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The assault by
corporate America on public education has taken an ominous turn in the last decade. Funded
by an array of conservative institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, Hudson
Institute, and the Olin Foundation, the corporate drive to undermine public education has
enlisted an army of conservative pundits many of whom served in the Department of
Education under Presidents Reagan and Bush. Some of the more well-known members of this
reform movement include Chester Finn Jr., Lamar Alexander, Diane Ravitch, David Kearns,
and William Bennett. Providing policy papers, op-ed commentaries, appearing on television
talk shows, and running a variety of educational clearinghouses and resource centers,
these stalwart opponents of public education relentlessly blame the schools for the
country’s economic woes. Citing low test scores, a decline in basic skills, and the
watering down of the school curriculum, Ravitch and others use such critiques to
legitimate the ideology of privatization with its accompanying call for vouchers, charter
schools, and the placing of public schools entirely in the control of corporate
contractors. More specific reforms simply recycle right-wing ideology critiques calling
for the replacement of teacher unions and “giving parents choice, back-to-basics and
performance-driven curriculums, management ‘design teams’ and accountability.”

Underlying the call
for privatization is a reform movement in which public education is seen as “a local
industry that over time will become a global business.” As a for-profit venture,
public education represents a market worth over $600 billion dollars, and the importance
of such a market has not been lost on conservatives such as Chester Finn, Jr. and David
Kearns, both of whom have connections with for-profit schooling groups such as the Edison
Project and the North American Schools Development Corporation. At the level of policy,
the right-wing assault by all reports has been quite successful. More than 28 states have
drafted legislation supporting vouchers, choice programs, and contracting with for-profit
management companies, such as the Edison Project and Sabis International Schools. But the
public’s perception of such ventures appears to be less enthusiastic, and rightly so.
Many firms such as Educational Alternatives Inc., which took over the Hartford and
Baltimore public schools, have had their contracts canceled as a result of numerous
complaints. The complaints range from the way in which such firms deal with kids with
learning disabilities and engage in union busting to the charge that their cookie cutter
standardized curriculum and testing packages fail to provide the quality of educational
results that were initially promised by such companies.

But there is more
at stake in the privatization of public schooling than issues of public versus private
ownership or public good versus private gain. There is also the issue of how individual
achievement is weighed against issues of equity and the social good, how teaching and
learning get defined, what sorts of identities are produced when the histories,
experiences, values, and desires of students are defined through corporate rather than
democratic ideals.

Within the language
of privatization and market reforms, there is a strong emphasis on standards, measurements
of outcomes, and holding teachers and students more accountable. Privatization is an
appealing prospect for legislators who do not want to spend money on schools and for those
Americans who feel that they do not want to support public education through increased
taxes. Such appeals are reductive in nature and hollow in substance. Not only do they
abstract questions of equity and equality from the discussion of standards, they
appropriate the democratic rhetoric of choice and freedom without addressing issues of
power. The ideas and images that permeate this corporate model of schooling reek with the
rhetoric of insincerity and the politics of social indifference.         

Stripped of a
language of social responsibility, the advocates of privatization reject the assumption
that school failure might be better understood within the political, economic, and social
dynamics of poverty, joblessness, sexism, race and class discrimination, unequal funding,
or a diminished tax base. Rather, student failure, especially the failure of poor
minority-group students, is often attributed to a genetically encoded lack of
intelligence, a culture of deprivation, or pathology. Books such as The Bell Curve,
and films such as 187 and Dangerous Minds reinforce such representations
about African-American and Latino urban youth, as they perpetuate a history of racist
exclusions. Similarly, such racist exclusions are being deepened by the informalities of
privatization schemes in which schools mimic the free market, with the assumption that its
regulatory and competitive spirit will allow the most motivated and gifted students to
succeed. There is a shameful element of racism and a retrograde Social Darwinism that
permeates this discussion, one which relinquishes the responsibility of parents, teachers,
administrators, social workers, businesspeople, and other members of the wider society to
provide young people with the cultural resources, economic opportunities, and social
services necessary to learn without having to bear the crushing burdens of poverty,
racism, and other forms of oppression.

Education in this
framework becomes less a social investment than an individual investment, a vehicle for
social mobility for those privileged to have the power to make their choices matter, and a
form of social constraint for those who lack such resources and for whom choice and
accountability betray a legacy of broken promises and an ideology of bad faith.

The privatization
model of schooling also defaults on the legacy of schooling as a public good by
undermining the power of teachers to provide students with the vocabulary and skills of
responsible citizenship. Under the drive to impose national standards and standardized
forms of testing, privatizing school advocates devalue teacher authority and deskill
teachers by dictating not only what they should teach but also how they should teach. Such
pedagogical approaches affirm teachers less as engaged public intellectuals than as
depoliticized, deskilled clerks. The main role of the teacher turned classroom manager is
to legitimate through mandated subject matter and pedagogical practices a market-based
conception of the learner as a consumer of information. A different, but no less important
and dangerous, strategy of the corporate dismantling and take-over of public education is
the right wing promotion of educational choice, vouchers, and charters as a way of both
opening public schools to private contractors and using public tax monies to finance the
creation of private forms of education. Both approaches treat education as a private good,
and both substitute the role of the student as a citizen for that of an educational
consumer. But the real danger at work in privatization is not simply that students who
transfer into private schools will drain money from the public schools, but that they will
further a process already at work in the larger society aimed at eroding “the public
forums in which decisions with social consequences can be democratically resolved.”

As schools struggle
to raise money for texts, curricula, and extra-curricula activities, they often find
themselves engaging in partnerships with businesses such as Campbell Soup, Pepsi,
McDonalds, and Nike, all of whom are willing to provide free curriculum packages that
shamelessly instruct students to recognize brand names or learn the appropriate attitudes
for future work in low-skilled, low-paying jobs rather than learning how to define the
meaning of work and struggle over what it means to subordinate matters of work to the
imperatives of a strong democracy. For example, the McDonald Corporation provided a
curriculum package for Pembroke Lakes elementary school in Broward County in which, as a Business
Week
article reported, students “learned how to design a McDonald’s
restaurant, how a McDonald’s works, and how to apply and interview for a job at
McDonald’s.” When one ten-year old was asked if the curriculum was worthwhile,
she responded, “If you want to work in a McDonald’s when you grow up, you
already know what to do….Also, McDonald’s is better than Burger King.”

Couched in the
language of business competition and individual success, the current educational reform
movement orchestrated by corporate capital in its now near global expansion must be
recognized as a full-fledged attack on both public education and democracy. The goal of
such a movement, as David Stratman has argued, “is not to raise the expectations of
our young people but to narrow, stifle, and crush them.”

Educators at the
public school levels are under massive assault in this country. Not only are they
increasingly losing their autonomy and capacity for imaginative teaching, they
increasingly bear the burden, especially in the urban centers, of overcrowded classes,
limited resources, and hostile legislators. Progressives need to join with community
people, social movements, and teachers in both public and higher education around a common
platform that resists corporate power, the marketing of schools, the deskilling of
teachers, and the reduction of learning to the dictates of selfishness and capital
accumulation.

The meaning and
purpose of such a debate has not been lost on students. During March of this year (1998),
students from over 100 colleges held a series of teach-ins protesting the intrusion and
increasing involvement of corporations in higher education. For those of us who work in
such institutions, it might be time to take an object lesson from these students and
provide an example through our own actions and the willingness to organize and fight
against the current ruthless assault being waged by corporate America against schools and
other sites that attempt to serve the public good

 

Henry
Giroux teaches at Penn State University.