What Is at Stake for Public Education in the Presidential Race?

Update:  No new Friday, November 6th post, as we all await the outcome of the election.  We stand on a precipice as we wait to see whether Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be elected or whether Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be re-elected. This post, from Monday, November 2nd, describes the implications of the presidential election for public education policy.

Look for a new post on Monday, November 9th.

I believe a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris victory  would provide a turning point in education policy.  We would, of course, be able to put behind us the failure of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to protect the public schools. But further, I hope the new administration would turn our national conversation about education away from more than two decades when federal policy makers have worried about accountability, efficiency and privatization but largely forgotten about seriously trying to support and improve the nation’s over 98,000 public schools..

If Joe Biden is elected President, I believe our society can finally pivot away from an artificially constructed narrative about the need to punish so called “failing” public schools, and away from the idea that school privatization is the key to school improvement. During Betsy DeVos’s tenure, our two-decades old narrative about test-and-punish education reform has faded into a boring old story fewer and fewer people want to hear anymore, but nobody has proclaimed an alternative.

How Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Have Damaged Public Education

In a profound book, American Amnesia, published in 2016, before Donald Trump was elected, two political scientists, Yale’s Jacob Hacker and Berkeley’s Paul Pierson describe precisely what Trump has undermined in our political system: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom.  Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because, in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends. But there’s no getting around it: Government works because it can force people to do things.” (American Amnesia, p. 1)

Government exercises legitimate coercion to protect our rights and freedom through regulations that protect us from individuals and corporations who would undermine our rights and endanger our collective safety. But the Trump White House has set about removing government protection of the common welfare.  Besides sidelining Anthony Fauci as the President tries to pretend COVID-19 will merely disappear, the President appointed David Bernhardt, an energy company lobbyist as Secretary of the Department of Interior;  Dan Brouillett, a lobbyist for Ford Motor Company as Secretary of the Department of Energy;  Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for the coal mining industry as head of the Environmental Protection Agency;  Elaine Chao, who has become wealthy through her family’s interest in a major shipping company, as Secretary of Transportation;  Eugene Scalia, an attorney representing companies opposing labor unions, as the Secretary of Labor;  and Betsy DeVos, a lifelong promoter of spending public tax dollars for private religious education, as Secretary of Education.

Fortunately DeVos has not been entirely successful in her quest to promote private and religious schools and her attempt to undermine public education in America. She has tried to cut the budget of key programs in the Department of Education, but Congress has not permitted her to combine a mass of programs into one large block grant, and has protected at least minimal funding for the formula programs—Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children and special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Every year she has tried to insert into her department’s budget $5 billion for a federal private school tuition tax credit program she calls Education Freedom Scholarships. This year she even got Senator Tim Scott to introduce this program as a stand alone School Choice Now Act.  But Congress has eliminated it in every annual appropriations bill and refused to act on Scott’s bill this year. This year after Congress set up COVID-19 relief dollars under the CARES Act for public schools that serve many poor children, DeVos even tried to redirect a significant amount of that money to private and religious schools, but she was blocked by a federal court.

But like many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and department heads, DeVos has succeeded in damaging public policy by rewriting rules and guidance to reduce government oversight of bad actors. For example she refused to investigate complaints by students with enormous federal loan debts, students who had been ripped off by for-profit colleges which attracted students with fraudulent advertising and then left the students unemployable because their certificates and degrees turned out to be worthless. In some cases the students’ for-profit colleges and trade schools had folded and left them half way through their education with mountains of federal loan debt. Refusing to investigate such cases, DeVos’s department built up a huge backlog of complaints and finally rewrote the the Borrower Defense to Repayment Rule altogether. Congress tried to overturn DeVos’s new rule, but President Trump vetoed the Congressional action.  Today thousands of defrauded students continue to carry outrageous debts.

Sometimes she has simply done nothing to regulate or oversee bad programs.  The federal Charter Schools Program has been savagely criticized by the Network for Public Education for spreading billions of federal startup dollars to charter schools that either never opened or were subsequently quickly shut down. And criticism from NPE only adds to years of biennial reports from the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General, reports documenting lack of record keeping and failed oversight.  DeVos has done nothing to oversee and clean up this program.

