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Privatization: A Market Approach to Education


Q. I sat next to an African-American dad at a speech contest a couple of years ago. His daughter attended a Catholic school, although he said his family was not Catholic. He said they chose that school even though it posed a financial hardship because they wanted their children in a school where the other families put a high priority on education, and would make sacrifices to get their kids in that setting. Even though the public school spends more than twice as much per pupil ($8,900 per year) as the private school they selected ($4,500 tuition per year), they believe quality was better in the private school because of the motivation of the people who brought their kids there, with far less waste and unproductive activities. They were highly satisfied with their daughter's progress, and heavily involved in school activities. They said there's no question she's doing better than she would have done if she had just gone to the public school down the street. Isn't that what we want for all kids? Why shouldn't we privatize education to give everybody that kind of school setting, instead of feeling like ants in a totally subsidized government environment?


To grasp the key issues of privatization of education, it would help a great deal to read the 1962 article by the late economist Milton Friedman, "The Role of the State in Education." That article got the school-choice ball rolling as more and more people starting advocating a breakup of the K-12 school monopoly in favor of these private-sector, market-based educational funding programs. They include:


         Charter schools


         Educational vouchers

         For-profit schools

         Private schools

         Tuition tax credits


Since then, there has been a great deal of tumult over whether free-market education really does improve quality and decrease costs as much as its proponents claim. Those who are for more self-reliance and less government subsidy in K-12 education argue that students who come from private-sector schooling backgrounds do better in their careers, are better citizens, and the benefits increase exponentially when you compare the poorest kids given a hand up to private education through school vouchers to their public-school counterparts who were forced to stay put.


Those who oppose privatization, on the other hand, say that it expands the chasm of opportunity between rich students and poor ones. Even with a large amount of money in a state educational voucher, most families would still not be able to afford tuition at the most expensive private schools, and the voucher would simply reduce the cost to families that already could afford tuition. For that reason, tuition tax credits don't aid the poor, since few of them pay much in the way of taxes, and programs that reimburse them for the money the state saved by sending their children to private school instead of public school is seen as another drag on state tax coffers.


The bigger bugaboo, though, has been the contention that opening a way toward the development of more private-sector alternatives would destroy the public schools and undermine democratic ideals such as the provision of equal opportunity to children from all demographic backgrounds. Give parents school choice that is convenient and inexpensive, they say, and there would be an exodus out of our government schools, leaving us with a gigantic investment in empty buildings and major problems in broken promises to public-school staff.


Privatization proponents counter that competition is always good, and if privatization were implemented, the public schools would rise to the occasion and make themselves much more attractive with a more effective educational product, so that parents would exercise their newly-given free choice to keep their kids enrolled right where they were. Otherwise, there's no strong incentive for public schools to improve their product, since they "get paid" regardless.


So what's the answer? We're still working on it. There's a clear national consensus that we need to keep making our K-12 educational system better, but as yet no obvious way that can be done.


Public policy experts are predicting that the growth of online educational opportunities will spark more private-sector alternatives, and that holds promise for more academic freedom for students.


Also, the day may be coming in which children attend a "free" (tax-funded) public school in the morning, and opt out for any number of private educational pursuits along the lines of their interests, strengths and passions in the afternoon, at their parents' expense.


Presumably, this would mean more jobs for all kinds of people to be teachers, and more enjoyable professional opportunities for educators who want to work with students who WANT to be there. They could choose to work part-time in a public school in the mornings, and lead small groups of private-pay students in the afternoons. Those students who need remediation or whose parents don't want to participate in off-site educational programs could stay at the public school as they do now.


A hybrid of market-driven government education with the freedom and effectiveness of homeschooling would reduce the cost of public education, though probably not by half . . . but by a sizeable chunk.


So for those who want to be more self-reliant, there's hope in the future for more educational freedom - at less taxpayer expense!



Homework: To keep up to speed on this important topic, see the website of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education,, which presents a balanced viewpoint on this issue, and these pro-privatization websites: (click on Education articles) (search "school privatization") (search "school privatization")


By Susan Darst Williams Bright Ideas For Change 02



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