The Big Picture: Privatizing Education

The Big Picture: Privatizing Education

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.)

How Do They Get Power?

Billionaires and corporations exert their influence and push for privatization using a myriad of strategies, some obvious and some not. They can directly lobby the state and federal government for change. Through ownership of mass media, they can also put out PR in favor of privatization and deregulation, thereby swaying public officials and voters. Those strategies are fairly obvious.

But some of the ways that billionaires and corporations exert their influence are not so obvious. In fact, they’re deliberately hidden. The rich and powerful use a variety of strategies to influence the government (at the federal, state, local, district, and school level) and the general public. Then they hide those strategies and their influence by acting through a nonprofit or grassroots group, which they have either created out of thin air or manipulated using a grant with strings attached. The nonprofit or grassroots group then manipulates the government and the general public.

Figure 1 shows how this influence works to divert the public from its goal of improving and fully funding schools to the corporate goals of privatizing and deregulating them.

This strategy is as effective as it is despicable, because it takes advantage of our quite reasonable expectation that nonprofits work for the greater good and this influence works to divert the public from its goal of improving and fully funding schools to the corporate goals of privatizing and deregulating them.

How Billionaires and Corporations Influence the Public

Billionaires and corporations direct the activities of nonprofits and grassroots groups through philanthropic foundations. For example, the family that owns WalMart has the Walton Family Foundation, Bill Gates has the Gates Foundation, and the owner of the Gap has the Fisher Foundation. These foundations can then create or fund a nonprofit and then influence that nonprofit by making grants with strings attached or buying a seat on the board of directors. Then they use that nonprofit to push, tax-free, for policy changes. Foundations and nonprofits can also create astroturf (fake grassroots) groups that urge their constituency to lobby for policy changes.

Even worse, foundations and nonprofits contribute to existing, trusted nonprofits and grassroots groups, encouraging the group to participate in one small, innocuous-seeming “Trojan horse” activity that pushes for privatization without the members of that group knowing how the activity contributes to the bigger picture. For instance, a push to deregulate teaching can be sneaked into legitimate efforts to improve teaching.

This isn’t just hypothetical. There is direct evidence that this is currently happening in many different nonprofits and grassroots groups. Through foundations, billionaires and corporations are pushing for privatization and deregulation by:

  • lobbying and making campaign contributions
  • distributing propaganda through mass media and think tanks
  • making grants to federal, state, and local government agencies

A few examples of their activities are:

Taken together, these activities and others like them work together in order to build a larger process of privatization.

How Are the Rich and Powerful Privatizing Education?

The process by which our education system is becoming privatized is fairly complicated and includes a number of different parties acting in different ways and for different reasons. Some are explicitly calling for privatization and underfunding of schools. Others are working toward privatization secretly, and still others have been tricked into working toward privatization. So you can’t always pick one person or organization and say, “They want privatization!” But if we understand privatization as a system, we can look at a particular activity and say, “Yes, that is contributing to privatization.”

The groundwork for privatization was laid decades ago. To get a sense for how privatization works over the long term, let’s go back to Brown vs. the Board of Education. That’s when the Supreme Court said that all Black children could attend the same public schools as white children. Some people celebrated that momentous decision, but others immediately took their children out of the public school system and began advocating for private schools, charter schools, school choice, and vouchers. Right then and there, public education found a potent enemy, one that’s been working against it both openly and secretly ever since.

Now let’s step ahead a couple of decades to the year No Child Left Behind was passed. What was that all about, anyway? Who, besides President Bush, wanted it? And why, if the stated goal was to support struggling students and schools, did it punish them with high-stakes testing and school closures? And why, if the stated goal was to help schools, did Bush cut funding by enacting tax cuts for the rich?

Figure 2 shows how, after desegregation, the rich and powerful have been laying the groundwork for privatized schools. They have used private funding and vouchers to strengthen charter and public schools. At the same time, they have been using tax and funding cuts, as well as No Child Left Behind, to weaken schools.

Figure 2: Laying the Groundwork for Privatized Schools

In the years since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, billionaires and corporations have continued to stack the deck against public schools by underfunding public schools and funding private and charter schools. Some charter schools are heavily showcased and then promoted as charter school successes; but this is a “bait-and-switch” tactic, because such money wouldn’t be available to every school after privatization.

At the same time, billionaires and corporations have been funding propaganda in support of private schools through mass media PR, grants to nonprofits, and faulty think tank research. This propaganda encourages legislation that deregulates schools, allowing charter and public schools to break into new markets.

