Education: The Next Corporate Frontier

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Education: The Next Corporate Frontier

(Photo: Phil Roeder/cc/flickr)

I’m no education expert. Having worked in the environmental and new economy fields for the last two decades, my main concern when it comes to schooling has been what children learn. Along with most activists I know, I’d like to see kids get outdoors more, learn about the intricacies of ecosystems, understand the urgency of climate change, experience growing their own food, and acquire the knowledge and understanding essential to becoming environmentally-conscious citizens. I’d like school reform to be a part of rebuilding vibrant local economies and sustainable communities. This is what I thought was at the heart of the struggle for better education. But there’s a battle being waged on a different front. One that will overwhelm and undo any improvements we’ve made if social and environmental activists don’t join in the fight. 

Over the last thirty years or so, private corporations have been steadily taking over school systems all around the world. Going hand in hand with “free” trade and development, the privatization of education is simply another step towards corporate control of the entire economy. If you’re tuned in to education news in the US, you may be familiar with the public school closures in Chicago, the so-called Recovery School District in New Orleans, and the proposed budget cuts in Milwaukee that have brought parents, students and teachers into the streets. But few of us hear about how students in Chile have been protesting for nearly a decade against rampant privatization that has increased economic inequality. Or how the UK government recently passed an education act allowing the conversion of all state schools into privately run “academies”. Or how Structural Adjustment Programs and development aid have paved the way for privatization of schools across Africa, which has resulted in reduced enrollment of girls and exclusion of the poorest children. Or how similar takeovers are happening in Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, India, and many other countries. 

Privatization exists in different forms, including vouchers, public private partnerships, low-fee private schools, and charter schools. Whatever it’s called, it amounts to the same thing: private corporations gaining control of and profiting from an essential public function. In every country, the identical argument is used: public schools are failing, reform is needed and big business will do it best, providing choice and efficiency. If the statistics don’t match the argument, they are concealed or doctored to fit. 

Privatization in education is eerily reminiscent of every other sector that has come under corporate control; many of the justifications and methods are exactly the same. Just as in agriculture, technology is touted as creating “efficiency.” Just as in healthcare, we’re presented with the illusion of “consumer choice.” Just as in global trade, corporations are deregulated and given generous subsidies. Just as in manufacturing, skilled employees are displaced by underpaid workers with no job security. Just as in energy, the profit motive trumps the wellbeing of people and planet. Just as in politics, legislation is influenced by rich private interests. In none of these sectors has corporate control brought about increased wellbeing for any but the richest segment of society. Why will education be any different? 

However, there is money to be made. A lot of it. A couple of years ago, estimates of the global education market topped $4 trillion. Currently, the US education market alone is worth over $700 billion. A large chunk of this is tax money, disbursed to schools by local and federal government, and the business world wants a piece of it. Last year, transactions in the K-12 sector totaled nearly $400 million. There’s clearly still a lot of money to be grabbed and privatizers are doubling down on their efforts. 

“We see the education industry today as the healthcare industry of 30 years ago,” Michael Moe, who leads the investment and consultancy firm GSV, has said. Their website explains that “GSV stands for ‘Global Silicon Valley’—emphasizing our belief that Silicon Valley is no longer just a physical place, but also a mindset that has gone viral…. A key part of our mission is to re-imagine what education is—with a bias toward innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, and others who look at learning differently.” The keynote speaker at their last summit was former Florida Governor (and current Presidential hopeful) Jeb Bush. In attendance were representatives from nearly 300 companies, including AT&T, Netflix, and media conglomerate Graham Holding Company. 

GSV is not an exception. The emphasis wherever you look is on more and more technology in schools, what they’re calling “edtech.” As the TechCrunch website declares: “with better digital video solutions storming into every classroom, learning is actually becoming an enjoyable experience.” Privatization in this form may be less overt than a corporation running a whole school, but it’s an equally effective way for business to profit from education – all under the guise of benefiting students. 

At least one charter school chain has taken this tech-reliant model and run with it. Rocketship operates eleven charter schools in California, Wisconsin, and Tennessee, and just received a $2 million grant from Netflix to continue their expansion. A report last year by political economist and professor Gordon Lafer found Rocketship to be “a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty, that reduces curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on reading and math, and that replaces teachers with online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of the day.” 

