The global trend toward the privatisation of public education over the past two decades is now widely recognised. While a confluence of many factors—including disinvestment in public education and parental desire for school options—have contributed to the privatisation momentum, this trend has succeeded most in places where privatisation has been a well-funded policy option supported by a combination of powerful public and private actors. While traditional private schools have grown in many countries, the current wave of privatisation has been characterised by the emergence of non-traditional forms of private education.
Since their legalisation in 1991, charter schools have grown rapidly, across the United States. By 2013, charter schools composed 6.2% of all public schools in the country. These are privately governed schools (often run by a for-profit corporation) authorised by a body of state government to receive public funds and operate a school. They brand themselves as ‘public charter schools,’ on the basis that they were created by the State and do not charge any tuition or entrance fees. Their great genius is that they achieved legislation allowing them to receive billions of dollars in public funds, while operating with private boards of directors, independently of local school districts. It is hard to imagine such an arrangement existing anywhere outside of the U.S. In the developing world, Low-Cost Private Schools (LCPSs) have gained great notoriety. These schools, such as Omega Schools, promote themselves as a low-cost, high-quality alternative to State-run schools.
Despite the dramatic differences between the contexts in which charter schools and LCPSs operate, the two have much in common. The LCPS movement has clearly piggybacked on of the successes of charter schools – very consciously replicating charter business and pedagogical methods, including highly standardised content and an emphasis on performing tasks in unison. This emulation is no accident of history: A number of key players in LCPS organisations have also been actively involved in the U.S. charter school sector. For instance, companies such as Pearson Education have heavily influenced both movements by investing in US charter schools nationwide, and funding Omega Schools. Similarly, individuals such as Mike Goldstein have been influential leaders in both the charter and LFPS sectors. Additionally, the two sectors have developed a similar critical discourse concerning public education, blaming school problems on the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies. Both charters and LCPS see independence and private initiative as key elements of the solution to the crisis in education, and both models imply increased involvement of for-profit corporations in the education of children.
The similarities between these two modes of non-traditional private education extend to their respective conceptions of education. Both tend to reduce the goal of education to something like ‘college and career readiness,’ as measured by test scores, percentage of students accepted into college or other similar metrics. For example, KIPP Charter School’s goal for all of their students is college graduation. In the developing world context, of course, this goal persists, often in a modified form: Bridge International Academies, which now boasts over 100,000 pupils in Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, hopes to increase students’ chances of going to high school by raising their entrance exam test scores.
These goals have wide appeal, especially to struggling families seeking a ‘better life’ for their children, and not believing that existing public schools can provide those options. This appeal accounts for the much-discussed popularity of these schools among disadvantaged populations. In a variety of countries, low-income families see these achievement metrics as indicators of success and choose to send their students to these schools, despite financial or other hardships. Data suggests that some students do quite well in both the charter and LCPS environments, but these schools are not for all students. Especially for children who do not have college (or high school, when high school is not guaranteed) in their future, such as some students with special needs or students who simply desire a vocational career, schools whose sole focus is on career preparation are certainly not the best answer.
How does the growth of these non-traditional private alternatives impact public education delivered to those children remaining in the public system? From the perspective of the human right to education, this is a critical question, leading to one final commonality between charter schools and LCPSs. On balance, they each can be shown to exacerbate the trend toward disinvestment in public schools. Since the main source of charter school funds in public education appropriations, this effect is easier to demonstrate. The connection is less clear in the case of low-fee schools, but evidence is mounting that the funding model of these schools leads to the same disinvestment effect. This effect is of great concern in relation to the ability to access quality education for all students remaining in public school sector.
The global trend toward education privatisation is a great challenge for those committed to realising the right to education for all children. Despite their extraordinary success framing themselves as public schools, U.S. charter schools are very much part of this trend. Advocates for public education the U.S. and their global partners must coordinate and learn from each other at least as must as the promoters of the rapidly growing non-traditional private education sector.
Kevin Murray is the Executive Director of the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University School of Law.
Aja Watkins is a student at Northeastern and a PHRGE Research Assistant.