Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Paul Horton: Will the Market Destroy Public Education?

By Anthony Cody — July 18, 2014 15 min read
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Guest post by Paul Horton.

The ideology that inspires corporate education reform uses the rhetoric of economic freedom. This rhetoric was developed Austrian economist Frederick Hayek and was translated into a libertarian ideology by Milton Friedman within the University of Chicago Economics Department. This ideology has been used to spearhead attacks on the role of government at every level since the conservative ascendency of the late seventies and early eighties brought Reagan, Thatcher, and Deng Xiaopeng to power

Another core aspect of this ideology that many call neoliberalism, according to critic David Harvey, is that it has led to “the financialization of everything. There is unquestionably a power shift away from production to the world of finance.” Historian Daniel Steadman Jones, perhaps the most astute definer of neoliberalism says that it (neoliberalism), is “the free market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government that connect human freedom to the actions of the rational, self-interested actor in the competitive marketplace.” (Jones, Masters of the Universe, 2). Moreover, according to Jones, this ideology is defined in opposition to any form of historicized collectivism ranging from the thought of Plato to Marx and any form of collectivized state of which Hilter’s Reich, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Atlee’s Welfare state, and FDR’s New Deal represent a continuum running from state control and the absence of freedom to expansive states that should be completely rejected. (Jones, 3-84). The “invisible hand,” from this perspective, trumps all forms of centralized government that puts any nation-state “on the road to serfdom.”

In effect, “the invisible hand” behind the push to create new education markets is coming from Wall Street investors who are flush with capital for investment. Wall Street bundlers and investment firms are buying up stock in charter school companies and big education vendors. These bundlers not only fund both party’s campaigns, they also sell stock, betting on the futures of big education vendors, start-ups, charter schools, and vouchers. They “encourage” political leaders to pursue policies that will hedge their bets on education products and to view all schools as portfolios that will increase in value as long as the Feds and the states pursue policies that encourage privatization.

But Wall Street bundlers are far from the only group that embraces a radical version of libertarianism as a way to legitimate opening new markets in education. “Hardcore libertarianism has been making inroads among a younger set of tech entrepreneurs, who see its goals of limited government as being compatible with their general hatred of innovation-stifling regulation. And as more and more tech founders become phenomenally wealthy, many are naturally drawn to the right-wing political ideologies that help them preserve more of that wealth,” according to Kevin Roose in an article for New York magazine.

Not surprisingly, this same set of Silicon Valley and Seattle billionaires has teamed up with Wall Street bundlers to push neoliberal attacks on public education by pushing an agenda that supports charter schools, computer driven learning, and assessment schemes that are designed measure success of students and teachers in “real time.” Value added measures (VAM) for teachers based on student test scores are designed to reduce the power of unions by making it easier to get rid of ineffective teachers. Charter schools are created both as competition for public schools to give parents “choice” and as a way to hire nonunion teachers at cut rate salaries--teachers who can be hired and fired with no job protections or due process.

This neoliberal-libertarian agenda for education violates the values of the American Revolution that affirmed that promise of public education in the Northwest Ordinance that reserved the proceeds from the sales of public lands to build public schools and the later Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) that used the proceeds of public land sales to create public universities that would serve the interests of the public.

Neoliberal corporate education reform is nothing short of an attack on the political DNA of the United States. This agenda makes a mockery of Jefferson’s idea about a school as an “academical village” designed to create leaders to serve the commonwealth. Corporate education reform also disgraces the legacy of the fight for integration and equal funding during the Civil Rights movement by encouraging the resegregation and the resource starving of public schools to create more “choice” in the form of charter schools.

The Tea Party might rant on and on about liberty and taxes these days, but Republicanism, or the idea that we have to “rise above faction” to serve the commonwealth was the glue that held the American revolutionaries together.

According to our leading historian of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood, “The virtue that classical republicanism encouraged was public virtue. Private virtues such as prudence, frugality, and industry were important but, said [philosopher David] Hume, they only made men ‘serviceable to themselves, and enable them to promote their own interest'; they were not ‘such as make them perform their part in society.” Public virtue, according to American revolutionary leaders, was the sacrifice of private interests for the public interest. It was devotion to the commonwealth.

In contrast to these notions of Republican virtue that represent core American values, the neoliberalism of Hayek and the Chicago school of economics posit a virtuous marketplace in place of a civil society. This economic school completely ignores the work of the Scottish Enlightenment upon which the American revolutionaries based their notions of the “pursuit of happiness.” They especially neglect the early works of Smith, Hume Ferguson, and Hutcheson that insist that only a government firmly grounded in the exercise of “moral sentiments” could check the excesses of self-interest within the marketplace.

