The Business of Public Education

By Henry A. Giroux


The assault by corporate America on public education has taken an ominous turn in the last decade. Funded by an array of conservative institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, Hudson Institute, and the Olin Foundation, the corporate drive to undermine public education has enlisted an army of conservative pundits many of whom served in the Department of Education under Presidents Reagan and Bush. Some of the more well-known members of this reform movement include Chester Finn Jr., Lamar Alexander, Diane Ravitch, David Kearns, and William Bennett. Providing policy papers, op-ed commentaries, appearing on television talk shows, and running a variety of educational clearinghouses and resource centers, these stalwart opponents of public education relentlessly blame the schools for the country’s economic woes. Citing low test scores, a decline in basic skills, and the watering down of the school curriculum, Ravitch and others use such critiques to legitimate the ideology of privatization with its accompanying call for vouchers, charter schools, and the placing of public schools entirely in the control of corporate contractors. More specific reforms simply recycle right-wing ideology critiques calling for the replacement of teacher unions and “giving parents choice, back-to-basics and performance-driven curriculums, management ‘design teams’ and accountability.”

Underlying the call for privatization is a reform movement in which public education is seen as “a local industry that over time will become a global business.” As a for-profit venture, public education represents a market worth over $600 billion dollars, and the importance of such a market has not been lost on conservatives such as Chester Finn, Jr. and David Kearns, both of whom have connections with for-profit schooling groups such as the Edison Project and the North American Schools Development Corporation. At the level of policy, the right-wing assault by all reports has been quite successful. More than 28 states have drafted legislation supporting vouchers, choice programs, and contracting with for-profit management companies, such as the Edison Project and Sabis International Schools. But the public’s perception of such ventures appears to be less enthusiastic, and rightly so. Many firms such as Educational Alternatives Inc., which took over the Hartford and Baltimore public schools, have had their contracts canceled as a result of numerous complaints. The complaints range from the way in which such firms deal with kids with learning disabilities and engage in union busting to the charge that their cookie cutter standardized curriculum and testing packages fail to provide the quality of educational results that were initially promised by such companies.

But there is more at stake in the privatization of public schooling than issues of public versus private ownership or public good versus private gain. There is also the issue of how individual achievement is weighed against issues of equity and the social good, how teaching and learning get defined, what sorts of identities are produced when the histories, experiences, values, and desires of students are defined through corporate rather than democratic ideals.

Within the language of privatization and market reforms, there is a strong emphasis on standards, measurements of outcomes, and holding teachers and students more accountable. Privatization is an appealing prospect for legislators who do not want to spend money on schools and for those Americans who feel that they do not want to support public education through increased taxes. Such appeals are reductive in nature and hollow in substance. Not only do they abstract questions of equity and equality from the discussion of standards, they appropriate the democratic rhetoric of choice and freedom without addressing issues of power. The ideas and images that permeate this corporate model of schooling reek with the rhetoric of insincerity and the politics of social indifference.         

Stripped of a language of social responsibility, the advocates of privatization reject the assumption that school failure might be better understood within the political, economic, and social dynamics of poverty, joblessness, sexism, race and class discrimination, unequal funding, or a diminished tax base. Rather, student failure, especially the failure of poor minority-group students, is often attributed to a genetically encoded lack of intelligence, a culture of deprivation, or pathology. Books such as The Bell Curve, and films such as 187 and Dangerous Minds reinforce such representations about African-American and Latino urban youth, as they perpetuate a history of racist exclusions. Similarly, such racist exclusions are being deepened by the informalities of privatization schemes in which schools mimic the free market, with the assumption that its regulatory and competitive spirit will allow the most motivated and gifted students to succeed. There is a shameful element of racism and a retrograde Social Darwinism that permeates this discussion, one which relinquishes the responsibility of parents, teachers, administrators, social workers, businesspeople, and other members of the wider society to provide young people with the cultural resources, economic opportunities, and social services necessary to learn without having to bear the crushing burdens of poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression.

Education in this framework becomes less a social investment than an individual investment, a vehicle for social mobility for those privileged to have the power to make their choices matter, and a form of social constraint for those who lack such resources and for whom choice and accountability betray a legacy of broken promises and an ideology of bad faith.

The privatization model of schooling also defaults on the legacy of schooling as a public good by undermining the power of teachers to provide students with the vocabulary and skills of responsible citizenship. Under the drive to impose national standards and standardized forms of testing, privatizing school advocates devalue teacher authority and deskill teachers by dictating not only what they should teach but also how they should teach. Such pedagogical approaches affirm teachers less as engaged public intellectuals than as depoliticized, deskilled clerks. The main role of the teacher turned classroom manager is to legitimate through mandated subject matter and pedagogical practices a market-based conception of the learner as a consumer of information. A different, but no less important and dangerous, strategy of the corporate dismantling and take-over of public education is the right wing promotion of educational choice, vouchers, and charters as a way of both opening public schools to private contractors and using public tax monies to finance the creation of private forms of education. Both approaches treat education as a private good, and both substitute the role of the student as a citizen for that of an educational consumer. But the real danger at work in privatization is not simply that students who transfer into private schools will drain money from the public schools, but that they will further a process already at work in the larger society aimed at eroding “the public forums in which decisions with social consequences can be democratically resolved.”

As schools struggle to raise money for texts, curricula, and extra-curricula activities, they often find themselves engaging in partnerships with businesses such as Campbell Soup, Pepsi, McDonalds, and Nike, all of whom are willing to provide free curriculum packages that shamelessly instruct students to recognize brand names or learn the appropriate attitudes for future work in low-skilled, low-paying jobs rather than learning how to define the meaning of work and struggle over what it means to subordinate matters of work to the imperatives of a strong democracy. For example, the McDonald Corporation provided a curriculum package for Pembroke Lakes elementary school in Broward County in which, as a Business Week article reported, students “learned how to design a McDonald’s restaurant, how a McDonald’s works, and how to apply and interview for a job at McDonald’s.” When one ten-year old was asked if the curriculum was worthwhile, she responded, “If you want to work in a McDonald’s when you grow up, you already know what to do....Also, McDonald’s is better than Burger King.”

Couched in the language of business competition and individual success, the current educational reform movement orchestrated by corporate capital in its now near global expansion must be recognized as a full-fledged attack on both public education and democracy. The goal of such a movement, as David Stratman has argued, “is not to raise the expectations of our young people but to narrow, stifle, and crush them.”

Educators at the public school levels are under massive assault in this country. Not only are they increasingly losing their autonomy and capacity for imaginative teaching, they increasingly bear the burden, especially in the urban centers, of overcrowded classes, limited resources, and hostile legislators. Progressives need to join with community people, social movements, and teachers in both public and higher education around a common platform that resists corporate power, the marketing of schools, the deskilling of teachers, and the reduction of learning to the dictates of selfishness and capital accumulation.

The meaning and purpose of such a debate has not been lost on students. During March of this year (1998), students from over 100 colleges held a series of teach-ins protesting the intrusion and increasing involvement of corporations in higher education. For those of us who work in such institutions, it might be time to take an object lesson from these students and provide an example through our own actions and the willingness to organize and fight against the current ruthless assault being waged by corporate America against schools and other sites that attempt to serve the public good


Henry Giroux teaches at Penn State University.