Public schools and the push to privatize everything

Sunday, September 23, 2018
(New Hampshire)

Despite their euphemisms about “choice” and claims about “personalizing” education, the “school choice” advocates display a surprising ignorance about public education in New Hampshire.

Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, for example, routinely misrepresents what happens in public school classrooms, incorrectly dismisses N.H. public education as a failure, and demeans hard-working and dedicated public school teachers and administrators in order to advance his ideas about what he calls “school choice.”

This raises the question of where these “school choice” ideas come from. It is important to remember that the ideas promoted by Gov. Chris Sununu, Commissioner Edelblut and their legislative allies arise less from educational analysis than from a political ideology: the privatization movement.

The privatization movement

The privatization ideology is a conservative, right-wing attack on the role of government in modern society, largely in response to the New Deal and Great Society initiatives that helped create the social safety net and sense of common good that we all take for granted now.

Economists F. A. Hyack and Milton Friedman are the godfathers of the privatization movement and over the past 70 years a determined and well-funded network of politicians, right-wing think tanks and powerful corporations has come together with the goal of shifting all the “common good” functions of government – schools, public services, health care, etc. – into the hands of private corporations.

Segregation and school vouchers

The “privatization” push got a big boost from the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education(1954) that school segregation was illegal. Economist James Buchanan developed a school voucher plan to help the state of Virginia bypass the Supreme Court mandate to integrate its public schools by helping parents send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. This plan essentially called for the privatization of public education.

Over the years privatization advocates have been successful in many areas. Many prisons, for example, are now privately run and huge corporations dependent on profits play a role in incarceration and detention policies. The ongoing separation of parents and children at our southern border means an enormous profit opportunity for the corporations now responsible for housing immigrant detainees, as does the school-to-prison pipeline that haunts the future of so many minority youth.

George W. Bush wanted to privatize Social Security after his re-election in 2004, which would have been a boon to Wall Street but had to back down in the face of public outcry. The privatization boosters, though, are patient and well-funded and if enough right-wing Republicans are elected to the U.S. Congress they plan to target Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other aspects of the “common good,” including our national parks and other natural resources – and our public education system.

There is now a well-established network of conservative think tanks across the country such as ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – that supplies local right-wing legislators with boilerplate bills that they can introduce into their state houses. In addition, many national conservative organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, send operatives to states to lobby for bills that support their agendas.

This privatization agenda has consisted of a “long effort to demonize public service workers – a constant theme of anti-government forces to the present.” So it is no surprise that Commissioner Edelblut expresses particular disdain for teachers and school administrators, referring to them as “educrats” and speaking ominously of “government schools” when describing local schools with oversight by elected school boards in their own community. This is boilerplate language cribbed from the privatization gospel.

The common good actually works

The United States since FDR has provided a laboratory to assess how successful the role of government is in providing a “safety net” for the “common good.” The results are generally positive. Despite problems and stereotypes, the Post Office, the VA and Social Security have functioned well and provided security and services for millions of Americans. So, too, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, supporting civil rights, and the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with protecting the quality of our air, water and other natural resources.

Similarly, public education has functioned as a hedge against children growing up in their own private silos, helping children of different backgrounds learn what it means to be a citizen and to live together with others, while also serving as an engine for assimilation of immigrants, economic advancement for families and economic growth for our state.

In response to the excesses of the privatization movement, a pro public service movement has begun. This year voters in one Colorado district tossed out all four Koch-backed members of their local school board. Michigan is working hard to dig itself out of the dysfunctional educational landscape that Betsy DeVos helped to create there. Around the country, people have rallied in support of teachers striking for adequate school funding. In Arizona, six women created a statewide organization – Save Our Schools – and collected more than 75,000 signatures to put a citizens’ referendum on the November ballot to prevent a Koch-dominated legislature from draining money from public schools. And here in New Hampshire, a number of local grassroots groups banded together to help defeat Senate Bill 193, the school voucher bill heavily supported by our governor and his legislative allies.

Our N.H. public schools are not perfect, though they place very highly in national rankings. There are many innovations currently being tested in our public schools, including efforts to “personalize” education. Our public school teachers are not “educrats” – they are dedicated professionals working hard to inspire and educate students who come to school with widely diverse needs, strengths and interests, often in underfunded schools. Many teachers in New Hampshire routinely spend money from their own pockets to buy teaching supplies for their classrooms. Our teachers are a social resource and they need our support.

Instead of draining public tax money away from public schools and toward a group of private schools outside of public oversight, we need elected officials who will dedicate themselves to the achievable goal of excellent public schools for all N.H. students.

Like other parts of the common good – affordable health care, our beautiful public lands, the right to vote for all – public schools now need us to step up in their defense. The Nov. 6 election provides an important opportunity for us all to support public education by electing public officials who understand its crucial role in our democracy.


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