The Public Broadcasting System has been airing a three part documentary, School Inc., on the local PBS stations that have chosen to pick up the program. It is a piece of libertarian propaganda and makes no attempt to balance its advocacy for privatized and unregulated schooling. The film was created and is narrated by Andrew Coulson, who, for ten years before his premature death of brain cancer at age 48, served as director of the libertarian, Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. In 1999, he published a book, Market Education: The Unknown History, but he is said to have considered the film, School Inc., his magnum opus.
On Tuesday afternoon, Diane Ravitch posted on her blog a commentary on Coulson’s three-part “personal reflection” on school privatization. Ravitch posted the same piece on Huffington Post, and in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss picked up and republished Ravitch’s commentary. Ravitch was also interviewed about Coulson’s film on New York’s WNET, Channel 13. You can watch the 10 minute interview.
Ravitch correctly pegs School Inc. as a piece of right-wing, libertarian propaganda, an unbalanced attack on public education: “(T)he Public Broadcasting System is broadcasting a ‘documentary’ that tells a one-sided story, the story that (Betsy) DeVos herself would tell, based on the work of the late free-market advocate Andrew Coulson… Uninformed viewers who see this very slickly produced program will learn about the glories of unregulated schooling, for-profit schools, teachers selling their lessons to students on the internet. They will learn about the ‘success’ of the free market in schooling in Chile, Sweden, and New Orleans. They will hear about the miraculous charter schools across America, and how public school officials selfishly refuse to encourage the transfer of public funds to private institutions… What they will not see or hear is the other side of the story.”
On his blog The Grade, on the website of the Phi Delta Kappan, Alexander Russo printed a very thoughtful review of School Inc. by Amy Shuffleton, Associate Professor of Cultural and Educational Policy Studies at Loyola University Chicago. She writes: “Two major premises, that education is best categorized as an industry and that industry is best subjected to unfettered free market forces, are maintained throughout. The upside of this approach is that those premises give the series a strong through line as it builds its argument across three hour-long, globe-trekking episodes. The downside is that the series never considers countervailing accounts of education and presents only strawman versions of the evidence that challenges his (Andrew Coulson’s) ideals… Supporters of traditional public schooling can find grounds to quarrel with Coulson’s interpretations all the way through.”
Who, besides Andrew Coulson and the Cato Institute, were involved in producing this film? Shuffleton explains: “School Inc was produced by Free to Choose Media. According to a Free to Choose spokesperson, it was created by Coulson, who raised the funding necessary to make it… Free to Choose network shares a name with its first production, the 10-part series by economist Milton Friedman that aired on PBS in 1980. Friedman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976, argued that free market economic principles are the basis of human freedom and wellbeing. Friedman’s neoliberal followers have opposed government regulations in a host of domains, including education.” The foundation now called EdChoice, which promotes the privatization of public education, was formerly named the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Ravitch examines the funders: “I researched the funders and discovered that the lead funder is the Rose Mary and Jack Anderson Foundation, a very conservative foundation that is a major contributor to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now EdChoice), which advocates for vouchers. The Anderson Foundation is allied with Donors Trust, whose donors make contributions that cannot be traced to them. Mother Jones referred to this foundation as part of ‘the-dark money ATM of the conservative movement.’ Other contributors to Donors Trust include the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity’ and the Richard and Helen DeVos foundation. The second major funder is the Prometheus Foundation. It’s public filings with the IRS show that its largest grant ($2.5 million) went to the Ayn Rand Institute. The third listed funder of School Inc. is the Steve and Lana Hardy Foundation, which contributes to free-market libertarian think tanks.”
If you google for reviews of the three-part School Inc., you will find several besides the column I have referenced here by Amy Shuffleton at The Grade. The other reviews were part of the promotion of the film—from the Cato Institute, Free To Choose Media, the National Review, and the Civitas Institute, a far-right North Carolina “think tank” affiliated with Art Pope.
Here is how the Cato Institute, in a memorial reflection at the time of his death, described Andrew Coulson’s qualifications for leading its Center for Educational Freedom: “Andrew Coulson grew up in Canada and got a degree in mathematics and computer science from McGill University, after which he became a software engineer at Microsoft. As we said in announcing his joining Cato as director of the Center for Educational Freedom, ‘while Bill Gates quit school to form Microsoft, Andrew Coulson quit Microsoft to reform schools.'”
The film’s full title is School Inc.: A Personal Journey with Andrew Coulson. Here is the PBS online blurb about the series. When Valerie Strauss inquired why PBS is running such a biased program, here was the reply: “A PBS spokesman said in an email… that the network stations ‘offer programs that reflect diverse viewpoints and promote civic dialogue’ and that School Inc. is ‘an independent production that reflects the personal viewpoint of series creator Andrew Coulson.'”
Ironically the Public Broadcasting System’s existence is under attack by libertarians who believe that government should have no role in broadcast media. President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget eliminates government funding for PBS.