The privatization of education
The Globalization and Education Special Interest Group holds an annual book award to honor an outstanding book that addresses issues related to globalization and education. The 2016 award will be presented on March 8 to Toni Verger, Clara Fontdevila, and Adrian Zancajo for their book The privatization of education: A political economy of global education reform, which was published by Teacher College Press. The award committee praised the book for its clear-eyed and theoretically-rich contribution to the larger debate on privatization and education in the context of global education reforms.
I interviewed Toni Verger about the book last year, so will replay the episode in full today. If you happen to be attending the CIES conference in Atlanta this week, please attend the Globalization and Education SIG’s keynote address on March 8 where the book award will be presented.
Toni Verger is a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Citation: Verger, Toni, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 63, podcast audio, March 6, 2017. https://freshedpodcast.com/toniverger-2/
Will Brehm 1:25
Toni Verger, welcome to FreshEd.
Toni Verger 1:27
Thank you, Will.
Will Brehm 1:29
Give us an idea of the reach of educational privatization around the world.
Toni Verger 1:36
Well, education privatization is increasing in quantitative terms. If you look at the expansion of enrollment in private schools according to different regions, you can see how in all world regions there is an important increase. Especially in Latin America, Southeast Asia, North Africa, the numbers are quite impressive. But I would say that it’s also important in qualitative terms in the sense that education privatization, and what should be the role of private actors in education systems is today at the center of global education reform debates.
Will Brehm 2:19
So, how would you actually define educational privatization?
Toni Verger 2:24
Well, generally speaking, education privatization would be a process through which private actors play an increasing role in different governance activities of the educational system, whether it is the ownership, provision, financing, regulation, and so on. But I also find useful, a distinction that is quite famous now done by Ball and Youdell, that they differentiate between exogenous and endogenous privatization, with exogenous privatization being the openness of the education systems to the role of private actors. But endogenous privatization is quite different in the sense that means that the public sector can also behave like the private sector. So endogenous privatization would be the importation of techniques, values from the private sector, sometimes for-profit sector into the way public schools are organized. I think that this distinction is very useful, but also, we should take into account how these two types of education privatization somehow feed each other. Because in more exogenously privatized education system with more private actors providing education, it’s probably true that also, public operators will be forced to engage in competition dynamics. Some will have to import, like let’s say, marketing or managerial techniques from the private sector.
Will Brehm 4:02
So, in your new book, that you’ve co-written, you really look around the world at different practices of educational privatization. Can you just give us a few of the most poignant examples of like the various extremes that we see in the phenomenon of educational privatization?
Toni Verger 4:27
Right. Well, in this book that I did with Clara Fontdevila and Adrián Zancajo that has been published by Teacher’s College Press, we really wanted to unpack the global phenomenon of education privatization. Education privatization in the literature is usually associated to neoliberal reforms in the Anglo-Saxon world. Because basically, there is a lots of pieces of research analyzing the reforms in the UK, in the US, but we really wanted to introduce complexity to the policy processes behind education privatization. And we wanted to show how diverse is this phenomenon somehow. And what we did was a systematic review of the literature, which is a methodology that is very useful to produce new knowledge without having to produce new empirical case studies. And we basically reviewed more than 200 pieces of research. And they allowed to understand how education privatization happens through very different political and policy processes worldwide. And in a way that it goes beyond this neoliberal approach to educational reform.
Will Brehm 5:49
So, what’s amazing is you mentioned earlier that you know, you see these phenomena in Latin America and Southeast Asia and in North Africa but also in countries like Australia, and America, and Hong Kong. So, these are such diverse countries. And yet, they are following a similar set of policies, maybe not a similar set of practices, but what you’re grouping into as educational privatization. What is driving this growth? Like why are so many diverse countries experiencing educational privatization today?
Toni Verger 6:34
Well, there’s no single driver that is pushing for education privatization. Of course, there are like global drivers. Economic globalization is putting a lot of pressure in public budgets. And some governments are being forced to introduce budget cuts in education, or they are seduced by ideas like new public management in public sector reform. This is, let’s say, a phenomenon that we could consider that is globalizing also at the level of the demand side, more and more families, especially middle-class families, but also poor families, they really support ideas around school choice, and the values of consumerism is more and more accepted. The idea that education systems shouldn’t be monolithic and more and more diversified. And, of course, there are international organizations that are putting a lot of pressure for the global adoption of educational reforms like charter schools, and voucher schemes, and so on. But beyond this, there are also national institutions, national constituencies that are influencing the way education privatization happens and through which policies is happening. And just to give you an example that is very different. The path toward privatization in places like Chile and the United Kingdom, that education privatization was like the consequence of a very drastic, neoliberal structural reform of the state than in places like the Netherlands, Belgium, or Spain, that are countries where there’s a long-standing tradition of private sector participation. Usually, private schools from different church orders that they were in the educational system much earlier than the neoliberal wave of reforms started.
