The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the movement to privatize public education is a very bad idea


Renowned progressive educator Deborah Meier wrote an interesting review of the book on her blog. She wrote in part:

This is a book that you should rush out and buy/read. The author, Samuel E. Abrams,  is currently the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia. When I first saw the title and the source, I did not think it would be a book I would be enthusiastic about.
However, I discovered immediately that the author taught for a number of years at NYC’s Beacon High School, which I know and respect. So I decided maybe my biases were unfair. Indeed I was wrong to be wary. Chapter One should be a must for all those who want (or should want) to understand the period we are in and the issues confronting us. If you can’t imagine reading the whole book — start there. Then decide.
Actually every chapter that follows is important including one on charters with a focus on KIPP — which Abrams is more sympathetic to than I am. But like the rest of the book he presents the issues with lots of documentation and data, and he presents KIPP fairly. He covers considerable territory with some historical background on every topic he deals with for those who love it. His final chapters on schooling in other distant lands focuses on the Nordic nations with a lot, of course, on Finland.

You can see the rest of her review here, and below is the Q & A I did with Abrams about his book and the privatization movement:

Q) The education privatization movement has been growing for years. Why did you decide to write the book now — and can you explain exactly what the movement encompasses. I think people hear the phrase but don’t really understand it.

A) My decision to write this book goes back a decade. I had written a thesis on for-profit school management for a master’s degree in economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. My adviser, Henry M. Levin, recommended I turn the thesis into a book. Though daunted by the prospect of doing so, I forged ahead because I was and remain convinced that advocates of the free market had taken their argument too far. Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and their many disciples were certainly right that the free market efficiently allocates resources in many domains. But they were wrong to contend it does so in all domains. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is the argument that won over so many policymakers. All government services — from waste collection and postal delivery to corrections and schooling — laissez-faire exponents contended, could and should be outsourced to private providers. This outsourcing is what defines privatization.

Where there is sufficient transparency for proper contract enforcement, the free market works beautifully, and privatization thus makes good sense. We don’t begrudge a restaurateur or bookseller a profit because we as consumers can easily judge the quality of goods, service and ambiance provided and, thus, decide whether to return. Likewise, privatizing the delivery of discrete goods and services is justifiable. For a school district, in this light, to outsource bus transportation or textbook provision to for-profit enterprises is understandable and efficient.

However, where there is insufficient transparency for proper contract enforcement, the free market fails. Laissez-faire enthusiasts neglected to differentiate discrete (that is, easily measurable) from complex services. In the case of schooling, which is a classic complex service, the direct consumer is a child, who is in little position to judge whether classes are being properly taught. The parent, taxpayer and legislator are at a necessary distance. And standardized testing as a check on quality is rife with problems. It isn’t merely that teachers and principals under tremendous pressure to raise test scores can correct wrong answers on bubble sheets, as documented in Atlanta most notably, but they can also give students more time to complete tests and lend help in the process. More fundamentally, heavy reliance on standardized testing leads to teaching to the test, which means crowding out instruction in subjects that aren’t tested, particularly art, music, crafts and play, which are fundamental to a well-rounded education.

Predictions on Wall Street a generation ago that for-profit school managers — educational management organizations (EMOs), to be precise — could do a far better job in managing schools than municipalities and would, thus, be running 10 to 20 percent of the nation’s K-12 public schools by 2010 were way off. EMOs by that time would be running 0.7 percent of the nation’s K-12 public schools. Wall Street underestimated the challenge of managing public schools and overestimated the appeal of EMOs to parents and taxpayers. Investors in firms such as Edison Schools — launched in 1992, taken public by Merrill Lynch in 1999 and running 133 schools (including 20 in Philadelphia alone) by 2002 — accordingly got crushed, as I explain in my book.

Yet Wall Street was implicitly right that policymakers would embrace a bottom-line approach to assessing school quality and favor substantial choice for parents. The bottom-line approach has meant annual testing in reading and math in grades three through eight and one year at the secondary level. Choice has meant a proliferation of nonprofit charter schools. We started with two in Minnesota in 1992. We now have nearly 7,000 across 41 states and the District of Columbia. Whether such outsourcing to nonprofit school managers has been wise is another matter.

