Home Culture Business & Education Decline in Education Graduates Fueling Push for Privatization

Decline in Education Graduates Fueling Push for Privatization

Photo by Marlith, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photo by Marlith, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

National Public Radio (NPR) published a graph Friday that suggests a strong correlation between decreasing education undergraduate degrees and the increase in the push to privatize education.

The graph measures the popularity of undergraduate degrees from 1970 to 2011. Most majors have remained relatively static over that time frame. It is not shocking that business is currently the most popular major. Business degrees have trended more popular over the course of that 40-year window. What is surprising is that business seems to have taken its increases almost exclusively from education. While business increased from about 14 percent to 21 percent during the period, education plummeted in popularity from 22 percent to just over six percent. In 2011, there were only 106,000 students who graduated with a bachelor’s in education.

There are inevitable consequences to these trends. One is philosophical. To increasing numbers of business-oriented minds, the public school system must seem rather odd. Author Peter Brimelow, a proponent of private education, describes (in The Worm in the Apple) his first assignment to write about education, with which he had no prior background, for Fortune magazine:

I simply approached education as if it were any other industry. The important issues were input and output. The question of how the output is achieved is quite immaterial. When you write about the baked bean industry, you don’t debate the best way to get baked beans into the can. You look at the profit and loss numbers, to see which firm is doing it most efficiently. Seen in this perspective, the problem of public education immediately becomes clear: it’s systemic. There is no market process that rewards success and punishes failure. Or that even holds down costs.

Brimelow labels his two daughters “customers” of the public school system.

Children rally for public schools in Anchorage

Alaskans are not immune to the application of business rhetoric and philosophy to education. Commonwealth North describes itself as “Alaska’s premier non-partisan public policy forum.” In September of 2012, the organization promoted a member forum that would “explorer [sic] what product Alaska is getting from our education system, how Alaskans should define the rate of return for the money the State invests per student… and what return Alaskans should expect to see on our investment per student.”

The problem is that education is quite different from “any other industry” and our children aren’t “products.” They cannot be allowed to fail the way a new invention can because there is a societal burden involved. That collective burden is why children are publicly educated. Everyone has a stake in children’s learning and success.

The clash between public education and a free market paradigm was inevitable. Seeking a solution to what he considered the problem of government involvement in education, economist Milton Friedman popularized the concept of school vouchers in his 1955 essay, “The Role of Government in Education.” School vouchers allow parents to move their child, along with the per-student public education allocation, to another school for which s/he is not zoned.

Friedman’s free market argument for vouchers did not have widespread appeal. As the popularity of business degrees boomed, President Reagan adopted the marketing approach of referring to vouchers as “school choice” while trying multiple times to move voucher bills through Congress. In addition, advocates of vouchers appealed to People of Color, who had been affected by the pre-Brown v Board segregation of schools and the subsequent de facto segregation of schools as middle- and upper class whites moved to the suburbs.

Vouchers started to gain a foothold in 1990, starting with Wisconsin. Other states, like Florida, followed suit. Jeb Bush, as governor of Florida, established a voucher program tied to school grades. Schools were graded A, B, C, D, or F, based on scores for the standardized Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Students from “F” schools were allowed to transfer to any school of their choosing, public or private, through the voucher program. In order to retain students, and thereby adequate funding, many teachers started “teaching to the test,” focusing on only material that would be in FCAT and disregarding other subjects. Bush is now being suggested as the moderate Republican choice for president in 2016, an idea many Florida public educators find laughable.

In 2001, many parts of the Florida model became national law when Jeb’s brother, President George W. Bush, signed the No Child Left Behind Act.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), long a proponent of privatizing education, has watched these developments with pleasure. Business-driven ALEC continues to suggest to individual states, like Alaska, what they can do to further school choice. Since the Alaska Constitution specifies, “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution,” ALEC makes the friendly recommendation that Alaska try tax credits instead of vouchers, and they have a model bill readily available.

Alaska politicians are taking note. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who is running as a Republican for lieutenant governor, 14115298291_5334d6d71e_brecently trumpeted his accomplishments on education in the Alaska Dispatch. One of those, he said, was the Mayor’s Education Summit, a three-stage event of invitation-only meetings in November, 2011, public comment meetings in February of 2012, followed by a concluding meeting in June, 2012.

At the November session, one of the presenters was the University of Arkansas’ Dr. Patrick Wolf, a strong advocate for school choice. Wolf’s PowerPoint presentation, used in the Summit, praise both Milwaukee and Florida for their voucher programs. However, Milwaukee’s program has had a serious impact on the city’s tax payers. “Milwaukee, which now spends nearly $40 million on 8,000 voucher students, avoided deep cuts in its public-school budget only by raising property taxes as an offset,” wrote Bob Chase, former president of the National Education Association (NEA) in 2000.

Despite the call for increased accountability of teachers and students, state requirements are often less stringent for private schools. Milwaukee and Florida schools are not required to take state tests, nor report test results. In Milwaukee, one voucher school recently closed in the middle of the school year after taking millions in tax payer funds. 66 students, only one of whom could read proficiently, were forced to find other schools mid-year with no notice. The school’s administrators did not have bachelor’s degrees until 2010, when state law first required it after 20 years of the voucher program.

