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Exterminating Public Education

Jack Gerson and Steven Miller
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007
    “The merits of a marketplace model for public education have been among the most prominent themes in education policy discussions over the last two decades. The 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has accelerated the trend toward private, for-profit activities in public education.”

    - Alex Molnar, For-Profit K-12 Education: Through the Glass Darkly

The corporate campaign to privatize public education entered a new phase on December 14, 2006 when the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce released its book-length report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, published by the National Center on Education and the Economy. This is the definitive corporate statement on public education. It is a statement of intent.

Tough Choices or Tough Times calls for, among other things: making all public schools into “Contract Schools,” entities beyond charter schools; ending high school for many students after the 10th grade; terminating teacher pension plans and reducing health benefits; introducing merit pay and other pay differentials for teachers; and eliminating the powers of local school boards as “public” schools become owned by private companies and all regulation is done by the states. These measures would cut the heart out of public education, severely penalize students, and deal a heavy blow to teacher unions.

No one should take this report lightly. Funded by some of the world’s richest and most powerful entities (most notably, Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation), the report represents their interests and, indeed, promotes the current consensus recommendations of US corporations and politicians. In addition, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce is a group with a track record: their last report helped lay the groundwork for No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

School superintendent

Bill Gates has apparently decided to take charge of public education in the US, whether we like it or not. NYU professor Diane Ravitch, explained in the July 30, 2006 Los Angeles Times:

    With the ability to hand out more than $1 billion or more every year to U.S. educators without any external review, the Gates Foundation looms larger in the eyes of school leaders than even the U.S. Department of Education, which, by comparison, has only about $20 million in truly discretionary funds. The department may have sticks, but the foundation has almost all the carrots.

    In light of the size of the foundation’s endowment, Bill Gates is now the nation’s superintendent of schools. He can support whatever he wants, based on any theory or philosophy that appeals to him. We must all watch for signs and portents to decipher what lies in store for American education.

In 1990 the Gates-funded Commission issued the influential report America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages. The report argued that the US could compete in the global capital and jobs markets only if the country’s public education system adopted a strongly standards-based approach that used standardized tests to enforce accountability of students and teachers. That report was similarly a statement of intent. In its wake followed No Child Left Behind and its emphasis on high stakes testing with ridiculously unrealistic and statistically meaningless targets for student reading and math scores. NCLB is an unfunded mandate that strangles public schools and leads to school closures and privatizations.

The standards-based, high stakes testing approach espoused by the 1990 Commission report and executed by NCLB has failed miserably – so miserably that it is finally losing much of its support. The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have grown increasingly critical, and Democratic and Republican politicians are expressing their doubts. In fact, NCLB is up for renewal this year by the now Democratically-controlled Congress. But rather than fade quietly into the night, the folks who brought us the 1990 report are back with a new plan for public education.

The so-called Skills Commission is not a public body. The report is not the result of testimony and analysis presented democratically in open meetings, nor is it the synthesis of a public analysis of our schools. The report is a corporate vision of what corporations want. It is an attempt to seize the debate about public education and channel it in very specific directions.

The report is bipartisan, representing a broad consensus of the US corporate elite. It was funded by Bill Gates and his foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the Casey Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation. The Commission includes former US Secretaries of Education Rod Paige and Richard Riley; a former US Secretary of Labor; the heads of the NYC and Washington D.C. public schools; the “President Emeritus” of the Communications Workers of America; the president of the Urban League; the head of the National Association of Manufacturers, John Engler, former governor of Michigan; major corporate players such as Henry Schatz, former CEO of Lucent; and other prominent politicians and academics.

World market

According to the report, “we” (US capital) need a highly skilled and highly creative work force to compete in the world market. The report admits that the 1990 report’s program of emphasis on standards-based learning discouraged creativity in favor of rote learning. Furthermore, the new report says, the previously recommended focus on producing skilled students is inadequate for the current global economy in which the only way to thrive is through technological innovation.

This vision of a dog-eat-dog world is, unfortunately, an accurate portrayal of the dynamics of global capital. As the new report admits, automation and digitization have made it possible for US companies to export almost all manufacturing and many service jobs, skilled and unskilled alike. Anything that can be routinized will be digitized, automated, and outsourced. But the folks behind the report—Gates, the world’s richest man and Engler, the head of the National Association of Manufacturers—are the very folks who shift capital around the globe, to wherever labor is cheapest and profits are highest. And that is the real source of tough times.

