“Privatizing” Our Schools

I devoted a fair amount of my academic research to the issue of privatization, and I largely agree with the periodic analyses on the “In the Public Interest” website.

Confounding the issue is the fact that what Americans call “privatizing,” is really something quite different: contracting out.

Margaret Thatcher privatized many of her country’s industries–she sold them off to private-sector operators, who then owned them and paid taxes (and in some cases went bankrupt and out of business). In the U.S., by contrast, we “privatize” by encouraging government agencies to contract with for-profit and non-profit organizations to manage government programs. 

In other words, a program that government is obligated to provide continues to be paid for with tax dollars, and government remains responsible for ensuring that it is operated in a manner that’s consistent with the Constitution, the terms of the contract, and (ideally, at least) the public interest.

My research convinced me of three things: 1) while contracting may be appropriate under some circumstances, it is not the panacea that so many politicians seem to think. Sometimes it makes sense, often it doesn’t.  2) the cost savings that are touted by privatization advocates are largely mythical, the result of omitting what it costs government to manage these contracts–or the even greater costs of failing to manage them. And 3) far from shrinking the size of government, as proponents seem to believe, contracting actually expands both the size and scope of government, while at the same time making that expansion less visible and government less accountable.

Bottom line: contracting out doesn’t usually save money, and the ability of government to monitor those with whom it contracts has proved to be less than ideal, to put it mildly.

Also, in far too many situations, contracting has become the new patronage.

I have written pretty extensively about the issues involved, including Indianapolis’ unfortunate flirtation with “privatizing” under former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. 

Years of research have taken much of the bloom off the privatization rose, but of course, as readers of this blog are well aware, there is one area in which proponents stubbornly continue to insist upon benefits that have proved imaginary, while studiously ignoring numerous and troubling negative consequences. 

That area is public education.

“Florida Man” DeSantis isn’t the only ideologue  pushing a voucher program, but an article in the linked website  revolved around a set of concerns explored by a Florida  newspaper :

With Tallahassee “poised to bleed billions from public classrooms through a sweeping expansion of private school vouchers,” The Sun Sentinel lays out some of the problems this will bring:

If a private school wants to teach children that Jesus rode dinosaurs and call it geography, the state has no say.

If a private school wants to expel an honor-roll child for being gay, that child is out of luck.

If a private school wants to teach students in a building rife with code violations, students will just need to bring buckets on rainy days. Or fire extinguishers.

If a private school wants to hire teachers with a criminal background, or teachers repeatedly fired from previous jobs, or teachers who have no training in teaching, who in the state has the authority to stop them?

If a private school abruptly closes mid-year, who takes care of the students?
The answer? No one.

These are not scenarios limited to Florida. You can find troubling examples of each of them in existing voucher programs in Indiana and elsewhere. 

Most of us understand–and budget numbers confirm– that voucher programs bleed dollars from public schools that need those resources.

I don’t know about Jesus riding a dinosaur, but multiple investigations of private religious schools accepting vouchers have found creationism  substituted for science instruction. Many of those same schools proudly and publicly decline to accept gay students, or even non-gay students who have two mommies or two daddies.

In Ohio a few years ago, David Brennan, a politically well-connected businessman, opened a chain of schools in order to profit from that state’s then-new voucher program; students didn’t learn much, and several of the schools were found to have multiple, dangerous code violations.

In Indiana, we’ve had voucher schools that suddenly closed, leaving parents and students high and dry.

Forgive me for sounding like a broken record, but there was a reason Americans  established public schools. Public schools are intended to teach more than “reading, writing and arithmetic.” They are intended to create informed and engaged citizens–to advance e pluribus unum by pursuing what is termed the civic mission of the schools.

Heedless of the educational failures and lack of accountability, the World’s Worst Legislature is planning to expand Indiana’s already out-of-control school privatization. No wonder Indiana ranks 43d in the percentage of citizens with  bachelor’s degrees–and  worse, lacks legislators having common sense.


  1. I do not know that Jesus ever rode a dinosaur or walked on water, but I woke up this morning from a bad dream when DeSantis was riding by my home on a Compsognathus while ranting incoherently of the heresy of Darwin.

  2. To paraphrase….essentially what MAGAts are saying ….. We don’t want no stinkin’ ‘melting pot’.

  3. “They are intended to create informed and engaged citizens” explains why the GOP wants to eliminate them. An informed and engaged citizen would be trouble for them.

