The History of Privatization of Education in the United States

Joanne Barkan has published a new article on the history of privatization of education in the United States, which will be included in a book in the UK next October. Barkan analyzes the role of private foundations in public policy and corporate school reform. In the book, Barkan traces the history of education privatization in the United States, and shows how many compromises were made in the name of public schooling.

ALEC’s priority for privatizing public schools is the passage of school vouchers, which first began in Wisconsin. ALEC has numerous bills and books on the history of school vouchers. In 2007, ALEC awarded its first Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award to Richard DeVos, a proponent of school privatization. In Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson spearheaded the program, which was initially limited to low-income students in the Milwaukee School District.

The Republican Party first championed vouchers and for-profit schools, while spinning a false narrative about public school failure. Then, Republican George H.W. Bush partnered with Democratic Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. The Clintons further pushed accountability and privatization by expanding charter schools. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act formalized both the practice and the policy, and Barack Obama pushed for further privatization with Race to the Top. Despite this, Betsy DeVos has gone on to make education more corporate-friendly.

The vouchers were initially advertised as a solution for the out-of-school problem. However, many critics criticized the voucher system as inept and cumbersome bureaucracy. Many inner-city students were neglected, while others faced physical danger. The program’s success did not end in student success. Moreover, low-cost private schools were not proven to improve equity or close education financing gaps. It is clear that the history of privatization of education in the United States has a mixed legacy.

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