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New Term: Education Reform Industrial Complex

December 26, 2011

In an absolutely fantastic article by Fred Grimm of the Miami Herald, cross-posted by the Star Telegram we have this: No Child Left Behind Has Turned Schoolkids Into Commodities.

Mr. Grimm brings to light many of my warnings about the movement towards the “businessification” of our public schools, so much so that he has used a new term, maybe he is the first to use it, I am not sure, but it is a good description of where we are now, the Education Reform Industrial Complex.

You have to ask yourself why hedge fund managers are getting behind “education reform?”  Why do you think that is?  I will tell you why, business men and women of all stripes have been trying to get their hands on public education dollars for many years and their vehicle to surreptitiously do this is through Charter Schools.

Let’s look at Mr. Grimm’s very informative editorial which happens to be written mainly about Florida which is the epicenter of the efforts to destroy public education and replace it with a quasi mix of private for-profit charters, and a smattering of what is left of traditional public schools.

Compared to modern school kids, I was a downright worthless student.

I don’t mean worthless as a pejorative. (My father would have used a more colorful term to characterize my scholarly pursuits.) But worthless as a commodity. Us kids at Montrose Elementary School weren’t making anyone rich. Not like today’s pupils, particularly those in Florida, who’ve become valuable cogs in a burgeoning industry.

Such precious little dummies, these wayward students. Their benighted ways in the classroom have given rise to a recession-proof enterprise. To a no-lose sort of capitalism. Educational entrepreneurs (some backed by Wall Street hedge funds who know a sure thing when they see it) have figured out how to make millions without the usual risks of the marketplace, drilling for profits in the ever lucrative field of school reform.

This statement has been the crux of my argument many times on this blog.  There are very deep-pocketed interests who are looking to raid the public treasury, or what is left of it.  They see public education dollars as a big, fat, money pot that they want to siphon off for profit, and they are doing it with the help of corrupt Governors like Rick Scott in Florida.

No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s 2001 education reform package, since embraced by President Obama, may have forced needed attention onto failing schools, but the law also created an extraordinary new industry funded exclusively with public money.

The NCLB mandate for standardized tests requires the nation’s public schools to administer some 50 million tests annually, costing some $700 million a year, most of that money going to corporations that create and publish the tests, score the results and provide “interpretive, descriptive, and diagnostic reports.” Since I was a school boy, testing costs have risen by 3,000 percent. And so too has the opportunity to make a buck.

Who would have thought anything different from legislation coming out of the prior administration.  EVERYTHING they did was about profiteering.  My greatest complaint with Obama has been his appointing of the exact same type of mentality in his pick for Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  Duncan is in bed with education profiteers and has disgustingly tied much needed funding in really a blackmail type situation towards what the moneyed “reformers” want in public education.

Requirements to provide free tutors for faltering students set off another frenzy among education entrepreneurs, wanting a chunk of the $900 million a year the federal government provides for extra help. This sort of business opportunity led to an interesting lead paragraph in a New York Times story: “Tutoring companies, rushing to tap into money available under the federal No Child Left Behind law, offered New York City principals thousands of dollars for school projects, doled out gift certificates to students and hired several workers with criminal backgrounds.”

The school system’s chief investigator, Richard Condon “described a climate of intense competition for the federal money as companies wooed both principals, who control access to space within their buildings for the after-school tutoring sessions, and prospective students, whose participation is directly linked to the companies’ gains.”

Perhaps, the tutoring companies were just caught up in an altruistic fervor for school reform.

The charter school movement set off another entrepreneurial frenzy, particularly in Florida, which now has 519 charters, 200 of them in Broward and Miami-Dade. Maybe charters and parental choice make for better overall education. I don’t know. There’s conflicting data. Certainly, many do a passable job with their students, though it’s tough to tell whether they offer a superior brand of education compared to traditional public schools.

Maybe charter operators are just savvy marketers, who know how to avoid difficult students who could bring down the overall test scores and damage the school brand. The Herald’s series on the charter movement last week revealed some discomfiting statistics indicating some of the more successful charters in Miami-Dade indulge in clever cherry picking.

Of course this IS what Charter Schools do.  I worked for two years at a school that had Charter Schools in its vicinity.  We would get a bunch of new special education students around December or January each year.  The charters that these students were going to would get the federal funding and then tell the parents that our public school had a much better special education program, so we would end up with the student and NOT the funding.  Nice little trick, right?  This is what happens when you inject a business mentality into a public school environment.

But the long range effect of luring away high achievers from traditional schools would result in something quite the opposite from the original goals of the Bush school reforms. The kids left behind by No Child Left Behind would be the very children, most of them poor, that the reforms were supposed to rescue. “When you’ve siphoned away all the successful kids, only poor kids will go to public schools,” warned Diane Ravitch, a longtime voice for reform and a chronicler of failed reforms (which you might have guessed from the title of her most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education). She said public schools, if the charter system isn’t fixed, will evolve into repositories for the unwanted, where we train poor kids to take the big test. Not to learn.

The Miami Herald’s series, Cashing In On Kids, by Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen, charted how so much public money going into these nominally non-profit ventures finds its way into the accounts of for-profit management companies. And how the operators of the management companies often double as the charter school’s landlords. Sometimes you’re not sure whether to call these people educators or real estate profiteers.

Ravitch said that even in states that outlaw for-profit management companies, the supposedly non-profit charter school operators hire for-profit subcontractors. “People have figured out that this is a great entrepreneurial opportunity.” She confessed to a “visceral dislike” of for-profit corporations running public-funded schools. “I worry that their first obligation is to the shareholders, not to students.”

Again, of course the obligation is to shareholders and not the students.  Think Occam’s Razor on this one.

But if you’re bothered by the money grubbing ways of the education reform movement, too bad. They’ve got money (thanks to NCLB) to write campaign contributions. They’ve got money to hire lobbyists. They’ve got the political juice. And you don’t.

How very true, and how very sad.  This is why as teachers we need to be very politically active!

Online education offers the next big cache of public millions available to the education industry. (We’re already supposed to believe that Florida kids can undergo the rigors of a physical education class through an online course.) So what if online students don’t learn much without a teacher there to keep them from slipping over to Facebook? Stay-at-home kids are the hot, new commodity on the education market. No rent. No heating bills. No janitorial staff. No zoning controversies. No fights in the hallways. Lots of money for software and computer-ready courses and online charter schools with plenty left over to keep the stockholders happy.

I have already written about this trend several times, it is just the latest threat to teachers and to students.

The education reform industrial complex regards virtual students, sitting at home in their underwear, as a business opportunities. Call it dollars for dullards.

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