  4. The Florida Policy Institute projects that passage of the universal voucher bill now under consideration in Florida (HB1) would have a $4 billion projected cost on local school districts that would be equal to 78,000 teacher salaries, or 45% of our state teacher workforce. “Parental choice” sounds like something we can all support, but what happens to “Citizen’s Choice?” I, for one, do not want to destroy public education.

  5. “Informed citizens” are just one aspect of public education.., those costs are multiple and should be divided up accordingly.

    Let’s not just look at schools, but let’s assess the costs of coal – ALL the costs, please.

    All the costs of semiconductor chips, including ALL the costs.

    Our economy is complex, and it holds no boundaries on this Earth as the Global South starts to organize with its three growing seasons. Guess what Norwegian indoor farms are producing in aluminum cans?

    Not just education…

    Oh yes, the Scandinavian Countries outscore us, but they are socialized countries, we call them the highest-rated democracies in the globe as well. 😉

    Minds must open wide and those against “wokeness” will quickly realize they are on the wrong end of history or starve to death because our local grocery store won’t be able to keep up in our unipolar world of CONTROL. 😉

    Yes, I said it…

  6. How is “contracting out” to businesses outside the government NOT privatizing? Some cases do make sense; such as my uncle’s business Safety Auto Glass which had a city contract to replace windows in police and fire department and city owned vehicles made more sense than having a Division of Auto Glass in government. Goldsmith had a clever way to cut the Mayor’s Office staff numbers and budget by placing people working directly under his leadership in other Departments and paying them from that Department’s budget. He covered up much of his privatizing or contracting out work by listing only actual City employees when reporting lower staff levels and budget costs to run City government.

    The 1st Amendment to our Constitution was written to prevent this government from developing or being run by religious institutions; this was long before schooling children was a requirement and part of government financial support. The simple fact that private schools, which are primarily religion based, is a private preference; no different than opting to buy a new Cadillac or an older used vehicle which we can afford. The Catholic religion foundation is being forced into all of our body orifices by all three branches of government at this time and it is low to middle-income tax payers who are supporting education for the rich. The final blow came from Trump and McConnell’s hand picked majority in the judicial branch all the way to the Supreme Court. Schools are no longer “our” schools at any level and our tax dollars to support public education is now supporting religious education the majority does not want their children to be brainwashed to believe.

    Call it contracting out, privatization or getting f#*ked by our own government; it is an issue we need to fight against and end before today’s school students become tomorrow’s leaders using creation rather than science and allowing our civil and human rights to belong to us again.

  7. Personally, I would be thrilled if the schools actually taught “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” If those core elements were taught properly they would open worlds of information and logic. What better way is there to “create informed and engaged citizens?”

  8. Here is a comment from Caitlin Johnstone’s book, “Notes from the Edge of the Narrative Matrix.”

    Narratives are socially constructed stories that make sense of events, thereby providing direction to human actions. But it is important to remember that

    Whoever controls the narratives controls the way people think.

    That may be the most incisive comment you will see in a long time.

    That is the problem with religious-based charter schools. Making sure that the kids “walk along the “party line” is the reason they exist. The problem with schools run by corporations owned by Wall Street investment firms is a bit different. They could not care less what the kids learn, as long as the public dollars keep flowing in.

  9. I wonder what the response from state legislators would be if a Satanic Church opened an elementary school and applied for charter-school status so it could receive voucher funds.

