Insuring Inequality: The Privatization of Public Education in the U.S.

The education gap in the U.S., like the wealth chasm, is growing ever wider, and equal educational opportunity, the perennial dream of working-class and progressive people, is being undermined by neo-conservative forces.  Although free universal public education was adopted early in U.S. history, equal opportunity has never been realized.  Since colonial times, education has been provided free of charge for most school-aged children in local communities (excluding, at various times, slaves, native Americans, migrants, pregnant girls, special-needs students, and other neglected groups), and public schools have been primarily financed by local taxes and controlled by the ruling classes of local communities.  These two features of American education — local financing and local control of schools — initially established and continue to maintain inequality in American education.  Historically, wealthy communities have had abundant resources available for education while many poor communities have never had adequate funds.  Currently, the average funding gap between comparable rich and poor school districts in America is about 3:1 (13:1 in extreme cases), and the gap is widening.  Inequality is also the rule within school districts, rich or poor, because school boards (dominated by the local ruling class) control both the content and quality of public education through policy setting and resource allocation. 

As a result of these two enduring features — local funding and control — equity, rather than equality, is, and always has been, the principle of American education.  What school trustees decide is appropriate and adequate for different social groups and classes rule education. Nothing reflects this peculiar principle of equity better than the apartheid schools that were established for the education of former slaves and their descendants that lasted to the mid-20th century when they were declared unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954).  However, neither the Brown ruling nor the civil rights legislation of the 1960s resulted in significant desegregation in urban America.  The national trend of mass suburbanization following legal desegregation decimated public education in many of the nation’s major cities.  The resulting inequality in education and its consequences are openly acknowledged by the U.S. government:

Largely because of the persistence of residential segregation and so-called “white-flight” from the public school systems in many larger urban areas, minorities often attend comparatively under-funded (and thus lower quality) primary and secondary schools. Thus minority children are often less prepared to compete for slots in competitive universities and jobs. While efforts to dismantle segregation in our nation’s schools have enjoyed some success, segregation remains a problem both in and among our schools, especially given rollbacks in affirmative action programs. (“Initial Report of the United States to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” September 2000, p.18)

The deindustrialization of the American economy has degraded urban public education even more.  As an increasing number of industries have relocated or moved offshore in pursuit of cheaper labor, local corporate taxes have evaporated and many of the once vital working-class communities that grew up around America’s original industrial districts have deteriorated.  The schools located in a sample of America’s postindustrial slums, including East Saint Louis, Chicago, New York, and Camden, New Jersey, which are among the worst in the nation, are graphically documented in Jonathan Kozol’s widely-acclaimed Savage Inequalities.  Though it is difficult to see how public education in these neglected communities could get worse than what Kozol described in 1991, privatization programs in the U.S. have targeted many of these same areas and are increasing inequality even more by undermining state funding equalization efforts.

The Movement to Privatize Public Schools in the U.S.

“School choice” is the public code word for the political movement to privatize public education in the U.S., but the movement’s real agenda is made clear by its ideological vanguard.  The Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, explicitly advocates privatization in its school choice policy statement:

Classical liberals seek education policies that will empower parents and clear the path for entrepreneurial activity.  We envision a day when state-run schools give way to a dynamic independent system of schools competing to meet the needs of every American child. (“Education and Child Policy: School Choice”)

The progress of the school choice movement in the U.S. is monitored and reported on annually by The Heritage Foundation, another conservative Washington-based think tank that is at the vanguard of the privatization movement.  Its 2005 progress report is celebratory:

Parental choice is growing.  Six states and the District of Columbia offer government scholarships [vouchers] to attend a private school of choice; six states offer tax credits or deductions for education expenses or contributions to scholarship programs; 40 states and D.C. have enacted charter school laws; 15 states guarantee public school choice within or between districts; 21 states have comprehensive dual enrollment programs; and home             schooling is legal in every state. (“Choices in Education: 2005 Progress Report”)

The first two items in the list — vouchers and tax credits — represent the main thrust of the public school privatization movement in the U.S. today.  Both of these programs are already exacerbating educational inequality significantly and portend worse to come.


School vouchers, or government-funded tuition payments, divert money that would otherwise have funded a public school education to a private or parochial school of the parents’ choice.  The initiative for school vouchers has its roots in the gentrification of urban America.  Though many of the affluent want the advantages of urban living, they do not want their children to attend deteriorated public schools nor do they want to pay taxes to improve them.  In spite of the support of Republican presidents since Richard Nixon, however, school voucher initiatives have consistently lost to suburban voters at the polls on the state level and on appeal in state supreme courts.  Democracy be damned, the current Bush administration, always a champion of privatization, has come to the aid of the voucher movement.

In early 2004, Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, an omnibus appropriations act that also created a federally funded voucher demonstration project and imposed it on the District of Columbia, ostensibly for the benefit of low-income students (For a glimpse of the plight of these D.C. children, see Kozol, Chapter 5).  People for the American Way (PFAW) published a preliminary report on this project entitled “Flaws and Failings” in February of 2005.   It included the following salient facts:

  • While the voucher law gives the greatest priority to students attending D.C. public schools most in need of improvement as defined by federal law, it appears that fewer than 75 of the more than 1,300 students who received vouchers came from those public schools
  • At the same time, more than 200 students already enrolled in private schools, almost three times that number, have received vouchers
  • The vast majority of schools participating in the voucher program are religious schools [raising questions about discrimination based on religion and adherence to the D.C. Human Rights Act that protects the rights of students and employees]
  • The Washington Scholarship Fund [established and controlled by privatization advocates] was essentially chosen by default to administer the voucher program [and awarded a grant of  $12.5 million for the first year of operation]

Though PFAW concluded that the D.C. voucher demonstration project is “unsound and unwise,” The American Heritage Foundation hailed it as a milestone and is calling on Congress to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to other cities through the President’s proposed $50 million Choice Incentive Fund.  In other words, it worked as intended. 

