The results of school privatization experiments to date fail to show the dollar savings and improved educational quality that defenders of the practice promise, according to a new Twentieth Century Fund report, “Hard Lessons: Public Schools and Privatization.”

“The vision these privatizers offer is of a splintered nation in which families choose schools that match their different needs, while schools, like discount suppliers, find their market niche,” the report says. “Unfortunately these images obscure sev ere racial and class cleavages in our society and too easily transform privilege and disadvantage into matters of personal belief and cultural taste.”

“The report’s authors are Carol Ascher, senior research associate, New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy; Norm Fruchter, director of the Institute; and Robert Berne, vice president for academic development at New York University and dean of the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

“”The authors provide ample evidence that privatization is no magic wand that will cure the ills of the nation’s urban school districts,” says Twentieth Century Fund President Richard C. Leone says in the foreword to the report. “But they are far from concluding that nothing should be done. The reason to continue to work for big-city school reform is that cannot afford not to — not to keep asking hard questions, trying new solutions, and testing the case for greater resources. In a modern industrializ ed society, any time significant resources are underutilized the cost is high. In the United States, where income and wealth inequality are growing, the continuation of this pattern is also unhealthy for democracy and unity.”

“”Hard Lessons” reviews the promises made by privatization advocates over the past decades, as well as past and present experiments. It looks at the two major aspects of privatization: contracting-out public schools to be run by for-profit companies an d tax credits and/or vouchers given directly to parents to be spent on either public or private schools.

“Recently, in part because of severe school budget problems and because privatizers have captured the terms of public debate, the rationale for privatization has increasingly been framed in terms of the presumed efficiencies of the market. Privatized s chools are advocated as more streamlined, more effective, and less costly.

“However, the report finds that privatization experiments to date fall short on five important criteria for judging their effectiveness: student outcomes, cost, parental voice, accountability, and equity.

“The report examines important 1970s experiments that have escaped serious attention in recent years as well as 1990s experiments in Baltimore, Hartford, Milwaukee, Chelsea, Mass., and Chicago. Among the drawback the authors found were:

“—The market can remove local schools from the control of parents and students, instead making them responsive to distant stockholders.

“—Most of the experiments did not yield higher student achievement at the time they were studied.

“—In many cases, additional levels of bureaucracy were created.

“—While market theory holds that parents will act as “consumers” under privatization, this has not been the case. Many parents have shown a reluctance to make a choice or obtain the information needed to make active, informed choices about their child ren’s education.

“—Though supporters of privatization say it will provide equal opportunity for all children, results to date raise questions about whether privatizing may be part of a national movement to abandon that very commitment.

“For the first time since public education became compulsory in Massachusetts in the 1840s, we face a movement to dismantle public education, the authors say. And that causes concerns even beyond the documented shortcomings of privatization experiments . As schooling is detached from the problematic public sphere, it is also removed from its civic role. Debate over public education, though often heated, is a good thing. It deals with how and what we teach; about how history, culture, literature should b e taught; and decision critical to our national identity and heritage.

“Our fear,” the authors conclude, “is that privatizing education would remove all these decisions from the sphere of public debate and subject them only to the market mechanism of consumer choice.”

To obtain a copy of the report please contact the Twentieth Century Fund at 1-800-552-5450.

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