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National trends and international implications of education privatization in the U.S.

Tue, April 16, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency, Floor: Bay (Level 1), Bayview B


Introduction and Relevance:
With the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, the issue of education privatization has now taken center stage in the U.S. national debate. Within this rapidly shifting policy environment, DeVos has voiced considerable support for diverting an additional $1.4B USD of federal education dollars in 2018 to expanding school choice mechanisms - increasingly equated in her rhetoric with “freedom” rather than “quality.” The 2018 White House budget further forecasts a privatization end goal of $20 billion annually.

Recent work by Verger, Moschetti, and Fontdevila situates the growth of education privatization at the national level (such as the U.S.) within various global processes: (a) governments often engage in “policy-borrowing” from other countries, (b) “intermediary organizations” such as think tanks work across geographic contexts to frame policy ideas, (c) reform entrepreneurs and philanthropists often facilitate national engagement with privatization. As the United States considers major changes in the management and delivery of public education, education researchers and practitioners must consider both domestic and international evidence to evaluate scalability, sustainability, and equity claims. This paper applies the international typology of types of subtypes of education privatization to describe current trends and evidence about the process in the U.S. context.

Research Questions:
This paper addresses this topic by posing three research questions: 1) Through which forms, and to what extent, has the US education sector adopted education privatization? 2) What does rigorous research reveal about the efficacy of these programs, particularly when disaggregating by demographic? 3) What are the international implications for trends towards privatization in U.S. education sector and vice versa?

Theoretical Frames:
In this paper, authors applied conceptual frameworks from economics and sociology to address these research questions. From an economic perspective, federal policymakers and privatization advocates contend privatization benefits the public good as a cost-savings mechanism and as an impetus for improvement by competition. Given this rationale, authors investigated evidence about the efficacy of such approaches within different U.S. contexts. Sociologically, privatization mechanisms are often framed as solutions to public school failures in meeting the needs of the least advantaged student. Therefore, authors also analyzed specific findings regarding marginalized student populations and outcomes occurring within different forms of education privatization. Finally, the paper then compares analyses from the larger global education context to the proposed scaling in the US and identify implications for student access, outcomes, and equity.

To answer the first question, the authors conducted a literature review of market-based policies and federally-reported statistics by state to characterize their specific approach and level of adoption/saturation. This literature review contains a mix of older approaches like vouchers (Wisconsin, Washington D.C., Florida), charter schools (Washington D.C., Louisiana, Arizona, Colorado, and California), and newer and emerging iterations such as education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, individual tax credits, etc. The resultant typology helps clarify the different market-based mechanisms and their relative positioning on the public-private spectrum across the dimensions of funding, governance, responsibility, and school property/real estate ownership. Current public discourse around market-based approaches often lacks agreement even at the definitional level about the proposed strategies; this paper attempts to organize and clarify these strategies.

The second research question regarding the effectiveness of market-based approaches represents the crux of the debate. This paper uses multiple methods to evaluate effectiveness. First, the authors examine research findings from the studies compiled to develop the typology. Within these studies, this paper focuses on outcomes and access. The findings complied across states and strategies show that market-based approaches have either minimal or negative impacts on student achievement. Furthermore, questions about the equity of access, particularly for disadvantaged students, arise in many cases.

To further address the issue of access, this paper presents two case studies using primary research on the voucher system in Milwaukee and the charter school/portfolio district model in New Orleans. These two systems represent the most longstanding and comprehensive, respectively, application of market-based approaches to education in the U.S. The Milwaukee case study analyzes the dispersion of schools and students by geographic location within the city and finds no effects of voucher enrollment on test scores despite increased levels of competition in the lowest SES neighborhoods that adversely impacts public school operation. The New Orleans case uses a mixed-methods approach to identify school access by types of students, finding: 1) increased stratification in access to good schools; 2) a pedagogy of test preparation as schools focus on testing rather than learning; and 3) a zero-tolerance discipline system designed to either force students to conform or provide the means for their removal.

Finally, this paper concludes by situating the various U.S. approaches within an international context, identifying similarities and differences across approaches presented including the global proliferation of virtual schooling, vouchers in Chile, targeted vouchers in Pakistan, and low-fee private schools in Africa and elsewhere. Writ large, this paper aims to distill the types of education privatization in the U.S., aggregate the findings, and compare the U.S. national policy prescriptions to different approaches in the larger international context.


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