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Milton Friedman, Betsy DeVos, and the Privatization of Public Education


Milton Friedman, Betsy DeVos, and the Privatization of Public Education

Joanne Barkan

Milton Friedman, patron saint of the free market, died in 2006, but his ideas about public education live on in the thought and deeds of Betsy DeVos, likely the next U.S. Secretary of Education. The two are ideological soulmates—a fact that justifiably panics supporters of public education.


God forbid that the parents of poor children should even be allowed to send their children to any other school than the one that has been chosen for them by their political betters. Even if they consider that school to be inadequate and even dangerous, they must learn that their children belong to the state and that choice is only for rich people.


The news stories all talk about Betsy DeVos's commitment to charter schools.

But really. The Amway money has been giving away bibles fro decades.

DeVos wants non-union, Christian evangelical schools first and foremost. Yeah, she'll accept charters because that's the means to her ends. But religious schools first. (EXCEPT Islamic religious schools, you can bet!!)


With logic like that you must be a product of a for profit school.


Please explain why parents should be forced to send their children to a bad school based simply on where they live?


Want to find out really fast how bogus the whole privatization scam really is? Take the Federal Funds and begin a K-12 program that is steeped in critical pedagogy, one that teaches age and developmental stage,-level hermeneutical thinking that instills critical, relational creative thinking, steeped in the real; of each students social, racial, and cultural history (no sugar coating); rather than the anti-intellectual vocationalization of our current atomized, institutional pedagogy; aimed at material and historical reproduction, and nothing less.


As someone who has spent his life teaching poor children and/or teaching teachers who teach poor children, I have come to the opposite conclusion as you have. Why?

After all, your reasoning seems impeccable on the surface, and thus your post DOES makes opposing charters seem and feel immoral. The causal reader who doesn't see the problem with your argument might reasonably respond "How dare we stand in the way of those poor parents'!!?" So where's the problem? Your narrowly individualistic/consumerist framing of the problem turns out to be a destructive way to approach public policy, and you ignore well-known negative ripple effects of this kind of charter system.

The fatal flaw hidden in your argument is that you framed your argument as the case of an individual consumer choice by an individual parent, and without any regard for anyone else in the picture. But that doesn't tell the story of how the world works, and it ignores the moral duty of policymakers to do what is best overall for all the constituents they serve, not just one Mom. Market-based approaches inherently create new inequalities where none existed before and exacerbate existing inequalities, and widening the range of inequality among students and in society directly causes poorer learning in classrooms and a whole lot of social dysfunction in society. In fact, the research on inequality has advanced to the point where we can now confidently say that it is impossible to have a healthy society with the degree of inequality we now have. For educating the masses, when charter schools siphon more of the best and most motivated from urban schools, these market-based solutions worsen educational and socio-economic inequality and suffering overall for poor. They also further fray the social fabric of poor communities, much of which has revolved around neighborhood schools. In economics, what you are defending is an arrangement called "smart for one, dumb for all." It feels smart and beneficial for the individual, and thus morally defensible but when everyone starts doing it, it sets in motion a whole series of ripple effects, and many of them are quite vicious.

The policymakers' job is not to ask what this ONE parent or that ONE parent might want, but to help create the best possible system overall for ALL children and parents in the system (and while not wasting taxpayers' money). That is their moral duty. Thus, the correct unit of analysis for a policymaker is not individual parents or even individual schools: the correct unit of analysis for a policy issue like charter is whether a district-wide or state-wide system with lots of charters is better or worse than a district-wide or state-wide system with few or no charters. Once you look at the big picture, (and creating a fictitious level of measurement precision) you realize that if super-bright Damon Jones moving to a charter school boosts the average scores of that charter by +2 points, it might simultaneously drop the average test score in the public school he came from by -2 points. The net long-term effect is the proper focus for policymaking--not isolated benefits her or there for this person or that--and here we have no net educational gain, and perhaps some incremental social loss to the community because one more strong kid/family has pulled out. If the local charters also pay teachers less and offer less job security than do the local public schools (or more of the per pupil spending goes to some rich CEO, as happens with a lot of charter around here), then as a policymaker I would be wise to judge that as being two more check marks against the effectiveness of having more charters.

