Who’s Out to Get Public Schools?


Gerald Bracey has an interesting report out this morning.

When people think about the groups or individuals who wish to privatize public schools, they probably think of only a few foundations and people. The late Milton Friedman and John Walton and the living Paul Peterson; the Heritage Foundation, Manhattan Institute, Hoover Institution, Heartland Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Goldwater Institute, Bradley, Scaife and a scattering of others.

This is a mistake. A recent study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy studying the years 2002 to 2006 identified 132 separate school choice organizations (www.ncrp.org, “Strategic Grantmaking”). One hundred and four of these 132 received grants from 1,212 foundations with total contributions exceeding $100,000,000 in some years. The Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) dwarfed all others with grants often exceeding $25 million.

These foundations also funded candidates, political parties, political action groups and 501(c)4 organizations. Overwhelmingly, the recipients of this largess were Republican candidates and causes.

… [There’s] a common flaw in the reasoning of the privatizers: it assumes that there are enough private schools to go around. In fact, the existing private schools, even if they wanted these poor kids, which most of them don’t, could accommodate no more than 4% of students now in the public schools. In the early years of the privatization movement, analogies were often drawn to fast food restaurants—new schools would spring up as fast as McDonald’s or Starbucks. The privatizers have apparently gotten past that particular stupidity and realize that a school is a large and complex ecosystem which requires expert knowledge not needed for hamburger flipping.

The privatizers can be critical of how conservatives fund voucher movements. Many think it is silly to fund the large think tanks such as AEI and Heritage, because they end up forming partnerships with people whose primary interest is in maintaining the status quo. Many advocate small funding to, say, parents, who have a direct interest (it is alleged) in change. In fact some people have accused the large conservative think tanks with having a basic distrust of democracy. Giving money directly to parents, on the other hand, reflects a belief that parents can select the schools best for their children.

It is interesting in this connection that supporters of the oldest (18 years) and largest (19,000 students) voucher program in the country, that in Milwaukee, have just begun a million-dollar campaign to build support for the program. According to an article in the January 28, 2008 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the group “will sponsor television, radio and print advertising over the next four months as well as undertaking other activities aimed at increasing positive opinions of the program.”

Of course, the simplest way to build support would be to show that the program works. This has not been done in Milwaukee or elsewhere (the alleged big gains Paul Peterson found for blacks in New York City disappeared when proper statistical techniques were used). Evaluations of the program after five years reached contradictory conclusions, the most reasonable one being, in my opinion, that the program had no impact on reading achievement and a small impact on mathematics achievement. The researcher, Cecilia Rouse of Princeton, observed, though, that voucher students attended smaller classes and that class size could easily be the source of the voucher students’ advantage. After that evaluation, voucher supporters in the legislature expressed their confidence in the program by killing any further funding for evaluations.

And of course the other meme that will come to be employed with increasing frequency in the future, is the one that says education evaluation is not a science and therefore can’t be trusted. Except of course when it’s your own think tank that produces the results that confirm the efficacy of the voucher program you hope to promote.

Robert Godfrey


Filed under Accountability, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, School Finance, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Who’s Out to Get Public Schools?

  1. Some related things worth looking at.

    Kessler on voucher proposal: “It’s pretty dead.”

    Rep. Kessler had a proposal to limit voucher payments to what others attending the schools paid in tuition. Gov. Doyle would not even meet to discuss it. Like the virtual school host districts, tax money “earned” via special program enrollments are subsidizing other students in the school/district. This is not how it should be.

    Graduation rates review offers mixed results (WSJ)

    and then the press release from the Friedman Foundation and Bradley Foundation linked School Choice Wisconsin

    Major Study Reveals Students in Milwaukee Voucher Program Graduate at Higher Rates

    Here is an excerpt from the State Journal story:

    “John Robert Warren, a University of Minnesota professor and author of the study, said data for the classes that graduated in June 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 showed “that students in (choice) schools are more likely to graduate from high school than students in MPS schools.”

    “Whether these results are causal in nature – that is, whether these higher graduation rates are due to selection bias or to something real that is going on in (choice) schools – is a question that can only be addressed using a stronger results design,” he wrote.

    Comparing the number of ninth-graders in one year to the number of graduates three years later indicates voucher schools have considerably higher graduation rates than MPS, but Warren used different assumptions to reanalyze the rates in ways that he said were more realistic. He considered estimates of how many students are retained in ninth grade and how many leave a school over the course of high school.

    Those adjustments narrowed the gap. For the Class of 2006, Warren wrote, the graduation rates might even have been pretty much a tie between MPS and the voucher schools.”

    These foundations fund advocacy and research and often they don’t make a distinction between the two.

  2. I think a point is missed here. They want to shut down and cut loose public schools. All schools would be private and parents could pick the best for their kids. Schools would not be funded by taxes but by parents who would get tax cuts. School buildings would not be the responsibility of communities but of owners. Looked at this way, there are plenty of schools for everyone, not just the 4% mentioned in the article.

  3. Robert Godfrey

    Laura Chern, you say “they want to shut down and cut loose public schools,” – to what end? Honestly, would you want to live in a country that says the full funding (not the current status quo) of its schools are not the collective and moral responsibility of the entire society?

  4. Well no Robert, I wouldn’t. But isn’t the goal of the right wing think tanks mentioned in the original article to shut down the public school systems? The voucher system in Milwaukee isn’t working but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pushing for privatization. To say that there is only enough space for a small percentage of students in private schools is to miss the objective of full privatization of public institutions. I don’t support or agree with that point of view but it is important to understand that space is not a problem if all school systems are privatized.

  5. Robert Godfrey

    So is your point more of a tautological one? If more schools were available for privatization there would be more private schools.

    As to the point I think you are trying to get to, I don’t have any more of a clue than most people what the real end game is for this small cadre of influential and powerful people. If, as logic would seem to suggest, they are ultimately hoping for full privatization of public schools in America, then they should state as much. Right now, their goal “appears” more one of stirring up some dust and shoot for some balkanization (cannibalization) of the system. Once they’ve achieved (in their minds at least) a marginal success, they can, as a camel nose under the tent, be allowed into the larger discourse and influence policy way beyond what their real numbers are in society.

  6. “[There’s] a common flaw in the reasoning of the privatizers: it assumes that there are enough private schools to go around. In fact, the existing private schools, even if they wanted these poor kids, which most of them don’t, could accommodate no more than 4% of students now in the public schools.”

    I read this and thought: “Huh? why would this prevent privatizers from pushing for more private schools? If all public schools are turned over private entities to run, there is plenty of space.”

  7. Robert and Laura

    You appear to agree on the essentials that privatization is bad and that privatizers are directly and indirectly undermining support for the public schools. Maybe you have different reads on the paths they are taking and the significance of the current lack of space in private schools, but as Robert pointed out, these are pretty speculative.

    I think that what matters most is that we all continue to support and work to improve our public schools and continue to build an awareness of the activities of opponents of public education. I’m not usually a “let’s all get along” kind of person, but in this case, it seems appropriate.

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