It’s important to point out that these kind of charter schools are not the sites of personalized, innovative education they were originally intended to be. As a former teacher from New Jersey put it, the charter school movement has been “transformed from community-based, educator-initiated local efforts designed to provide alternative approaches for a small number of students, into nationally funded efforts by foundations, investors, and educational management companies to create a parallel, more privatized school system.” Like so many initiatives started as local alternatives to global capitalism, the charter school has become the perfect mechanism for private companies to insert themselves between the government and the people, siphoning off tax money into their coffers. 

However, schools must still compete with each other to gain government support and attract students – and they do both by achieving high test scores. That gets tricky when you’re increasing your profit margins by cutting teacher salaries and skimping on training, support, and other essential services. So how do you do it? You exclude poorly-performing students. One teacher in Ohio writes on his blog: “I teach plenty of students whom the market would consider losers. They take too long to learn. They have developmental obstacles to learning. They have disciplinary issues. They may be learning disabled. They have families of origin who create obstacles rather than providing support. What this means to a market-driven education system is that these loser students are too costly, offer too little profit margin, and, in their failures, hurt the numbers that are so critical to marketing the school.… [T]hat means that students who do not serve the interests of the free-market school must be dumped, tossed out, discarded.” 

Even with this exclusionary practice in place, charter schools are not, on the whole, performing better than public schools. A Stanford University study showed that three-quarters of them actually had the same or significantly worse test results in reading when compared to public schools. 71% were no better in math scores. Taking Rocketship as an example, the organization saw its assets grow from $2.2 million to $15.8 million in just three years, all while test scores of students fell at every one of their schools. 

Still, privatizers continue to use high-stakes testing as justification for taking over and shutting down public schools, as well as excluding students. There is currently a growing counter-movement, led by parents, to let their children “opt out” of standardized tests. But this movement goes beyond testing. Co-founder of the organization United Opt-out, Tim Slekar, says: “We are not an anti-testing movement, we are a revolutionary movement against the corporate takeover of education.” 

As in every sector of the economy, this people’s revolution needs to take place at both the grassroots and policy levels. At Local Futures, we have a phrase that encapsulates how we see building the new economy. We call it “resistance and renewal.” On one hand, we need to resist further globalization, privatization, and related policies that transfer power from people to corporations. On the other, we need to renew the human-scale economic structures that support healthy communities, equitable societies, and genuine environmental sustainability. 

Communities have made real strides in the area of renewal: alternative schools, such as Waldorf and forest schools, school gardens, and climate change curricula are all good examples. And we need more. But without resistance at the policy level, grassroots initiatives will remain isolated and likely flounder over time. Right now, education policy is changing rapidly and is disproportionately influenced by private interests, worldwide. In the US, corporate-backed ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), more commonly associated with “Stand your Ground” gun laws, has been pivotal in drafting education legislation across many states. The Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK has consistently funneled tax moneys into expanding private control over education across Africa and Asia, including Ghana, Tanzania, Nepal and Pakistan. Global trade treaties, like the TPP, limit the regulatory capacity of governments, so that any restrictions or quality standards that prevent corporations from profiting in national education markets could be considered trade barriers and struck down. 

Like in all sectors, resistance to these policies takes coordinated effort with a broad base of support. Yet, so far, the fight against privatization in education has been left mostly to teachers, parents, students, and other education activists. It’s also being fought on separate fronts—at the school district and state levels, or at best nationally. 

In recent years, social and environmental movements have gotten better at bridging divides and going international. The historic alliances of “tree-huggers” and trade unionists forged at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle have blossomed into a new economy movement that is purposely inclusive, encompassing issues of inequality, race, environmental destruction, trade, democracy, conflict and so on. Last year’s People’s Climate March was another step forward, as nearly half a million citizens marched in the streets of New York City and many more thousands in solidarity marches around the world. 

Yet, when it comes to education, we’re lucky if a few thousand show up. 

Education has profound implications for the economy, for human wellbeing, and for the future of life on this planet. It is about both what and how we teach children. Do we want private investors and corporations to decide that? If not, then those of us in the new economy and environmental movements need to join our voices to those of the education activists and resist further privatization.

Kristen Steele

Kristen Steele

Kristen Steele, Associate Programs Director for Local Futures, has worked in the new economy and environmental fields for over 15 years. She is currently studying for a PhD at University College London on the intersection between economics and wildlife conservation.

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