So while your post has great emotional appeal, in terms of underlying logic, it's like swiss cheese: It's like thinking fad diets really work just because they help you lose weight over one month (but ignoring the broad and long-term ripple effects that might include regained weight, more diabetes, heart disease, etc.) .

It's critical to look at the big picture, and to do that, we have to look at the broad and long-term ripples effects of contrasting systems. In the rigged economy, in factory farming, in the increasing corruption of American government, and in the failed educational "deforms" of test-based accountability, market-based thinking has consistently caused enormous collateral damage and pulled civilization backwards. More market-based thinking isn't the solution to our current problems in education or the economy, market-based thinking IS the main problem. A narrow focus on me-me-me individualism is only one of the many reasons market based thinking backfires so badly for building a healthy civilization. Behind the phony veneer of more "choice," market-based approaches actually gradually rob most people of their freedoms and equal opportunities, and funnel more and more wealth to fewer and fewer people. That's the real game that's going on here.

And BTW, in real apples-to-apples comparisons, kids in public schools do just as well as kids in private schools, and many charters are absolutely dreadful.

Bottom line: For educating the masses in a way that simultaneously upholds our core American values of freedom, equal opportunity, and promoting the general welfare, public education appears to be broadly superior to private approaches. And what are the two biggest reasons why things in public schools often aren't more impressive? 1) For over a century, schools have been based far too much on business ideas and manufacturing principles, and not on the principles of human development and democracy. 2) The trickle down economy ramped up poverty, inequality and social dysfunction dramatically, and with ~80% of the variance in educational performance being due to out-of school factors (mostly parental SES), the $$$ inequality created by the failed neoliberal economy is showing up in greater family dysfunction and educational inequality.


What a brilliant post. Thank you for the time you devoted to informing us about the pitfalls of charter schools.


Well, perhaps when the madrassas are set up in her home town,, she'll rethink that.


I never remember much criticism of public schools as a kid in the fifties and sixties. If a parent had a concern, he/she talked to the teacher.The charter schools started when daddy Bush was in office.


If you do not like where you live- just move or pay tuition for a private school.


"when charter schools siphon more of the best and most motivated from urban schools, these market-based solutions worsen educational and socio-economic inequality and suffering overall for poor."
It is a common myth that charter schools owe any superior performance over public schools to only taking in the best students. In Massachusetts where there are lotteries to determine who gets placed in the limited number of charter schools, the academic performance of those randomly assigned students has shown measurable improvement.

Allowing charter schools and other forms of school choice does not exacerbate inequality, but rather gives the children of poorer families access to the better forms of education that wealthier families can already purchase either through paying private school tuition or simply having a home in an area that has a good public school.


Tax payers should NOT pay for private schools period.


Lots of people, even my fellow educational researchers, get fooled by that kind of data. What are the problems here?

First, net effects. If the policy question on the table is whether or not expanding charters is a good idea, you have to look at the net effect across the sending and receiving schools in the whole district or state, depending on what level of policy we are discussing. If I move money from a bank account I often forget about to a bank account I use a lot, I'd better not get fooled and think I'm suddenly richer. If kids going to the charters made gains and kids who lost these motivated classmates lost ground, there may have been no benefit in terms of net educational outcomes, which is what I care about as a taxpayer and it's what policymakers should care about. The everyday term for what the charters are doing is called "skimming" or "Robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Second, false attribution of causality (are those charter schools doing more effective teaching?). I'm a researcher, and I've spent around 20,000 hours studying the myths behind the testing, accountability, and privatization movement, and one of the most amazing things is how often people misattribute educational causality, especially regarding the effectiveness of charters. Until they got good recently, the Cleveland Indians used to always seem to be getting top pitchers lured away by the Yankees (and others). If the Yankees won more games because they have deeper pockets and can lure in the best talent, does that mean their managers are more effective baseball managers than are the Indians? No easy way to tell, because money is causing talent to move and may be the main reason the Yankees won more games. Even with lotteries, the charter school is likely getting a more homogeneous pool of kids (motivationally and skill-wise than are left behind at the sending public schools. We know from classroom research that the best average performance for the whole class comes from heterogeneous ability grouping, but the high performers gain more ground if they are just with other high performers. Charters are replicating that effect, so it's possible/likely that any learning gains result from having a more homogeneous pool of students (with respect to the sending population), and thus tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the charter school in question. Notice also that skimming the cream off the top is not a scalable solution for improving American education--if charters were to expand to serving even 30-40% of kids, very soon they are pulling in lots and lots of less able and motivated kids (meaning they actually would have to face what public schools face every day). Some elite charter schools DO have great teachers just as some elite restaurants have great chefs, but once you scale it up, the quality goes down because there simply isn't the talent pool in society to sustain such high levels of excellence.

