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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Public education not for sale

by Pam Hachey

I attended the conference on the privatization and commercialization of education, held in Vancouver February 18–19, 2005, as a representative of our local union. The sessions were many and lively. Attendees included school district administrators, school board trustees, CUPE workers, parents, teachers, and the public.

This excerpt from the keynote given by Heather-jane Robertson fits perfectly with the announced rankings of schools.

The many faces of privatization

"...privatization includes being part of the market, acting like the market and/or thinking like the market... The core characteristic of markets is competition, competition to gain the most for the least. Picking a stock to go up or picking slave labour to manufacture your product—the same principal is at stake: the most for the least. In today’s jargon, this is called ‘productivity’—a focus on outcomes. To be productive, you invest in winners and get rid of losers—closing a Wal-Mart in Jonquiere follows the same, inexorable gravity of the market as closing 113 schools in British Columbia.

"Business management books will tell you that to succeed, modern business has to measure more, increase standardization and enforce ‘quality control,’ especially of the workforce. In education, professional accountability, which should mean taking responsibility for decisions informed by professional judgement, has become an exercise in proving that you are doing what you are told to do. There is no professionalism where there are no alternatives. The centralization of curricula, the standardization of evaluation and reporting, efforts to enforce teacher quality control through pre-service or in-service certification and the general loss of teacher autonomy are predictable results of treating education as a market.

"School choice, after all, is a business model. Businesses within all sectors are expected to find their niche, distinguish themselves from the competition and demonstrate their superiority within that niche... public schools increasingly compete with each other for students, having decided that they will create ‘boutique’ schools to appeal to ‘niche markets,’ including French Immersion, International Baccalaureate schools and pre-professional magnet schools. Schools and systems compete with each other for enrolment, for partnerships with corporations, for foreign students, in fundraising, and, of course, in student achievement. Here the most important marketing tool is standardized testing, of course. Standardized testing forces both private and public schools to value some kinds of students—some kinds of customers—more than others. The kids who are the easiest to teach, who perform well on tests, whose parents are really involved, who don’t have any special needs—well, maybe they’re allowed to be gifted—these kids on the A-team become highly desirable because they make a big contribution to the school’s bottom line—test scores.

"The kids who need school the most, the ones who will never make the A-list, will always be considered liabilities. They drive down the school’s scores, and thus drive away new customers into a downward business spiral. Inevitably, the distance increases between what are seen as ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools within the system...the quality of teachers follows. (Now, this tendency can be reinforced, as it is has been in many American states, where schools, principals and individual teachers are rewarded and paid based on the school’s test scores. Schools performing poorly, which are predictably teaching the neediest kids, are penalized financially—fined, in essence—while the schools doing well get extra funding and their teachers and principals get big bonuses. After all, isn’t this how the market works?) No, we aren’t there yet. But think about the laws of market gravity, and what’s just a little further downstream. Just because something is unthinkable doesn’t necessarily make it unlikely."

Ponder those thoughts as you read the latest school rankings from the Fraser Institute.

Other sessions I attended were on GAT and trade and tariff agreements and international impacts on education. The perspectives came from a university professor from Bristol, Susan Robertson, author of A Class Act: Changing Teachers’ Work, the State and Globalisation, and Brazilian researcher Pablo Gentile, from the Public Policy Laboratory, in Rio de Janiero, respectively.

A look at privatization of education around the world emphasizes the costs paid by those least able to pay. The gaps between have and have-not citizens have widened. Education is no longer identified as a public good but as a marketable commodity that can be bargained at international trade talks. The World Trade Organization, of which there are 147 member nations, operates with a one-size-fits-all view. Exemptions for unique circumstances do not exist. Agreements within this body compel nations to offer to other member nations conditions to the market that are equal to or better than those offered to most favoured nations. For instance: Domestic regulation, "ensuring that measures relating to qualifications and procedures, technical standards and licensing requirements do not constitute unnecessary barriers to trade in services." Agreement by consensus has been the practice, and those have countries with the most hold much of the power. Disputes will be settled by the Dispute Resolution Panel. We have all seen Canada’s trouble settling trade disputes. Do we really want education, training, and the regulations of such to be decided by a larger body outside our country?

In South America, the impact of privatization has been felt by teachers and students in the classrooms. Public education is decreasing, and private is growing. One private university is created in Brazil every day (not including weekends and holidays). Funds for education have been reduced, services to communities have been reduced, and teacher salaries have been reduced. The dollars for education are now going to private companies for teacher-training and evaluation as part of an accountability focus.

Listening to Pablo Gentile, I realized that privatization of education has two faces: in North America, one of opulence and choice, in South America, one of poverty and misery and the removal of choices. School funding is directly dependent on the global economy.

Are the safeguards in place to protect public education in Canada?

In her closing address, Lisa McLeod, was eloquent in speaking for post-secondary students across Canada and addressing their concerns about privatization. She listed four:

  • Research and academic education increasingly funded by private corporations influencing what is researched if not restricting it.
  • Quality of the education undermined through cuts to support services and increases in class sizes.
  • Increasing student debt and cuts to student grants.
  • From the Youth in Transition Survey, the barrier to post-secondary education most cited by young people is the cost of education; they don’t have the money and they don’t want the debt.

Attending the sessions left me with more questions than answers, but I am much more aware and informed than I was.

Pam Hachey is an elementary counsellor in Vanderhoof and a member of the Teacher Newsmagazine Advisory Board.

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