Will Brehm 8:38
You also talk about what you call soft drivers or the ideational drivers of privatization. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by this idea?
Toni Verger 8:50
Yeah, this is right. Because somehow in not only education reform studies, it’s also in public reform studies. There is an emphasis on the analyses of economic drivers, political drivers, that are drivers of a more material nature that are easier to observe. But what we are witnessing today is that education privatization and other global education policy ideas are more and more promoted through semiotic strategies, and construction of meaning, production of truth. What we are witnessing today is how more and more governments, but also international organizations need to legitimate their decisions, for instance, on the basis of evidence, what are so-called international good practices. So, we really support this idea in our book that these ideational factors are key to understand why education privatization happens in very different contexts, especially in advanced democracies where the liberation and other types of ideas, changes are important when it comes to take policy decisions. And what is more interesting for this approach in the case of education privatization is that there is no evidence, or at least a very conclusive evidence supporting the adoption of education privatization. So, the strategies of, let’s say, think-tanks, philanthropic organizations, when it comes to convince to the public opinion to policymakers about why is it good to adopt a charter school reform or a voucher reform. I think that these are very important elements that should be observed in empirical research on the political economy of educational reform, basically.
Will Brehm 10:55
So, what you’re saying is that the evidence to show say private schools or privatized education is somehow better or achieves better outcomes than, say, public schooling. The evidence simply is not there to suggest that sort of finding.
Toni Verger 11:16
Yeah. And it is even worse than that, in the sense that evidence is mixed when it comes to learning outcomes. And generally speaking, once you take into account the socioeconomic status of students, the private sector is not doing better than the public sector in most countries. But there is, I would say that, quite conclusive evidence on the fact that more private sector participation, especially when it’s associated to market dynamics of a school competition, is generating more and more educational inequalities, school segregation, problems of inclusion of students with educational needs. So, I think that here, the interesting phenomenon is that despite we know that somehow in some aspects of educational privatization is not producing good social outcomes, it is a still globalizing.
Will Brehm 12:16
Right. And that’s where the production of truth comes in, right? So, all of these different actors that have some sort of interest in educational privatization help produce a truth that, based on research evidence isn’t necessarily the truth. But policymakers see it as such.
Toni Verger 12:36
Yeah, this is right. Sometimes they produce the truth. Sometimes they just work as knowledge brokers, and they select those pieces of evidence that support their policy preferences. But yeah, that is absolutely the way it works in some countries.
Will Brehm 12:53
And so, what’s the role of researchers? Many of whom get consultancies with some of the global actors pushing privatization?
Toni Verger 13:07
Well, I think it depends on the country, the research communities is more embedded in policy advocacy movements. But sometimes, I feel like the most influential researchers in the education privatization debate are not necessarily members of the academic community. They are usually, let’s say, members of international organizations like the World Bank, or a broad range of think-tanks that are very much influenced by partisan politics. In a way, those pieces of academic research that have been peer-reviewed are usually very cautious when it comes to recommend education privatization solutions. And those pieces of research that are more, let’s say, more used by privatization advocates are usually reports or other types of knowledge products that have not gone through, let’s say, a more rigorous quality assurance process before the publication.
Will Brehm 14:25
So, thinking more about this idea of the production of truth and these ideational factors driving educational privatization. When you did this enormous literature review of different studies around the world of educational privatization, did any stand out to you in particular of, you know, just an unbelievable case of an ideational factor creating the circumstances by which privatization occurred?
Toni Verger 14:55
Yeah, probably the best example here is the US. That is a country very well known for having many think-tanks and lobby groups participating in the political arena. And an outstanding number of think-tanks, philanthropies that are very active, not only when it comes to support educational programs but also to try to influence education reform processes. So, it is what has been called “venture philanthropy”. There is a very good example of this in the state of Washington. Lubienski and all produced a very nice piece of research on this published in the last World Yearbook of Education, where they show how the Gates Foundation supported with millions of dollars, the Gates Foundation and like-minded philanthropic organizations, they supported a campaign in favor of the adoption of charter school legislation. And what here this combination of material and ideational resources was key to understand why this referendum, in this case, referendum on charter school legislation, was accepted by a majority of the voters.
Will Brehm 16:18
So, philanthropy and think-tanks, they play a big role in producing this truth that privatization is quote-unquote good?
