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The Limits of Privatization in Public Education

March 28, 2012

The Naked Capitalist posted an articleby George Irwin from the Guardian titled “When Privatisation Doesn’t Work”. Much of the article is devoted to an overview of economic theory as it applies to the provision of public services, and in addition to making a case that medical services should be thought of as a public good, Irwin has one sections that directly discusses education:

…. Universal literacy may be instrumental to developing a skilled workforce – a notion much loved by Tories – but the real reason we value education is because it is a necessary (though insufficient) component of a well-functioning democratic society. Education is not a commodity to be purchased according to individual preference; it’s central to the meaning of civilised society.

The article concludes with a clear explanation of what “efficiency” means to many businesspeople:

The notion that competition always makes the private sector more efficient than the public sector is… quite unjustified… What politicians typically mean when they speak of greater efficiency is lower costs, typically achieved by employing cheap, non-unionised labour. This is the real reason so many public services are outsourced.

In short, arguments favouring private over public provision are not just theoretically flawed, but typically favour the few at the expense of the many. The pendulum has swung too far to the right: it’s time to stand up for public provision.

Irwin is writing from Britain where the pendulum has swung even further to the right than here… but one can easily envision the following sequence of events occurring in our country: “failing” unionized public schools are replaced by lower cost “turnaround” charter schools that are NOT unionized (and therefore less costly) that achieve modestly higher test scores… and of course TEST scores are the ultimate metric for defining “success”… Of course the affluent suburban schools don’t have to worry about this happening in their communities because THEIR test scores are safely above the “failure” level…

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