For-profit​ private schools — a total disaster

28 Apr, 2019 at 19:00 | Posted in Education & School | 4 Comments

Neo-liberals and libertarians have always provided a lot of ideologically founded ideas and ‘theories’ to underpin their Panglossian view on markets. But when they are tested against reality they usually turn out to be wrong. The promised results are simply not to be found. And that goes for for-profit private schools too.

To make education more like a private good, [voucher advocates] tried to change the conditions of both supply and demand … The idea was that, rather than funding schools, government should provide funding directly parents in the form of vouchers that could be used at whichever school the parents preferred, and topped up, if necessary by additional fee payments.

Pros and Cons of PrivatizationAs is typically the case, voucher advocates ignored the implications of their proposals for the distribution of income. In large measure, vouchers represent a simply cash transfer, going predominantly from the poor to the rich. The biggest beneficiaries would be those, mostly well-off, who were already sending their children to private schools, for whom the voucher would be a simple cash transfer …

Sweden introduced voucher-style reforms in 1992, and opened the market to for-profit schools. Initially favorable assessments were replaced by disillusionment as the performance of the school system as a whole deteriorated … By 2015, the majority of the public favoured banning for-profit schools. The Minister for Education described the system as a ‘political failure.’ Other critics described it in harsher terms (The Swedish for-profit ‘free’ school disaster) …

Why has market-oriented reform of education been such a failure?

Education is characterized by market failure, by potentially inequitable initial allocations and, most importantly, by the fact that the relationship between the education ‘industry’ and its ‘consumers’, that is between educational institutions and teachers on the one hand and students on the other, cannot be reduced to a market transaction.

The critical problem with this simple model is that students, by definition, cannot know in advance what they are going to learn, or make an informed judgement about what they are learning. They have to rely, to a substantial extent, on their teachers to select the right topics of study and to teach them appropriately …

The implications for education policy are clear, at least at the school level. School education should be publicly funded and provided either by public schools or by non-profits with a clear educational mission, as opposed to corporate ‘school management organisations’.

John Quiggin


  1. I don’t think voucher advocates ignored the regressive distributory effects of vouchers. I think that was the whole point of it. Individual choice rhetoric was only ever a cover up. It was also a coordinated campaign by religious bodies to transfer state funds to them and their indoctrination centres, and to pursued parents their children would be better off if parents paid large sums for their children to be indoctrinated during a period of rapid decline in church numbers

    • I couldn’t remember name of the book exposing this.
      Katherine Stewart _The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Strategic Assault on Améica’s Children_.
      Later exported around the world.

    • Habermas, in his 1976 “Problems of legitimation in late capitalism” (by which he meant welfare state capitalism), argued that equality of access to education, under ideology of ‘equal opportunity’, would open up a legitimation deficit as it exposed falsity of claims that rewards and wealth under capitalism were accrued on the basis of merit. Under guise of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, public funding of private schools is a strategic manoeuvre by the privileged to disguise increasingly class based access to education as a matter of choice, so that claims of reward based on merit can be sustained.

  2. I would say that students are not “consumers” at all. Education is an institution, the older generations’ way of perpetuating society by introducing the young into it.

    The only possible “consumers” here are the students’ parents who may buy advantages over other parents, i.e. places in a zero-sum game.

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