Toni Verger 16:29
Right. This is for North America. But if you look at how education privatization debates are happening in, let’s say, some low-income countries, you would see other types of actors coming in, of course. Some philanthropic organizations are also there but also transnational corporations like Pearson. International aid agencies, like the UK aid agency DFID, are also being very active in the promotion of private solutions in educational systems.
Will Brehm 17:05
Can you give an example of that in, you know, developing contexts where these aid agencies like DFID or USAID or what used to be called Australian aid or the companies like Pearson, like how do they actually go about?
Toni Verger 17:25
Well, I think that a very recent and good example is what’s going on in Liberia now. There is a very ambitious educational reform going on supported by the aid community, but with the participation of chains of private schools like Bridge International Academies and the Ark Foundation. And this reform started when the President of Liberia and the Minister of Education of Liberia, they decided to solve the problems of their educational system by outsourcing the whole system to a private company, in this case, it was Bridge International Academies. In the end, this won’t be such a big movement in the sense that not all the schools will be, let’s say, charterized, and not all the schools will be charterized to Bridge. There will be also other providers being involved. But I think that this is a very good example of a very recent experiment with privatization. That has been, of course, the initial idea came apparently from the national government, but a lot of international actors have played a very important role when it comes to frame and to design the final educational reform.
Will Brehm 18:56
I guess that’s the issue that just gets me, so I guess confused is: why would the government of Liberia propose this as the solution?
Toni Verger 19:09
Right. I think that I was in a meeting or organized by the Open Society Foundations, where there was a debate about this very recent process, and people from the Ministry of Education in Liberia was there. They basically say that they didn’t have control over the education system and that they didn’t know what was going on in their schools. So, I think that they attributed this radical decision to a sort of lack of control and administrative capacity. And well, I think that the reason why the President took this decision is that he went to a visit to Uganda and visited there some Bridge Academy’s schools and he found that this was a very fascinating experience and that he would like to import the model. Interestingly, one month ago, the Washington Post announced that this type of Bridge schools are being challenged by the government of Uganda because they are not fulfilling the basic standards of quality that are established in the country legislation on education. So, I think this is also interesting to see as an example of how sometimes very weak ideas and policy solutions travel.
Will Brehm 20:40
And I guess a similar question could be asked for a country like the UK or Australia. Like why would government embrace this logic of educational privatization? I mean, I understand in the Liberia case, if there’s the lack of capacity of some sort. And you simply … there’s this company that is basically saying, we’ll fill the gap, and so I can see how that would be enticing. But what about other countries that you know, … many people pay taxes, and there’s lots of money in education, and the state has historically run systems of education. Where’s the motivation for policymakers to really embrace this idea of privatization?
Toni Verger 21:26
Yeah, there’s not a single rationale when it comes to adopt education privatization reforms. And I think that the case of the UK that you just mentioned is a very good example of this. In the 80s, with the government of Margaret Thatcher, they adopted educational reforms promoting market solutions in a very ideological way. And because they were convinced that the role of the private sector and competition was the way to organize all types of public services. And it was also a way not to be only more effective but also more efficient because, in the context of the neoliberal doctrine, efficiency and reducing costs in the provision of public services is a high priority. But in the late 90s, in the UK, there was a government from the Labor Party, and somehow this government continued promoting this type of private solutions in education but apparently for different reasons. So, there were arguments of equity and arguments of modernization of the education system behind. So, instead of the traditional neoliberal arguments, the government of Tony Blair continued somehow with the privatization as in education for drastically different reasons but with very similar policy outcomes.
Will Brehm 22:57
It’s very fascinating that all different ideological kind of backgrounds and politics could support the same sort of policy that you’re saying causes all sorts of bad outcomes like segregation, and inequality, oftentimes lower achievement scores than students in public schools. But yet, we have policymakers from, the quote-unquote, left, and the quote-unquote, right, all arriving at similar policy solutions.