She has also undermined important functions of the Department of Education such as the department’s Office for Civil Rights, charged with protecting students from violations based on discrimination by race, ethnicity, income, gender and sexuality.  She has significantly reduced comprehensive investigations of historic patterns of civil right violations when complaints are filed, failed to investigate accusations that some schools are overly assigning African American students to special education, failed to protect transgender students,  failed to protect the victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and failed to investigate and protect students in school discipline cases. On a significant scale, by failing to enforce federal regulations designed to protect students, DeVos’s department has failed to exert what Hacker and Pierson call “the coercive power of government.”  

During DeVos’s Tenure, Decades of Other Bad Policies Have Just Sort of Faded Out of the Conversation

On one level, however, Betsy DeVos has done us a favor. For two decades before Donald Trump took office, public education policy had fallen into a period of bipartisan technocratic neoliberalism. Beginning with Bill Clinton’s administration and the launch of the federal Charter Schools Program, followed under President George W. Bush by the omnibus bipartisan 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, federal policy in public education was transformed from its original mission to help public schools serve students in marginalized groups who had been poorly served by their state policies.

Then as computer driven policy expanded, large data sets documented the achievement gaps between privileged, mostly white students and African Americans. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) substituted  punishment—not enhancement and support—as the way to close the Black-White Achievement Gap. Standardized testing to create the data sets by which schools across the country would be rated and ranked were mandated for every student every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  Schools were expected to raise scores for all students in every demographic group every year to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient.  Schools falling behind the schedule were sanctioned: their teachers and principals would be fired; they’d have to institute a new curriculum; or they would be turned into charter schools or managed by large Charter Management Organizations.  When President Barack Obama, a Democrat, took over, test-and-punish continued. Schools would compete for Race to the Top money and to qualify to enter the competition, they’d have to promise to adopt standards (which became the Common Core), expand the number of charter schools, turn around failing schools using all the old punishments under NCLB, and evaluate teachers by students’ test scores.

But the test-and-punish school reform juggernaut did not improve public schools according to the test scores universally adopted as the measuring stick. Just last week, Diane Ravitch reported that in the latest administration of the one national test which everybody trusts because it cannot be gamed in the competition for state-by-state accountability, the National Assessment of Education Progress, 12th graders’ scores have not risen since 2005.

In the four years since Betsy DeVos took over, we have heard less and less about school reform, and Adequate Yearly Progress and all the rest.  Actually under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, which reduced the federal role but still requires states to submit an annual plan to accomplish the old NCLB goals, DeVos’s staff have been approving the plans which the states keep on submitting, but hardly anybody I know is tracking this. The narrative has just kind of died out as DeVos has ramped up her own narrative about publicly funded vouchers for private and religious education.

How Would a Biden Administration Transform the Narrative about Education in America?

If Joe Biden wins tomorrow, I am looking for leadership to drive the narrative back to where it belongs: improving access to opportunity in America’s public schools. In Biden’s education plan: there is no endorsement of standardized testing, no endorsement of holding schools accountable according to their aggregate test scores, and no support for vouchers for private and religious schools. Biden has not said he would end the federal Charter Schools Program, but he has pledged to better monitor and oversee charter schools.

Joe Biden’s Education Plan is all about our system of public education. He emphasizes the importance of expanding the opportunity to learn for every child regardless of race, ethnicity, family economics or the child’s primary language.  Biden’s plan proclaims: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high and low-income districts as well.  Biden will work to close this gap by nearly tripling Title I funding, which goes to schools serving a high number of children from low-income families. This new funding will be used to ensure teachers at Title I schools are paid competitively, three- and four-year olds have access to preschool, and districts provide access to rigorous coursework across all their schools, not just a few.”  Biden’s plan notes that the average public school teacher’s salary hasn’t increased since 1996, and he pledges to ensure that teachers receive wages competitive with salaries of other professionals. Over ten years, Biden pledges to provide federal funding to cover 40 percent of the cost of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a promise Congress made when the law was passed but a promise that has never been fulfilled. Currently Congress covers only just over 14 percent of the cost.  Biden pledges to add 300,000 new full service, wraparound Community Schools with medical and social services located in the school building, and he pledges to restore  justice for students by strengthening enforcement of regulations by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman led with this comment on how Joe Biden, if elected, is likely to repair what Trump has done to government itself and to domestic policy: “(I)f Democrats win big, I expect to see many of Trump’s substantive policies reversed, and then some. Environmental protection and the social safety net will probably end up substantially stronger, taxes on the rich substantially higher, than they were under Barack Obama.”

