In education, the ideology of free-marketeers—school choice in an education marketplace and privatization—has come to dominate policy not only in the United States but also across the world. Many people call this neoliberal school reform (connoting neo-libertarianism); some call it corporate school reform; others call it right-wing school reform; and some just consider it extreme, conservative thinking. In the U.S. we associate this thinking with conservatives—the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and we know it has a lot to do with the economics of Milton Friedman, but in Europe, it is called “neoliberalism,” which is defined by a faith in privatization and globalized markets.
Naomi Klein helps sort out the confusion about terms: “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities. Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’ In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization.’ Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think tanks with which Friedman had long associations—Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute—called itself ‘neoconservative,’ a world view that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda. All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 14-15)
Klein’s book examines the operation world-wide of free market ideology by tracing examples of its operation when, as public institutions collapse after a natural catastrophe, free-marketeers step in to rescue the services (while making a profit): “I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, p. 6)
Today’s poster child for shock doctrine education “reform” is Liberia’s idea of bringing in Bridge International Academies to manage its entire school system. (This blog has covered the privatization of Liberia’s schools here and here.) Reporting for Foreign Policy in Liberia’s Education Fire Sale, Ashoka Mukpo describes the corporatization of Liberia’s schools as a response to the nation’s education crisis—intensified by the Ebola epidemic: “(T)he deadly Ebola epidemic of 2014… shut down schools for a full academic year and forced many female students to abandon their studies to become breadwinners. Today, the Ministry of Education estimates that 60 percent of primary school-age children aren’t enrolled in classes and as many as 5,000 teachers on the government payroll are ‘ghosts’—meaning that although they don’t show up for work, somebody is pocketing their paychecks…. But if the extent of the crisis is hard to dispute, the country’s plan to fix it has proven a lot more controversial. ‘After Ebola, we can’t go back to what was, because it wasn’t good enough. We have to think about something new,’ said George Werner, Liberia’s education minister, who took office last year… Werner stumbled upon the idea of a public-private partnership somewhat haphazardly. He was at a meeting in the United States last year when he was introduced to Shannon May, a co-founder of Bridge. They got to talking, and a private philanthropist who supports Bridge offered to fly Werner to Kenya to observe Bridge’s schools there.” Bridge online academies operate with a scripted curriculum; even without any training in education, novice teachers can be assigned to large classes where all the students have programmed tablets.
Earlier this spring when Liberia’s plan to turn over its entire education system to Bridge International Academies was reported in the press, the outcry from Liberia’s own education experts, the Liberian diaspora, and experts at international organizations including the United Nations resulted in some modifications to the original plan. Now, according to Mukpo’s Foreign Policy report, instead of turning over the entire system to Bridge, “3 percent of primary schools… (will) be turned over to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates that builds and runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa. As many as 70 more Liberian schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators. If the pilot is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in September 2017. It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by 2020, according to the timeline set by the government.”
Mukpo examines the potential pitfalls of “shock doctrine” school privatization in Liberia: “First, the one-year pilot program looks rigged to succeed, meaning that the march toward additional privatization seems almost inevitable. Bridge and the other providers will be allowed to retain only the most qualified teachers in the schools they manage while letting go those who don’t meet new standards set by the Ministry of Education…. Their replacements will be drawn from a pool of 1,100 USAID-trained teachers who were due to be assigned to public schools… Second, as the program scales, the pool of strong teachers will inevitably shrink. It’s unclear whether Bridge and the other providers will then resort to hiring less qualified teachers or begin recruiting staff from outside the education sector altogether—people who would not be unionized like most current public school teachers…. The battle over the future of Liberian education is a microcosm of a much larger international debate about the role of for-profit companies in reforming public services.”
