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Imagining a Nationally Privatized School System

What High Education Reveals About Privatization.

     Let's imagine a world in which many business leaders, politicians, and conservatives got their wish: the $900 billion indusry that is the publicly funded school system is privatized and now kids attend schools where they pay tuition. Those families that own a home will, we can assume, no longer be paying property taxes, since that's form where the primary source of revenue for schools comes. More likely, politicians would revamp the tax system so that property taxes were still collected, but the tax burden was equalized more so that everyone, even non-homeowners, are taxed less (on average, if everyone shares the burden, and dependent on the state, people will save under a thousand).

     That's the good news.

     Parents, you may now choose which school your students will attend since you are no longer bound by district lines. Of course, you have to be able to pay the tuition. Tuition will become, as it has in many institutions of higher education, a gatekeeper. Those with money will be able to afford higher-tuition schools that will have greater resources, greater connections, and ultimately result in greater opportunities. Of course, there's the argument that private competition will raise the bar on all schools as they compete for customers' tuition dollars. However, as we've seen in higher ed, state schools simply take on more students and cut more corners to keep costs low. Students, those typically of minority and low-income status, will be relegated to large private schools that hire new, affordable teachers and run on the same principles of efficiency and profit that large state universities use now.

     Educators at these large schools will be the youngest, the least expensive to hire, and the least experienced. Though many teachers will most likely recieve slightly higher salaries than they do now, job security will be a myth. Tenure will be a passe idea, and strict performance expectations will be enforced through compensation. Many educators that work in these schools will be forced to make difficult decisions between compliance and profitability, and what we know to be best for a child's education; whole-child teaching and mentoring (which are neither efficient or profitable).

     On the other hand, schools in the upper echelon will raise tuition to match the caliber of their teaching staff, the resources available to the students, and even the name brand recognition of the school itself. Of course, we know that businesses aren't in the habit of simply charging for the net value of their product; they charge that they can get. In fact, as schools become more prestigious they will raise their tuition and other institutions will attempt to compete, which will also icnrease their tuition. Private colleges today are now 60% to 200% more expensive than state colleges, partly because of the "higher ed bubble" that has formed around them. In that bubble will exist those truly exceptional teachers, only accessible for the families able to pay, and who will no doubt create a culture of elitism that we see in many private colleges (and private schools, for that matter).

    Essentially, what we'll be left with is a country as segregated and divided as ever. Childrens' families will be forced to choose between enormous schools that run more like factories than schools or smaller, better-performing schools with outrageous tuitions. Educators will find their careers stream-lined, prescribed, and highly stratefied. Although educational innovation is a possibility, if higher education is any indicator, innovation is more exception than rule. When innovation does occur, it is pulled into a commercial climate by those that would profit form it.

     The ultimate losers in this scenario are, of course, the children. Imagine the next generation growing up in a world where efficiency and profit are not only part of their experience, but the entirety of their experience. Where a classroom teacher may be replaced three times in a year because the students weren't scoring high enough on tests. Where the classes that are taught are often canned curriculum that are statistically proven to increase scores while simultaneously destroying their love of learning. Where the academic elite are provided more of an education and better opportunity by dint of their parents income not as adults, but form a very young age.

     Frankly, as I lay out this scenario and try to look at all the angles, it doesn't sound drastically different from the way things are now. The difference is that this will be more systemic, more pervasive, and ultimately it will become culturally accepted as the way things are, simply because everyone will share the experience. As I've said before, if teachers get into the job for the money, we've opened a dangerous door. When children are denied opportunity from the beginning, and never given another chance, we've opened a dangerous door. When powerful people are profiting from the education of children, we've opened a dangerous door. When that door is open, it will be very, very difficult to close it.