Corporate School Reform is Worldwide

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.”

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“One Newark” Exemplifies the Shock Doctrine: Public Institutions Seized from the Powerless

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes the takeover of the New Orleans schools in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina as a grand experiment perpetrated by policy makers on a city so vulnerable nobody could protect the public assets that should have been rescued.  Klein concludes, “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)

When we think about the Shock Doctrine applied to education, New Orleans—where the schools were charterized and all the teachers fired—is the example that comes to mind, but our test-and-punish system under the No Child Left Behind Act has branded the schools in our poorest cities as “failures” and created a crisis atmosphere that has also made way for the application of the Shock Doctrine.  Back in 2010, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, working with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, seized such an “opportunity” and set up Newark for an experiment in disaster capitalism; he staged his Shock Doctrine live on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg handed Booker $100 million to fix Newark’s schools. In a recent article Washington Post education writer Lyndsey Layton summarizes what happened as the “One Newark” plan was put in place by Christie and his appointed overseer Newark school superintendent, Cami Anderson. Public schools were closed and charter operators brought in.  Union agreements were abrogated. It has been easy to move quickly in Newark, where the schools have been under state control for twenty years and residents have been unable to establish sufficient checks and balances despite the presence of an elected school board that lacks virtually any power. Cami Anderson has not bothered to attend any meetings of Newark’s school board for well over a year now.

Layton describes One Newark: “The plan is the signature initiative crafted by Anderson, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R) in 2011 to run Newark Public Schools.  The state seized control of Newark Public Schools in 1995 amid academic and financial failure, but two decades of state control has resulted in little progress.  One Newark, which fully took effect in the current academic year (2014-2015), essentially blew up the old school system.  It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices.  It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools…. With Christie’s blessing—and freed from the need for approval from a local school board—Anderson pushed through a raft of changes, many of which were untested…  As a result, many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, and where many residents don’t own cars.  The end of neighborhood schools meant that newcomers no longer had a right to attend the school down the street.  The new citywide lottery, relying on a computer algorithm, forced many students to change schools while dividing siblings in some cases between different schools in different parts of the city.  Meanwhile, state test scores have stayed flat or even declined….”

Local elected officials have tried unsuccessfully to protect the right of parents and citizens of Newark to control their public schools.  Senator Ronald Rice, chair of the New Jersey Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Schools, was able only after repeated attempts to require Cami Anderson to appear before his committee to defend her plan, but she refused to discuss matters of substance with his committee.  A civil rights complaint was filed earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education.   A group of high school students  occupied the offices of Superintendent Cami Anderson for several days in February.  U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, Jr., Newark’s representative to Congress, recently petitioned Cami Anderson in a formal letter to respond to the concerns of his constituents: “Your failure to respond and to engage in a meaningful dialogue on behalf of all Newark students is very disappointing to my constituents and me. There is a crisis situation going on in Newark.” And just this week, in an attempt to gain leverage, Newark’s new mayor, Ras Baraka, a high school principal elected on a pro-public school platform in the spring of 2014, was able to get his own “Children’s First Team” of three elected to the local elected board of education. All five of the elected board members support Baraka and oppose Cami Anderson’s One Newark plan.   You can read earlier posts about Newark on this blog here.

Despite the protests, Cami Anderson, has been rewarded not only with Christie’s support but also with a bonus.  She has also announced plans to expand One Newark.  Bob Braun, former education writer for the Newark Star Ledger, recently blogged: “Three related events are merging into a crisis for the public schools and their supporters.  The first is Anderson’s decision to designate nine more schools—including Weequahic and East Side high schools—as ‘turnaround’ schools that will force employees either to give up their jobs or their contract-guaranteed working conditions.  The second is Anderson’s insistence that the state grant her permission to ignore employee seniority rights so she can lay off veteran teachers to meet a budget deficit of up to $100 million that she caused.  The third is the arguably felonious refusal of the state to insist that Anderson abide by the terms of the waiver of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements.”

The Newark Teachers Union just announced a formal protest; teachers will no longer work extra hours before or after school but will picket to bring attention to the problems with One Newark. Naomi Nix  of the Star Ledger interviewed a union leader who reports:  “(T)he teachers will participate in ‘informational picket lines’ during non-school day hours to explain their concerns to the public.”  Braun reports that Mayor Ras Baraka supports the teachers’ action.  Dr. Lauren Wells, Baraka’s chief school officer met with teachers and told them: “Enough is enough.  This is not how you change the schools.  We support you.” Braun adds: “Five members of the Newark school board also showed up to show their support—leading to the possibility that Newark might be the scene of the first teachers’ strike supported by its local school board.  The state has stripped the board of most of its powers, but the members do act as a barometer of anti-state feeling.”

Braun would agree, I think, that Newark’s schools exemplify a Shock Doctrine—the imposition of school choice, public school closures, expansion of charters, and attacks on unionized teachers—on a community whose citizens lack power.  He writes: “The last year has been its own moment of truth about the respect shown to leaders of color—even prominent, elected leaders like Rice and Baraka and members of the school board.  In a state run by Christie and allies like Steve Sweeney and Joseph DiVincenzo and George Norcross, the concerns of black and brown political, religious, and civic leaders simply do not matter.”  Shock Doctrine educational experiments are characterized by their imposition by the powerful on other people’s children.

Chris Christie has been very clear about Newark: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark — not them.”