof. Patrick Wolfe of the University of Arkansas wrote that “the empirical record to date tends to suggest that civic values are enhanced, or at least not harmed, by the exercise of school choice, especially if results from Catholic schools and the populations that frequent them are included in the mix.”
More recently, a 2016 article by Greg Forster of EdChoice reviewed 11 studies examining how school choice affects civic values and practices. In eight of those studies, Forster found school choice has a positive effect on civic concerns. The remaining three studies found school choice had no visible effect on them. None of the studies found that school choice had a negative effect on civic values and practices.
Opponents of educational freedom continue to wage war against school choice. Harping on privatization allows progressives to change the focus of the discussion and still wage war on choice.
Critics of privatization falsely say choice decimates our public schools, enriches private schools, changes how we educate students, and weakens our shared values. These are significant allegations for a movement that impacts only about one in every four students in North Carolina, when public funding for private school options this year was less than 1% of the state’s investment in public schools. Critics say public schools are experiencing budget and enrollment problems. The data dispute those claims and render weak any attempt to link those problems to school choice and privatization.
Trying to turn the focus to privatization merely masks advocates’ obsession with resources and inputs and leaves unaddressed their unwillingness to respond to questions about educational outcomes and how resources are spent — the real issues behind these trends. Until they face those issues head-on, however, the problems discussed here are not likely to improve.