Adam Smith, it turns out, had very clear ideas about civil society as a necessary foundation for a civil marketplace: “The wisdom of every state or commonwealth endeavors, as well as it can, to employ the force of the society to restrain those who are subject to its authority, from hurting or disturbing the happiness of one another. The rules which it establishes for this purpose, constitute the criminal and civil law of each state...[and] a sacred and religious regard not to hurt or disturb in any respect the happiness of our neighbor...constitutes the character of the perfectly innocent and just man.” Public virtue requires an innocence and devotion to the ideal of civil society that neoliberal libertarian corporate education reformers and the editorial boards that love them have all but forgotten in a culture soaked in Ayn Rand but starving for Cato and Cicero.

Chicago school economic libertarians thus unwittingly separated themselves from a Burkean conservatism that seeks gradual change to preserve social and cultural stability. Even the 20th century progenitor of “neoliberalism,” Hayek, carefully gave emphasis to Burke’s concerns about potential disruption of civil society caused by runaway free markets. (Jones, Masters, p.11)

Even Burkean conservatives tend to be repulsed by the radical individualism of the godless libertarians. By contrast, the completely utilitarian corporate education reformers use the rhetoric of “rational choice” to legitimize “school choice” because the market knows best. Disruption trumps inefficiency. The market, in this sense, is governed by “Nature’s Law,” or the idea that it (the market) is a self-governing mechanism that requires no regulation. This market is the creation of a deist God that, for Smith at least, was circumscribed by moral sentiments, norms of right and wrong, and laws that served a collective body: civil society.

But, in the hands of the late twentieth century Chicago school economists, the deist’s marketplace governed by “natural law” has become the godless “abstracted empiricism” (C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination)) of economic models that legitimate the intrusion of markets into every aspect of life. In their work, “rational choice” displaces moral sentiments and the idea of civil society is discarded as an empty anachronism, a drag on the system.

Nothing is sacred: public servants, those who promote the humanities and the arts, and those focused on caring for others are viewed by neoliberals as naïve at best. Public servants deserve little or no respect because only the market can truly establish value. They are contemptuously seen as the new “welfare queens,” or the “forty-seven percent” because the very idea of the public is emasculated, shorn of value, a heavy drag on a fine tuned and lean market system. Neoliberals believe that almost everything public should be strangled and flushed, to use Grover Norquist’s intentionally crude image.

Toward this end, public schools and public teachers have been subjected to a relentless barrage of negative propaganda for almost thirty years. Many corporations want to force open education markets, Microsoft and Pearson Education to name two of the largest, demand “free markets,” “choice,” and “free enterprise.” Public schools are defunded and closed, so that parents can choose among competing charter schools supported by city, state, and Federal policies. Politicians of both parties at every level are funneled campaign contributions from charter school investors for their support of “school choice.”

In my hometown, the Chicago Tribune editorial board uses this rhetoric to support school closings and privatization. In Chicago there is very little school choice for those who cannot afford tuition of $28,000 a year for an elite private school. There are four exemplary public high schools in Chicago that admit students via tests and a lottery system. A second tier of high schools are very good, but the vast majority of public high schools in Chicago are grossly underfunded, but do the best that they can with the resources that are allotted them.

Students who live in low-income neighborhoods have very little choice unless they qualify academically and win the lottery for admission. This pattern is replicated in many other cities: Washington D.C., Newark, Memphis, Oakland, L.A., and Detroit where public schools, especially in areas designated for charter development and gentrification, are intentionally squeezed of resources so that they will look bad on paper. These schools are closed, and students are forced into extremely overcrowded neighborhood schools. In Chicago, public schools are closed, according to CPS, because they are “underutilized.” But charter schools are opened in the same areas where schools have been closed. Public school parents in these areas can then either endure resource starved and overcrowded “destination schools,” or “choose” charter schools.

These decisions are made in Chicago by an appointed school board acting at the beck and call of a mayor who owns a “magic rolodex” containing the contact information of the wealthiest in the city and on Wall Street. Many of these contacts are heavily invested in charter school companies and corporations that peddle computers, software, curricula, and assessment products. In Chicago, the group that sat on the board of Chicago Housing Authority in the late 90s encouraged the privatization of public housing began to push for charter schools in “mixed income areas” to lure middle income professionals back into the city from the suburbs. A group of corporate leaders formed a committee within the Commercial Club of Chicago to push for charter schools in gentrifying areas on the south and west sides. Not surprisingly, many of those with memberships in the Commercial Club invested very heavily within areas that the hope to gentrify.

