The New Republic has an interesting analysis of Louisiana’s experiment in privatization of public schools: Ed Kilgore argues in “How the GOP’s New Education Policy Embraces the Market and Abandons Objective Standards” that vouchers pander to parents as the ultimate source of “accountability.” But this emphasis on parents’ subjective evaluation of a school’s worth (private = religious = my religion = better) flies in the face of technocratic, data-driven assessments that use student standardized test scores as the basis of “stack ranking” teachers and deeming schools failures.
Now it may be objected that it’s possible to construct a voucher system less cavalier about school quality than Louisiana’s, and that a Romney Administration Department of Education would do a better job of “vetting” schools. But the conflict between no-strings voucher systems and those based on objective standards is not one of competence, but of philosophy. And moreover, even if a Republican Congress and White House (or states following their lead) were willing to partially abandon the parental-market-place principle and begin insisting on standards for curriculum and instruction, it would run smack into another ideological totem: The growing resistance of conservative religious institutions to any conditions for the use of public funds that might tread upon their “freedom,” however they choose to define it.
In reality, if creeping privatization looks like taxpayer funding for semi-private charters or taxpayer subsidies for religious and wholly private schools, what’s the difference if both de-populate and de-fund public schools? Where Kilgore errs is his view of “public charter schools” as upholding “objectivity” and “accountability” of student performance; that’s in keeping with a center-right faith in technocracy. Corporate charter chains certainly fail in many respects to demonstrate accountability to the public when it comes to financial operations or school governance.
Charter schools de-fund public school districts through financial re-engineering of per-pupil funding and the appearance of “choice”; religious schools de-fund public school districts through emotional appeals to the personal religious allegiances of parents. What on earth will multi-billion dollar testing companies do if their cash cow, public schools standards compliance and remediation, disappears?
This could be viewed as a split in the conservative attempts to privatize schools and a weakness, or a clever way to differentiate the overall, unifying strategy of dismantling public education to two very distinct audiences and thus a strength of “ed reformers.”
Weaknesses or strengths, what both approaches share is the fundamental desire to make excellent public schools scarce — if completely inaccessible — by “free marketing” it out of existence.
Supporters of public education must reject privatization attempts, or we’ll end up with expensive schooling for only an exclusive few and redirection of taxpayer dollars intended for public school spending instead routed into the pockets of private companies — and not classrooms where kids are. A free, high-quality public education is what made this country great. We should continue expanding this so it’s a reality for every child.