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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, No. 1, Sept./Oct. 2003

School district business companies

by Larry Kuehn

Privatization of public schools is taking place in B.C., with the creation of school district business companies as one of the tools. Education Minister Christy Clark sees education as one big market, with students and parents being consumers who make choices. She told students in Cowichan on the day school opened that "we need to provide choices for kids just like they do in private schools."

When one thinks of school as a private market rather than as a community good, priorities shift. This can be seen in the decision of secondary schools in North Vancouver not to accept students from their neighbourhood because places were reserved for paying international students.

It can also lead to what might be called the "X-filing" of the B.C. curriculum. Vancouver was the setting of the filming of The X-files for five years, but Vancouver was always disguised as various American cities, because the U.S. was the primary market for the show. Similarly, during the consultations on the new B.C. graduation program, one of the submissions urged that decisions not be made that would make B.C. less attractive to international students.

In a two-tier system, with some "customers" paying high fees, those customers can drive the system.

The private-market view of schools was reflected by the B.C. government when it encouraged school districts to get into "entrepreneurial activity"—go into business. To facilitate profit-making, it even passed special legislation (Bill 34) creating "school district business companies."

The B.C. public schools do need more money to maintain our high quality of education. But rather than provide it in the form of provincial funding, the government is saying go out and earn profits in the market.

The ministry of education has already identified 20 private schools that could be run as B.C. schools in Japan, Taiwan, and China. School districts that have set up business companies are invited to apply to run those schools. Those schools will be operated as B.C. schools, using the B.C. curriculum and teachers who have B.C. certificates for public or independent schools and charging high tuition—as much as $35,000 a year for Grades 11 and 12 in a proposal considered by West Vancouver.

What is it that we have to offer that would be attractive? Education Minister Christy Clark told the legislature that students "can perhaps earn a Dogwood Certificate, which is an internationally recognized commodity."

If you want to think of education as a commodity, B.C. does have a number of things to offer. Students in B.C. ranked near the top in the recent OECD international PISA exams. Those positive results were achieved in schools that are much more multicultural than schools marginally ahead of B.C.’s scores. Of course, the success of B.C. 15-year-old students was built on schools that had the level of educational service provided in the 1990s, not the worse conditions that have been created over the past two years.

Again, in commodity terms, the Dogwood Certificate provides an advantage in getting access to the quality post-secondary institutions we have in B.C. And, of course, we offer our program in English, what Korean Teacher Union official Lee, Dong-Jin calls "the language of globalization."

It’s a matter of inequity
So if we have a high-quality education and we can offer it at a profit, what’s wrong with that?

The job of the market is not to create social equity—and it never does. But in a democracy, one of the roles of government is to seek equality of opportunity. One of the key ways to do that is to ensure that finances are distributed to give extra support necessary to even the playing field for those who come to school with fewer of the opportunities that can be provided by families that are financially well off.

Making business success the basis of providing needed funding to support public education will exacerbate social inequities in our province. Further, running elite private schools in other countries will create more social inequities there as well.

Already in B.C. we see significant differences in the amount of supplementary funding available from the tuition charged international students in our classrooms. West Vancouver, the district with the highest socio-economic status in the province, also makes the most money from international students—money then available to subsidize the educational program in the district. The London Times Education Supplement has commented on the irony of a public system in B.C. financing its education by selling elite private education in other countries.

The inequities created by this creeping privatization led the 2003 BCTF Annual General Meeting to adopt a policy of opposing the creation of school-district business companies.

Is anyone else setting up business companies?
No other province has moved to set up business companies run by school districts. Legislation in Britain to allow school authorities to run businesses was rejected in a vote, and an English court ruled that it is inappropriate for schools to run businesses because it is outside their mandate.

In B.C., once some school boards adopt an entrepreneurial mode, they seem to be as concerned about innovation in business as in the old-fashioned task of educating public school students in their own neighbourhood schools. Business operations under development include online learning, software sales, learning resource marketing, property management, and contracting services such as speech and hearing specialists and psychologists. The Coquitlam district has created an international college through a subsidiary company of its school district business company; it is a private college to offer English programs to international students.

The Nanaimo board directed senior staff to prepare business plans for offering carpentry products, information-systems services, vehicle maintenance, print-shop services, and bus rentals to the community. If it moves, sell it, seems to be the philosophy.

The New Westminster School District Business Company bought Open School from the government, in partnership with a private company, and plans to make money by selling distance-education resources both in B.C. and internationally.

Business companies are beyond accountability
For a public body such as a school board, an important element of accountability to the public has to be based on open access to information. The legislation authorizing school district business companies makes no mention of a requirement for the company to be covered by the freedom of information laws; although it requires that the company must have on its board at least one elected school trustee or the district secretary-treasurer (presumably to ensure that the board can get information about what the company is doing). However, after only a few months of operation, a school trustee in one district has initiated a freedom-of-information request in order to get full details of the district company’s operation.

Even more troubling is the creation of subsidiary companies by school district business companies. They are like the numbered companies created by construction firms so that liability for leaking buildings or other problems rests only with the subsidiary and not with the actual owners.

The government lawyer who drafted the business company legislation has confirmed that the creation of subsidiary companies was not contemplated. Subsidiary companies are another step beyond control of the public board. Directors have no necessary connection to the school board and are responsible to the business company, not to the school board. Programs such as Coquitlam’s international college have been created as subsidiary companies.

It is indicative of the lack of concern about public accountability that of the few districts that have created business companies, none has first held a public meeting so that all the issues around the companies can be discussed. Because of the reduction of real levels of funding for our schools, the districts have jumped at the promise of revenue, without examining the down sides or the alternatives.

Public education is opened to the GATS
The World Trade Organization is currently the venue for negotiating trading rules for public services, including education, under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The Canadian government claims that it plans to exempt Canadian public education from coverage under the GATS. However, when a public institution operates as a private-education provider, as is the case with school district business companies, the case for exemption—ambiguous in the first place—becomes untenable.

Breaking down the distinctions between public and private accelerates the loss of the commons, the public space that operates for democratic social purposes, rather than for private interests and profit. Viewing public education as a commodity to be chosen through the market breaks apart the bonds that have contributed to our society’s moving toward the elusive goal of equity. Just as tax breaks primarily for the rich increase social inequality, making resources for education dependent on the market also takes us further from the democratic goal of equity.

Larry Kuehn is director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division.

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