At press time, the Bush administration’s agenda was encountering obstacles on many fronts, but one strategy still was sailing along with little or no impediment–namely, the push to privatize public services.

Well before Bush arrived on the scene, corporate forays found traction in the health field with the transition from family doctors and non-profit hospitals to health maintenance organizations run by insurance companies. Privatization also found firm footing in civil engineering as the Army Corps of Engineers offloaded the actual construction of its projects to private contractors. (Private contractors implemented the Corps’ blueprints for levy construction in New Orleans, for example.) And privatization reached full flower in the military with the transfer of nearly all support services from the GIs themselves to the likes of Halliburton.

The Bush administration has championed the transfer of public funding to private bank accounts right from the outset, but in its second term, the process has accelerated. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (and probably Wilma as well), the administration quickly latched on to the devastation as a reason to advance the cause of vouchers in education.

Critics of the administration have long contended the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was designed as much to displace the public element of education as to improve the achievement of students. Focusing on the lack of adequate yearly progress provides the rationale for transferring public school students to religious or corporate education programs–accompanied by the dollars previously available to public schools.

For a while, that effect was slowed by two circumstances. First, sufficient space was often unavailable in alternative settings, so students simply could not be transferred to private and parochial schools. Second, public schools and their affiliated organizations stepped forward to provide the remedial services required under NCLB. The most notable example of this came in New York, where affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers won contracts to provide supplemental education services under NCLB.

Giving teacher unions a piece of the action was almost certainly not what the Bush administration had in mind. So in mid October, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued rulings likely to bring that solution to a screeching halt. (See “Feds tighten tutoring rules under NCLB.”)

It would be wrong, ED has declared, to allow educators affiliated with a troubled school to offer remedial services to struggling students. This stance by ED might make sense regarding the school itself, but the ruling seems less sensible when extended to anyone associated with the troubled school. Is it a case of guilt by association?

What if an inept principal or an intransigent school board actually were the proximate cause of inadequate yearly progress? In that case, the same argument used to champion certain types of charter schools–namely, that progress depends on freeing educators from burdensome rules and regulations–would seem to apply equally well to Supplemental Education Services (SES) providers. But when it comes to SES, the charter-school argument is missing in action.

The transfer to corporations of a large portion of $2 billion-plus per year in federal education funds seems likely to further weaken troubled public schools at the same time as it underwrites the development of private and parochial educational services. Perform or perish? Maybe this approach by ED could be justified as some Darwinian, “survival of the fittest” strategy, except for one thing.

The new beneficiaries of this government largesse face none of the stringent accountability imposed by NCLB on public schools. The Bush administration leaves monitoring the effectiveness of SES providers to the states. States in turn “are encouraged,” but not required, to create comprehensive methods of evaluating those entities receiving the money redirected from public schools. So far, I’m unaware of the establishment of a stringent SES monitoring system in any state.

The Bush SES strategy seems to go something like this: (a) create a federally mandated system of accountability for the public schools, (b) provide less than the funding necessary to implement the program, (c) encourage corporate alternatives to public education, (d) transfer federal funding out of public schools to those private entities, (e) tell the states to shoulder the burden of monitoring the performance of the SES programs.

The ultimate outcome seems predictable. Education delivered by corporations will be strengthened; education in public schools will be weakened.

If you find your kindly HMO a superior alternative to the family doctor and local hospital, the push for privatization in education should give you reason to cheer. Just don’t expect your friendly SES to sign off on your prescription for learning.