Tax Credits

There are two main categories of tax credit programs.  One type allows parents to pay for private school tuition with the money they would otherwise pay in taxes.  The other type allows individuals or corporations to receive tax credit for contributions made to private scholarship organizations that then distribute the collected funds as scholarships.  This strategy of school privatization is being adopted because tax credits programs don’t require an appropriation of government funds and therefore may avoid the constitutional restrictions associated with vouchers.  Another important study by PFAW (“Inequality in Illinois”), identifies the impact of the tax credit law passed in Illinois in 1999:

  • The diversion of public tax dollars due to the tax credit program has had impact far beyond a few individual school districts.  From 2000 (the first year in which taxpayer[s] could claim the credit) to 2002, the Illinois tax credit program has cost the state treasury nearly $200 million.  In 2002 alone, nearly $67 million was diverted from the state treasury.
  • Despite claims that Illinois’ tuition tax credit program was going to benefit low-income parents and their children, the state’s poorest families — those earning $20,000 or less annually — claimed only 3 percent of the total tax credit dollars from 2000 to 2002.  In fact, as fewer taxpayers claimed the credit in 2002, the average benefit to a low-income parent (with an income below $20,000) was only $172.
  • Like most tuition tax credit programs around the country, Illinois’ program primarily serves to benefit middle-class and wealthier families.  In the three years since its inception, almost half of all tuition tax credit dollars were delivered to taxpayers with incomes of more than $80,000, with an average benefit of almost $400.  Taxpayers annually earning an [sic] upwards of $60,000 claimed more than 60 percent of all the credits.
  • Illinois’ tuition tax credit program mainly acts as an educational subsidy for wealthy and middle-class parents — typically those who would send their children to a private school even without the benefit of a tax credit.  In creating such a tax incentive for parents, Illinois has only served to worsen the inequities between the state’s wealthy and poor students.

Notice that this report on tax credits, like the PFAW report on the D.C. voucher program, highlights the cynical strategy of exploiting the dilemma of the disadvantaged urban poor to promote privatization schemes that ultimately benefit the affluent.  The conclusion of the report, though focused on the state of Illinois, mirrors the impact of tuition tax credit programs on public education in the other states that currently offer them.

Not surprisingly, a national tuition tax credit is pending.  Since 2002, the Bush administration has included a proposal for an “Alternative to Failing Schools” tax credit in the federal budget.  This program would offer parents a refundable federal tax credit of up to $2,500 (five times the allowance of the Illinois tax credit law) for private school tuition, fees, and transportation.  The impact of this privatization program would be substantial — it would reduce federal revenues by $3.3 billion over the initial five-year period of operation, refunding money to the wealthy that could be used to address the pressing needs of public education.  Supporters of public education have managed to block the proposal to date, but pressure to adopt the program is unrelenting.

Summing up the progress of the ongoing school privatization movement, William H. Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, which has defended school choice programs across the country, hailed the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) as “the most important ruling on education since Brown v. Board of Education.”  His analysis of the court’s decision contained a rallying cry for reactionaries, “Conservatives in particular must seize the historic moment and move to the vanguard of this new civil rights movement by promoting new voucher and tax credit programs across the nation.”

Education: Free and Universal or Social Class Privilege?

The idea of free universal public education emerged during the Enlightenment and was adopted as a fundamental pillar of the new French society established by the Constitution of 1791.  However, it suffered setbacks during the restoration of the monarchy, and public education, all across Europe, fell under the control of large landowners and the bourgeoisie and remained a class privilege.  One of the goals of the great social revolutions that began in the mid-19th century was to rescue education from the domination of the bourgeoisie, and free universal public education reached its zenith in some of the socialist bloc and social democratic countries during the 20th century.   

Public education is now in decline in much of the world.  Currently, the forces of reaction, including the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, are privatizing education in the developing nations of the world (see Education Denied by Katarina Tomasevski for a global perspective on the privatization of education).  This same trend is undermining public education in the U.S. and other developed nations.

Access to education is a quintessential political issue, and the enduring questions remain to be answered: Are all of the children in a society (or the world) entitled to an education or just the children of the affluent?  Is access to education a political right or just another commodity in the “free market”?  Are the children of the poor to be considered nothing more than “human capital,” unworthy of social investment, while the children of the affluent have access to unlimited opportunity?

In the final analysis, free universal public education pits the needs of society against the rights of private property, and the rights of private property must yield so that all children can be educated.  The demand for equal educational opportunity, the historic dream of working-class and progressive people, must be recognized as a necessary and essential part of building a better society. After all, the dream of replacing “bourgeoisie society, with its classes and class antagonisms, with an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” is still the grandest dream of mankind (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto).  It is a dream that must be reintroduced into the political arena and defended with zeal.

Richard D. Vogel is an independent socialist writer. He has recently completed a book, Stolen Birthright: The U.S. Conquest and Exploitation of the Mexican People.