If Joe Biden is elected President, I also expect him to begin repairing a quarter century of neoliberal expansion of school privatization as well as two decades of failed test-and-punish school accountability. If he is elected, I expect Biden to restore racial and economic justice in public schools as the central mission of the U.S. Department of Education.

Congress Should Defund the Charter Schools Program and Invest the Money in Title I and IDEA

The Network for Public Education published its scathing report on the federal Charter Schools Program three weeks ago, but as time passes, I continue to reflect on its conclusions. The report, Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride, is packed with details about failed or closed or never-opened charter schools.  The Network for Public Education depicts a program driven by neoliberal politicians hoping to spark innovation in a marketplace of unregulated startups underwritten by the federal government. The record of this 25 year federal program is dismal.

Here is what the Network for Public Education’s report shows us. The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has awarded $4 billion federal tax dollars to start or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia, and has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of all the charter schools that have been started across the country. Begun when Bill Clinton was President, this neoliberal—publicly funded, privatized—program has been supported by Democratic and Republican administrations alike.  It has lacked oversight since the beginning, and during the Obama and Trump administrations—when the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General released a series of scathing critiques of the program—grants have been made based on the application alone with little attempt by officials in the Department of Education to verify the information provided by applicants.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded to schools that never opened or that were shut down: “We found that it is likely that as many as one third of all charter schools receiving CSP grants never opened, or opened and shut down.”  Many grants went to schools that illegally discriminated in some way to choose their students and served far fewer disabled students and English language learners than the local pubic schools.  Many of the CSP-funded charter schools were plagued by conflicts of interest profiteering, and mismanagement. The Department of Education has never investigated the scathing critiques of the program by the Department’s Office of Inspector Genera; neither has the Department of Education investigated the oversight practices of the state-by-state departments of education, called State Education Agencies by CSP, to which many of the grants were made. Oversight has declined under the Department’s leadership by Betsy DeVos.

One of the shocking findings in the Asleep at the Wheel report is that a series of federal administrations—Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have treated this program as a kind of venture capital fund created and administered to stimulate social entrepreneurship—by individuals or big nonprofits or huge for-profits—as a substitute for public operation of the public schools. This use of the Charter Schools Program as a source for venture capital is especially shocking in the past decade under Presidents Obama and Trump, even as federal funding for essential public school programs has fallen. The Center on Budget and Policy priorities reports, for example, that public Title I formula funding dropped by 6.2 percent between 2008 and 2017.

The authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report explain that the Department of Education itself justifies the high failure rate of schools receiving Charter Schools Program grants because the program’s purpose is to provide start-up money for entrepreneurs to experiment with innovative ideas for schools:  “CSP’s explanation for the high cost of failure was, ‘As with any start-up, school operators face a range of factors that may affect their school’s opening.  And as with any provider of start-up capital, the department learns from its investments.'”

Late in March, when the current Secretary of Education was questioned by members of the House Appropriations Committee about the findings in the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report, the Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler quotes Betsy DeVos herself justifying the high rate of charter school failure with an argument that basically the Charter Schools Program provides venture capital to support entrepreneurship and innovation: “When you have experimentation, you’re always going to have schools that don’t make it, and that’s what should happen.”

The Department of Education took a big leap toward support for social entrepreneurship (and diminished attention to the Department’s traditional programming) under the leadership of Arne Duncan, who served as Secretary of Education between 2009 and  December of 2015.  To lead the Department’s Office for Innovation and Improvement, Duncan hired Jim Shelton.  Before joining the department, Shelton had, according to a Department of Education biography, earned two master’s degrees from Stanford in business administration and education.  He developed computer systems, then joined McKinsey & Company in 1993 before moving to the education conglomerate founded by Mike and Lowell Milken, Knowledge Universe, Inc.  In 1999, he founded LearnNow, later acquired by Edison Schools and then worked for Joel Klein to develop and launch his school strategy in New York City that closed public schools and opened more and more charter schools.  He became a partner in the NewSchools Venture Fund and then in 2003 joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the program director for its education division.

