Education

Problems or promise? Experts discuss the privatization of public education

The inherent tension that exists between individual liberty and the common good has played out in myriad ways for America’s schoolchildren. It’s been the fault line for everything from school finance decisions to desegregation disputes, and it’s at the core of the debate over charter schools and voucher programs.

“We consider schools to be one of the key engines of social mobility,” said University of Richmond law professor Kimberly Robinson. “We rely on (them) to enable students from all backgrounds and socioeconomic classes to pursue the American Dream.”

Americans, she said, profess a strong commitment to equal educational opportunity, “but we don’t in reality provide that. It is very clear there are haves and have-nots in the education system today. There are sharp divides in financing and the quality of education given to children.

“Particularly minority and low income children,” she said, “often get the short end of the stick.”

These divides, she said, have contributed to recent trends toward the privatization of public education.

Robinson was one of several panelists who spoke Friday at a symposium called “Privatizing the Public Good: Emerging Trends in K-16 Education.” Sponsored by the Wake Forest Law Review, the daylong event included experts on both sides of the debate.

The upshot for many was that the various forms of privatization are here to stay. The challenge, some said, is to ensure that the array of new configurations – whether they’re charter schools, virtual schools, or publicly funded voucher programs – provide all students with equal access to a quality education.

Audience member Lewis Pitts, however, questioned any policy that would allow for “vouchers with strings” and the “privateering” of public schools.

“For god’s sake,” said Pitts, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina, “the last place we need privatization and profit encroachment is the public school system where we’re shaping the minds and values of our youth for what’s supposed to be a self-governing democracy.”

In response, panelist Derek Black had this to say: “I agree with about 99 percent of what you said…, but I think the train has left the station. We’re not going back.

“If you want to lie down in front of the train,” said Black, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, “you’re going to get run over.

“Let’s see if we can get on the train,” he said, “and poison the water or something like that, (but) don’t lie down in front of it.”

While Black’s analogy was somewhat stark, each panelist did, in fact, have something to say about being on the train. Charter schools, for example, provide an opportunity for innovative ideas to be nurtured and brought to scale in regular public schools, according to Danielle Holly-Walker, also a law professor at USC.

It doesn’t always happen, she said. In fact, on the whole “there is no difference in the innovative practices used by charter schools versus the ones used by traditional schools.” But there are pockets – e.g., Houston and Denver – where charter school innovations are incorporated into traditional public schools.

Holly-Walker said she’s often asked whether charter schools are good or bad, but it’s the wrong question to ask. What people really need to know are the answers to these questions: “Do they increase student achievement? Do they decrease dropout rates?… Are charter schools excluding disabled students? Are they excluding ELL students?”

In Milwaukee, a longstanding school voucher program has effectively created a dual school system that does exclude disabled students, according to Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The first year of the voucher program, 337 students received public funds to attend a private school. Two decades later, there are 20,000 students in the city’s voucher program. That’s roughly a fifth of Milwaukee’s entire student population.

In addition, many of the private schools are attended exclusively by students with vouchers. “One of our arguments,” Parker said, “is that these are private only in name.”

Another argument, he said, points to the exclusion of special education students. Nearly 20 percent of the city’s public school students have a disability compared to 1.7 percent of private school students.

The upshot, Parker said, is a dual school system. “If you have a disability, you are effectively required to attend the Milwaukee Public Schools.”

The Milwaukee voucher program, he said, “illustrates a real gulf between what we profess to do when we say we think all children can learn and what we do in practice.”

But the ultimate irony has to do with choice. Vouchers presumably give parents and their children more options. In this case, Parker said, “it denies students choice.”