“How ‘segrenomics’ underpins the movement to privatize public education”, an article published in The Washington Post this month, features commentary from Noliwe M. Rooks on the ways in which companies and individuals have utilized privatization and deregulation to capitalize on racial and economic inequalities in education, a conversation that proves especially pertinent in the era of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. Rooks, the Director of American Studies at Cornell University, explores the relationship between educational inequalities and efforts to privatize public education in greater depth in her book Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and The End of Public Education, which formed the basis of Rooks’ discussion with The Washington Post. She examines the phenomenon of private corporations increasingly investing in alternative educational content—such as vocational education, virtual charter schools, and cyber education—for poor children, all of which are meant to substitute (not supplement) the traditional educational experience.
Crucially, Rooks finds that though these private forms of education have certainly enabled businesses to make a profit “selling schooling,” their standards for success are, on the whole, markedly lower than those of high-achieving (and predominantly white) districts, their teachers are typically less experienced and less highly paid, and the actual running of the schools is often outsourced to management organizations, lending further support to the notion that these institutions are better viewed as components of a multibillion-dollar industry than as places truly capable of equalizing educational opportunity. Moreover, by diverting money from the taxpayer-funded public education budget away from traditional public schools and into alternative forms of education, already underperforming districts suffer while corporate earnings increase. Ultimately, Rooks advocates greater integration in the school system, ensuring that poor children have access to the same types of educational experiences as the wealthy.
If we were to see the economically and racially integrated schools advocated by Rooks, the implications for social inequality could potentially extend beyond mere educational inequality. Given that our current system of public education largely determines school placement by the area in which one resides, integration of schools would require either a rezoning of existing catchment areas to better incorporate a diversity of children into the student body, or a conscious effort by city planning officials to develop low-income housing in areas traditionally home to only the wealthy. Though the latter means to the end of school integration might be the more politically untenable of the two, it also stands a greater chance of addressing the multitude of factors aside from education that contribute to a child’s outcome in life.