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Education Reform or Privatization?

When Noam Chomsky told an audience at Columbia University recently that education reform is "a euphemism for the destruction of public education," he stated a provocative view that other public intellectuals have expressed before ("Scholarship and Politics: The Case of Noam Chomsky," The New York Times, Dec. 10). But it is the timing of Chomsky's remark that is noteworthy.

I say that because of the growing power of giant foundations engaged in education reform. They direct about $1 billion annually to grantees who agree to adopt the foundations' policies ("Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy," Dissent, Fall 2013).  Since then, the voices of stakeholders in public education have been muted. Some of the names in the game are familiar: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.  But there are others as well.

If any of these foundations possessed any expertise in public education, I would be willing to consider their proposals. But the truth is that they are woefully lacking in this regard.  As a result, what is happening is not educational reform in the sense of improving public schools but instead in the form of their privatization. I'm not an apologist for public schools.  As I've written often before, they range in quality from excellent to execrable.  Yet I don't believe that failing schools can be improved by the methods advocated by mega foundations.

Their defenders argue that without them little will change.  I say that with them the only thing that will change is the bottom line of the for-profit education industry.  In other words, education reform has little to do with schools and everything to do with the $500 billion spent on public education ("Our Gilded Age Education System," In These Times, Aug. 16).  Of course, no foundation openly declares this motive.  It would be suicide.  Instead, they cloak their proposals with "empowering parents" and the like.  

My skepticism is well founded.  Almost eight years ago, venture capitalists in Silicon Valley began investing in educational management organizations ("Venture Capitalists Are Investing in Educational Reform," The New York Times, Feb. 16, 2006).  They obviously did so because they saw money to be made. I expect the trend to accelerate in the years ahead as the campaign to privatize schools gains traction.  

Even if all schools were privatized, the evidence shows that students overall would not be better served.  In Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Christopher and Sarah Lubienski concluded that underserved students get no particular benefit from attending private schools.  When similar students are compared, public schools actually provide more academic growth. The only reason that scores at private schools are higher is that their students come from more advantaged backgrounds.

That's the irony of the privatization movement.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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