Accountability Charter Schools Privatization Testing

Samuel Abrams: Why Privatizing Public Schools–Whether For-Profit or Non-Profit–is a Terrible Idea

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Valerie Strauss interviewed Samuel Abrams, director of the Teachers College, Columbia University, National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, about his important new book, Education and the Commercial Mindset. The book is an in-depth, beautifully written history of the privatization movement.

Read the interview. It will make you want to read this brilliant book.

Here is one small excerpt:

Abrams: Privatization takes the form of nonprofit as well as for-profit school management, as privatization technically means outsourcing the provision of government services to independent operators, whether nonprofit or for-profit. Insufficient transparency and, thus, accountability can become problems. While nonprofit charter operators must file 990s with the IRS documenting expenses and salaries, for instance, many are less detailed in their reportage than they should be. Moreover, these charters report only indirectly, if at all, to elected school board members.

Yet there are far greater issues with outsourcing school management to nonprofit charter operators: First, this outsourcing generates the atomization of school districts, meaning the diminishment of neighborhood schools and the civic involvement such neighborhood affiliation involves; second, this atomization makes for navigational challenges for many parents, who either have a hard time finding the right school for their children or getting them there day after day when the school is across town; third, this atomization translates into “good schools” and “bad schools,” with students who can’t succeed in the “good schools” concentrated in the “bad schools,’ which are often default neighborhood schools, where learning can become far harder given the negative effects struggling students can have on other students. In sum, such outsourcing leads to opportunities at high-performing schools for some students but leaves many others behind.

Privatization accordingly amounts to a flawed response to state failure, not a solution. The solution calls for investing the resources necessary to make all neighborhood schools solid in the way all neighborhood schools are solid in middle- and upper-class suburbs, with well-paid teachers, good working conditions and smaller classes. But we have to go further than that. We have to invest in quality preschool, with college-educated teachers, so children show up to school ready to learn. We have decades of evidence of the positive impact of quality preschool. It’s expensive, but only in the short run. We likewise must invest in school-associated medical, dental and counseling services, which are also expensive but only in the short run. Privatization has brought many bright, dedicated agents of change, but it diverts us from addressing our state failure squarely.

When Strauss asked him what was the change he would make immediately if he could, he said he would abolish the annual testing that was mandated by No Child Left Behind, continued by Race to the Top, and is embedded in the “Every Student Succeeds Act.”

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