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21 Feb 2023
Steven J. Klees

The Privatization of Education: The Big Picture

In this NORRAG Highlights, based on a talk given on February 14, 2023 at the Comparative and International Education Society’s (CIES) annual meeting in Washington D.C., Steven J. Klees, Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, settles accounts with the privatization of education, which he considers a juggernaut of patriarchal racial neoliberal capitalism.

Privatization is a scourge. Basic services should be public, publicly owned and run. It is not a question of effectiveness or costs. Privatized basic services are inequitable and violate human rights.

In education, the advent of neoliberalism in the 1980s drastically changed the narrative. Before neoliberalism, it was generally believed that basic education (primary and secondary) should usually be provided by governments, with private schooling mostly the preserve of the wealthy and religious schools. The changed narrative brought by neoliberalism no longer asked whether privatization was necessary; instead, it asked when and how should we privatize? This assault on public sector motivations, competence, and budgets happened almost overnight – due completely to ideology, there was no evidence for this shift.

This shift has led to the massive expansion of private schooling around the world, most especially in developing countries, with critics fighting a rear-guard action against this juggernaut. The fight has given us efforts like the work of PEHRC and others that led to the Abidjan Principles, Education International’s Global Response campaign, high-level reports by UN Special Rapporteurs, as well as groups in most countries challenging the privatization of education. Have all these efforts slowed the juggernaut? Perhaps, but not noticeably. Have they changed the narrative? Perhaps some, but certainly not enough.

Critical researchers have responded to the slew of studies by privatization advocates pointing out their ideological biases and methodological flaws and pointing to contrary evidence. While we critics must respond to the advocates, to me, all this research is in many ways a waste of time and money. In terms of the narrow measurement of “learning,” embodied in test scores in a few subjects, the conclusion is what we all know – with similar students, sometimes private schools perform a little better, sometimes public schools do, and often there are no important differences. The other conclusion, hardly challenged by the right, is that privatization, even with low-cost private schools, further stratifies the system exacerbating inequality. But has this critical research changed the narrative or slowed the juggernaut? Perhaps a little, but far from enough.

What can slow or stop the juggernaut and change the story? I see more hope in increased mobilization across sectors. In 2019, there was a conference in Amsterdam that brought together public service advocates and this past December an even bigger one in Santiago, Chile that had over a thousand representatives from over one hundred countries fighting for public services in education, health, water, energy, housing, food, transportation, social protection, and care sectors. The Global Manifesto produced prior to the meeting and the Santiago Declaration produced after are marvelous documents with excellent analyses of the problem and principles for universal quality public services that will hopefully serve as a rallying cry for cross-sector mobilization by civil society and social movements around the world. The argument that there is not enough money to fund needed public services is simply a refusal to change priorities and tax those who are well-off.

However, the underlying reason we don’t have essential basic public services – the big picture – are the structures of patriarchal racial neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberalism exalts the market, but what does this mean? The market is a euphemism. It means the private sector should basically run the world. Critics of capitalism are accused of believing in a conspiracy by the rich and powerful; the critics response is there is no need for conspiracy. The reproduction of poverty and inequality, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, and more are built into the very structures that surround us.

Yet let’s not dismiss conspiracies too soon.  What is the World Economic Forum but the rich and powerful getting together to set an agenda for the world? How many have heard of the Trilateral Commission? It’s the same people as the WEF getting together without much publicity each year to do the same. The WEF has been pushing its 2010 Global Redesign Initiative which essentially wants to turn the UN itself into a giant PPP – with quite a bit of success. These patriarchal racial capitalist institutions, run essentially by rich white men, may not have bad intentions but they are deluded into the self-interest of believing that all we need are win-win solutions to reform current polices, supposedly for everyone – without, of course, changing any of the structures that maintain their wealth and power.

We will not stop or reverse the privatization of education juggernaut without system change. Under patriarchal racial capitalism, especially the neoliberal version, privatization is the solution to most of our ills. But business leaders are singularly unqualified to deal with education or other social problems that have no simple bottom line (like profits) and whose real solution may threaten their dominance and power. While system change is very difficult, there are many groups, organizations, and movements around the world working on exactly that. The Santiago Declaration explicitly recognizes that the battle for public services means we need to “move away from the racial, patriarchal, and colonial patterns of capitalism and towards socio-economic justice, ecological sustainability, human rights, and public services.”

In what kind of world is it considered legitimate to charge the poorest for basic services? The answer is in a patriarchal, racist, capitalist world. I hope and believe that future generations will look back in horror at the fundamentally uncivilized nature of today’s world.


The author

Steven J. Klees is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland.

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1 Response

  1. Virginia Gomes

    In the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, they show why charters school can save some students from a rigid bankrupt public system. The documentary explains that even though teachers are at the heart of education, teacher unions may be the reason why boards of education have decided to move towards private charter schools. They say teacher unions protect incompetent teachers from being fired because of tenure policies. Boards of Education don’t see another way to improve education but to embrace a more flexible system of private education. What is your opinion about that?

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