There’s a lot of buzz these days about the privatization of education, with the burgeoning appearance of charter schools, voucher plans, parental demands for choice, and even increased attempts at home schooling. We convened a panel to explore the current education scene and what public schools could be doing to meet privatization concerns, including Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York, and author of Education and the Commercial Mindset; Tom Dodd, principal at Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins, CO, and the 2017 National Principal of the Year; and Amanda Karhuse, director of advocacy for NASSP in Reston, VA. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the roundtable in October.

Levin-Epstein: Where do we stand on privatization in education today?

Karhuse: I would say that there’s definitely a lot of interest in this issue from the new administration. When President Trump was elected, one of his only talking points around education was that he wanted to create a $20 billion school choice investment to allow parents to send their children to private schools, charter schools—even for parents who want to home-school their children. And I think his selection of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education further proved that this was a priority. She’s been a big proponent of voucher programs that are popping up around the country and has invested a lot of personal money in trying to get that to grow.

Abrams: I see this as part of a story going back to Milton Friedman in 1955, when he called for vouchers in his essay “The Role of Government in Education.” As a libertarian, Friedman naturally advocated freedom of choice, which meant using vouchers to fund matriculation at religious and nonsectarian private schools. He naturally saw the market as the most efficient means of delivering goods and services and accordingly endorsed for-profit management of schools as well. Friedman went on to flesh out his argument in such essays as “Selling School Like Groceries” in The New York Times Magazine in 1973, “Busting the School Monopoly” in Newsweek in 1983, and “Public Schools: Make Them Private” in The Washington Post in 1995.

While vouchers were slow to take hold in the United States because of political opposition to public funding of religious schooling, charter schools mushroomed as a more politically palatable form of privatization. Political opposition likewise got in the way of for-profit management. Wall Street was bullish on this idea in the 1990s, but the sector never fulfilled expectations because of the difficulty of achieving 1) economies of scale in a labor-intensive sector like schooling and 2) the transparency necessary for proper contract enforcement in a context where the child is the immediate consumer, while the parent, legislator, and taxpayer are all at a necessary distance. With Betsy DeVos, we now have a secretary of education channeling Friedman. DeVos contends that schools should merely meet no more than what Friedman termed “minimum requirements,” and that parents should function as customers in choosing schools, whether district, charter, proprietary, religious, or nonsectarian private. Privatization has thus turned a corner and returned to its roots.

The Obama administration pushed for privatization in the form of charter schools. The Trump administration is pushing for privatization in the form of not only charter schools, but also private schools funded by vouchers. Charter schools now number nearly 7,000 across the country, from a humble start of two in Minnesota in 1992. But that growth, it should be noted, has ebbed. For example, in 2012 there were 640 new charters; in 2013—501; in 2014—404; and in 2015—329. The deployment of vouchers via tuition tax credits has, on the other hand, surged. Arizona and Florida are the two states with the most robust tuition tax-credit programs. This form of privatization, true to Friedman’s wishes, calls for significant attention. What is happening in Arizona and Florida stands to spread to other states. And that is precisely what Secretary DeVos wants.

Dodd: From my perspective as a building principal—and a brief conversation I recently had with Betsy DeVos—people have different definitions of public versus private school choice, how it should be managed, to whom it should be offered, why some may or may not want it, and who should pay for it. It’s evolved from a “desired state” to the “current reality” in our suburban/urban communities; yet most are still unfamiliar with it in the rural setting where the only option is typically the local public school.

Programs, pathways, and brands to personalize learning for students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels have proliferated in recent years in the public system, but when you start talking about using public dollars to fund private education through vouchers and tuition tax credits, the conversation quickly becomes a dialogue about the dismantling of public education as we know it. Parents research schools and look for the best fit for their children. They investigate school performance data, which may or may not paint a complete picture of a school; pursue athletics, arts, and extracurricular programming; Core Knowledge, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or STEM branding; and consider concurrent enrollment, online, and on-campus delivery models.

Although school choice may look different across our nation, it’s historically been viewed in the context of our existing public system with the conversation centered on charter schools without neighborhood attendance areas competing with traditional neighborhood public schools.

The current administration is changing the definition of public education to include public dollars funding education delivered by private, independent, nonsectarian or religious, and nonprofit or for-profit organizations. This is a threat to the educational establishment because it replaces the long-held belief in a free and appropriate public education as a common good with the notion that a child’s education is a personalized, individual pursuit to be determined by the family and funded with tax revenue.

