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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Discussion on the Privatization of Education

Discussion on the Privatization of Education

The issue of privatization is an important one within debates on the nature of education today. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to delve into this issue in greater depth, explaining both the nature of the issue and the differing perspectives that can be taken regarding the issue. The essay will begin with a general overview of the concept and principle of privatization itself. After this, it will proceed to consider the argument in favor of the privatization of education, and then it will turn to the argument against the privatization of education. Finally, the essay will reflect on these arguments in order to draw a tentative conclusion regarding the best way forward for the contemporary educational system.

Concept of Privatization

To start with, then, before discussing the privatization of education, it may worth defining the concept of privatization itself. According to Investopedia, “Privatization can refer to the act of transferring ownership of specified property or business operations from a government organization to a privately owned entity, as well as the transition of ownership from a publicly traded, or owned, company to a privately owned company” (paragraph 1). For present purposes, the first of these meanings is the salient one: that is, for privatization here will be understood as a business or industry that has been run by the government now being transferred to the hands of private stakeholders. For example, if the entire oil industry of a given nation were run by the government, then privatization of that industry would consist of the industry being handed over to non-governmental corporations who will then be responsible for managing the industry as a whole, almost always with an eye toward making a profit.

This same definition of privatization has also been put forth by Poole: “Broadly speaking, it means the shift of some or all of the responsibility for a function from government to the private sector. The term has most commonly been applied to the divestiture, by sale or long-term lease, of a state-owned enterprise to private investors” (paragraph 1). This definition of privatization clearly hinges on a clear demarcation between the government on the one hand and non-governmental agents on the other, or the existence of a private sector that is fundamentally separate from the public sector. The public sector refers to the government itself and its operations, whereas the private sector refers to independent persons and corporations who engage in economic activities outside of the government. In this context, privatization is when a given business or industry is transferred out of the public sector and into the private sector. In principle, the matter is really as simple as that.

Now, when it comes to education, the privatization of education would imply increasingly giving the responsibility for the educational system to private stakeholders—or, correspondingly, increasingly taking responsibility away from the government. Within modern nations, education has generally been understood as an essential social service that must be provided in an equitable way to everyone by the government, and most children are in fact educated within public schools. Private schools do exist, but they have generally been marginal relative to public schools, often being reserved only for children whose parents are wealthy enough to afford the level tuition demanded by such institutions. To privatize education would thus entail reversing this historical default of education being a primarily public affair and instead shifting toward a paradigm in which private schools more and more become the norm. It is now worth turning attention to the arguments for and against the privatization of the contemporary educational system.

Argument for Privatization

The most obvious argument for the privatization of education consists of the point that privatization may actually enhance the quality of the service provided. This is an argument that free market enthusiasts often make regarding a wide range of industries. Within the logistics. industry, for example, a comparison of the service provided by UPS and FedEx on the one hand and the United States Postal Service (USPS) on the other could illustrate this point: the first two are private companies, whereas the USPS is of course run by the government. As Bhasin has written, the USPS has had a great deal of trouble competing effectively against its private counterparts: “Labor is 80% of the Postal Service’s expenses, compared to 53% at UPS and 32% at FedEx . . . But there’s a problem that runs deeper than its significant labor woes. The USPS brand is hurting badly. Its produce is just inferior to FedEx and UPS” (paragraph 4). The idea here would be that UPS and FedEx, as private enterprises, are leaner and more effective operations, relative to which the public service offered by the USPS is just of lower quality.

A similar argument could be made regarding the quality of education as well: namely, that the privatization of education would produce schools that are to current public schools what UPS and FedEx are to USPS. As a result of having to meet the demands of the free market, and also as a result of actually have a personal stake in ensuring that the business operation keeps customers satisfied and turns a profit, private corporations may run education far more effectively than the government currently does. From the perspective of this argument, public services almost always tend to be inferior to their public counterparts, within pretty much any industry, due to the simple reason that capitalism tends toward maximizing the quality of goods and services, whereas the public sector is buffered against this natural dynamic that characterizes the capitalist economic system.