The number of charter schools in the United States has been increasing, and legislation allowing them has been introduced in most states. Wherever they appear, they begin to drain resources (students and per-student funding) from public schools, gradually replacing public schools. As they become more powerful and gain more public and private funding, they can keep the ball running all by themselves, joining with billionaires to market the concept of charter schools and lobby for charter-friendly legislation.

Add Charters, De-professionalize Teaching, and Impose High-Stakes Testing

But even with the heavy lifting of billionaires and corporations, charter schools can’t compete with public schools unless they’re cheaper or look better. That’s where two other two aspects of privatization come in: the de-professionalization of teaching and the imposition of high-stakes testing. Figure 3 shows how they work together to strengthen each other.

Figure 3 The Big Three: Charters, Testing, De-professionalized Teaching

The de-professionalization of teaching leads to the availability of less expensive teachers who have less power in the workforce. Such teachers can staff charter schools more cheaply and are more willing to “teach to the test.” Teaching to the test also means that charter schools can use prepackaged curriculum that requires no professional input from the teacher. Billionaires and corporations are de-professionalizing teaching in several different ways:

  • Deregulating teaching by attacking National Board certification and proposing “alternative” forms of certification
  • Attacking the rights of teachers to bargain collectively, which reduces their democratic voice in the workplace
  • Attacking teacher seniority.

“Alternative,” or weakened forms of certification, pave the way for poor-quality teacher training programs. More rigorous teacher training programs do exist, but they are showcased in a “bait-and-switch”that justifies legislation allowing alternative certification. This lays the groundwork for teachers who have received as little as five weeks of training, such as Teach for America, to lead a high-need classroom all by themselves.

Charter schools use these fast-track and five-week programs to cut labor costs. This forces public schools to consider them as well. At the same time as competition is established between fast-track and National Board-certified teachers, legislation is introduced that attacks seniority rights and propaganda is introduced that magnifies public frustration with “bad teachers” who are said to be protected by the union. Legislation and propaganda also attacks teacher’s rights to bargain collectively, which for decades has been safeguarding teaching as a profession and giving teachers a democratic voice in the workplace.

As charter schools and fast-track teacher preparation programs have gained ground, they’ve been able to more cheaply educate, or at least warehouse, children. This creates a false impression that schools need less money, which leads to further underfunding of schools. The underfunded schools then look bad in comparison to the charter schools. And when competition is encouraged between schools, public schools lose students and the funding that goes with them.

High-stakes standardized testing adds its own influence to the mix. Since the days of No Child Left Behind, high-stakes standardized testing has been punishing struggling schools and students. Although standardized testing has the potential to identify areas needing improvement, adding a high-stakes component undermines that potential and intensifies competition between schools. Using test scores to measure schools also opens the door for a misuse of statistics.

Race to the Top and various state initiatives go beyond NCLB and punish teachers and principals for student performance. They also provide an excuse to fire experienced, National Board-certified teachers, which opens slots for inexperienced teachers.

Finally, forcing schools and teachers to compete for less and less funding weakens charter schools and public schools alike. But there’s one important difference. When a school is forced to close, billionaires and corporations are ready to step in and support a new charter school. They don’t support new public schools. Sometimes public funding isn’t even provided equally. Thus, competition between schools leads to more and more charter schools. The same is true of teachers. When teachers are fired, underfunded districts have an enormous pressure to hire inexperienced, fast-track teachers. That’s why the number of charter schools and fast-track teachers in the United States has been increasing.

How to Stop Privatization

This article provided an overview of privatization, but that’s only the first step. The framework built here is not meant to be used on its own, but to give some context that will allow a concrete understanding of how real people and organizations are affected, right down to the level of the classroom. That is a project all on its own. The good news is that anybody with a keyboard and a healthy dose of skepticism and a computer can help fill in the blanks.

For starters, whenever a nonprofit or grassroots groups ask you to “help” public education, look at who is funding them and who is on the board of directors. Consider what strings may be attached.

Also watch out for propaganda, especially when it involves “glittering generalities” such as “education reform” or “effective teaching” — terms that may have very different meanings to you than to the person using them.

Finally, watch government activity at the federal, state, local, and district levels. Whenever legislation is introduced and whenever the school district proposes a new policy, could it be used to promote privatization?

It’s helpful for one person to understand privatization in a concrete sense, but it’s not nearly enough. Large numbers of people need to understand it, too. To some extent, people have only gone along with privatization because they’ve been tricked and lied to. And that’s where we can effect change: by informing ourselves and then sharing our knowledge with our friends and neighbors.

Remember: in a democracy, it’s the people who dictate public policy. Simply put, we outnumber billionaires. If we work together as a community, we can stop privatization, reverse course, and head toward the dream of fully funded, democratically controlled schools for all.


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