  10. almost every instance that privat investors buys,contracts or, from the goverment,its because the investors have, bought and sold the idea to other investors. the idea is profit. the sense of corp owned is,profit. people who live in this world could care less about who else is involved. they want the laws to protect them from finacial,and jail time. if the buisness is that lucrative to bring so called outside investments to buy up or, buy the politcians to make ready and protect them,( i guess the corp is a person now SCOTUS) at the consumers costs if it bellies up. selling out the workers is the main principle here. making them pawns for the cuts and bruises if it doesnt work to supply s steady stream of “on time”profits for those who bought into a idea that isnt ontime,should be faultless and should be investor first. time again we see the issues,and time again because the economic sense isnt taught to the masses who do the work the thoughtless mindset that the investors and politician has done to them. its all wrapped into propaganda why it didnt work and the tax payer should be on the hook for their greed. any and all investnents today are protected. a sense that you wont be jailed unless its so egregious that it ripples to other investors, and takes money from them. no issue here if it collapeses the economy for the worker, and those who are never going to be above water. we should have a protection that if you inevest,every damn cent is followed andaccounted for. no missing numbers,no sham hidden mirrors.if so, jail the top end and make em pay. we should have better information other than some by words attesting to risks. and make it stick. but investments are priciple ideals of the private classlike trumps and others that see the living wages possible for those who do the work as thiers,the investors at anyones cost. on time of course. like covid,the investor is now gathering its loses by gouging the consumer,at any cost. oh yea,about the indy toll road? take a look at what its costs for a truck compared to trumps limo since its sell out to foreign investors..id like to point out also how running the state highways to avoid that toll road costs more from local jurisdictions in persuit of profits.

  11. Factual:
    theres a run on churches, they are seeing less and less seats filled on that day. the rich and such,have become the torch bearers for religious zeolots who are convinved our way is the best way. (con or scam,or outright deciet)those mega churches and such, are investor owned.(in their own way) there is money loaned and granted if the person seeking god and money to invest, pass their muster. its become a buisness.tax it..many their seek to command and take over in their sphere. many times its just a propaganda ministry that only supports itself at anyones cost.

  12. Pascal is getting it this morning, so he should keep thinking…use his market force concept to fight back.

    The problem is that they fight in the darkness – we can’t use it. Something about using the Light, John?

  13. Sadly those despicable hypocritical Republicans have been successfully robbing taxpayers for decades now in Indiana to privatize our public schools by stealing my tax dollars and then giving the $$$ to these BS religious schools. If you want your kids to be indoctrinated with religious propagand then pay for it YOURSELF! Oh and corporate whore Republicans like Steve Goldsmith and Mitch Daniels can go eff themselves! These “small government” con artists have been living of the backs of taxpayers for many many years. It’s no surprise why Indiana is refrred to by friends across the country as North Mississippi *rant over*
    [I have written pretty extensively about the issues involved, including Indianapolis’ unfortunate flirtation with “privatizing” under former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. ]

  14. Being a researcher geek, one of my pet dream projects would be to research the educational attainment of every IN legislator, their concentration of study – if they had one (doubt it) and their final GPA. I would also add their current Day Job to the research. I wonder what I would find? Would we then be asking “And we let these losers legislate on education? Or medical matters, or economic matters? “. You get my point!

  15. Catholic schools are not the only beneficiaries of taxpayers’ largess. Drive by Colonial Christian or, better yet, Heritage Christian campus at Binford and 75th on the northeast side of Indianapolis, and see the huge expanse of the school buildings and athletic fields and the kinds of cars in the student parking lot. These kids are not from poor or blue collar households if they can afford to drive those kinds of vehicles to school. You can bet there are few ‘other’ students enrolled in that school.
    The same is true of Cathedral H.S. or Park School. If anyone attending those schools are from households earning incomes below 6 figures annually, it would be a shock. Yet they have ready access to taxpayers’ educational funds while public schools get starved of funds and micromanaged by unqualified and incompetent politicians with autocratic agendas.

  16. Public schools, public dollars, private schools, private dollars.

    Education is a civil right, and as civil rights go, that is part of government. Governments pay for their civil programs by tax dollars. Those tax dollars should not be siphoned off for private education. Every single citizen has the obligation unless there is some mitigating circumstances to pay their taxes. And those will fund amongst other things public schools.

    I mean, if they are going to pay for private schools with public money, then why aren’t colleges free? Because the wealthy know that that would collapse the entire system of education and they wouldn’t have colleges to send their kids to! But I’m sure they’re working on it. I mean kids can go into heavy debt to acquire a college education, but then again, those people are paying for it through debt in the long run.

    We see certain political parties frothing at the mouth for writing off student debt, and why is that? Because the poorest will get their debts written off? And, that might mean more folks would try to go to college that are from the lower income levels. It’s the same reason people want to live in segregated communities, they don’t want to interact with those others. And they don’t want their kids to do so either, hence the demise of affirmative action!

  17. Privatization as you say has been a failure in many, if not most, areas. But I don’t think you really identify why many, if not most, privatization measures have failed.. Privatization has to be about bringing market competition to services previously provided by the government.

