“The End of Public Education”

27 Dec

Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Rochester, New York, David W. Hursh has written a fascinating little book with the above title. It is subtitled: “The Corporate Reform Agenda to Privatize Education.”[1] Professor Hursh makes two powerful points. First, the threat to public education’s existence is real and serious. Second, this threat is driven by neoliberal philosophy which is widely promoted by many extremely wealthy individuals.

“We may be witnessing the end of public education in the United States. Not in the sense that public funding of schools will cease, although funding is likely to decrease.” These are the first two sentences of the book. When you read Professor Hursh’s detailed account of the money and political clout purchased in the cause of privatizing public education in New York, the reader is left with the sense that the “End of Public Education” in that state is more likely than not.

Neoliberal Philosophy Shakes off Its Laissez-faire History

During a crushing worldwide depression and World War II, Franklin Roosevelt successfully established several popular government programs including social security. It was in this environment that the Austrian born economist Frederic Von Hayek attacked Roosevelt’s “new deal” and its Keynesian philosophy of economics underpinning. Hayek warned about the tyranny of government control in his book The Road to Serfdom. In the early 1950’s Milton Friedman, at the University of Chicago, started making similar criticisms of government programs which he said should be left to the market place and private business.

Hayek and Friedman were marginal personalities until the early 1970’s when the large government deficits caused by spending on the Viet Nam war provided some credence for them. Their rather old and discredited economic philosophy gathered new momentum and a modern name, Neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a term whose usage and definition have changed over time. Since the 1980s, the term has been used by scholars in a wide variety of social sciences and critics primarily in reference to the resurgence of 19th century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, its advocates supported extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy. Neoliberalism is famously associated with the economic policies introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States.”

Coevally, Richard Nixon appointed Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court. Quoting from Wikipedia “he had been a board member of Philip Morris from 1964 until his court appointment in 1971 and had acted as a contact point for the tobacco industry with the Virginia Commonwealth University. Through his law firm, Powell represented the Tobacco Institute and various tobacco companies in numerous law cases.”

Just before taking his place on the court Powell wrote a confidential memo to a friend at the Chamber of Commerce recommending more aggressive action in molding politics and the law in the United States to promote free enterprise. It appears that this memo sparked the establishment of several neoliberal think tanks including the American Heritage Institute and the Cato Institute.

These well financed think tanks and associated lobbying organizations have promoted a neoliberal agenda with spectacular success. Many of their ideas have grown to the status of what Professor Hursh calls “social imaginaries” or ways of thinking shared in society by ordinary people. For example, there is a widely held belief that government is inefficient and wasteful while private business and markets are efficient and fair.

Hursh says (page 34): “Venture philanthropists aim to use philanthropy to design and implement education policies of privatization, markets, efficiency, and accountability.” The “social imaginaries” that have been developed support their effort.

Relative to this idea he quotes the following explanation (page 44):

 “Olssen, Codd and O’Neill (2004) write that: ’every social transaction is conceptualized as entrepreneurial, to be carried out purely for personal gain. The market introduces competition as the structuring mechanism through which resources and status are allocated efficiently and fairly. The ‘invisible hand’ of the market is thought to be the most efficient way of sorting out what competing individual gets what.’”

Education Policy Decided by Unelected Foundations and Corporations

The most powerful neoliberal in the United States is Bill Gates. He is emblematic of the new form of government we have developed. Instead of a representative democracy, we now have governance by foundations. The people making the decisions do so behind closed doors and never stand for election. There are hundreds of private foundations across America spending large amounts of capital to shape a privatized education system. The big three are the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, The Walton Foundation and The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Hursh reports (page 97):

 “Bill Gates uses his fortune to fund the corporate education reform focusing on the Common Core standards, curriculum and assessment and on privatizing education through charter schools. In addition, as evidenced by his funding of organizations such as NewSchools Venture Fund, he is interested in developing projects that will create profits for investors.”

Working with and supporting the foundations to drive the privatization agenda are thousands of corporations. There are real estate firms forming Education Management Companies so they can institute property lease-back schemes. There is an uncountable number of technology companies, both large establish ones and startups, angling to sell products of dubious pedagogical value to schools. There are consulting firms, investment bankers, hedge funds and on and on and on. The largest publishing company the world has ever witnessed, Pearson, has plans to control all curricular and testing services worldwide.

Democratic Party Supports the Neoliberal Education Agenda

Barak Obama and the Democratic Party’s have embraced neoliberal ideology especially in regards to education. In 2008, the hedge fund dominated group Democrats for Education Reform convinced Obama to dump his presumptive Secretary of Education nominee, Linda Hammond-Darling, and appoint Arne Duncan. Obama and Duncan put into place the test centric and competition oriented Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative. For the first time ever, in accord with neoliberal theory, states were forced to compete for education dollars.

RTTT was all about objective measures and competition. In order to win race to the top monies, states had to agree to enact Common Core State Standards (or their equivalent), evaluate teachers and schools based on testing results and open a path for more privatized schools (charter schools). The Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, enthusiastically embraced RTTT even parroting Milton Friedman, saying he wants to destroy “the public school monopoly.”

The great American public education system was not built by the federal government nor was it built by corporate structures. It was built by common citizens in their communities to educate their own children. These wonderful schools that produced what Neoliberals call “American exceptionalism” are being stolen from their communities. I agree with Hursh’s conclusion (page 105/6):

 “We need to defend public education as worth public funding and as an area in which everyone has an input, rather than only those who are wealthy or have political connections.”

 I hope my effort to supply a little flavor of what David W. Hursh has written about will encourage you to read his book and take action to save public schools from the ravages of greed, hubris and bad philosophy.

Hursh, David W. The End of Public Schools, Routledge, 2016

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