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Why Privatizing Public Schools Threatens Education

It will come as a surprise to many people to learn that there is currently a full-blown effort underway to privatize our nation’s public schools.

Public schools are a cornerstone of our democracy, and fully 90 percent of us went to public schools.

They are a part of life in the United States, so it is hard to imagine that anyone would want to turn public money over to corporations and entrepreneurs or to religious schools.

That is exactly what is happening now.

In 2010, I wrote a book to warn about the attack on America’s public schools called “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”

I pointed out that President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law had been a gigantic failure, turning our schools into standardized testing factories and diverting them from their primary goals of developing character, talents and citizenship.

Then came President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which I referred to as NCLB 2.0.

It too placed heavy emphasis on standardized test scores as the goal of education, and it too failed to meet its promises.

To refute the false claims of the privatization movement, I wrote another book in 2013 called “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”

The privatization movement thrives on phony assertions that our public schools are failing, but I pointed out that our schools today have the highest test scores ever recorded, the highest graduation rates and the lowest dropout rates.

The privatizers say that they want to “reform” the public schools, but this is not true.

Their idea of reform is to turn public dollars over to private management and religious schools.

Most of our states have constitutional prohibitions against funding religious schools, but in many of them – like Indiana and Nevada – the courts have decided that public money sent to parents for religious schools does not violate the state constitution.

Florida’s constitution bans public funding of religious schools, and former Gov. Jeb Bush launched a state referendum to repeal that ban.

Voters in Florida rejected the amendment overwhelmingly, but the legislature has proceeded to create multiple voucher programs to circumvent the state constitution and the clear will of the public.

The founders of our republic did not want public financing of religious institutions. They had seen the discord and wars in Europe among competing religious sects, and entanglements between state and church.

This is why Thomas Jefferson wrote about the importance of a “wall” separating church and state. That wall, while breached from time to time, has served our nation well.

Bottom line: I won’t ask the government to subsidize my religion, and you should not ask the government to subsidize yours.

The major thrust of the privatization movement in education is the creation of charter schools. These are privately managed schools funded by taxpayer dollars.

They are not subject to most state laws. They say they need this autonomy to be innovative and effective.

But if freedom from state laws is needed to improve schools, why not examine those state laws and remove those that hamper public schools?

Since the first charter schools opened in the early 1990s, the sector has been hospitable to schools operated by corporate chains that operate nationwide and to for-profit schools and to schools run by non-educators.

Many of the so-called nonprofit charters are actually managed by for-profit corporations.

Charter schools are noted for certain characteristics.

First, they choose their students. Even if they have a lottery, they can still discourage the enrollment of students with disabilities and students who are English language learners.

They are also free to push out students they don’t want, those who get low test scores or who are problematic.

Where do the unwanted students go? To the public schools, which have less money because of the drain by the charter schools but must accept all students, including those that the charter schools don’t want.

Second, charter schools have high teacher turnover because the hours are long and working conditions are poor. Charters don’t mind the turnover because they like to cut costs.

Puerto Rico, which is in dire financial distress, just voted to turn over public school funds to charter schools and vouchers.

This is very sad because these privatized schools will not necessarily have certified teachers, and they won’t produce better results or have lower costs than the public schools.

Ninety percent of American students still go to public schools. Public schools remain the anchors of their communities.

Yet, the federal government this year will hand out $400 million to start new charter schools; the Walton Family Foundation (Walmart) will distribute another $200 million for charter schools.

Those of us who believe in the importance of a strong and dynamic public education system must stand up to state and local officials and demand that they stop awarding public money to charters and vouchers. If they continue to do so, vote them out.

Public schools welcome all children, regardless of their race, language, disability or country of origin.

As taxpayers, we must demand that our public dollars go to our fully accountable public schools and that these schools continue to be governed by elected boards, not corporations.

Public schools are a pillar of our democracy. We must not let them be taken over by the forces of privatization. They are a public good, not a consumer item. We must choose to stand up for them.

Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the founder and president of the Network for Public Education. Her writings also appear on her website, and you can follow her on Twitter @DianeRavitch.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on public education. The previous article in the series is:

Pastors’ Group Supports Strong Education for All Kids by Charles Foster Johnson