George Joseph presents another example of corporate, neoliberal school reform in an extraordinary new report for The Nation, Teach for America Has Gone Global, and Its Board Has Strange Ideas About What Poor Kids Need. Again corporate school reform is posed as a response to an education crisis: “According to the Right to Education Forum, in the 2013-14 school year, India had 568,000 teaching positions vacant, and only 22 percent of working teachers had ever received in-service training. This massive shortage means that as of 2015, more than half of Indian public schools were unable to comply with the 2009 Right to Education Act’s mandatory class-size ratios (no more than 30 students to one teacher in elementary schools and 35 in secondary schools). Further, a whopping 91,018 Indian public schools function with just one teacher. Also, more than 50 percent of Indian public schools lack handwashing facilities; 15 percent lack girls’ toilets; and nearly 25 percent don’t have libraries. As in many developing countries, these failures fuel the problem of teacher absenteeism in India.”
But no matter! One solution with widespread support among the elite is Teach for India, modeled after Teach for America, and part of a worldwide network, Teach for All. As Joseph quotes the rhetoric used by Indian and Pakistani entrepreneurs to promote Teach for All programming, you will notice something familiar: “‘Your classrooms may be hot and lack electricity, and you may not have enough desks or books, but we know that a high-quality teacher can do more to change a student’s life than fans and desks,’ declared former Teach for Pakistan CEO Khadija S. Bakhtiar, in an address to the organization’s incoming class of 2013 fellows. ‘Be the teacher and leave your students independent, empowered, and inquisitive.’ It is this sort of promise that makes Teach for All so enticing to sponsors like the World Bank, which have long pushed developing countries to slash and privatize their public health-care and education systems… By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character…”
In a moving profile of an Indian public school teacher, Joseph contrasts her professional realities with the inflated rhetoric that elevates public hopes not for her but for her less experienced Teach for India recruit down the hall: “In Ms. D’s second-grade classroom the effects of the cuts in education spending by Prime Minister Narenda Modi (a close friend of Teach for India’s corporate patrons) and the failure of the Indian state to properly develop a public-school system were immediately noticeable, even in India’s financial capital (Mumbai). Ms. D’s class has 22 desks and 36 students—about the same as the Teach for India classroom down the hall. But unlike the TFI fellows, she has never had a ‘co-teacher’ or ‘para-teacher’ to help with this load. The class size, Ms. D readily tells me, is clearly in violation of the Right to Education Act—but she goes on, attempting to do right by her students… Given this lack of assistance, Ms. D teaches her students in eight-minute stints, leaving them to practice lessons with each other as she hunches over her desk, furiously completing the paperwork necessary to get the state-provided amenities to which the students are entitled… Ms. D isn’t only a teacher; she is also a janitor and a clerical worker… As many scholars have pointed out, Mumbai’s refusal to bolster its public-school system disproportionately affects the poorest of the poor, who can’t afford private school….”
Joseph also profiles Ashish Dhawan, one of India’s most successful private-equity players and a philanthropist who has been successfully promoting the privatization of education in Mumbai: “Dhawan explains that education reform will allow the corporate sector to ‘unlock the true potential’ of India’s human capital. Informed by his success during the country’s IT/outsourcing boom, Dhawan claims that the Indian government needs to shift its focus from ‘inputs’ like infrastructure and classroom size and turn its attention to producing higher ‘outputs.’ To do this, he has advocated the increased use of standardized tests, the introduction of cheaper forms of instruction like MOOCs…, and increased private-sector participation in Indian education, freed from teacher-licensing and class-size regulations.”
In India as in the U.S., money buys the power to promote radical change in the institutions that shape a society: “Dhawan currently sits on the board or education committee of virtually every pro-privatization ‘reform’ group in India…. Following Dhawan’s plan, Mumbai opened up 1,174 government schools to private operators, offering them the opportunity to do everything from provide specific school services to run schools entirely with their own privately hired (and often inexperienced and non-unionized) teachers. The drastic move, which was decided without any popular referendum, generated controversy in the city’s public sector, particularly with teachers’ unions and progressive parties. Despite protests by thousands of people in 2012 and 2013, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation adopted the privatization proposal in January 2013, fueling concerns that similar efforts will now be underway across the country.”