As the United States has transitioned to a new presidency over the course of 2017, issues in the education sector that continue to spark debate include the role of the federal government in education and the national direction of our school system. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has long asserted her support of a voucher system in which families receive government subsidies to enroll students at a public or private school of their choice. Vouchers have seen further congressional and executive support through measures like the Choice in Education Act (2017), which proposes distributing federal funds to subsidize private school tuition, and the recently released presidential budget proposal to Congress that earmarks $250 million for “a new private school choice program” (Office of Management and Budget, 2017, p. 17). These voucher programs have been described in terms of choice. According to the budget proposal, the proposed voucher program “places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children” (p. 17). Seen through another lens, however, a voucher program represents a shift towards privatization by redirecting public funds to private organizations.

As Antoni Verger, Clara Fontdevila, and Adrián Zancajo reveal in their new volume, the US venture into vouchers is but one manifestation of a growing global trend toward education privatization in a variety of forms. In The Privatization of Education, they conduct a systematic literature review of research related to education privatization across the globe. They synthesize evidence from various countries where privatization is taking place to yield six theorized pathways to privatizing education. They also look across the studied countries to analyze the main drivers of policy change and provide an overview of the typical actors and strategies that negotiate privatization. The result is a comprehensive introduction to the various ways in which private involvement in education has become institutionalized worldwide over the past several decades.

In Part I, Verger et al. lay out the volume’s theoretical framework. In chapter 1, “The Globalization of Education Privatization: An Introduction,” they note that despite a general global trend of policy convergence toward privatization in education, domestic instantiations of privatization are unique and locally contextualized. Seeking to explain why global reform pressures do not translate to uniform policy adoption, they note variation in the triggers or events that create opportunities for policy change, which influence the available solutions. Chapter 2, “The Political Economy of Global Education Reform,” describes the theoretical framework in more detail. As states proceed through policy selection (the negotiation of what policy tools and rationales will be adopted) and policy retention (the institutionalization of particular policy solutions), unique combinations of material and ideational factors, or policy drivers, ultimately shape the privatization effort. Material policy drivers include features of the economy—including level of economic development, tax and market policies, and the country’s economic health—as well as the political structures, interest groups, and nature of the state itself (e.g., capitalist, social democratic welfare state) that determine how future policies are made. Ideational policy drivers include dominant policy paradigms or ways of framing policy problems, public opinions and values, and the experts and entrepreneurs who use knowledge and perceptions to shape the debate. Verger et al. attribute heterogeneous forms of privatization to variation in these drivers and to local actors’ ability to strategically leverage these drivers during the reform process.

Part II consists of six chapters, each explicating one of the theorized privatization pathways and describing example sites. Chapter 3, “Education Privatization as a State Reform,” examines the United Kingdom and Chile as models of privatization due primarily to ideological debates about each country’s political future. The chapter offers extensive histories of both nations, showing how tension between conservative and liberal parties during times of political turmoil and economic crisis led to calls for increased private investment in schooling. Both nations pursued privatization in the 1980s as a way of improving efficiency and economic competitiveness, and they continued to expand privatization in the 1990s under the auspices of free choice and progressivism.

Chapter 5, “Scaling Up Privatization: School Choice Reforms in the United States,” also discusses the central role of ideological debate in shaping the path to privatization. Verger et al. investigate why, in the United States, charter schools have developed such prominence while vouchers have (until now) struggled to gain support. They demonstrate how charter reforms were contrasted with vouchers and presented as a more malleable policy idea, as less radical, and with framing elements that appealed to cross-sector stakeholders, including cultural and fiscal conservatives (parental control or free-market competition), moderate democrats (choice and accountability), progressives (equity), and even some teacher unions. Moreover, the authors point out, the fragmented US political system favors charter adoption over vouchers, which require a higher degree of centralization.

Although US readers may associate privatization with free-market policies, chapter 4, “Education Privatization in Social Democratic Welfare States,” and chapter 7, “Historical Public-Private Partnerships in Education,” both deal with privatization efforts that are not primarily driven by neoliberalism. In the case of the Nordic countries, the structures of social democratic welfare states facilitated the adoption of privatization. Social Democrats embraced certain ways of framing privatization—such as freedom, diversification, and protection of the welfare state from perceptions of overwhelming state-dominated bureaucracy—but limited market ideals such as competition. Nordic countries’ high political stability, achieved through consensus-based decision making and frequent multiparty coalition building, ensured that a voucher system could be implemented more comprehensively than it could, for example, in the United States. Similarly, in the historical cases discussed in chapter 7, the authors show how the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain developed systems of high private enrollment and public subsidies based not on neoliberal ideologies but on the centrality of faith-based institutions.

