The Big Picture: Privatizing Education (Part One of Three)

The Big Picture: Privatizing Education (Part One of Three)
By Kristin

The  “education reform” sweeping the nation right now isn’t reform at all. It’s privatization and deregulation. This three-part article explains what privatization is and who benefits from it. The forthcoming Part Two will explain the strategy being used, and Part Three will show how the different aspects of  “education reform” work together as a process — and how it can be stopped!

Part One: An Introduction to Privatization
Since the 1800s, public education has been free and available to everyone. It held the promise that allowed people to strive for equal education and equal opportunity for everyone. But there is now a strong push to privatize every element of our public education system, including our schools, teachers, and curriculum. By the time my children graduate high school, will it still be universally available? Will it even be called “public education” any more?

The parents, teachers, and students who support public education can fight privatization through widespread, coordinated, and sustained opposition.

But there’s one big obstacle standing in the way of this opposition: the process is big, complicated, and sneaky. It involves a lot of money going a lot of different places – including but not limited to, lobbying dollars, propaganda in the mass media, and “astroturf”, fake grassroots groups – and supporting a lot of seemingly unrelated education policies.
To fight privatization, we need a holistic understanding of the process. To that end, this article provides a short overview of the privatization efforts currently underway, who’s behind them, and how the privatization process works. The results may surprise you!

What is Privatization?
Privatization is a process of shifting the ownership and management of public services from the public sector (the state or government) to the private sector (businesses that operate for a private profit and privately funded nonprofits). Proponents claim that by encouraging competition, privatization can improve the efficiency of public services. But there can be serious drawbacks. For instance, before fire departments were publicly run, groups of firefighters sometimes set fires just to earn money by putting them out!

Another drawback is that privatization also takes away democratic public control of our public services. If government officials mismanage public services, we can vote them out of office. But when private corporations mismanage them, we can’t. Only the shareholders have the power to fire the CEOs. Even worse, privatization undermines the basic fabric of our democracy for years to come by putting rote learning ahead of critical thinking.

Yet another drawback is that privatization opens the door for deregulation, which is the lifting of restrictions that provide for health, safety, and quality control. Whenever a private corporation runs an industry, it has a strong financial incentive to lobby the government to deregulate. Recent examples include the deregulation of the mortgage industry, which led to our current financial crisis, and the deregulation of the oil industry, which led to the catastrophic Deepwater oil spill.

A final drawback is that privatized and deregulated schools are neither required nor expected to create equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. That’s why the UCLA has reported that charter schools are increasing segregation in the United States.

Charter schools can also do an “end run” around requirements to provide special education for high-need students. They can serve a special few while ignoring the greater good.

Despite these drawbacks, the rich and powerful have been pushing for privatization of a wide number of public services, such as public utilities, national parks, universities, and even social security. The push to privatize public education has been going on for decades and includes school choice, vouchers, charter schools, the privatization of curriculum, and more. There are also efforts underway to deregulate schools and teaching, replacing protections with the illusion of quality control through standardized testing.

Who Benefits from Privatization?
The business that takes over the public service benefits directly from privatization. Billionaires and large corporations also benefit, if it means the government will cut taxes for the rich. Politicians and bureaucrats with connections also benefit through kickbacks.

Who’s Pushing for Privatization?
Billionaires (such as the Walton family, the Koch brothers, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Eli and Blythe Broad) and corporations are pushing heavily for the privatization of education and other services, both for financial reasons and ideological ones.
From the point of view of billionaires, the free market is ideal. It made them rich, after all. To the extent that they want to improve education, they want to remake the system in the image of a corporation, with top-down management, competition, decreased spending, and a focus on results. Of course, the view from the top is nothing like the view from the bottom. How can billionaires who have never gone through the public education system have any idea of the challenges that teachers and students actually face?
As for corporations, they don’t “want” anything in particular. They can’t; they’re not human beings. They are essentially machines whose primary goal is to maximize profits. To further that goal, corporations have an interest in lowering taxes. They also have an interest in directly controlling exactly what is taught to tomorrow’s workforce. They do not have a need for equal opportunity in education, because not all workers in tomorrow’s economy need to think for themselves or to read beyond basic literacy.
Finally, there are companies that simply profit off education, taking taxpayer and grant dollars to produce a product. This includes charter schools, teacher preparation programs, online learning systems, standardized tests, and test prep curriculum. Privatization helps them because it creates new markets. Opening a charter school, for instance, means that brand new teachers can be hired and brand new curriculum can be sold. (Of course, this also means that existing teachers must be fired and curriculum thrown away.)

Next up:
Part Two of this three-part article will continue by explaining the strategy that billionaires are using to push for privatization and deregulation: using nonprofits.


8 thoughts on “The Big Picture: Privatizing Education (Part One of Three)

  1. Kristin
    I can speculate on that question. Historically the forces behind colonization have always promoted free trade, which is anything but free, and creates monopoly control of world commerce. The net result is local dependance on global economic forces. Any measure of critical thinking would debunk this system in favor of bioregional development (state owned banks, community loans, and regional sustainable non-polluting industry). The financial tycoons don’t want this to happen because they would lose their grip on the system. Hence the things they do control are tightened up.