According to Shuls, there are several aspects of the education industry that have to an extent already been privatized, even within the overarching framework of the public education system. Shuls has discussed the case of using a private company to find substitute teachers: “This arrangement of privatized substitute services has been beneficial for everyone,” with the rate of successfully finding substitutes rising from 50 percent to 90 percent in a given school after the switch to the privatization of the service, with the added benefit that “the arrangement also means school districts can cut down on administrative costs in the central office” (paragraph 4). From a fact such as that one, the logic could be extrapolated to suggest that the more aspects of education are privatized, the more lean and effective the educational system as a whole would be. This logic would then culminate with the assertion that the entire system as such should become privatized, with the role of the government in the system becoming a minimal one, if it is even necessary for the role to continue to exist at all.

Argument against Privatization

Buchheit has delineated four ways in which the impulse to privatization is ruining the educational system as a whole. These are: one, that the coexistence of private and public schools tends to undermine the quality of the system as a whole; two, that “the profit motive perverts the goals of education;” three, that the profit motive is actually producing a new kind of profiteering that actually diminishes the quality of services rendered; and four, that privatization tends to leave low-performing students behind, or at the very least to create a kind of stratification that is antithetical to the principle of a common tide raising all boats. Taken together, this argument rebuts the argument in favor of the privatization of education at two levels: it suggests not only that such privatization is morally wrong in principle, but also that it does not even work at the pragmatic level to produce optimal outcomes (much like healthcare).

  It is worth dwelling for a moment on the issue of the intertwining of the educational system and the profit motive that is implied by the privatization of education. According to Lederman, this can become highly problematic due to the fact that education is first and foremost a public good, and that the provision of a public good may often involve somewhat altruistic or relatively selfless motives that may not correspond with the rational conclusions of self-interest that would be produced by the logic of the profit motive. For example, from the perspective of education as a social good, it would be important to invest in low-performing students for the sake of the greater well-being of society as a whole. From the perspective of the profit motive, though, a low-performing student may come to be seen as a liability who disproportionately saps available resources; and from that point, it would only be a small step to start considering the wisdom of leaving that student (and others like him) behind, in order to maximize efficiency and resource utilization. The moral imperative against leaving a student behind in such a way may begin to exert less sway.

Likewise, Strauss has written the following: “School vouchers and charter schools run by for-profit companies are seen as part of the school privatization movement, which critics say will ultimately undermine the country’s democracy” (paragraph 2). This is due to the fact that the very idea of privatizing education leads one to imagine education itself as a commodity like any other, and not as a more transcendent value that is essential for preserving the foundations of a democratic society. In other words, when a service as fundamental as education begins to be treated as something purely transactional, this logic itself could cause a kind a of moral deterioration that undermines the value associated with education itself (and results in inevitable discrimination). In this sense, then, the moral purpose of education would be inherent to education itself, and privatization cannot be said to “work” insofar as it would harm this moral purpose.

Reflection and Conclusion

On the basis of the discussion above, two main conclusions can be drawn. The first is that there probably is a great deal of merit to the notion that agents in the private sector are often more effective than their public sector counterparts at delivering high-quality products and services, for the simple reason that the imperatives of competition and the profit motive are often successful at driving agents to perform at the highest level possible. On the other hand, however, it would seem to be fairly clear that even if aspects of privatization could be integrated into the contemporary educational system, the system itself, as such, should still be left in governmental hands. This is because education is primarily not a commodity but rather a social good, and the universal provision of this service is essential to preserving a democratic society. Given that this is the case, the educational system cannot just be given up wholesale into the hands of the profit motive, even as the profit motive could perhaps be integrated into the educational system in ways that enhance the quality of various services within that system.

In short, one cannot allow oneself to forget about the moral purpose of education, or the fact that the importance of education goes considerably beyond the imperatives of the profit motive. The profit motive, which is the logic that underlies private enterprises, is excellent for improving the quality of goods and services provided, and this benefit should be integrated into the contemporary educational system in all ways possible. However, the point must also be acknowledged that the profit motive in and of itself cannot encompass all of the value inherent in education, and also that the profit motive may often come into conflict with the higher mission of education in difficult ways. When such conflicts emerge, one would hope that there is some kind of regulatory check in place against the imperatives of unbridled capitalism; and this could only be plausible done by leaving the educational system as a whole in the hands of the government.

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