It was maybe a year ago that I first heard someone warn about the “privatization” of public education.
I’m sure that I (quietly) scoffed at the idea. Yes, I get that a lot of people don’t like what’s happening in education right now. But do people really think that reformers and foundations and politicians are really conspiring to weaken public schools by subversively adapting corporate models for financing, accountability and even instruction?
As 2013 comes to a close, I’m convinced that a lot of people truly believe that public education is being intentionally weakened by those who favor new ways of doing things. I hear it all the time from parents, teachers, administrators and others. The real enemy, they say, is not just high-stakes testing or data collection or the lack of Common Core training for teachers, but privatization. Diane Ravitch framed this fear for many people in her new book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” It’s no wonder that more than 600 seats for her Jan. 16 talk at Fox Lane High School in Bedford were claimed over a month early.
So I choose the mainstream fear of privatization of public education as the Education Story of the Year for 2013.
I met the other day with Hartsdale’s David Greene, a veteran teacher who also has a new book, “Doing the Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks.” In the video above, we play a fun, little game of “word association.” He’s a sharp guy and a straight-shooter who believes that reformers like Education Commissioner John King, foundations like the Gates Foundation and Big Publishing companies like Pearson are conspiring to change the public school game. Pearson and other companies are trying to feed a lucrative market of Common Core-related software, he says, while reformers and foundations have given up on improving public education and are fixated on outside ideas to drive change.
“Not all the reforms are completely wrong, but improving schools is hard,” Greene told me. “There are good people with good ideas, good people doing it the wrong way, and bad people in it for the wrong reasons.”
Opponents of privatization point to several 2013 developments as the basis for their concerns.
First, you have the inBloom controversy. New York is uploading identifiable records for more than 2.5 million students to inBloom’s data cloud, despite the fears of many that this data will eventually be stolen, sold or otherwise misused like hot TVs. Both the state and inBloom insist the encrypted data will be safer than what schools use now and will never be sold, but doubters shiver when they see education-technology companies like Dell lining up to help inBloom.
Second, you have the influence of private companies and privately funded scholars on day-to-day operations at the Education Department in Albany. The state has used chunks of its $700 million federal Race to the Top grant to hire private companies to write online “modules” for EngageNY.org and materials related to the Common Core roll-out. Many also roll their eyes at SED’s reliance on more than two dozen research “fellows” to lead the implementations of its reforms. These fellows are paid for with private donations, starting with $1 million from a foundation tied to Merryl Tisch, head of the state Board of Regents, which makes educational policy.
Third, only two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a $7.7 million settlement with Pearson Charitable Foundation, a not-for-profit arm of very-for-profit Pearson. The AG found that the foundation “misused charitable assets” to develop course materials that could benefit its money-making family. This supported the contentions of many that Big Publishing companies, while claiming to be educational “partners,” are really just fattening their markets.
Then you have the nearly forgotten property-tax levy cap, which is expected to be between only 1.42 percent and 1.55 percent next year. When the state Legislature passed the cap, the promise was that schools would get relief from some of the many costly state requirements with which they must comply. But that hasn’t happened (surprise). So many school districts, weighed down by state-mandated expenses they cannot control, will be hard-pressed to raise enough revenue to balance their 2014-15 budgets without cutting staff or programs. We’ll be hearing a lot about this from, say, the start of the New Year until all the budget votes are in the books before summer.
Put it all together and you have a lot of mistrust. I remember saying to my wife last summer that the 2012-13 school year was a difficult, transitional year in a lot of ways, characterized by a lot of bad feelings about the state’s reforms, but that things would calm a bit in 2013-14. Boy, was I wrong (again). New York’s public education community is increasingly fractured, with anxieties growing into full-blown conspiracy theories.
Do you believe in privatization?