To be hired at the U.S. Department of Education, Shelton had to be waivered from a federal law that bans people from moving into governmental positions in which they will work directly with their former employer.  In Shelton’s case, the danger was not that he would shower his former employer with federal government largesse, but instead that he would import the priorities and practices of his former employer—the Gates Foundation—directly into government. Shelton oversaw not only the Charter Schools Program but also Race to the Top, which made large federal stimulus grants to states, which had each been given (by the Gates Foundation) a quarter of a million dollars apiece to hire grant writers to develop creative ways to invest federal stimulus money to support the turnaround of so-called failing schools. To qualify, the states had to agree to Duncan’s prescribed turnaround plans and also promise to remove caps on the authorization of new charter schools. There is now widespread agreement that Race to the Top failed to fulfill its stated goal of improving school achievement. After leaving the department, Duncan and Shelton both continued their careers in grant-funded social entrepreneurship; at least their work has no longer been publicly funded. Shelton ran education programming for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, and Duncan has been working for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos now leads the U.S. Department of Education, and her leadership has further reduced oversight, according to the Asleep at the Wheel report: “Under the current administration, while Congressional funding for the CSP rises, the quality of the applications and awardees has further declined.”

The Charter Schools Program is the only one of DeVos’s school privatization initiatives whose budget Congress has increased.  The Network for Public Education traces its funding history: “The program was appropriated at $219 million in 2004.  The budget went up to $256 million in 2010, $333 million in 2016, then to $342 million in 2017, $400 million in 2018 and is now at $440 million for FY 2019.”  In his proposed FY 2020 budget, President Trump has asked Congress to add another $60 million.

When Organizations like the NewSchools Venture Fund or today’s mega-foundations experiment with educational innovation, the risk is underwritten by private capital or philanthropic grants from the Walton, Gates, or Broad Foundations, for example. And if the experiments fail, the money lost is private.  In the case of the federal Charter Schools Program, the Department of Education has been gambling with $4 billion of our tax dollars—money desperately needed by the public schools in our nation’s poorest communities—money that could have been invested, for example, in Title I for schools serving concentrations of poor children or in implementation of programs to meet the mandates of the IDEA.  At their inception, Congress promised to fund a significant part of the cost of both Title I and IDEA, but Congressional appropriations have chronically fallen short.  Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) has currently introduced the “Keep Our PACT Act,” which if passed would significantly increase the federal commitment to supporting federal these priorities. Van Hollen explains: “Title I, which gives assistance to America’s highest-need schools, is a critical tool to ensure that every child, no matter the zip code, has access to a quality education. However, it has been deeply underfunded, shortchanging our most vulnerable students living in poverty… (T)he Title I formula was underfunded by $347 billion from 2005-2017… Similarly, IDEA calls on the federal government to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education, but Congress has never fully funded the law. Currently, IDEA state grants are funded at just 14.7 percent.”

The Asleep at the Wheel report’s authors conclude: “The CSP’s grant approval process appears to be based on the application alone, with no attempt to verify the information presented.  Hundreds of schools have been approved for grants despite serious concerns noted by reviewers… The… lack of rigor and investigation in the review process, and the seeming willingness of the CSP program to offer grants despite concerns expressed by reviewers raise questions about whether this program is truly committed to jump-starting schools that hold the greatest promise of success, or whether simply letting 1,000 flowers bloom, and accepting the chaos and waste of repeated failure is really the operational model.”

For 25 years, the U.S. Department of Education has enabled, and Congress has funded, a failed, neoliberal, market-based, and unregulated charter school experiment.  In an article he published last spring, the McMaster University education theorist, Henry Giroux said it best: “Public schools are at the center of the manufactured breakdown of the fabric of everyday life. They are under attack not because they are failing, but because they are public….”

This blog has previously explored the Asleep at the Wheel report here and here.

Advocates for Public Schools Have Good Reasons to Keep on Fighting Against Privatization and Corporate Reform

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis last weekend. This will be the last of a series of reflections on what I learned at that important meeting. Overall, NPE’s 2018 Conference proclaimed reasons for hope.

Neoliberal corporate reform just isn’t working out the way its proponents had planned. Diane Ravitch introduced last weekend’s conference by describing, “the slow, sure collapse of corporate reform.” “The facts and evidence are on our side,” she said. “We are driven by conviction and passion and not by money. Charters do not save poor children from failing schools. Charters are more likely to fail than the public schools they replace. Charters that get high test scores do so by kicking out the kids they don’t want. Evidence on vouchers is now unequivocal, and it’s bad…  High stakes testing has been a disaster for children of color who are labeled and stigmatized year after year… NCLB was a disaster. Race to the Top was a disaster…  National Assessment of Education Progress scores for 2015 declined for the first time in 20 years… Many reformers have been confessing that the reforms didn’t work. They know the evidence is not on their side.”