The Commission writes:

    First, the role of school boards would change. Schools would no longer be owned by local school districts. Instead, schools would be operated by independent contractors, many of them limited-liability corporations owned and run by teachers. The primary role of school district central offices would be to write performance contracts with the operators of these schools, monitor their operations, cancel or decide not to renew the contracts of those providers that did not perform well, and find others that could do better. … The contract schools would be public schools, subject to all of the safety, curriculum, testing and other accountability of public schools. (Executive Summary, p 16, emphasis added)

This is exactly the same language of deregulation and “letting the free market decide” that gave us ENRON, the pillaging of California by energy companies, and the trillion dollar Savings & Loan scandals of the early 1990s. Restating that contract schools are public schools is an attempt to obfuscate the real intent. If simple “regulation and accountability” mean public power, then Exxon is a public corporation too.

Basically, the Commission wants to change state education codes to accommodate the kinds of exceptions and practices currently being piloted by charter schools. In effect, all public schools would be run like today’s charter schools: run by private companies with “flexible” hours, longer school days, longer school years, no teacher seniority rights, no pensions, and limited health benefits. To put it another way, all public schools would be charter schools, only the charters would no longer be needed because the charter exceptions would be written right into the state education codes. The report calls their proposed schools “contract schools,” but it is clear that these are basically charter schools writ large.

This is so clear that the two labor members of the commission, Morton Bahr (Communications Workers of America) and Dal Lawrence (past president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers), wrote a short statement registering “concern” that “The design for contract schools can become an open door for profiteers.” They cite the example of Ohio, “where charter school legislation has resulted in almost universal poor student achievement, minimal accountability, and yet considerable profits for charter operators, many with peculiar political agendas.”

The Commission claims it will save $60 billion on K12 education. It does not mention that corporations today already feast on a trillion dollar a year market based on privatizing public schools and their services. This is the corporate plan to expand that market. It is a vision of schools as “profit centers,” run by “entrepreneurs,” where children are commodities. The role of the public is reduced from having the final power over schools to being consumers. Let the buyer beware.

The students

Students would face severe tracking that would end high school for millions of children by the 10th grade. This would be enforced by “benchmark” high school exit exams to be created at the state level and administered in the 10th grade. The report explicitly calls for these tests to assess high school grade level skills, not the middle school skills that are typically “measured” by routine high school exit exams. In other words, the Commission demands tests pitched well beyond the current level in many states.

Students who do poorly will get tossed out of school. The “Commissioners” argue that students can retake the tests any number of times, so if they are really motivated they may eventually pass albeit years later and, essentially, on their own.

Students who do well can go on to university. Students who do okay go to community college or technical school. The door is left ajar for the possibility of letting some students stick around high school for another couple of years to prepare for university. Is this an escape clause for mediocre but rich suburban students?

The Commissioners predict that 95 percent of students will pass the exams because they will be motivated and because they will be taught by better teachers. (Right. And no child is left behind…). In fact, things will be so splendid that remediation won't be needed—you see, students will be taught right in the lower grades and will get it right the first time. In practice corporations want to dump special education and intervention programs, just like they dumped bilingual education.

The report argues that students must become proficient in all areas: math, science, humanities, social sciences. And that education must emphasize concepts and creativity rather than merely rote learning. The Commission explicitly criticizes current standardized tests in that regard. High stakes testing may go down in flames. It was always just a means to an end, and the end was the demolition of public education at the expense of poor children.

The new goal of all students being polymaths is absurd. Everyone has different strengths and abilities. When exactly did we abandon the decades-long vision of public education? This vision guaranteed everyone an equal, quality public education precisely so that they could be all that they could be.

Public access

States supposedly will increase teacher pay at the expense of pensions and health benefits. The report argues that teacher compensation is “backloaded” (heavy on benefits, light on salary) which favors veteran teachers over new teachers. They want to turn this on its head and propose “frontloading” (increase salary, eliminate pensions and cut health benefits).

Such frontloading will shortchange veteran teachers and generally eliminate traditional defined-benefit pensions. The result will be to accelerate the already unacceptably high teacher turnover rate, which is especially destabilizing to inner city schools and communities. The report’s rationale that this will improve instruction rings hollow for at least two reasons: 1) studies show high correlation between teacher experience and student achievement, so chasing out veterans will hurt students and learning; 2) corporations are trying to eliminate pensions and health benefits everywhere, not just in education.