In contrast to the chapters that cast privatization as emerging from the political arena, chapters 6 and 8 describe privatization models in which some type of widespread environmental uncertainty creates the opportunity for entrepreneurial private actors to intervene in education. In chapter 6, “Privatization by Default in Low-Income Countries,” Verger et al. describe the burgeoning industry of low-fee private schools operated in countries with high poverty by large-scale international organizations like the World Bank, bilateral aid actors, corporations, and microfinance initiatives. The absence of accessible public options in such countries creates a de facto demand for privatization. Low-fee private schools offer the perception of higher quality, affordability, and/or alignment to a minority religious, political, or social identity.

Along similar lines, chapter 8, “Privatization by Way of Catastrophe,” describes how crises such as environmental disasters (Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) or military conflict (the civil war in El Salvador or the US/UK invasion of Iraq) can create the opportunity for private actors to push through policy changes as a form of aid. By engaging in semiotic work to frame privatization as a central part of reconstruction, along with the diminished potential for resistance through veto or deliberation processes, private actors can accelerate reforms that may have been stalled under more stable conditions. The authors also note that privatization reforms may be adopted as temporary forms of emergency aid but that they become quickly entrenched in societal structures and are generally difficult to reverse. Although these chapters deal with environmental crises, the way that actors leverage crises to advance particular reforms is a theme that threads through the entire volume. Economic crises like recessions, as well as “manufactured crises” like the perception of severe educational underperformance, can similarly create momentum for privatization reform.

Globally, the authors have identified normative trends, including a rise in neoliberal values overall and the shift in the conception of education as a public, collective good to an individual, positional good. Education is also increasingly seen as an instrument of economic competition and has developed into a profitable industry in and of itself. Even strong welfare states, such as the Nordic countries, show some signs of incorporating individualistic, neoliberal, and/or free-market ideals. Nevertheless, the authors contend that government ideologies and societal values do not predict privatization or the extent to which it will be incorporated into the fabric of a given society. Instead, the situated material and ideational factors determine the trajectory of policy change at the local level by way of variation in the triggers for policy change, selection of particular rationales and frames for policy goals, and retention as reforms become embedded in political structures. One key group of actors—teacher unions—is a major force in resisting and negotiating privatization through various strategies, which the authors review in chapter 10, “Resisting Privatization: The Strategies and Influence of Teachers’ Unions in Educational Reform.”

Another global trend that the book surfaces is the increasing demand for evidence use in policy making, coupled with the recent diffusion of expertise and knowledge production to a much broader array of sources. Chapter 9, “The Emerging Role of Nonstate Actors in the Promotion of Educational Privatization,” describes the proliferation of think tanks, foundations, corporations engaging in venture philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, global consultants, media, policy entrepreneurs, and other nongovernmental organizations that have entered the knowledge production space previously dominated by researchers. These actors may appear neutral to domestic stakeholders and amass the legitimacy, authority, and resources to become central policy players. But the authors argue that the variation in the actors who produce and interpret evidence can create an “echo chamber” effect that presents data selectively and contributes to the expansion of the private education industry. Private nonstate actors may also impact the education narrative by funding and disseminating certain research agendas, publicizing messages that carry particular values, and doing the on-the-ground work of adapting broader privatization concepts to local contexts.

A notable aspect of this volume is its focus not solely on the technical and material components of privatization but also on the ideological and normative work required to adopt new policies. Verger et al. return periodically to the importance of framing the debate and the ways in which various actors engage in meaning making. Reading the volume yields a clear sense of how malleable privatization is as a concept. Privatization can be framed as a policy solution to myriad social problems; and in several of the cases presented in the book, an unsuccessful privatization attempt found greater political support simply through shifting the values with which the policy was associated.

Given the recent US voucher scheme, the growing industry of low-fee private school and charter management operators, and increasing public-private partnerships, it seems that private actors will continue to be influential in the field of education for some time. Verger, Fontdevila, and Zancajo have systematized the variations we see in how different countries privatize education. Their volume offers a useful overview for those looking to quickly amass a working knowledge of international educational privatization, and it provides a solid theoretical foundation on which to build critical future investigations.

Choices in Education Act of 2017
H.R. 610, 115th Congress (2017–2018)
Office of Management and Budget
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America first: A budget blueprint to make America great again
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