- School choice critics claim that choice puts students up “for sale”
- But big businesses profit handsomely from the government education establishment, often as a result from policies they lobbied for
- Localizing education decisions can actually erode big business’ influence on education
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent speech at Harvard laid bare the fact that all too often support for school choice is perceived by critics as contempt for public schools. DeVos’ talk also highlighted the rhetoric surrounding education policy today, which has done more to divide people rather than offer any substantive discussion.
Predictably, her speech was met with immediate protest. Students held signs that both offered an ad hominem attack and the assertion that, “Our Students Are Not 4 Sale.” Implicit in this protest is the argument that school choice policy is an attempt to privatize education and prioritizes profit ahead of students. Education is a public good, thus education must necessarily be run by the state, according to critics. The fact that some charter schools are managed by private organizations has provided fodder for critics as well.
However, the state has put the interest of private organizations ahead of students’ interests for years.
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 mandated standardized testing to assess performance across schools and thus to ultimately hold schools accountable for students’ academic progress. However, this mandate transformed into the inevitable: teaching to the test. Specifically, pressure applied via the testing mandate has led schools to administer tests throughout the year, moving focus away from developing student skills to fervently checking for student progress in anticipation of the year-end assessment. This is a trend that has received plenty of criticism, including statements from former education secretary Arne Duncan that standardized testing has gotten out of hand. Furthermore, common core standards attached to federal block grants have broadened the testing regimen within states.
This degree of testing has extended crony capitalism’s reach to education. The four major testing and textbook publishing companies within the U.S. (McGraw-Hill, Pearson, ETS, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) were found in a report by the Center for Media and Democracy to have spent more than $20 million dollars in federal and state lobbying efforts between 2009 and 2014. These efforts were intended to not only increase the level of standardized testing, but also to prevent any rollback of testing requirements.
Moreover, Pearson treated school officials (whom were in a capacity to make decisions on student testing) to luxury vacations. In this situation, a misguided policy that affects every traditional public school student was directly influenced and likely perpetuated due to the corrupt nexus between policymakers and those standing to profit from policy decisions. If anything, this example illustrates the fact that traditional public education does not operate within a vacuum devoid of competing interests.
Charter schools run by for-profit companies have also received a share of condemnation; for instance Bernie Sanders railed against “private charter schools” during the presidential election. After all, if state-run schools represent altruism, then for-profit charter management companies must represent exploitation for profit, right? Well, not exactly.
Yes, there are charter school networks run by privately owned companies, and some reports of corruption have surfaced. However, cases of corruption exist within public schools as well, especially considering the recent convictions of those responsible for the large-scale cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools.
Nevertheless, the majority of private charter management companies have been successful. In fact, BASIS Schools, one of the most successful privately run charter school networks in the country, has consistently ranked among not only the best schools in the country, but also the most challenging.
The idea that a privately-owned charter management corporation is just out for profit at the expense of students is simply unfounded. Every day we are faced with newer and better products and services because private organizations compete for our business. When you’re enticed by the option of a new smartphone and decide to buy it, do you make your purchase with the thought that a tech company is simply swindling you? This way of thinking is absurd.
Consumers buy products and services from private companies because they value them and they improve consumers’ quality of life. If a company fails to deliver a quality product, then consumers will go elsewhere. The fact that education is involved should not change one’s way of thinking. If a charter school is not delivering the goods, parents have a say by choosing the door.
Traditional public schools are not exempt from negative influence because they are government-run. It is the opposite. As decisions are centralized and made far away from localities, groups that stand to profit from policy will influence more decisions. Policy run amok does not serve our students. School choice has allowed more decisions to be made at the local level, which truly gives parents the voice to say, “our students are not for sale.”
Tyler Bonin is a contributor to Civitas.