Addressing Perceptions and Misconceptions

Levin-Epstein: What are some of the ways that principals and others in public education can counter the perceptions and misconceptions regarding privatization?

Dodd: Access to a high-quality public education is the civil rights issue of our time and the cornerstone of our American democracy. To combat the misconception that privatization is necessary to “fix” our public schools, we have to do a better job educating our communities about the broad-based and championship-level programs our public schools offer. There’s this idea of perceived quality that charter schools and private schools are somehow by default better than their public school peers. Parents feel pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” and get their child(ren) into whichever they hear is the “it” school.

We need to ask families directly what kind of educational experience they want for their children, and why they think public schools are falling short. We also need to better educate our legislators about how to do school choice, and we’ve got to get really clear on what we want the intended outcomes to be—enhanced learning experiences and outcomes for every student and enhanced performance for all schools. Then, we’ve got to be thoughtful and detail-oriented in designing the delivery to guard against potential unintended consequences—increased inequality across schools, districts, and states; exorbitant tuition and fees; biased application processes; and the neighborhood school becoming the school of last resort.

In most states, parents who enroll their children in charter schools or home-school their children can already pick and choose à la carte which programs at the local public school they want to take advantage of because their charter doesn’t, or parents can’t, provide it. These laws create an uneven playing field and are written by state legislators who may not understand how policy impacts practice. Should a student who “choices out” of their local public school to a charter be allowed to participate in music, athletic, or extracurricular programs and take an auditioned, roster, or starting spot away from a full-time student at that school who was cut from the performing group, team, or club? If you choose a school, shouldn’t you have to take the good with the bad? Is there a reciprocal opportunity for public school students to go to a nearby charter school for a class in Latin if it’s not offered at their school?

Some people selfishly want choice to benefit [themselves] and their subgroup population. We have open enrollment in Colorado. Parents can “choice out” of their neighborhood attendance area school and into another school if there’s space availability and they can provide their own transportation. This increased competition creates benefits for families (the consumers) and challenges for schools (the providers), such as providing information on school choice transportation, educating families on available options and how to navigate the choice system, etc. School choice available to most, but accessible to few, increases inequality.

Karhuse: I would also add to what Tom is saying—because he’s in a unique district where they do have open enrollment—I would say that obviously most parts of the country don’t have a system like that. Students do attend their neighborhood schools, and I think that what we need to make people more aware of is that there are so many more options and choices within that public school system. Schools are trying to personalize the learning environment for each child so they have the option to take career and technical education courses, they have AP courses, and they have magnet programs at a lot of high schools now. So, I think there’s a misunderstanding that the school system has not evolved when it really has, and that there are a lot more pathways to obtaining a high school diploma.

There’s also so much more being done around project-based learning and the creation of makerspaces, and kids are learning in such new and creative ways. An effort we’re trying to do, and why we’re so glad that Tom was able to meet with the secretary last week, is we are trying to get her into those public schools to see what’s really happening, because she did not attend public schools. Her children didn’t attend public schools, and she really just doesn’t have a knowledge base of what’s happening around the country.

Dodd: We need to rethink educational delivery and push on our archaic system based on Carnegie units (credits) and seat time in nine-, 18-, and 36-week courses. Competency-based education and blended learning are a start. We need to see learning as the fixed (expected) outcome and time as the variable—-not learning as variable and time as fixed.

More and more districts are providing students access to college coursework, and they are graduating [from] high school with their first year of college completed through Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or concurrent enrollment with a local community college, university, or online university. Our high schools are offering a plethora of pathways to get students college and career ready, and will continue to do so.

Abrams: There is, to reflect what Tom and Amanda have said so well, a great deal of choice within the public school system. Some of this choice is problematic, however. Magnet schools, for example, screen out a lot of kids. And charter advocates have noted that this screening capacity of magnet schools is discriminatory. They will say, very legitimately, that if charter schools are oversubscribed, they have to use a lottery [system for enrollment], while magnet schools screen from the outset. Now, there are barriers to entry to some of these charter schools. There can be an application process that might be forbidding. Word can get out that if you don’t do well at the school, you’ll have to repeat the grade. That’s a message to the parents that this school is a very challenging place and might not be right for their child. In addition, these charter schools can call in parents on a regular basis if their child isn’t behaving according to expectations, and if those parents tire of these repeated conferences, as many understandably do, they will take their child out. In this regard, charter schools can’t, technically, expel a student, but implicitly, they can.

