The Privatization of Education: Can Public Education Survive?

By Rockler, Michael J. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Privatization of Education: Can Public Education Survive?


Rockler, Michael J., Free Inquiry


Thomas Jefferson believed that a democratic society could not be sustained unless free, public education was available to the citizenry at large. Jefferson urged his contemporaries to support schooling at public expense to all persons who could benefit from it, advocating free primary schooling for all children. Jefferson also supported advanced schooling at public expense for those who were meritorious learners.

America's vast public school system has evolved from this beginning. The United States has traditionally provided free schooling for all persons beginning with kindergarten and extending through high school. The development of the public community college has extended this commitment to include post-secondary education at a minimal cost. Because the survival of democracy has been perceived as the ultimate public good, education has been viewed as primarily a function of the public sector.

No one in Jefferson's time, of course, could have envisioned what American public education would become. As the nation grew, so did the commitment to ever-more years of free schooling, and the educational system became very large and very complex. Furthermore, the demands on schooling have also increased. Schools are expected to provide education on drugs and sex. They are asked to produce a program for driver training. In the beginning the focus of education was almost exclusively academic. In the elementary years this meant emphasis on the three Rs. The secondary curriculum prepared students for attendance at college. The contemporary American public school has also become a center for solving social problems and an institution interested in personal development.

Along with the increased complexity of teaching and learning has come an increase in criticism of schooling. Demands for the reform of education have always existed; as the schools have grown, so has the intensity of the critiques. Furthermore, a large difference exists between the quality of education in most urban centers and education for the more affluent in the suburbs. The per capita expenditure for pupils in suburban Cook County, Illinois, is sometimes three times as much as is spent in Chicago. One response to the criticism of public education and the never-ending calls for reform has been a growing movement toward the privatization of education in the United States.

Many questions can be raised about privatization. If schooling becomes primarily a private enterprise, will there still be a need for colleges and universities to educate teachers? Would private corporations train their own teachers, drawing on those who have bachelor's degrees but lack certification? Will private entrepreneurs be interested in education in urban areas or will city schools become the only remaining public schools? Will private entrepreneurs be concerned about children with special needs or will these be left to the public sector? Can the separation of church and state be maintained in an essentially private school system?

The History of Privatization

Private education is not a new phenomenon in the United States. The latest proposals advocate government-sponsored private schools. But private schooling has existed from the very beginning of education in the United States.

Educator Horace Mann's conception of the age-graded common elementary school is considered to be one of the major achievements of early American educational history. This mid-nineteenth century accomplishment occurred, in part, because Mann was willing to include the values of Protestant Christianity in the schools. The early common schools used the Protestant version of the Bible and taught a Protestant interpretation of Western history. In order to protect its children from Protestant indoctrination, the Catholic church in the United States created a private parochial system that quickly became a very large enterprise. Orthodox Jews also opened Jewish day-schools for the same reasons. …

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