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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 24, Number 1, September 2011  

Privatizing of public education: Only in America or coming to a school near you?  

By Tara Ehrcke  

Even if you aren’t a parent or a teacher, US “education reform” probably crossed your path sometime this year. You might have seen the film Waiting for Superman, which trumpets the concept of the charter school. Or you might have watched the 100,000 plus demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin, take on a newly minted and aggressive Republican governor attacking teacher union rights. Or perhaps you came across a news story in some US media outlet, where it is almost impossible these days not to read about someone teacher bashing.

Although the American “reform” movement is over a decade old, it really heated up this year. The ideological onslaught began with the release and endless commentary on the film Waiting for Superman. If you watched Oprah’s show on September 20, 2010, you saw the program, “The Shocking State of Our Schools.” If you heard Bill Gates or Arne Duncan (Obama’s top education czar) or Michelle Rhee (former Washington, DC schools chancellor) or practically any mainstream news report, the message was the same—our schools are failing.

And when the one-second sound bite got to be two or three messages, the same messages from the movie were listed off as the primary reasons for school failure: bad teachers, greedy teachers, teacher unions, teacher tenure.

These ideas are not new to the “education reform” movement in the US. They date back all the way to the mid-1980s with the introduction of standardized testing in OECD nations. They were, in many ways, enshrined into law through the No Child Left Behind Act brought in by George W. Bush. And they reached their epitome and perhaps most raw expression in the film Waiting for Superman. They are public education’s very own “shock” (à la Naomi Klein), and they are designed to do something very different than improve schools.

The “shock” goes like this

  • Test scores show that our schools are failing.
  • The most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher.
  • Bad teachers must be leading to low test scores and failing schools.
  • We must get rid of bad teachers.
  • Tenure and teacher unions are in the way.

And then there is the actual, unspoken motive—commodify and privatize public education.

It is a difficult theory to put forward. Most parents understand that schooling is more than standardized test scores, and many understand that the tests do nothing to improve their own child’s education. They also tend to like and trust their children’s teachers and schools—certainly more so than a bureaucrat or politician. So it takes a lot of ideological interference to turn people against their child’s teacher and their neighbourhood school.

At the root of this “shock doctrine” tactic are two goals—commodify and privatize the public education system. In the US, these goals are achieved in a variety of ways and take on various forms. Vouchers, testing, school rankings, and charter schools all provide market-driven incentives within a publicly funded system. They do not privatize directly, but they create conditions that mimic a private system. Parents are “consumers” who “shop” for schools using rankings based on test scores. Despite voucher systems, the parents with more savvy and resources tend to get their children into the better schools. Charters escape democratic oversight as they don’t run under elected school boards and they are outside of pre-existing union contracts. They can accept private funding (from philanthropists such as Bill Gates) and can employ more teachers who work longer at lower costs because there are no unions and no collective agreements when they start up. They even have rights to public funding and buildings whenever a public school “fails,” and are replacing public schools at an alarming rate. They really are a publicly funded private system.

The “education reform” movement also comes with a variety of peripheral policy objectives: merit pay for teachers, more testing to use for more rankings—including teacher rankings as well as school rankings, elimination of teacher unions who are a barrier to school change, lowered teacher training standards to ensure an adequately large supply of new teachers just desperate for a job. So we see the publication in the Los Angeles Times of the “value added” teacher score for every public school teacher (this is meant to be a measure of how much more that teacher can improve student test scores). We see the wholesale introduction of charter schools in New Orleans after the floods, completely replacing the public system. We see the draconian legislation in Wisconsin and other states designed to drastically reduce the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. And now, this spring, we are seeing across the US, significant funding cuts to education budgets, leading to mass layoffs.

The overall result? The public system is shrinking while the private system grows.

Could this be coming to a school near you?

In the dark Bush years, it was common for (some) Americans to lament and wish they were up north, in Canada, that place free of the worst of the market system run amok. But while the rhetoric may be more tempered, the same trends are apparent.

The most obvious is the testing, accountability and choice agenda. We do not have the same number of tests. But we have enough to produce the Fraser Institute rankings. And enough for Kevin Falcon to float the trial balloon of merit pay for teachers during the BC Liberal leadership race. Ontario has it’s EQAOs and BC its FSAs.

Parents do not have vouchers and charter schools are uncommon (they do exist in Alberta), but we do have an awful lot of “parent choice.” In Canada, this is more direct—we publicly fund private schools. BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories all provide public funding for private schools—in some cases up to 60% of the equivalent public funding. And BC is leading the way with respect to parent choice within the public system. There are no more fixed catchments. In BC, a parent can choose any school, leading to inter-school competition and notoriously unreliable enrolment projections.

The attack on teachers and teacher unions is also alive and well. Ontario, in the Harris years, tried to impose a scheme of practically constant recertification requirements. Alberta has just floated the idea of a graduated accreditation system, where teachers start their careers in a probationary mode and only after decades of practise and constant evaluation do they become “professional” teachers. The BC government is revamping the BC College of Teachers and threatens, again, to make teachers a minority on their own professional governing body. Just as in the US, these “policy objectives” are justified with erroneous exaggerations of the “bad teachers” who are ruining our education system. Rather than attract the best with competitive salaries (BC is now eighth in Canada) or set high entry standards, the BC government lowered standards (only a four-year degree is now required under the TILMA trade agreement with Alberta) and has let salaries, benefits, and working conditions plummet.

And finally the funding. Since the mid-1990s, and the reductions in transfer payment to the provinces, education budgets have been under constant pressure. Combined with the Supreme Court decision requiring fully integrated schools for students with special needs, the pressures on school boards are insurmountable. Fundraising has become a constant and practically a requirement for most schools. As public schools cut services, parents look elsewhere, if they can afford it. There is a flourishing growth in private specialty services for students with autism, learning disabilities and other specific educational needs, as well as after-school tutoring.

The overall result? Canada has experienced a massive increase in alternatives to the public school system—homeschooling, growth in private school enrolment, massive growth in private tutoring and schooling services (see for example: www.nall.ca/res/65ScottDavies.pdf. Just as in the US, the results are the same—the public system is shrinking while the private system grows. 

Tara Ehrcke is president, Greater Victoria Teachers' Association—tara@gvta.net.  


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