The underlying assumptions in the report reveal the typical “bait and switch” public policies that have ruined public access to health care, created NAFTA, and led to the war in Iraq. The report notes that corporations everywhere now have access to a worldwide workforce. It states, “Today, Indian engineers make $7500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications … why would the world’s employers pay us more than they have to pay the Indians to do their work?” Unfortunately, they have no real answer for this question.

The significance of the report is that the march toward the privatization of public schools came completely out of the closet in 2006. No longer is it a hidden agenda. Now the open campaigning will begin, the lobbying and bribery will ensue, and laws will be debated to change public schools in the corporate direction.

There was plenty of evidence for this in 2006. The public schools of New Orleans were almost completely privatized, charter schools are appearing everywhere, the mayor of Los Angeles is trying to take over the public schools to facilitate charter school corporations, and Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City Public Schools (a public office and public trust) sits as a commissioner on the Skills Commission.

Meanwhile, the Broad Foundation—with an openly corporate agenda—has its fingers in a hundred public school systems. Eli Broad joins with fellow billionaires like Gates and Donald Fisher of The Gap as “philanthropists” who have suddenly become civic minded and want the best for the nation’s children. 2006 was the year where individual billionaires put billions of dollars into foundations to control social policy in our country.

Few people are aware that the great state university systems, including publicly funded institutions like the University of Illinois, the University of California, and Michigan State were essentially privatized by corporations in the 1990s. Virtually all of them now receive the majority of their funding from “partnerships” with corporations. Now corporations are drawing a bead on the country’s school system for children.

The future

How we reckon with the report’s impact, what lessons we learn, will help determine what kind of future we face. The implications for our country are obvious. Teachers, as well as all others, must begin speaking in the name of all society. Corporations have no problem saying how things should go. Why should they have the predominant voice?

One thing is certain. The very richest citizens, all based in hugely powerful and influential corporations, are proposing that the United States, the first country to develop free, universal public education, now abandon this institution.

Is this not worthy of some public discussion and debate? Call it what you want, when corporations meet privately to determine what to do with a public institution, one that mainly serves the people who must work for said corporations, this smells a lot like class warfare. You can bet the campaign to implement contract schools will soon be pushed by the corporate media to turn this into public policy. We will be sold on it with minimal public discussion, without letting the people whose lives will be most altered by this public choice have much say over it. Then suddenly the laws will have changed.

Let us accept the challenge. Let us open up the discussion of what kind of society the majority of people need and put it on the table. Let us make it as open and as public as possible. If we fail in this, we will pay a bitter price. If corporations can openly call for reengineering society, then it is appropriate to discuss what kind of changes shall be made and in whose interests they will be made.

Since the corporate attack is openly against the public nature of education, there is no way to protect our hard-won gains toward equal and public education without defending and expanding the very nature of what “the public” means. Corporations do not reserve the right to put the reorganization of society on the table. We must look behind the hype and see who are the winners and the losers. It is not difficult.

The privatization of public education already results in the transfer of tens of millions of dollars in public assets into corporate hands without a discussion of compensation or, still more fundamentally, whether society should allow public education to fall into private, corporate hands.

Public schools originally arose in opposition to the child labor of the 1830s, where the only children who attended school were those whose families could afford it. What will happen when schools are completely privatized and only the rich can afford to give their children an education?

As high technology inevitably replaces jobs, corporations that profit from human exploitation will simply no longer have a need for an educated workforce or even for much of a workforce at all. Public education must be guaranteed as a human right, as are the rights to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and culture.

The future of public education is, as with all human affairs, up to us and what we do. There can be no question that the world is rapidly transforming. This transformation is not the property of corporations. Let us make our future into our property—public property.

The Executive Summary of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce report is available online at

Jack Gerson teaches math at Castlemont Leadership Prep High in Oakland, California and is on the Executive Board of the Oakland Education Association. He is an active opponent of the state takeover of the Oakland public schools and of the role of the Broad and Gates Foundations in imposing privatization via a “business model” for public schools. Gerson’s activism dates to the movements of the sixties when he was regional organizer of northern California SDS.

Steven Miller has taught high school biology, physics, and science in Oakland flatland schools for 22 years. He has been a union representative for 20 years. Miller was part of SNCC’s MississippiFreedom Summer in 1964. He also worked in Louisiana with CORE in 1965.