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Public Schools Slowly Withering

March 28, 2013

Two articles in today’s NYTimes have me discouraged. One by Fernanda Santos and Mokoto Rich reports on legislation in 17 states that effectively provides some form of vouchers for parents who want to enroll their children in private schools. The thrust of the article deals with the use of public funds to attend parochial  schools. This overlooks the fact that the real opportunity presented by vouchers is to for-profit private schools, an oversight I flagged in my comment:

The for-profit private schools will ultimately be the beneficiaries of this movement in the same way they have benefitted from the “choice” movement in urban districts. The taxpayers whose children finished school or who do not have children benefit as well since for-profit private schools have lower payrolls, lower benefit budgets, and lower operating costs.

The great thing about this privatization movement from a political standpoint is that it has no impact whatsoever on affluent school districts. Parents who can afford to live in an affluent district don’t need school choice: they’ve been able to choose their residence based on the schools their children will attend. And if they are among the majority of Americans who believe government regulation inhibits business growth they are happy to see the private sector tackling public education. Consequently the only opposition to this movement are those who work in public education. The narrative, then, become the “education establishment” against “reformers” with the “establishment” in the role of Goliath and the private for-profit “reformers” assuming the role of David.

Those who read this blog (and those of Diane Ravitch) know how this story unfolded:

  • Federal legislators enacted NCLB, which resulted in most public schools in America receiving “failing” grades based on the performance of one or more cohorts of students at one or more grade level and established a mechanism for states and/or cities to “take over” failing schools. 
  • Profit minded entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to access public funds by creating for-profit charter schools to assist States and cities with the take-over the “failing public schools”.
  • Governors, state legislators and mayors— with the full support of the business community— used the takeover of “failing schools”  as a way to introduce less costly for-profit private charter schools into their States and/or cities.
  • Conservative legislators seized on the changing landscape to introduce ideas like vouchers, eviscerate unions, and diminish the number of  “government run schools”.

The other Times story was Thomas Edsall’s column, “A Republican Right Turn?”. Edsall quotes several Washington insiders who sense that the Republicans are moving away from the divisive cultural issues and trying to focus more on unifying ideas: one of which is the need for less government influence in the lives of Americans. The article included this chilling analysis from Grover Nordquist:

Grover Norquist, one of the leading architects, organizers and cheerleaders of what he calls the “leave us alone” coalition, is bubbling with enthusiasm.

Norquist told me in a phone interview that he thinks policies initiated by Republicans at the state and local levels, by breaking the link that joins individuals and families to government, are laying the groundwork for a continuing expansion of the conservative electorate.

Nearly two million children are now home-schooled, Norquist said, and their families have rejected government-run public schools and decided that they can do a better job on their own. …Along similar lines, Norquist notes, the number of poor students receiving vouchers to attend private schools is rising steadily as the passage of state right-to-work laws is gutting dues-paying membership in public employee unions, a financial mainstay of the Democratic Party.

“I’m reasonably confident that at the state level we are creating more people who want to be part of the ‘leave us alone coalition,’ ” Norquist said. He predicts that within the next decade, Republicans will take control of the Senate and regain the White House.

With public sentiment against higher taxes at any level, against government, against “greedy public employees”, and accepting the “failing public schools” meme, it will be increasingly difficult to restore confidence in public education.

  1. March 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    Yes, these are important connections you are making, Wayne. I think the gains privatization is making are because, incredibly, it’s still under the radar for most voters. We gotta change that.

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