More Democracy Not Less: Confronting the Challenge of Privatization in Public Education

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Public education in the United States may be on the verge of radical reform. The impetus for sweeping change is provided by the persistence of severe problems of a systemic nature which show no hint of fading away. Ongoing financial troubles and unstable labor relations that undermine the provision of educational services, decaying buildings and facilities that no longer meet educational needs, and an array of social problems that overwhelm school personnel are just some of the major issues confronting public schools. There is also growing public concern over the quality of education children receive, based on the widespread perception that standards have fallen and that too many public schools are failing to meet their intellectual needs. In many communities, public schools have become the schools of last resort for those who cannot afford the option of private schools, while those with means do whatever possible to avoid them.

During the 1980s, several national reports drew attention to what was perceived as a precipitous deterioration in the standards and quality of education in the U.S. (Business--Higher Education Forum, 1983; The College Board, 1983; Education Commission of the States, 1983; Gross & Gross, 1985; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). These reports attempted to link educational decline, as measured by school performance and student achievement on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and other standardized tests, to the poor performance of the U.S. economy and the reduced competitiveness of American products on the international market. Increasingly, the whole system of public education, including its administrative apparatus, has come under attack. Typically, it has been accused of being inefficient, top-heavy, and preoccupied with rules and regulations rather than focused on providing quality education. Teachers, students, and parents have also received a share of the blame for school failure and the "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people" (Gross & Gross, p. 5).

For these reasons and others, the time may now be ripe for radical reform of public education. Under the rubric of a variety of privatization proposals, several advocates for reform have stated as their goal nothing less than the complete dismantling of public education. The proposals for reform vary in form and content and in the extent to which they alter or transform the existing system. However, regardless of how the ideas are packaged, the current crop of reform proposals are unified by a common belief in the marketplace as the preeminent regulator and guarantor of educational quality. Under the guise of increasing consumer accountability, the conservative critics of public education are pushing for privatization as the medicine that will cure the many ills that beset public schools in the U.S.

Given this nation's long history of support for public education, one might be tempted to believe that any effort to undermine the extensive system of public education in the United States would be doomed to failure. The U.S. was, after all, the first Western industrialized nation to establish public schools. Moreover, communities across the country increasingly are looking toward their public schools for solutions to a growing list of social problems. Whether the issue is drugs or the environment, violence or sexually transmitted diseases--more often than not, the search for solutions involves turning to the public schools to find ways to influence popular attitudes on matters of critical social importance. Hence, rather then becoming expendable, in many respects U.S. society is becoming increasingly dependent upon public schools as one of the few remaining viable social institutions that can be relied upon to address a variety of social issues.

Yet, despite this reality, large segments of society now appear willing to radically transform public education and replace it with new models, many of which are largely undefined and untested. …