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Exploding the Privatization Myth

By Barbara Miner

For decades, influential conservatives have argued that public school systems are inherently flawed because they are government monopolies controlled by bureaucrats and teacher unions. The two most popular conservative alternatives have been publicly funded vouchers for private schools and charter schools, especially those free of union contracts and run independently of local school districts by private or quasi-public entrepreneurs.

In 1990, Milwaukee instituted the first voucher program, and the Republican-controlled Congress passed the first federally funded voucher program (for the Washington, D.C. schools) in 2004. Despite this, the public has been suspicious of diverting public funds to private schools, and vouchers have not garnered the widespread support that conservatives had hoped.

The most significant growth has been in charters. Charters are considered public schools but are allowed to circumvent many contractual and districtwide regulations. At the same time, they must adhere to the testing requirements of NCLB. The first state charter school law was passed by Minnesota in 1991. In the 2005-06 school year, there were about 3,600 charter schools serving a million students in 40 states plus the District of Columbia.

The latest Department of Education studies have put conservatives in a quandary, and not just because the reports do not support claims that bureaucracy and teacher unions are the cause of student failure. To defend charters, conservatives are now in the position of criticizing the reliance on standardized tests that is at the heart of NCLB.

Even though many educators have long argued that standardized test scores are inherently limited markers of a students' or schools' academic accomplishments, conservatives have used test scores to argue that public schools are failing low-income students and students of color. Now these same tests are showing that charters and private schools do not live up to the conservatives' claim of superiority.

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