2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Never Mind the Rhetoric

What's real in the debate over privatization in education

Public or private? Vouchers and charter schools or higher taxes and investment in the public schools? However you define the issues, it's been one of the most polarizing debates in the field of education over the past several years.

But while the argument has tended to divide along superficially clear-cut political lines, a closer look reveals a great deal of overlap in concrete educational practice--and that there is much that each camp can learn from the other. In Privatizing Educational Choice, Consequences for Parents, Schools, and Public Policy, (Paradigm Publishers, 2004), TC Professor Henry M. Levin and co-author Clive R. Belfield of Queens College attempt to separate fact from fiction and information from posturing as they delve into America's privatization controversy.

In fact, all kinds of education in this country-- from home schooling to private schools to charter schools to public schools-- are blends of public and private enterprise, the authors argue. For example, public schools hire education management organizations to provide supplementary services and establish local philanthropic organizations to raise funds. Many home schoolers, on the other hand, allow their children to take courses under public circumstances and to participate in activities, such as sports, that are made available at public schools. Private schools are eligible for federal and state support for targeted groups of students, while charter schools raise private funds and are staffed by personnel with public school credentials.

Instead of focusing on whether successful schools and pro g rams are public or private, Levin and Belfield-- Director and Associate Director, respectively, of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College-- argue that any proposed privatization plan should be measured against four standards: choice, efficiency, equity and social cohesion. They also suggest focusing on perhaps the most significant and overlooked private influence on education: families. The influence of families is so great, the authors assert, that any substantial improvements in educational outcomes will require additional resources for both families and neighborhoods.

The book also takes an exploratory look at home schooling, assesses the benefit to academics of competition and presents a framework for considering vouchers in an arena where they are well - known to be successful--higher education. Over the last 60 years, Levin and Belfield remind readers, the GI Bill has financed the education of more than 18 million returning veterans with voucher - like payments. That's a success story few would take issue with.  

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