Q) Please carry on with that thought, whether it has been wise to turn over schools to nonprofit managers. There are some who argue that even nonprofit charters are part of the privatization movement because they do not have to operate like public institutions in terms of transparency and accountability to the public. And some courts and labor boards have said they were in effect private institutions for certain purposes. What do you think of this sort of thinking?

A) Privatization takes the form of nonprofit as well as for-profit school management, as privatization technically means outsourcing the provision of government services to independent operators, whether nonprofit or for-profit. Insufficient transparency and, thus, accountability can become problems. While nonprofit charter operators must file 990s with the IRS documenting expenses and salaries, for instance, many are less detailed in their reportage than they should be. Moreover, these charters report only indirectly, if at all, to elected school board members.

Yet there are far greater issues with outsourcing school management to nonprofit charter operators: First, this outsourcing generates the atomization of school districts, meaning the diminishment of neighborhood schools and the civic involvement such neighborhood affiliation involves; second, this atomization makes for navigational challenges for many parents, who either have a hard time finding the right school for their children or getting them there day after day when the school is across town; third, this atomization translates into “good schools” and “bad schools,” with students who can’t succeed in the “good schools” concentrated in the “bad schools,’ which are often default neighborhood schools, where learning can become far harder given the negative effects struggling students can have on other students. In sum, such outsourcing leads to opportunities at high-performing schools for some students but leaves many others behind.

Privatization accordingly amounts to a flawed response to state failure, not a solution. The solution calls for investing the resources necessary to make all neighborhood schools solid in the way all neighborhood schools are solid in middle- and upper-class suburbs, with well-paid teachers, good working conditions and smaller classes. But we have to go further than that. We have to invest in quality preschool, with college-educated teachers, so children show up to school ready to learn. We have decades of evidence of the positive impact of quality preschool. It’s expensive, but only in the short run. We likewise must invest in school-associated medical, dental and counseling services, which are also expensive but only in the short run. Privatization has brought many bright, dedicated agents of change, but it diverts us from addressing our state failure squarely.

Q) So how do we address our problems — especially now that it seems we have made something that needs improvement even worse?

A) The first step we should take is to drop the annual testing in reading and math in grades three through eight and one year at the secondary level mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) 15 years ago and reaffirmed in somewhat different terms by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) several months ago.

The mission of this testing — to identify and eliminate deficiencies in the academic achievement of underprivileged children — represents the noblest of democratic ideals, as I write in my book. But this regular testing has done little more than repeatedly identify deficiencies. In the process, the pressure to boost test results has led to stressful test prep for students and teachers alike, and it has constricted curricula, cutting time for important subjects on which students aren’t tested. Even former secretary of education Arne Duncan conceded in 2014 that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.”

Instead of census testing, with all students assessed, we should employ sampling, with high-quality exams given to random samples of students. We already do this with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given every two years in reading, writing, math and science to small but significant samples of students in grades four, eight and 12 in all states. At the state level, we should add periodic tests for samples of students in history, geography, foreign language, art, music, and physical fitness and agility.

This may strike some as soft-headed, but this thinking derives implicitly from the revered managerial theorist W. Edwards Deming, who transformed the Japanese auto industry with his emphasis on high-quality sampling as well as collaboration between management and labor. Moreover, this thinking derives explicitly from the practice of Finnish school leaders. The Finns, renowned for their first-rate public school system, test only 10 percent of students in ninth grade each year in approximately two subjects, and they cover the whole curriculum in this manner over a 10-year period, from math and reading to art and music.

Making this change would cost nothing. In fact, it would save us a lot of money as well as time spent on preparing, proctoring and grading exams. And we’d get that oxygen back in the classroom that Duncan identified as disappearing. As a result, children would get a richer education, and teachers would regain their autonomy as professionals.