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Privatization is an International Issue

by Tina Anderson, Task Force on Privatization

Although the B.C. provincial government is early in its drive to privatize public education, counterparts in other Canadian provinces and countries around the globe provide us with many examples of what is to come our way if we are not successful in stopping privatization. No longer is public education viewed by governments as a "public good", and necessary to ensure a basic level of equity and equal opportunity for all. Today, education is increasingly perceived as a "commodity for sale", made available through the market.

While many individual characteristics differ in this drive to privatize, from province to province, and country to country, all examples have at least three common elements:

  1. Governments have adopted the ideology that privatizing public education is necessary and a good thing.
  2. Underfunding of public education is the best way to create the crisis necessary to implement this ideology.
  3. Most importantly, education is viewed as a "commodity for sale" in the "international market place."

Here is a roundup of how these themes play out internationally.

United Kingdom
One of the longest runs at privatization of education has taken place in the United Kingdom. For more than 25 years, since the beginning of the Thatcher era, the British education system has undergone a systematic attack, waged first by Conservative and then Labour governments. This process has many elements: from the erosion of teacher autonomy to the elimination of elected local education authorities (school boards); from the implementation of public-private-partnerships (P3s) to the forced competition between schools vying for cream-of-the-crop students who do well on national standardized tests; from merit pay for teachers to funding levels linked to school "success." Privatization runs rampant throughout what is left of the British state education system.

Education professor Richard Hatcher of the University of Central England insists "the main thread running through the history of English education is class division". In other words, one system of education for the "deserving" (haves), and another system of education for the "undeserving" (have-nots). The dreaded National Curriculum goes as far as to mandate the necessity to "differentiate" or segregate a class population into three identifiable groups: capable students, average learners and strugglers.

Approximately 30 percent of British students attend private educational institutions, also supported heavily by public funds. Those who remain in public schools learn under the conditions of many contracted out services that were once provided by public employees. Public schools operate like small businesses with their own elected boards of governors who do their own hiring and firing and distribute bulk funds as they see fit. School choice and a very unfriendly competition between schools have become the norm. So advanced is privatization in the British education system, that small education businesses are now being swallowed up by big corporations, mostly from the areas of defense and construction, as they have the experience of political lobbying and have developed close ties with politicians and top government officials.

While many neo-liberal govenments attempt to camouflage privatization, the Australian government chooses to outright publicly promote and fund private schools to an astonishing level, while starving public schools. Sally Edsall of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation points to the acceleration of privatization. In 1978, for every $1 the national government spent on a student in a public school, they spent $2.50 on a student in a private school. In 2001, for every $1 spent on a student in a public school, $4 went toward a student in a private school. And in 2005, for every $1 spent on a student in the public system, $5 per student is spent by the national government in the private system.

Australian governments too, whether conservative or labour, and whether federal or state, have been on a quest to privatize all things public for decades, including their public education system. Immense pressure from the religious community, particularly the Catholic Church, resulted in unprecedented public funding of private schools beginning in earnest in the 1950s, and becoming much more intense since the current Howard government took power. In fact, the direct funding that both state and commonwealth governments presently provide to private schools, public schools can only dream about. In addition to direct funding, Edsall cites hidden subsidies to private schools: grants, tax exemptions, and start-up financing.

To date, according to the New South Wales Teachers' Federation, Australia has seen the largest increases in school funding go to the wealthiest private schools, with the highest fees. With the re-election of the Howard conservative government, these figures are sure to increase, and the privatization of public education will see exponential growth.

United States
A recent study of the schools in the U.S. by Alex Molnar talks of "Ivy-Covered Malls and Creeping Commercialism" and says that commercialism in schools surged in 2003-2004. Corporate sponsorship makes up the largest category of commercialism. The return for their dollars expected by corporations is "locking in brand loyalty when kids are young," according to business school professor, Robert Kozinets.

Sponsorship isn't the whole story, either. There has been an increase in exclusive agreements with fast-food and pop vendors. Space is being appropriated through naming rights and general advertising in the school. Curriculum materials sponsored by corporations often provide distorted messages that serve the interests of the industry that finances the often slick materials. Electronic marketing is on the upswing as well.

Direct privatization takes place through private management of public schools and through charter schools. The No Child Left Behind law initiated by the Bush government is aimed at increasing privatization. If a school does not meet a target in test results, the school district has to pay for private tutoring of students in the school, promoting the interests of companies like Sylvan.

Other Canadian Provinces
Although, perhaps not yet to the extremes elsewhere around the globe, Canada has not escaped the "Education For Sale" phenomenon. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia entered into several "Public-Private-Partnerships" in education during the mid-nineties, providing public funding to private corporations for building and running schools. Publicly owned land and schools were sold off and the profits went into the pockets of the developers of the new schools. Local school boards were then forced to rent time and space in the new schools, with the private companies determining the public costs.

A new form of commercialization in Canada is a rapid increase in international students who desire a Canadian education and who can pay the high cost of tuition (generally $12,000 a year). B.C. K-12 public schools this year are receiving about $100 million from this tuition. Such an importance is placed on this "for-profit" enterprise that at the University of British Columbia, 20 percent of student spaces are reserved for international students who pay, on average, three times the tuition of Canadian students.

Central America
Where first-world education systems grapple with the decisions made by their own governments, third-world education systems are forced to live by the dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These institutions impose conditions on borrowing countries in order to secure loans. These conditions almost always demand that the "social safety net": public education, public health care, social services and publicly owned utilities, be drastically reduced or privatized altogether.

The World Bank is promoting four forms of contracting of education to the public sector: private management of public schools, government contracting with private schools for the delivery of education services, private finance and use of the private sector for the provision of administrative and curriculum support.

"Commodification" is also at the root of the changing nature of education in Central America. Globalization of the economy, the internationalization of capital, and a new international division of labour accompanied by intense market competition are all forces that have affected the changing character of Latin America, as well as the rest of the world. According to Gilberth Diaz Vasquez, president of the Federation of Central American Teaching Organizations (FOMCA), speaking at a meeting at the BCTF:

"Central American educators have seen that education is one of the most affected areas in this process, as those forces who are imposing a production model on education characterize it as a cost to be cut and advocate for its privatization. As a result, the profession has seen a loss of prestige and quality, a reduction of the percentage of students in school, and the creation of profound inequality between regions and social groups. All these actions threaten to convert education into an instrument to deepen and perpetuate differences."

Governments of Central America, or any other country where democracy is limited, fear a well-educated citizenry. As Larry Kuehn, director of Research & Technology at the B.C. Teachers' Federation, noted in a presentation to the Hemispheric IDEA (Initiatives for Democratic Education in the Americas) Conference held in Quito in 1999:

"Of the most threat to neo-liberal policies, is a populace that is educated to expect a democratic society that services the interests of that society, rather than the interests of global capital. By eliminating public education and the set of social expectations that it produces when it is working at its best, the likelihood is reduced that a populace will demand that its government place the highest priority on protecting the social and cultural interests of its people."

Keeping one's population ignorant, in other words, is the best way to ward off challenges to undemocratic societies, and attacking public education is one way of keeping a population ignorant.

Examples of privatization in public education around the globe are abundant, and the ideology of neo-liberalism is woven tightly into the laws of many lands. Our job is to convince our colleagues and the public, both domestic and international, that these changes are not inevitable. Public education is essential to achieve a democratic and socially just society.

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