THE FOLLOWING IS THE SIXTH IN THE SERIES, ‘AMERICA’S TEN CRISES’. IT CONSIDERS THE CAUSES OF THE CONTINUING DECLINE IN COLLEGE AND K-12 PUBLIC EDUCATION, AND THE VISION BY CORPORATE INTERESTS HOW TO MANIPULATE THE CRISIS AND TURN PUBLIC EDUCATION INTO A PRIVATIZED, FOR-PROFIT CENTER
Both K-12 and college education systems in America were once the envy of the world. But those systems are now in a state of continuing decline, with a halt to the decline nowhere in sight.
At the college level, the central problem is runaway costs. College administrators have become intent on acting as corporate CEOs, spending more and more money on providing CEO level pay and benefit packages for themselves and their growing management bureaucracies; expanding physical assets (buildings, facilities, programs); recruiting more and more wealthy foreign ‘customers’ (students) to cover rising costs; and raising the price of higher education services for US students at an annual rate of more than 12% despite four years of economic crisis and absent economic recovery.
The short term solution to accelerating higher education costs by policymakers thus far has been to burden college students with ever-escalating student loans; and for K-12 education, it has been to raise property taxes and to require more out of pocket payments by families of students for what was once fully publicly provided services.
The higher education financing formula based on student loans has served banks and financial institutions well. Student loan debt as a result now exceeds $900 billion and represents two-thirds of all consumer credit. Student loan debt is growing faster than both credit card and auto debt combined. Moreover, the partial takeover of student loan administration by the Obama government has not resolved the problem. Government is once again shifting the cost of loans to students in the form of higher interest rates while reducing grants and cutting funding for the future.
The consequence for higher education is that there exist today no programs or policies by government to bring escalating college costs, and student debt, under some semblance of control. Fewer Americans will therefore seek and obtain higher education, while more wealthy foreign students will be recruited to pay the excessive costs, as the quality of education in public colleges and universities correspondingly continues to decline.
The scenario for K-12 education is similarly dismal, both short and long term. In August 2011, the $1 trillion dollar deficit cutting deal attacked public education in particular. And post-November 2012 election deals by politicians will do so further. K-12 public education funding has failed to grow commensurate with the growth of population now for decades. With the recent economic crisis and the continuing slow and faltering economic recovery, even inadequate past levels of funding are now repeatedly reduced. Desperate school districts are forced in turn to cut programs and attack teachers’ jobs, wages, and benefits to make up the shortfall.
Corporate interests meanwhile lead the effort to prevent any tax increases at the state and local level to adequately fund education. Their solution, and objective, is to ‘privatize’ the public education system.
Charter schools was an initial early attempt to break up the public education system, as a first step toward its eventual privatization. But Charter Schools as a form of privatized education operated at the margins of the public education system and never became generalized. Nor did Charter Schools offer the potential for significant new opportunities for corporate profit. That’s why it was supplemented by Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) program.
Simply destroying public K-12 education via Charter Schools is not enough. Charter schools represent privatization without profit, and were therefore of little interest to corporate interests. To truly privatize public education, and turn it into a major corporate profit center, it is first necessary to ‘standardize’ public education as a product. Only then can privatization result in a profit center. ‘Standardization’ means turning education everywhere into the same product in terms of content and delivery system.
Before the education system can therefore be fully molded in a corporate image, its product must be standardized. NCLB failed to achieve that goal of creating a ‘standardized’ education product because it attempted to do so for all of education, all at once, and without funding. Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ also attempts to create the necessary ‘standardization’ of education as a product, but in a smarter way. It doesn’t attempt to do so for all of K-12 all at once. Moreover, RTT provides some initial funding. RTT thus represents the realization that the drive to standardize K-12 education is best achieved in stages, establishing a foothold first and providing a degree of financial incentives to encourage participation in the drive toward ‘standardization’ of product—i.e. the key requirement before public education, once a free public good, can be fully transformed into a ‘for profit’, privatized commodity. Both NCLB and RTT are therefore similarly corporate in spirit and plan, both designed to further standardize and centralize K-12 education.
The corporate vision for public education is, once fully standardized, to introduce new hardware and software content and delivery technologies on a massive scale into the classroom. Not just laptops or iPads in the classroom, but a fundamental transformation of how education content is developed and delivered. Privatization need not mean directly run by businesses; it means in essence that what was once a public good is transformed into a profit center for private corporate interests.
The future corporate image for public education is to have technology displace labor (teachers) on a massive scale. Standardization of product means cost cutting opportunities and the biggest cost center for education, since education is a service, is labor costs. With technology-enabled standardization of product, teachers will no longer be allowed to develop the content of education and will be forced to adopt a single delivery system defined by technology. Both education content and education delivery will become standardized. What is taught and how it is taught will no longer be determined by the teacher but by the centralized, standardized formula determined by the corporate developers of the content and delivery systems. Once skilled professionals, teachers in this corporate-preferred system of the future will become, in effect, a form of ‘machine operators’ who will teach to the same standardized product everywhere, delivered by the same hardware and software technology everywhere. Teachers will operate the hardware and software delivery system, the content of which will be predetermined and come imbedded with the technology. They will no longer be skilled professionals, but semi-skilled operators. The technology will do the teaching, with teachers operating and monitoring the process.
In this future scenario, teachers and teaching as we know it today therefore disappears, and with it their unions and current wage and benefits. Contingent employment (part time and temporary) becomes the rule in the K-12 classroom, thus mimicking the current situation in higher education where more than half of instructors are already now ‘contingent’. Contingent labor significantly reduces labor costs, as labor is paid one-half to two-thirds current rates and provided without benefits. Savings on labor costs are used to finance the purchase of the technology, as school districts buy more hardware and software.
Standardization of product via NCLB, and now RTT and, in the future, successor programs to RTT, is the prerequisite toward a vision of a privatized public education system where the content and delivery is determined by corporate America. The drive toward standardization initiated by NCLB is now moving to a new phase with RTT. Once achieved, technology assumes the central role in the classroom, displacing the teacher. And once it does the providers of technology gain further control over the content and delivery of public education, while creating a de facto privatization and new profit center for corporate America.
This is the scenario, and form, of the emerging corporatization of American education on the horizon. It is the vision now being planned by the Bill Gates of the world for public education in America in the decades ahead. It will mean cost savings for school district managers, big profits for corporate America, and lower wages and benefits for teachers. It will also mean the de-skilling and de-professionalization of the teaching function as we know it today.