Privatization of public education is a failure

06/06/2016 09:17 am ET Updated Jun 07, 2017

This election cycle has been heavy on rhetoric and light on policy. Given that nearly 50% of Americans consider themselves angrier than a year ago - with white Republicans being the angriest - it's no wonder that rather than having substantive discussions, most solutions being offered currently are knee jerk reactions that have little to no factual support. A prime example of this are the changes many conservatives endorse for "fixing" public education.

Consider for example the panacea of conservative school improvement ideas - charter schools. The most recent data show that around 25% outperform their local public school counterpart. This means that around 75% of charter schools are no better or actually worse than the local public school. Essentially, in locations where charter schools exist they are on average no better or worse than the average public school. If the goal is to improve education, getting the same results as local schools, deemed failing by charter school advocates, is a shockingly disappointing outcome.

Of course it should be noted that charter schools never get a foothold in areas where the schools are already high performing. Given that charters can't even outperform average public schools the fact that some of the country's best schools aren't included in this analysis only makes the results for charter schools that much more disconcerting. Perhaps, instead of spending tax dollars to spread charter schools that don't improve outcomes, we should take the model used by some of the thousands of exceptional public schools and disseminate that to the lower performing schools.

Having said that, the goal of the majority of charter schools and the politicians that support them isn't to improve student achievement. It is to siphon taxpayer money out of public schools and into the hands of wealthy donors. Because these politicians understand that the only thing that matches the Republican base's hate of government spending is their unwavering belief in the magical powers of capitalism. This mentality is why military spending accounts for 54 % of the Federal Government's discretionary spending, (more than that of the next 10 countries combined), and why few industries turned out better profits during the Great Recession than the Defense industry.

Ironically, many of the people who think that the potentially cozy relationship between some school board members and the teachers' union leads to sweetheart deals seems unfazed by the reality that corporations outspend unions 15 to 1 when it comes to political contributions. If union spending buys special treatment, then spending 15 times as much should certainly result in some ill-gotten gains for corporations.

Based on the amount of money that corporation are pouring into political coffers, it should come as no surprise that other faux-solutions to improve education such as privatization of public schools' services are on the docket for school boards across the country. While the companies offering these services and the politicians they have bought will argue that this is a way for schools to save money, the data show that in nearly every case it costs taxpayers more when a public service is privatized.

The reason private services typically cost more is that you are inserting a highly paid middle man into the process. Obviously the goal of any for-profit company is to make a profit, which means they will either cost more or they need to find savings elsewhere. These companies will try and sell schools on the idea that there are savings to be had which will come from eliminating inefficiencies; however, the reality is the reduction in cost will likely come from lowering employee wages and cutting corners - neither of which is good for the students.

Additionally, by outsourcing this work you are also removing local control. Does the company do the same background checks your local school would do or are they less diligent about preventing dangerous people from interacting with your child such as one company that provided two custodians with criminal records for drug and sex abuse? Does the company respond to the complaints from the administration and the community or are they willing to let some inappropriate conduct occur around young children such as in Chicago where privatization has resulted in dirty schools? Does the company provide the same quality of service as those employees hired directly by the school system or does it fail to meet the standards previous established such as in Michigan where the outsourcing of food services lead to maggots in the food?

Beyond that, the privatization of public schools takes money out of the local community and sends it to companies headquartered hundreds of miles away. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money out of the class room that is instead spent on advertising. It also makes it possible for foreign companies to rake in huge profits off of your tax dollars.

But perhaps the biggest question supporters of the conservative plan to convert public schools to private entities is, if outsourcing services is such a great idea then why do so many charter schools hire their own support services staff? Do the principles of economies of scale somehow no longer apply to charter schools? Is the core competency of charter schools somehow different than that of public schools? Would charter schools somehow not benefit from the competition privatization of services creates?

Most Americans want to see the U.S. towards the top of educational rankings; however, it should be noted that while politicians continue to push capitalism as a cure for our so-called "failed" public school system, every country that outperforms the U.S. on standardized tests uses a more socialist system. Now that's something to be angry about.