To the left, Betsy DeVos has become the human embodiment of all that is wrong with the movement to further privatize public education. Her vision for the future of the American education system revolves around increasing the number of private and charter schools, and school of choice through programs such as vouchers. However, the current secretary of education is only a more obvious example of how market-based approaches are changing the way that Americans view the role of education in society. Whether we have truly acknowledged it or not, education’s purpose and place in American society has long been a topic of debate and has been shifting for decades. As a country, we have moved away from the idealistic view of education’s purpose described in Brown V. Board of Education as, “the very foundation of good citizenship” with a purpose of, “awakening the child to cultural values.” Education, to some, is now seen as a business in which consumerism and free-market thinking will hopefully produce, “a contributing member of our economic structure.”
This commercialization mindset of education has both produced and expanded the overuse of education practices such as standardized testing and other more market-based education reforms. In an article for the British Journal of Educational Studies, academic Gerald Grace links standardized testing to the privatization of educational by writing, “despite the complex nature of educational outcomes relating as they do to a wide spectrum of goals, it has become necessary to apply a fairly rigorous form of economic and quantitative analysis to the evaluation of the whole system.” Because of this, “it can be seen that education is a commodity in the marketplace rather than a public good” (emphasis added).
Seeing public schools as a marketplace instead of a shared good has led to the expansion of reforms such as charter schools in Detroit. Despite the original promise that competition would improve education in the area, studies have found that, “these schools, on average, to be either as poorly performing or only marginally better than the public schools long called a national disgrace.” This is despite the fact that as private corporations, they are exempt from state laws and restrictions that govern more traditional public schools. Similarly, more commercial education reforms including school voucher programs have also proved the same dismal results. Studies by The Center on Education Policy have found that school vouchers had “No Strong Effect on Student Achievement According to Review of 10 Years of Voucher Research and Action” and that, “achievement gains for students receiving publicly funded vouchers are similar to those for comparable public school students.”
This complete abandonment of Education’s original purpose as a public good also has an even deeper consequence proponents of market based thinking would like to ignore. By treating education as a market, these reforms have created winners and losers. This is expected in a system that thrives on competition. Market choice leads to a pattern in which middle and lower class students lose and see little to no improvement in their schools. Meanwhile, it favors “those who already have the education, wealth, and wherewithal to plan, coordinate, and execute moving their children to the optimal educational setting.”
This win or lose system of who receives a decent and effective education endangers an equal and representative democratic society that needs citizens that are educated enough to deliberate over their representatives, political culture, and public policy critically. “The very foundation of citizenship,” cannot be perverted and reduced to a commodity in an economy that is already rigged from the beginning. As education reporter Hannah Nikole Jones, puts it, “Even when they fail, the guiding values of public institutions, of the public good, are equality and justice. The guiding value of the free market is profit.” As we look towards reforming and improving our nation’s schools, we must remember the original intent of education in the first place, for it is the democratic values and goals of education that will lead to a better educational system for future generations.