As far as vouchers are concerned, we have to be careful. While vouchers might serve some students well, they can have a negative impact on neighborhood public schools. This negative impact is not being sufficiently conceded in the discussion about vouchers as well as charters and magnet schools. In economics, we say that a policy is “Pareto efficient” if it makes some parties better off while not making any other parties worse off. The trouble with vouchers—as well as charters and magnet schools—is they tend not to be Pareto efficient, because underperformers get concentrated in neighborhood public schools. We have to guard against this with public school choice as well as vouchers and charters.

We have a lot of research in the area of something called “peer-group effects.” If you have a concentration of underperformers in a default neighborhood public school, it makes it that much more difficult for students to learn. I was a teacher for 18 years before I became a researcher. In the New York City public school system, where I taught for nine years, if I had three difficult students in a class of 34 students (the ceiling in New York City high schools is 34 students), I could handle it. If I had six difficult students, I could not handle it. It’s not twice as hard. It’s exponentially more difficult. You get a chain reaction of bad conduct. This is what must be acknowledged when we talk about choice. It can be far from Pareto efficient.

Messages to Principals

Levin-Epstein: What’s your message for public school principals on this issue?

Karhuse: I’m going to use my perch here as the director of advocacy at NASSP. What I would encourage principals to do is to bring folks into their school—whether that be their members of Congress, state legislators, members of their school board, anyone who’s in a policymaking position—to see the great things that are happening in their public schools. We’re using National Principals Month in October as a sort of launching pad to do that and encouraging principals to have legislators shadow them. I think that is one thing they can do.

Obviously, here at NASSP we do a lot of grassroots advocacy, so we would encourage principals to keep being vocal in opposition to some of these proposals that are being offered at the federal level. We have different avenues for people to make their voices heard here in D.C., and I think it is having an impact. We didn’t see any of these choice proposals in the current budgets that are being considered by the House and Senate for fiscal year 2018, so I think we just need to keep the drumbeat going.

Dodd: I would tell principals, “The devil is in the details.” At the surface level, a logical reaction might be, “Sure, why wouldn’t we want a little more competition, choice, and options for kids?” Competition can help move the needle, but the way Sam ended his last point-the demographics of schools matter a lot. Research supports it, and everyone knows it anecdotally. You’ve got to acknowledge the unintended consequences of what you think you’re doing with school choice versus what you’re actually doing … the gates you put up, who can get to a different school-private, public, charter, magnet, etc. We must invite people into our buildings and say, “Look at what we’ve got going on here! This is what we’re all about; this is the experience we provide.”

We need to be mindful of our messaging. Sometimes as public educators promote access, overcoming challenges—poverty, social-emotional trauma, etc.—closing opportunity and achievement gaps, and balancing excellence with equity, we end up validating the reasons parents use to exit the public system. Are people hearing what we want them to hear? School choice tends to emphasize competition over collaboration, and excellence over equity. Be careful what you wish for. The potential negative fallout is the exacerbation of inequality in our communities. What are your values? Where and with whom do you want your child to go to school and ride the bus? People talk about diversity as a healthy benefit of our increasingly pluralistic, globalized society, yet we have people on both ends of the political spectrum choosing charters and nonpublic options. This mindset is endorsed by U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of America’s Best High Schools, which is largely a list of the most affluent suburban and urban public and charter schools. Still, what parents want most for their children is someone to know and care for their kid. Content isn’t always king; caring is king.

Abrams: I would say to principals that your challenge is immense because of the metrics that are employed at the state level with the Every Student Succeeds Act. There’s still all this pressure on reading and math scores. The pressure is not as great as it was with No Child Left Behind, but it is still significant. And that makes this job very difficult. With that in mind, I’ll cite Debbie Meier, the legendary founder and leader of the progressive Central Park East Schools in New York. Choice can work beautifully when you’re advertising a rich curriculum. But once principals get in the game of competing according to reading and math scores, they are going to be driven by those reading and math scores. That’s not what Meier wanted at all. She wanted institutional autonomy, where the principals, working with the teachers as first among equals, could provide rich curricula to the community. That’s the challenge. But it is clearly a tough challenge given the pressure on principals to meet these metrics in reading and math.