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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Interview with Professor Henry M. Levin on the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education

Inside TC had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Levin and speak with him about the Center's work.

Professor Henry M. Levin, William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education, established the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College in 1998. At issue are private initiatives in education, including vouchers, charter schools and educational contracting that have created a flurry of support and opposition with little or no foundation to measure their impact. Currently, there is no disinterested authority to test and verify the claims of proponents and opponents of the privatization movement. Thus, the Center is organized to serve as a neutral and respected voice to sort out the issues and evidence and provide an objective perspective on the concerns surrounding privatization.

Inside TC had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Levin and speak with him about the Center's work. The following is an excerpt from the interview.

Inside TC: Professor Levin, can you tell us why the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) was formed?

Prof. Levin: Ideas for the private sector to get more deeply involved in education have been around for a long time. But in the decade of the ‘90s, what we see is a tremendous expansion of this activity. The question is, how should people look at it?

The problem is that existing sources tend to represent one point of view. They either tend to be wildly for it, and these are places that are funding privatization. Or, they are very strongly against it and these detractors are typically from teacher organizations, who are concerned about their own roles and status and feel that privatization threatens democracy in education.

As a result, as we looked at this a year ago, in the early spring of 1998, we became concerned that there was no non-partisan entity that would have as its goals the analysis and the diffusion of information that would engage both sides and that would be a fair presentation of what are the issues.

What we wanted to do was to create a non-partisan, above-board organization that major educational groups-the media and the public, for example-would have as a source.

Inside TC: By creating NCSPE, you seem to be initiating a research and evaluation project that is different than the norm?

Prof. Levin: Yes, the most central part of what we are trying to do, our center of gravity, is to study and evaluate four major dimensions or criteria of educational policy.

Of the four dimensions, the first one is the freedom to choose. This is a time-honored right of parents to impart to their children their values, religious beliefs. This is translated into the quest for freedom to choose the kind of school that mirrors and reinforces child-rearing practices.

I call the second dimension productive efficiency. That is, with a given amount of resources, it is desirable to find the arrangements that will maximize school results. Although this is often viewed within the restricted terms of student achievement in mathematics and reading, there are many other subjects and goals of schooling that should be taken into account. Recently, this criterion has been divided into issues of micro-efficiency at the level of school or school district and macro-efficiency at the overall system, the State.

The third is equity. By that I mean that the universal goal of schooling in the U.S. is to provide fairness in access to educational opportunities, resources, and outcomes by gender, social, race, language origins, and geographical location of students.

The fourth is social cohesion. A major public purpose of schooling is to prepare the young for democratic and civic participation by providing a common educational experience with respect to curriculum, values, and institutional orientations so that students from many different backgrounds will accept and support a common set of social, political, and economic arrangements that are the foundation to a stable and democratic society.

Inside TC: There is the dissemination of your research. How will you attempt to achieve it?

Prof. Levin: The focal point of what we are going to do is have a very interactive Web site. It will set out a framework based on the four criteria I mentioned in order to assist people in thinking about privatization. We also expect to have links to sites on both sides of the issue but we intend to identify their point of view.

We are going to do our own public opinion polling too. We want to find out how people from racial and socioeconomic groups, ages, weigh these different values.

Inside TC: What do you see as the impact of the Center two to three years down the road?

Prof. Levin: We hope to be a real player in terms of the place that people come to, that the media come to, to get feedback on an idea, on a report, on a congressional proposal. In other words, we would like to be considered the ‘standard' by which people measure the ideas and concepts concerning issues surrounding privatization.

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