I was witness to the impact of Florida’s voucher program during my time in Tallahassee. Voucher proponents claim school choice benefits poor children. However, in Florida, more affluent students who were zoned for “F” schools tended to be the ones who went to new schools, leaving their impoverished peers behind. This did nothing to help the “F” schools improve their status, and the infrastructure and staffing costs of the depleted school remained the same. Racial tensions were stretched as talk of “white flight” reemerged. Anchorage would be wise to note this, given the comments of former school board member Don Smith during the 2014 election.

Everything should be on the table and subjected to scrutiny when it comes to our kids’ education. However, it seems like the Municipality of Anchorage crossed from debate to advocacy of vouchers with its list of recommended reading for the Summit, found on the muni website. Of the eight clickable documents supposedly covering the whole of education, two are written by Wolf. A third is about Louisiana’s school choice program, a program so flawed the U.S. Department of Justice had to sue the state to prevent vouchers from returning the schools to segregation.

Sullivan did nothing to calm concerns about vouchers when his introductory video for the February, 2012, community conversation portion of the Summit included a quote from him, stating “One of the things that may be necessary to affect change might be changes in local ordinances, state statutes, maybe even the constitution.”

That is exactly what the majority of the 28th Alaska legislature sought. In 2013, Wes Keller (R-Wasilla), ALEC state chairman, pre-filed HJR 1, a bill that would have amended the constitution to allow for public monies to go to private institutions. It was set aside to let the Senate companion, SJR 9, work its way through to the floor. That bill was co-sponsored by Senators Dyson, Coghill, Kelly, Giessel, Mcguire, and Fairclough — all ALEC members as of December, 2013. Sen. Lesil Mcguire (R-Anchorage) is running for lieutenant governor against Dan Sullivan. SJR 9 did not gain the necessary 14 votes to pass the Senate.

Image from muni.org
Image from muni.org

It seems in retrospect that the Mayor’s Education Summit was simply a long set-up to amend the constitution and bring in vouchers. The concluding document from the Summit called for expanding school choice. It said that “Anchorage has limited experience with school choice,” but in 2011, the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Alaska Education Policy Research noted a wide variety of options for Anchorage students. Alternative and charter schools are available via lottery, and home schooling is fairly popular. The majority of Anchorage’s private schools are faith-based, it also documented.

An expert on the Finnish education system, Samuel Abrams of Teachers College, Columbia University, also presented at the Education Summit. Finland’s schools are successful, he said, because they recognize the value of the arts and play time in child development, which flies in the face of the Three Rs trend in American schools. Further, Finland demonstrates it values its teachers by investing in them.

By contrast, Alaska public schools have been underfunded for years, triggering staff lay-offs. And though Dan Sullivan touts it as an accomplishment, his Summit non-profit spinoff, Education Matters, is headed by Cheryl Frasca, who in her extremely limited time on the Anchorage Assembly voted for controversial Ordinance 37. This ordinance restricts collective bargaining and pay increases, including those for teachers. These are the kinds of policy decisions that might make an undergraduate student think twice before pursuing a career in education.

Researchers are taught very early not to equate correlation with causation, so it is important to consider the preponderance of evidence that indicates the business community is attempting to commodify education. The folks who graduated in the Eighties, when one in four students exited college with a degree in business, are now in positions of power. While their impact on the educational system may simply be an unintentional reflection of their own education, we must recognize the results.

There is no evidence that proves the injection of business into education improves outcomes. Giving private schools public money through vouchers dilutes the effectiveness of our tax dollars. A corporate mentality of “do more with less” does not apply to education. Children will not become more productive in larger classes with fewer resources. The market cannot dictate school success and failure when the face of failure includes those 66 kids from Milwaukee looking for a school mid-year.

Education is something in which- to borrow a business term- Alaska must invest. Investment in our students will trickle down when we invest in our teachers.


  1. Since more people were getting college degrees over the time period shown in the graph, I find the percentages less interesting. More dramatic in my view is the change in the raw numbers 190,000 education degrees in 1970 vs. 104,000 in 2010. This during a time when I believe the school age population has increased. Some of that change can be accounted for by the fact that female teachers no longer have to quit their jobs when they have children, so there is less need for replacements. But fewer graduates has to have also contributed to larger class size. On the other hand, if you take the average of 1980 through 2010, it seems like the number has been constant. I don’t know what that says except that maybe statistics need lots of analysis and comparison before they give you much in the way of meaningful information.

  2. While this article does a great job of tracing the history, and warning of the future, of the very real and dangerous encroachment of privatization into Alaskan education, I’m not sure the decline in the number of undergraduate degrees in education – which is mentioned once in the introduction and once in the conclusion – is the strongest link in its argument against privatization. My undergraduate degree isn’t in education; I have a double major bachelor’s degree in English literature and art history. My *graduate* degree (UAA, 1999) is in a master’s in teaching. Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, an undergraduate degree in the subject one teaches is a requirement of employment for secondary (middle and high school) educators. It’s called being “highly qualified.” This is, in my opinion, one of NCLB’s *good* features. We’re professionals. We should know our stuff. We also have graduate work – at minimum certification or, more often, a master’s or (in a very few cases) a doctorate in education or teaching. (The distinction is in emphasis: education being primarily theoretical – the history and philosophy of it – and teaching being primarily practical: classroom management, lesson planning, assessment, etc..)