    The new inquiry math curriculums are sold under the guise that they nurture critical thinking and teach students to be able to work cooperatively and that these are important skills for the 21st century. However, calculating the number of Sally’s jellybeans at the end of a day in which she has been trading different colored jellies is not my idea of critical thinking. In the mean time many math concepts are not covered.

    Critical thinking should involve questioning our expensive, polluting energy policies, our broken political and economic system, the endless wars, the popularized junk science and the corporate media that parrot for this culture of ignorance in which people know more about the cult of celebrity than they do about the fraudulent mathematics of international financiers. This type of critical thinking is not part of the corporate agenda. They do not want us questioning the system, that is why corporate reformers are taking over public education. They want to control what is taught, who teaches it and how it is taught. Make no mistake about it, this is a hostile takeover.

    A few educators are sincerely part of this curricular reform and they are rewarded handsomely for their work. There is no empirical evidence that students learn more math with inquiry-based methodologies but this is a faith based group which is blind to the corporate designs behind it. The individual players don’t really understand this and are not willing to bite the hand that feeds them.

    If corporations were really interested in nurturing critical thinking skills, they would lobby for a curriculum that evaluates the voting irregularities in the the last few elections, both federal and local, or the financial instruments that precipitated the current crises. This would be much more interesting and beneficial than having high school students count jellies in their math class, but then there is a danger that students might actually develop thinking skills and question the system. So instead our youth are being dumbed down to preserve the status quo of corporate monopoly.



  2. David – you wrote:

    “The corporate reform model for mathematics teaching involves a preponderance of inquiry style teaching (and training) at the expense of content. Due to time restrictions the concepts necessary for college get short shift in this formula. Inquiry is important but so is content and memory, the trick is to impart a fair balance of both. ”

    There’s been controversy in the Seattle school district over the adoption of the Discovery Math curriculum for just this reason. Folks at the “Where is the Math” blog say it has too much inquiry and not enough content. (I haven’t seen the curriculum, so I can’t say myself.) Why would corporate reform favor this, when models that balance both do exist? Is it just faddishness, or something else?

  3. As a former math teacher (11 months out), this is how the regulation game goes. Deregulate accountability measures for the administration of charters and impose super-stringent, impossible to meet, accountability measures on public school teachers. This involves having to depend on your lively hood based on student testing, more training which tires you out and takes away student contact time after school, longer working hours, community outreach (documented home visits), a plethora of staff meetings, and summer and weekend workshops, just to name a few.

    The corporate reform model for mathematics teaching involves a preponderance of inquiry style teaching (and training) at the expense of content. Due to time restrictions the concepts necessary for college get short shift in this formula. Inquiry is important but so is content and memory, the trick is to impart a fair balance of both. College math instructors and professors are well aware of this imbalance and its disastrous impacts on education. There are huge financial incentives for corporate testing and textbook companies through the sale of tests, books, computer programs, technology, and teacher training programs.

    The charter school teachers are subject to this rigorous insanity as well. The difference is that the business model of charter regulations usually prevent union organizing, and provide relatively no protections against unfair working conditions. So teachers in charter schools are just as overworked and their jobs are just as tenuous. The competitive hostile atmosphere in this merit pay model destroys the cooperative and nurturing environment so necessary for real learning. The Corporate argument is that competition breeds excellence. However, according to developmental psychology, learning comes from self-competition or friendly competition with others, not the hostile competition of the business model which destroys other players and is closer to warfare than it is to nurturing social progress and cognitive growth. So the charter school regulations work to benefit the corporate owners and torture the teachers.

    The teachers and students in schools subject to austerity conditions due to government takeovers like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” are also in a dangerous school environment and subject to the same abuses listed above.


  4. Well said, Michael. This is a gem: “So-called non-profits are all too often just another arm of the same profit-seeking body, only with better PR.” What worries me is that a whole lot of people have no idea this is the case.

    Tom, in what way would you say regulation has increased? When I think about deregulation, I’m thinking most especially about teacher certification, and that process hasn’t fully happened yet. But it’s in the works.

  5. One of the many ironies ( or perhaps better to say, deceptions) of so-called “free-market” ideology and practice is that its players in fact rely on huge government subsidies, whether direct or hidden.

    All those rugged individualists in the oil industry rely on the oil depletion allowance, which uses the tax code to subsidize them. The auto industry’s profits for generations have been partly based on public construction and maintenance of highways (and in some cities, the willful destruction of public transportation systems). The ongoing bailouts of the commercial and investment banks demonstrate that while the profits are privatized, the losses are borne by the public, and ed deform privateers expect tax dollars to pay for their privately-run charter schools.

    These folks are often called free market fundamentalists, but that’s a misnomer that should be constantly pointed out: the fundamentalist part is correct, but the idea that they are actually risking their own money is a gross falsehood that should be exposed at every opportunity.The constantly repeated trope that business in this country, going back to its origins, does not rely on government investment is a falsehood.

    Even the so-called philanthropy (which, because it is largely driven by the economic interests of its funders, should be called malanthropy) of entities like the Microsoft Foundation are indirectly subsidized by taxpayers who must make up for the taxes they don’t pay. In effect, teacher’s (and everyone else’s) tax dollars are subsidizing the creation and implementation of privately-formulated education policy and attacks against themselves, since the immense funds at the disposal of the Microsoft Foundation are untaxed.

    So-called non-profits are all too often just another arm of the same profit-seeking body, only with better PR.

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