Toni Verger 23:33
Right. What we saw in our review is that in the 80s, beginning of the 90s, partisan politics was a very important variable to understand why some countries did privatized education or not. With, of course, right-wing, conservative government supporting privatization, and left-wing and social democratic governments supporting public intervention. But in the 90s, there is an ideological movement in the context of social democratic parties that is known as “the third way” that it made these parties to be closer to the ideas of new public management, private sector participation, not as a way to, let’s say, to promote only efficiency and competition, but as a way to modernize educational systems. And to give more -these social democratic parties, they detected that some of their natural voters, they were unhappy with this idea of monolithic public services and that they wanted more choice, more options. So, they thought that by allowing some sort of public-private sector participation in education, they would be responding to these new demands of the middle class. But as I said, I think that initially, they were not thinking about privatizing in a very drastic way. But here again, we have a very good example in Sweden, a country where the social democrats thought that they had to reform and modernize public education in a way that would give more autonomy to schools, that would allow the private sector to operate. Social democrats were thinking about not-for-profit organizations, teacher associations, families organizing new types of schools with alternative pedagogies, and they created a regulatory system that made it easier for the conservative government that came after to, let’s say, approve a voucher system reform. And what happened is that a big number of for-profit operators started participating in the educational system, especially in secondary education. So, here you can see how some initial reforms that are apparently innocent, or they have good intentions behind can drastically change because of other political and economic factors.
Will Brehm 26:14
So, I mean, it’s such a good example because you really show how complex this phenomenon of educational privatization is. And it’s certainly not as simple as saying, there’s somehow this singular idea that’s spreading globally, and everyone is adopting it. It’s much more complex than that. And that’s what’s so refreshing about your work.
Toni Verger 26:40
Yeah, that’s it, actually. We want to challenge this idea about education privatization, somehow promoting policy convergence, I think that what we are witnessing is a sort of convergence in terms of outcomes. Let’s say, increasing enrollment in private schools globally. But the policies are not converging. And the policies are very, very diverse. And also, the trajectories behind these reforms are as diverse as the countries and regions that are part of this very, very complex world.
Will Brehm 27:20
Right. It’s like to understand it, you really have to dig into the historical contexts of these different governments to understand how these policies form the way they do.
Toni Verger 27:33
Right. Yeah, in a way I think that historical institutionalism is also very much behind our main point in this book, and in the way that we see educational reform happening globally.
Will Brehm 27:50
So, we’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about the drivers of educational privatization around the world. I want to just kind of go on the flip side and ask: Have there been resistance to the phenomenon of educational privatization?
Toni Verger 28:11
Of course. There are many of resistance to educational privatization for the reasons I mentioned before. Because it’s usually a policy approach that promotes educational inequalities, educational segregation. It’s also a policy approach that it doesn’t help to support teacher professionalism, and usually the private sector pays less and worse to teachers. And this is why teacher unions are probably the political actor that is more active when it comes to resist educational reforms promoting privatization. Of course, with a very big diversity of results. In some countries, teacher unions are very effective when it comes to stop educational privatization or market reforms. In some countries, unions are so strong that governments they don’t even dare to promote education privatization. In the early 2000s, the Minister of Education in Colombia wanted to promote a very similar reform to the one in Chile with a very ambitious market voucher system. But she knew that this couldn’t advance. So, then she proposed a charter reform as a second best. And of course, we also have examples of countries where the education privatization process has been reversed, or at least some of the most emblematic programs of privatization has been closed down. Ontario in the 90s had a very ambitious charter school program, and I will say that now, the number of charter schools in Ontario is very, very limited. And Chile, the most marketized education system in the world, is going today through a very ambitious educational reform that is trying to decommodify the educational system. Although, of course, this is still a very open empirical question whether this will be possible or not. Because I really think that once an education system has introduced a big number of market logics, middle-class groups are very happy with their school choice possibilities. The private sector is being organized as a very effective lobby. It’s really difficult to reverse but we will have to look at these education reform in Chile very closely to see whether this is true or not. And there are countries that are less well known, like Bolivia, where I think that is a, let’s say, global exception when it comes to these privatization trends. Because in the last decade, the number of private schools in the Bolivian education system has been introduced in a very important way.
Will Brehm 31:22
So, it seems like this idea of the production of truth in these different locales is in like different forms of crystallization. Some truth seems harder to break than others. But what do you think the future of educational privatization is going to be?
Toni Verger 31:42
Well, I expect that we will see even more divergence in terms of the fact that some empirical cases will demonstrate that education privatization is not a global, linear trend that somehow it can be reversed. And I really think that this could be important to happen because of the fact that educational equity, according to me, this is my personal opinion, should be at the center of the structuration and organization of educational systems. So, I really hope that the private sector has a more reasonable role when it comes to organize education systems globally because I think that this is the way to promote not only educational equity but also educational excellence. But again, I think that social scientists, we are not very good when it comes to predict the future. I think that it is enough for us to try to explain what is happening, but if I had to guess, or if I had to tell you how I see the future, it would be with more public sector involvement.
Will Brehm 33:03
Well, Toni Verger, thank you so much for joining FreshEd.
Toni Verger 33:06
Thank you to you. Bye