Thursday, June 21, 2012

Public v. Private Sector Education

Is a high-quality education something that all Americans deserve? If so, is the public or private sector better equipped to deliver this education? This topic is front and center in the national discourse on education right now and Diane Ravitch commented on this topic in a recent blog post. The post was called "The Miseducation of Mitt Romney" and it derides Romney's plan to turn education over to the private sector. The post itself raises a number of salient points about the public v. private sector education debate and there are two specific points I would like to elaborate on.
Above all, one of the major points in her post was about school vouchers. Proponents of privatizing education love to point to the effectiveness of school vouchers. However, Ravitch points out that:
A Congressionally-mandated evaluation of the D.C. program found that students with vouchers made no gains in either reading or math. As the report stated, “There is no conclusive evidence that the OSP [Opportunity Scholarship Program] affected student achievement.”
This data seems incredibly relevant, especially since it shows that students with vouchers made no gains in either reading or math. If the government is paying students to go to private schools (which could be for-profit, religious, or run by some other type of organization) that are not enhancing student achievement, why should we support a voucher system? Although this report is only a snapshot of data on one particular voucher program, it still raises a cautionary flag about the overall efficacy of vouchers. The efficacy of voucher programs need to be proven before hailing them as a panacea to correct problems within our current educational system.
The other major point that is incredibly important is how bipartisan these so-called "solutions" have become. As Ravitch explained:
Apart from vouchers and the slap at teacher certification, Obama’s Race to the Top program for schools promotes virtually everything Romney proposes—charters, competition, accountability, evaluating teachers by student test scores. If anything, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been as outspoken on behalf of charters and test-based accountability as Mitt Romney. And, like Romney, Duncan has disdained the issue of reducing the number of students per teacher.
If there is a growing bipartisan political consensus on the policies that should be in place to fix our educational system, what can opponents of these policies do? Some of these policies - namely the voucher system, charters, tying teacher evaluations to student performance - used to be extremely controversial. But because of this growing bipartisan consensus, these once controversial ideas have been mainstreamed and opponents of these ideas have been isolated and marginalized. This is extremely troubling to me as I see this as part of a broader push towards privatization in all sectors of the economy. Seeing as what privatization has done in other areas (e.g. military contractors in Iraq, parts of the prison system, parking meters in Chicago and New York, etc.), I maintain a healthy skepticism about the reliability - and intentions - of privatization in general. If privatization can really bring about better education for students in America, then this would be a great idea. However, I don't think it is wise to go down this path with as much chutzpah as our current political class is doing. We should be very wary of going down the path of privatization given its track-record in general and for educational reform in particular. This is especially relevant since even more controversial ideas - such as abolishing teacher tenure and unions - are also slowly being mainstreamed. Overall, the push towards privatization seems inexorable even though the true costs of this push are currently unknown.
On some level, we as corps members implicitly believe in TFA's mantra that "One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." Whether these children actually get that excellent education depends a lot on the current debate over public v. private sector education.