In a second keynote, the Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg described the worldwide growth over several decades of privatization and top-down, business-accountability-driven school reform, the same policies we have been experiencing in the United States—and what he believes is the growing global rejection of such policies.  What’s been happening in our U.S. education system has also been occurring in Britain, Sweden, Chile, and Australia.  And it has been imposed by colonialist philanthropists and the World Bank in Africa. Sahlberg calls what’s been happening G.E.R.M.—the Global Education Reform Movement.  And he believes G.E.R.M has been contagious.  But it seems the plague is finally being contained.  Sahlberg lists G.E.R.M.’s symptoms: competition, a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy, test-based accountability, addiction to reform, and marketization.  He believes that across the world, educators are convincing politicians of the danger of neoliberal G.E.R.M. and moving schooling back to wellness through emphasis on alternative values: collaboration, a whole child approach, expectations for teachers emphasizing trust-based responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement—not benchmarked achievement targets, and equity.  (You can watch Ravitch’s and Sahlberg’s keynotes in the opening session of NPE’s 5th Annual Conference here.)

South Carolina education law professor, Derek Black attended NPE’s conference and he describes his experience: “Why am I suddenly confident, rather than nervous, about charters and vouchers?  In Indianapolis, I saw something special—something I had never seen before. I saw a broad based education movement led not by elites, scholars, or politicians, but everyday people… Over time I have come to realize that clients matter more than attorneys. Groups of committed individuals standing behind movement leaders are, as often as not, more important than leaders… What makes this teacher movement special is that the leaders are also the followers. The leaders come from within the ranks, not urged on by outsiders, elites, or money. They are urged on by their own sense of right and wrong, by their heartfelt care for public education and the kids it serves. For those reasons, they won’t be going away, bought off, or fatigued any time soon… That, more than anything, tells me that the days of privatizing public education are numbered.”

Earlier this week this blog described encouraging community mobilization campaigns highlighted at this year’s NPE Conference—by the Journey4Justiance Alliance across America’s big cities and in Wisconsin to restore the state’s historic commitment to its public schools after Scott Walker’s multi-pronged attack beginning in 2011.

Beyond the Network for Public Education’s recent conference, there are other hopeful signs in this election season.  After schoolteachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina walked out to protest the unspeakable underfunding of their schools last spring,  hundreds of teachers are running for seats in their state legislatures. No matter what happens on November 6, these teachers succeeded in making the wonkish annual report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the conventional wisdom. School funding across the states was devastated during the Great Recession and it has a long way to go before it recovers—especially in the states which have continued, according to the discredited orthodoxy of supply side economics, to slash taxes.  Teachers have shown us—by telling us the widespread story of their collapsed salaries, their overcrowded classes of 40 and 50 students, their crumbling classrooms, and the growing recruitment of foreign teachers willing to work for much less—that our society has abandoned not only our teachers but also our children.

And we have learned from Save Our Schools Arizona that a state cannot give Education Savings Account debit cards to a vast number of families to buy a series of discrete educational services in the marketplace and still have enough money to pay a living wage to teachers and have a system of public education. The SOS Arizona ballot issue to defeat the expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts has made it through a series of Koch-funded court challenges, and will appear on the November 6 ballot.

One final encouraging note: Betsy DeVos is so utterly controversial that she has herself become a widespread feature of Democratic political attack ads—as a symbol of what’s wrong in our society today.  In this 2018 election season DeVos has become a focus of ad buys by Democrats on television and across social media. Under the headline “DeVos Used as a Villain to Rally Democrats in Midterm Ads,” POLITICO’s Michael Stratford reports: “While Republicans hammer on fears of immigrants and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, Democrats have been using DeVos as a symbol of what’s wrong with Trump policies—mentioning her in more than $3 million worth of TV ads that aired more than 6,200 times, according to data provided to POLITICO by Advertising Analytics.  The analysis included ads during Democratic primaries earlier this year as well as those being aired in general election contests.  Democratic strategists say DeVos resonates with base voters because she’s perceived as an opponent of public education and a billionaire who’s out of touch. ‘Betsy DeVos is basically the embodiment of everything that Democrats were afraid the Trump administration was going to be—from right-wing fanaticism to blatant conflicts of interest to laughable stuff like owning however many yachts she has,’ sad Stephanie Grasmick, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Rising Tide Interactive.”

Those of us who support public education—publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly operated under laws that protect students’ rights and the public interest—have reasons to keep on keeping on.

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.”