On the Public/Private Distinction and Political Power

As privatization looms, conceptual clarity regarding this trend is required. Primary, secondary and higher education institutions all face changes that can be dubbed privatization.

Yet recent reports point to the complexity of this trend. One example involves efforts of teachers to unionize at an Illinois non-for-profit charter school, who in turn hires for-profit EMOs to run some of their campuses. In response to the formation of the union, the charter company claims they are “private” when it comes to employment law. Thus the rules of the NLRB, as opposed to state law regulating public sector unions, apply. NLRB regulations mandate a formal vote among teachers, and not just completed union cards. The election would delay union formation and provide a chance for the company to “persuade” teachers not to unionize.

Another example is found in higher education. Recent reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education point to open discussions among state legislatures, higher education executives and various think tanks about “loosening the bonds between state governments and public colleges to save money and give colleges the freedom to bolster their bottom lines in new ways.”

These examples are of interest because they highlight crossing the public/private division as a strategy used by both private and public entities to either secure or expand their position.

In the first case above, public funds are given to a private company, who wishes to be treated as a public or private entity depending on the circumstances of its choosing. It wishes to receive the benefit of public finance, but rejects public oversight as a hindrance, in this case, in the regulations of public sector unions. This feature of adopting different standards for different purposes harkens back to the feudal practice of adopting different weights and measures for buying and selling, a practice which invariably favored lords and became a symbol of arbitrary power during the period leading up to the French revolution. Standards were often the property of the reigning lord, and in that sense, privately controlled. This private control over something that so greatly affected the extant public was soon to be rejected, and this rejection of arbitrary power was fostered by the emergence of a public sphere and a self-conscious public outside the subjectivity of kings, etc.

Yet, in the second case above, public status is to be reduced as state funding is reduced: states issue budget cuts and students attending public higher education are forced to pay not only more, but also a higher percentage of the total operating cost. Privatization here is generally equated with downloading the responsibility for funding education onto individuals and their families. To “save money” and “bolster the bottom line” public higher education must break bonds with state governments, and move toward becoming private institutions, so the argument goes.

Thus, much of the debate about privatization is rendered as economic in nature. Evidence of this exists in the fixation on the economic category of efficiency, of which private, for-profit firms are unquestioningly presented as the model; talk of “the bottom line,” and other for-profit imperatives dominate the discussion.

Yet, what is significant is the confused standard for determining public or private status: institutions that receive public funds are somehow more public than those that do not. Yet, in the past, public funding was directly linked to public control. On the other hand, there is the present trend to break in thinking and practice any assumption that with a transfer of public funds, an organization is to admit public oversight.

Many things that are in fact against the public interest (such as aggressive wars or handouts to fraudulent banks) are accepted nonetheless as public because they are actions of the government, carried out with public funds. So the existence of public funds itself cannot be the criteria of what is public.

The division between public and private has historically centered on justifying who decides what in a specific context; who has what rights, both in terms of limiting the power of state, but also in terms of claims of individuals. The claim individuals have to education is premised on education being a requirement, necessary for the public well being. In order for the public/private distinction to have meaning and be able to provide coherence to discussions about education and society a standard is required that does not rely on the source of funds nor the status of government or non-government.

This standard must begin by elaborating and renewing the conception of the public good or well being. What is at stake in the current move to privatize education is not simply the increased burden for individuals or instigation of more inequality through more “choice”. What is at stake is a sharp political shift, where demarcations of private or even not-for-profit (yet private) are used to eschew public oversight of that which broadly concerns all, standing against public opinion.

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