Privatization Essay

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Privatization represents a worldview that privileges individualism and promotes competition. It operates on the assumed validity of neoclassical economics and the presumption of “free markets.” For schools, privatization is seen in and represented by Channel One television in classrooms, advertisements on stadium scoreboards, soft drink vending machines in hallways, fast food franchises in cafeterias, and textbook covers handed out by teachers. This entry describes privatization in schools and discusses its impact on religious schools.

Characteristics Of Privatization

Privatization is perhaps most clearly seen in initiatives to turn public schools into money-making enterprises. The Edison Project and Educational Alternatives, Inc. are examples of this sort of privatization initiative. Privatization is also seen when central offices expand staff responsibilities or hire “public” employees to develop “school-business partnerships” with private corporations. Privatization includes voucher initiatives, for-profit charter schools, and contracting for goods and services in schools. To be sure, these last examples are akin to the practice of contracting for goods and services that have existed in public schools for quite some time.

Peter Drucker’s mid-twentieth-century concept of privatization helps us clarify the practice of public school districts entering into contracts with private, for-profit organizations to deliver educational goods and services. Accordingly, U.S. public schools already practice a form of privatization and have done so for quite a long time. They contract out services to companies or entities that provide school districts instructional media (Channel One), books (textbook adoptions), food (cafeteria, fast food franchises, vending machines), transportation (buses), custodial services, and so on.

The idea of privatization is even further clarified by noting proponents’ arguments for it: privatization brings the efficiency of the marketplace to public schooling; because schools do not keep pace with international standards, they must respond to the competitive demands of the marketplace; and privatized schools would be more accountable, cost effective, and entrepreneurial in promoting teacher and parent empowerment. Privatization advocates argue for eliminating government oversight and dispensing with social and collective values because government, on the measures of cost and efficiency, is not as profitable as private industry.

Traditional discussions about privatization of contemporary U.S. public schools usually distinguish between a few forms of private schools in order to clarify how the larger neoclassical privatization effort includes shifting public funds to private entities. This shift does not typically concern private or independent schools, like the more elite institutions including Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Exeter Academy, and St. Andrews School. These are not-for-profit corporations that exist for the sole purpose of schooling young people.

Privatization And Religious Schools

Religious schools such as those affiliated with the Roman Catholic, Independent Christian, Adventist, and other faiths are also private schools. Generally, however, they are not our concern because the free market arguments for competition that are furthered by privatization advocates are not as important to the success of religious and not-for-profit schools as tradition, church affiliations, wealth, and endowments.

Thus, entry is further restricted to keep out those who do not fit the model of a particular school. Even with the irony of restricted competition, however, private religious schools have recently benefited from court rulings that instantiate vouchers and funnel public money into private and religious school coffers. Various states also have versions of privatization in the form of tax credits, tax deductions, and vouchers.

Charter schools are another example of creeping privatization, even though they are ostensibly funded and established from the public rather than private sector. Charter schools are typically legally autonomous publicly funded schools operating under explicit contracts with local school boards.

Objections to privatization include the argument that privatization diverts money from public schools to private and parochial schools and, therefore, public accountability is reduced and limited. Some argue that privatization increases segregation and reinforces socioeconomic disparities or that by abolishing the separation between church and state, privatization effectively has the government endorsing one religion over another. In the case of tax credits and tax deductions that mandate families pay tuition prior to reimbursement on their next tax return, privatization efforts significantly help wealthy families more than poor families.


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  9. Weil, D. (2003). School vouchers and privatization: A reference handbook. New York: ABC-CLIO.
  10. Wolfe, A. (Ed.). (2003). School choice: The moral debate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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