School Choice & Charters Opinion

The Outrage of the Week

By Diane Ravitch — May 03, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

It is way past time to get mad. Each week, it is hard to know which of the latest outrages against American public education is the worst.

Perhaps it was the agreement between the Gates Foundation and the Pearson Foundation to write the nation’s curriculum. When did we vote to hand over American education to them? Why would we outsource the nation’s curriculum to a for-profit publishing and test-making corporation based in London? Does Bill Gates get to write the national curriculum because he is the richest man in America? We know that his foundation is investing heavily in promoting the Common Core standards. Now his foundation will write a K-12 curriculum that will promote online learning and video gaming. That’s good for the tech sector, but is it good for our nation’s schools? Oh, and one more outrage: The Gates Foundation and the Eli Broad Foundation, both of which maintain the pretense of being Democrats and/or liberals, have given millions to former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s foundation, which is promoting vouchers, charters, online learning, test-based accountability, and the whole panoply of corporate reform strategies intended to weaken public education and remove teachers’ job protections.

Yes, indeed, the education reform business is booming. A recent article in Idaho details the campaign contributions of online learning companies to the state superintendent of instruction, who recently decided—surprise!—to mandate online learning and laptops for every student. This is the new face of corporate reform. It offers entree to the vast riches of the nation’s education industry, a sector that spends about $800 billion of public money at the local, state, and federal levels. Some refer to the No Child Left Behind Act as “no consultant left behind.” It has been and continues to be a bonanza for the testing, test preparation, and tutoring industries. Race to the Top has opened the door to many more consultants, charter operators, and turn-around strategists. The gold rush is on!

The scariest thought is that the Obama administration welcomes the corporatization of public education. Not only welcomes the rise of educational entrepreneurialism, but encourages it. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief of staff Joanne Weiss, who has experience as an education entrepreneur, wrote the following in a blog for the Harvard Business Review:

The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."

Yes, indeed, lots of opportunities for new businesses, smart investors, and a national marketplace for entrepreneurs. I would expect to read this sort of thing from the public relations department of Pearson or McGraw-Hill or one of the other industry leaders. But the chief of staff to the U.S. secretary of education?

This is what I don’t understand. The free market nearly collapsed our economy in September 2008. Why would anyone now think that our public schools should be turned over to the privatizers, entrepreneurs, and go-getters who have figured out how to market their wares, brand their products, and turn education into a lucrative business? I don’t mean to cast aspersion on American business. I like free markets, I like the range of goods and services they provide. I have no objection to people making a profit on their goods and services, but I also think that a decent society needs a vibrant public sector. Frankly, the handing over of public education to the free market makes me profoundly uneasy.

I Googled “education entrepreneur” and got nearly 1 million hits.

Profound changes are under way, Deborah. Our federal government, the big foundations, and many state governments are allied in their determination to impose radical change on the public schools. Big money is at stake. And the lives of millions of children. What happens when the interests of the investors and the interests of children are not the same? Which will take precedence?


P.S: I recommend a few recent documentaries that influenced my thinking. They are not about schools. They are about the last sentence of my blog: Inside Job, Food Inc., and Gasland.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.