    What I missed about privatization is that that market competition would often not be brought to bear by privatization. What has happened is that politicians, plied by political contributions and future job possibilities in the private sector, hand companies long term monopoly contracts to provide by services. Instead of bringing market competition to the provision of those services, you have private companies shielded from accountability for how they provide those services. Once awarding the contract, there rarely is any oversight of the private company providing the services.

    I can give you two examples off the top of my head. The 10 year contracts to CCA to run a private jail (Jail #2) in Indianapolis. That jail, Jail #2, was run much worse than Jail #1 which was run by the Sheriff’s Office. The mismanagement at Jail #2 was legendary. Another example is the Ballard administration handing out a 50 year parking meter contract, a contract that it is virtually impossible to get out of.

    Privatization in K-12 has been a success (and yes there are plenty of studies that contradict your thesis) because the efforts, unlike other privatization efforts which reduced or eliminated consumer choices, vouchers, charter schools, and traditional public school choice, has given parents additional choices over their children’s education. There is now a level of actual market competition where there wasn’t before. Unlike before where parents have no choice, if a school is not doing a good job, they lose students and ultimately closes. You mentioned the situation where a private school closed, leaving parents scrambling. Isn’t it better that a failing school close than traditional public schools which never have to worry about closing when they fail?

    I can’t believe people seriously want to roll back the clock to a time in which poorer and working class parents had no choice for their children’s education than their local neighborhood public school. If the Democrats want to lose urban elections, taking away parents’ choices over education would do it.

  18. “Parental choice” is a mere front for privatization. When Wall Street sees a big pot of money (social security, education etc.) available for the taking its denizens make up some democratic sounding rationales for their invasion of the public sphere, among which the word “profit” is never mentioned even though that says it all in their boardrooms.

    I am reading John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education (published in 1924) in which he stresses the socializing element of education to be added to readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. When that element is missing, we are educating drones to be the voting citizens of tomorrow, and when they become the new status quo in yielding their rights to profiteers, rights such as those provided by the Constitution, stare decisis etc., then in time we will have no rights to yield, hardly the freedom post Enlightenment Madison and Jefferson had in mind.

  19. Privatizing government responsibilities is called outsourcing by capitalism. It’s the same game often in search of temporary rewards. It’s employed by temporary management, either politicians or executives. Often it is a step in the process of going out of business, a process that virtually all corporations do at some point in their product cycle with the highest executive becoming the last employee.

    Corporations start the process of going out of business by reaching a point where they no longer successfully innovate their product or service offerings to customers and the customer/worker/investor/community value they offer can be matched by other corporations and turns into a commodity in a market in which market share is determined only by price and advertising.

    Education is a national investment in the future of a society. The ability to invest in future success is table stakes for maintaining successful countries and societies.

    The rate of human knowledge expansion is now at a level where the half life of education and training is significantly shorter than the average human career necessitating life long learning for most as well as rapidly evolving early school learning plus home schooling.

    Some societies will figure out how to maintain leading investment in education. Others will go out of business and become feral.

  20. Sheila has a good point about contracting out school services. When I was working in IT sometimes it made sense to hire a contractor, but often it didn’t. The reason in a lot of cases it didn’t make sense, is that management never accounted for the time it took to manage the contractor. Management always had the idea that once the contractor was hired, they would go off and magically get everything done the way it needed to get done. In most cases, managing the contractor would free me or my team from maybe 30% of the work. As you have pointed out, you often get contractors that misrepresent their skill set, or worse case the company implodes half way through the contract.

    I guess if there don’t provide any oversight or even regulations to private indoctrination centers, there is that cost savings all managers dream of, but nobody is going to get the results they wanted.

  21. Michael Ryan; were you aware of Goldsmith’s two lucrative contracts with Oscar Robertson/Smoot consultant firm via Warren Tyler’s influence as Goldsmith’s highest out-of-state donor and his rewards of position and control in Indianapolis City Government? The first $3 MILLION one-year contract had no legal contract for almost a year; no one knew how to draw up a legal copy of a contract and it took me that long to consider no contract might be why they couldn’t find the legal contract. I reported my findings to Deputy Mayor Nancy Silvers; by the time I got from the 25th floor to my office on the 18th floor the CFO of Department of Metropolitan Development, Ali Khan who had a Masters Degree in Personnel Development from the University of India, stopped me to ask how to get a legal copy of the contract. The 2nd year’s approval for another $3 MILLION one-year contact passed the Metropolitan Development Commission and all copies from all City Departments were returned to me after the meeting. I stored them in the Commission files and waited till someone came looking for them. My position as Records Secretary for the Metropolitan Development Commission provided me with much questionable information of Goldsmith and Tyler’s privatization and questionable contracts through Tyler’s position as Vice President of a bank in Cincinnati.

