School & District Management Opinion

What Are Appropriate Roles for Companies in Education Reform?

By Deborah Meier — May 08, 2015 4 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss the role of corporations in improving schools. Deborah Meier begins, followed by a response from Joe.

Deborah Meier writes:

Dear Joe,

I always hesitate to turn any help down. One of the best grants we ever got at CPE was from EXXON for a longitudinal study of our grads in the 1980s. I’ve never been able to get another for this purpose.

For me it’s about power. Who has power over who?

There was a time when corporate giving to schools was truly “charity” in the best sense. Plus a little good will of the PR sort. Today the money kind of power (vs the people kind) ) is running too many things, setting the agenda with a grand political purpose: to demonstrate that education would work better, as would a lot of other public institutions, if they followed a free marketplace business model.

I think this ideology is putting democracy at further risk as an idea and a reality.

Buyer beware.


Joe responds:

Deb, for decades, corporate involvement in public schools has varied. Some corporations have provided cash, volunteers, and other contributions as part of their effort to be, and be seen as good citizens. Some corporations have tried to influence public policy. And the policy changes companies recommend vary.

For what it’s worth, I grew up in Wichita, Kan. (graduating from a public, district high school in 1966) and have known of the Koch brothers and their efforts for many years. They may have become more active (or more well known nationally). Unquestionably they have been promoting a voucher agenda for a long time, which you and I oppose. They have been joined by some others such as ALEC, which is funded by various individuals and corporations.

These differences are part of why I think the phrase “corporate education reform” is meaningless. Corporations have and do vary in their approach to improving public schools. But even more important, I don’t see how labeling people increases achievement.

Staying with policy issues for a moment, corporate, union and community influence varies from state to state, city to city, town to town. You mentioned that you think some corporations “drive” education. But I don’t think any single group “drives” public ed. I think many groups have a significant influence.

My special interest is what can be done by various groups (including companies) to increase student learning (measured in various ways).

What do you think educators should do to encourage constructive corporate activity in education?

Dear Joe,

I used to tell corporate “allies"—when together on panels—that I’d appreciate it if they’d just pay their fair share in taxes so that public schools would have access to the kind of funding that is available to the schools that their own kids’ attend.

I call them “corporate reformers” because roughly 95 percent of the funds being pumped into the current reform movement comes from corporations, corporate leaders, and rich individuals with corporate ties. It’s no more pejorative than the label “union reformers.” It’s just descriptive.

They honestly believe that the market place—unencumbered by regulation—is the best way to operate most of life’s business, including the business of education. They believe that marke choice is at the heart of democracy. I disagree with them.

And they are, indisputably (I think) the primary organizers and funders of the current reform movement in education. For them test scores are the currency for assessing the market value of schools. They oppose unions, minimum wages, and federal/state regulations which, they believe, should be decided by the invisible hand of the market.

They are also driving a number of other reforms (both in the U.S. and other western democracies) that seek to unfund public institutions, turn them over to private entrepreneurs—like prisons and post offices—and, in general, deregulate private enterprise.

The attack on “public institutions” is part and parcel of the unsecret plan of the Koch brothers, Walton family et al. to redefine democracy. They seek to dismantle the reforms that defined the New Deal and the Great Society, not to mention those that go back the progressive politics of Teddy Roosevelt (like the progressive income tax and the inheritance tax).

I think their self-interest and mine conflict—in ways more fundamental than the conflicts I have with union leaders, school bureaucrats, parents and colleagues. I hold this belief without demonizing them as human beings—just as I did toward colleagues with Communist sympathies in my younger days! If we both want the same thing (e.g. small class sizes, more self-governing schools) I’d happily join with them to make that possible just as I happily accepted Communist support for social security.

Joe responds:

Sorry Deb, I think there are several over-generalizations in what you wrote above. For example you wrote, “I call them ‘corporate reformers’ because roughly 95 percent of the funds being pumped into the current reform movement comes from corporations, corporate leaders and rich individuals with corporate ties.”

There are many, many efforts to improve schools. Some are being promoted by unions, some by colleges, some by certain companies and foundations. For example:

  • Project-based learning being promoted by the George Lucas Education Foundation via Edutopia
  • Charters and vouchers being promoted by Walton and the Koch brothers, among others
  • Teacher-led district schools being promoted by Minnesota Business Partnership and the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Lakeville, Minn. teacher unions
  • Improving reading instruction promoted by Target
  • Improved science education promoted by Siemens Corporation, among others

I could go on and on. My point this week has been that I don’t think we help students by making generalizations about “corporate education reform.” I think it’s more helpful to students to work with those we agree with, and question those whose efforts we oppose. Making generations generally does not help students.

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