Milton Friedman, patron saint of the free market, died in 2006, but his ideas about public education live on in the thought and deeds of Betsy DeVos, likely the next U.S. Secretary of Education. The two are ideological soulmates—a fact that justifiably panics supporters of public education.
In a 1955 essay called “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman laid out his plan for K-12 schooling, which boils down to this: taxpayer funded but privately run. The government would provide each child, through parents or guardians, funds in the form of a voucher to pay for what the government considers the minimum adequate education. Parents and guardians would then choose what education services to purchase on the free market. For Friedman the choices included private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, religious schools, and “some even” run by the government. Today Betsy DeVos and other free-market education reformers add home schooling and private online schooling to the mix. They also support privately run charter schools, financed directly by the government, not by student voucher money.
It’s a wealth of privatized choices meant to squeeze out, as much as possible, the least appealing alternative for free-market ed reformers: neighborhood public schools.
Taxpayer funded but privately run is how “privatization” of the public sector works in the United States. In countries where the government owns major companies or industries—for example, Aeroflot in Russia or the UK’s National Health Service—privatization means selling off enterprises to new owners in the private sector. In the United States, the government hands over control to private entities, but the taxpayers keep on paying. The most familiar U.S. example is the privatization of federal prisons.
In 1996 Milton Friedman and his wife Rose (also an economist) launched the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as “the nation’s only organization solely dedicated to promoting their concept of educational choice.” “Choice” is the ed-reform movement’s euphemism for privatization. All the tools used to create choice—vouchers, charter schools, tax credits for private school tuition, tax credits for individuals and businesses that create private school scholarships, “education savings accounts” (usually government-funded debit cards used for various private-school expenses, not just tuition)—siphon tax dollars out of the public school system and into private hands. DeVos has worked with and donated to the Friedman Foundation, recently renamed EdChoice.* Their visions for the future of K-12 education coincide.
There are massive problems with all of this course, including the neoliberal privatization of public goods, the looting it includes, and the anti-democratic tendencies. But the resistance to this faces another big problems–that the neoliberalization of education has been so embraced by Democratic Party elites, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker.
A useful model for DeVos comes from the outgoing ed-reformer-in-chief, Barack Obama. He allocated $4.3 billion from the 2009 “stimulus package” to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who used it to create the controversial Race to the Top program. More than thirty states competed for RTTT grants by committing to a detailed list of K-12 reforms—reforms that often required changing state laws. In exchange for money, resource-strapped states agreed to evaluate teachers, at least in part, according to student scores on standardized tests; raise or eliminate any caps on the number of charter schools; and “turn around” low-achieving schools by turning them into charters, replacing the teachers and principals, or closing them. Many states found that implementing the reforms cost more than they received in grant money. Much worse, the reforms undermined public school teachers, robbed many neighborhoods of their most stable institution, and introduced into the public system less accountable, often poorly performing schools and financial malfeasance by private operators. But the free-market ed reformers were thrilled. By opening the way for rapid charter school expansion, the Obama administration made the nation’s first significant progress toward privatization.
I have long said that education policy was Obama’s worst policy arena and the impacts of this and his henchman Arne Duncan are enormous. Cory Booker of course went down this road in Newark, bringing in Mark Zuckerberg, whose expertise on education consists solely of his wealth. How did this happen? How did we get to a bipartisan agreement on the neoliberalization of education? That’s a key question for us to figure out.
When did Americans stop talking about public K-12 education as the keystone of a strong democracy, as the incubator for citizenship, shared values, and social cohesion in a diverse nation, as the only educational institution obligated to serve every child who appears on the doorstep? Conservatives don’t bear sole responsibility for changing the conversation. The Clinton and Obama administrations reduced K-12 education to little more than the required stepping stone to a college degree that leads to successful competition in the global economy. That’s a meager sales pitch, making it all too easy for K-12 schooling to be chopped up into products sold on the market.
The only counterweight to “choice” is excellent public schools, and so the only way to save public education (which is largely very good in the United States) is to improve it where it needs improvement. Hundreds of thousands of public school teachers and administrators commit themselves to the task everyday. The job also belongs to everyone who sees the need to rebuild American democracy. In the face of privatization, we are all stakeholders in the public good that is public education.
The answer is rooted in the deregulation craze that began in the 1970s, the rise of the modern corporate lobby that began in the same decade, the concomitant reduction and erasure of American unions, the rise of the DLC and Clintonism as the central tenet of the Democratic Party that it is only just now recovering from, and the long-time American deification of the wealthy. But maybe it’s also rooted in white backlash and the desegregation of schools (even if actual integrated public schools rarely happened without busing). Like other public services, once the government was seen as working for black interests, white people turned on them with a fury with the self-privatization of the religious school or private school as a response to keep white children away from black kids. Combined with suburbanization, the withdrawal of tax dollars from urban districts, and media stories of the horrors of inner cities, it became all too easy to decide that public education was a problem that only corporations could solve.