All across the country mayors and governors, congressmen and senators, claim to be following a national policy called Race to the Top (RTTT) that was written by our Federal Department of Education. In fact, the education secretary serves Microsoft Corporation and Pearson Education that seek to vend their products to public schools and unregulated “data driven” charter schools. Indeed, two of the principle writers of RTTT were presidential appointments to executive positions within the Obama administration Department of Education came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Moreover, these multinational corporations like Microsoft and Pearson Education seek to bypass anti-trust laws with the help of a friendly Department of Justice. These corporations avoid competitive impact statements required by law as the DOJ and the SEC look the other way because the current administration wants these education vendors to construct economies of scale to achieve its RTTT policy objectives. But these multi-nationals are not just scaling projects for an exclusively American market, they are scaling education products for global markets.

The Chamber of Commerce and our education secretary speak of an educational space race: the Chinese have higher scores and we have to catch up or fall behind. But they support policies that will reduce creativity and standardize curricula all over the world. They control choice, not those who live in neighborhoods designated for charter schools and gentrification.

When mayors who support corporate education reform say they want citizens to have “choice,” what they are really saying is: “do what we tell you to or leave and take your poverty and crime elsewhere: your area is being gentrified to make for an educated, higher tax bracket group.” The mayors make the choices in this case.

When governors and state school boards decide to join the PARCC testing consortium that has a contract with Pearson Education that taxpayers can not afford without laying off key teachers and staff in schools, they make the choice.

When the RTTT “competition” coerced states into signing on to a corporate reform program that would force them to make unfunded changes that include the purchase of expensive standardized tests, computers, and software, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Sir Michael Barber or Pearson Education made the choice.

When the public school parents in my (Chicago) Woodlawn neighborhood protesting the closing of all but one of the public schools within a mile radius, they did not choose to send their kids to charter schools. Neither did the very powerful parents in Hyde Park, the neighborhood to the north of Woodlawn that created enough political pressure to keep all but one of their schools open.

Very clearly, those making all of these choices are developers, Wall Street bundlers, and political handlers who tell those running for office that they cannot receive party backing without supporting corporate education reform. Those making the choices are spreading the money around to make all education markets theirs. These hands are not so invisible and they are not working in the best interests of our communities. Very clearly, Education markets are being manipulated by “externalities,” they are not places that respond to the “rational choice” of those who do not have financial and political resources.

The corporation education reformers are the true radicals. They subscribe to ideas that represent a betrayal of the Republican values that motivated the real American revolutionaries. These revolutionaries, like my ancestor Abraham Horton, were fighting for the “rights of Englishmen” established as a result of the English Civil War. Abraham’s great grandfather was a soldier in the New Model Army who hailed from Nottingham. Thomas Horton signed the death warrant of Charles I because Charles did not respect “the rights of Englishmen” as embodied in the Charter of the Forest, the part of the Magna Carta that guaranteed that the Commons would be used as a means of subsistence. (“The originals of the Charter of the Forest are in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and in Durham Cathedral, the regents seal in green, the papal legate’s seal in yellow.”) Chapter seven of this Charter (1215) protected “estovers of common.” In effect, according to historian Peter Linebaugh, “Magna Carta defined limits of privatization.” (Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto, 37-41).

For my ancestors, and for workers and farmers all over the world, the idea of the Commons is the idea that each human being had the right to a living, even as fields were enclosed. Magna Carta, was carried over to the North American colonies in the commons at the heart of New England villages and in the funding of Latin and grammar schools. This idea became national policy in the wake of the American Revolution when the Northwest Ordinance committed proceeds from sales of public lands (commons) to build and maintain public schools. In the United States the public schools reflected the promise of the Declaration and the extension of the “estovers of common.” This idea was further extended to college education with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act that established that the commons (public lands) be converted to the creation of public service universities.

During Reconstruction, the Freedman’s Bureau Act extended public education to former slaves and their children, and dozens of legal decisions and civil rights acts displaced Jim Crow laws that segregated schools and equalized school funding.

The privatizers want us to forget all of this history; they want us to forget the idea that public anything is a good idea. Parents who demand quality public neighborhood schools are as American as apple pie. The corporate education reformers are motivated by ideas that have no respect for tradition or for common human decency. They devalue the aspirations represented in the Declaration of Independence. We need to push back and demand a limit to privatization and a defense of the Commons.

What do you think? Is the philosophy driving corporate reform putting our common public schools in danger?

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.