  22. I consider “privatizing our schools,” along with charter schools and school vouchers to be code words to demonstrate an intent to reinstitute segregated schools.

  23. Are some people just missing this obvious fact? If the government has x number of dollars available for education and they give it to a for profit company, the money being spent on education will be x minus whatever profit that company can squeeze out of the total. You can only justify that by claiming that the public schools are wasting more money than the company will take in profits OR that the private schools are providing significantly better quality education. The former not true. Public schools have been so strapped for cash there is very little opportunity for waste. If the latter scenario were true it would still be much more efficient to improve the existing schools than to start over, especially if the new schools have deficient standards, regulations and oversight.

  24. My reading of various documents from various states and government publications would suggest
    that the level of CORRUPTION in charter schools is as high as in any government venture.

  25. Norris – I would hope that your dream ended with the Compsognathus taking a bite out of DeSantis, not that I would wish him harm. 8)>

    JoAnn – True privatization is when the government sells a department to a private entity for a song and then washes their hands of everything. Contracting is where they make a deal with a private company to make a profit from that department’s function while the government remains responsible.

    As jack smith points out, the usual idea is that the private company with screw the workers and call that profit.

    One old quote, attributed to Karl Rove, might explain the GOP antipathy to education.
    “As people do better, they start voting like Republicans – unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.”

    I have been employed (or paid by) the private sector, non-profit sector, and public sector (state and federal). I find no one sector to be “more efficient”, and am convinced that contracting out public services is rarely a good idea. I think Sheila has summed up this issue extremely well. I will just reiterate my old argument – in the non-existent “ideal” “parental choice” world, who looks out for those left behind, whose parents cannot or will not send them to the voucher school. Those children lose out, even in the ideal scenario. I’ve lived it in a way.

    I know that some in the GOP believe that any idiot can teach, but I will leave with one my new favorite quotes, from a book title and an inverse of a GB Shaw quote:

    “Those who can, teach; those who can’t, pass laws about teaching.”

  26. In my humble opinion, there are only two reasons theses people want to privatize:
    To accommodate their religious agenda, and/or make money out of it.

  27. Mitch D: Having watched the DeVos family in action, I would say it is both Jesus Schools & $$$.

  28. Paul has it wrong on school choice. Indiana has open enrollment both within and among public school districts state-wide without charging tuition transfer fees. As residents choose other schools or move, city schools in particular have closed time and again to save operating costs.

    Unfortunately, the so-called school choice movement to drain public schools in order to fund charter and private schools is reducing school choices within traditional public school communities. Providing bus transportation to facilitate school choice within a school district is expensive – too expensive when the state refuses to maintain previous levels of state aid for transportation funding and for instruction which has to subsidize transportation when state aid there also falls short.

    As for hiding information and accountability from the public, that’s often the point of contracting out and/or privatization. If school boards don’t want to be held responsible for a failing school, turning it into an ‘innovation’ school or contracting it out to an out-of-state charter school company transfers management to someone else to take the blame if and when things fail. In the meantime, the public has an impossible time accessing what would be public information had school management remained truly and fully public.

    None of these ‘solutions’ get to the root of instructional failures. But success — such as making sure kids have adequate health care and nutrition, evaluations for learning disabilities and certificated staff who know how to deal with them, small class-sizes to individualize extra attention to each student – especially those who are struggling, counselors to help not only students but families learn how to maximize achievement, after school and summer enrichment opportunities so children’s instructional, fine arts, physical fitness, and social development are not left unattended and subject to gangs — these all cost money the state legislature won’t provide, not even when they have large surplusses as they do now. They just want someone else to fix it. Charters and private schools don’t fix it. They discriminate against the children most at risk so that the wealthier families whose children are already in private schools can pad their already comfortable lifestyles.

    So much for our state legislature’s ‘solutions’.

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