Third, you're ignoring all the other negative effects of charters I brought up in earlier posts.

Fourth, notice that once again, you're only discussing the kids who went to the charter and totally forgetting all the other kids in the picture. If you pull a sizable chunk of the more able/motivated kids out of public schools serving low-income kids, you'd better believe that pulls down the kids left behind. Schools become increasingly dismal, and de-motivating. In fact, people like Andy Smarick over at Fordham used to (seemingly with pleasure) imagine the death spiral this could put poor urban schools into. And then because fewer taxpayers are sending kids to that district, fewer levies pass, so we get even poorer education for the poorest of the poor. Sorry, we've seen this show before, the underlying sorting mechanism is one of the mechanisms of winner-take-all capitalism, and it creates a bigger gap between the haves and have nots. In fact, I know all about this from first-hand experience because I helped with the planning of a school-of-choice in Cleveland, and while the resulting school is great, the process definitely drained teaching talent and great families from elsewhere in the district, and that pulled down those schools. Been there, done that, and this doesn't work as a systems-level solution for broadly improving American education.

Fifth, test scores are a pretty poor basis for judging educational success, but that's a whole book, and it's late.


I forgot the sixth point and it's a biggie.

Our nation needs an approach to educating 60 million kids that leaves no one out and does its best to provide equal educational opportunity to everyone. But notice that to the extent that a particular charter may look fairly successful to the outside observer (especially if they don't understand the confounding factors I posted above), that is to a significant extent because charters can boot out whomever they want based to based on behavior or slow learning (a low performer in the mix pulls down their average tests scores and hurts them on the PR /recruiting front). One of the supposedly elite NYC charters has a class size that shrinks dramatically with every passing year, but any school can look good if you keep pushing out the weakest 10% of your student body every year.

However, because this we-don't have-to-serve-everyone logic is how charters operate, the charter model is an unworkable model for educating everyone (which is what America needs). And unfortunately, expanding charters does simultaneously undermine the one system whose public sector values and design makes it well-suited to serving all students who seek an education there--public education.


The author Joanne Barkan makes the important point that the privatization of public education has been a bipartisan effort for a long time. Here in the “Blue” state of California the imposition of charter schools on the public has been a stealth operation strongly supported by a Democratic legislature. California has more children enrolled in charter schools than any other state. Eli Broad, of Eli Broad Foundation, has proposed that 50 % of schools in Los Angeles be charter schools by the year 2025. He is a close friend of former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is planning a run for governor. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix and member of the state Board of Education proposes that elected school boards be abolished. Governor Jerry Brown, star of the Democratic Party, recently vetoed a bill that would have required accountability and transparency for charter schools, saying it was unnecessary. Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, confidant and close friend to former president Obama, closed 50 schools in Chicago, the largest closing of schools in US history. Many were turned over to private charter operators. All of these charter school champions are powerful players in the Democratic Party. One of the basic tenets of neoliberalism is the privatization of the public sector. It is embraced by both parties. Betsy DeVos is only the tip of a very deep iceberg.