When there’s news every day of yet another school district budget shortfall and yet another school being closed, it’s difficult to see what’s really been happening to public education in British Columbia for almost two decades now. But within the seeming chaos there is a clear pattern that emerges. It’s a pattern that can be clearly seen in many countries around the world as corporations turn their profit-hungry eyes toward the $5.5 trillion that is being spent on education worldwide.
Over a century ago public education was a radical idea in Britain. It was considered an utter waste of taxpayer’s money and was strongly resisted by many politicians. Nevertheless, arguments about public education being a public good won the day.
The big idea was that public education would provide an equal playing field for all society’s children. Children from poor homes could work their way up the social ladder through a free education and this in turn would ensure that the state would benefit from having a well-educated workforce and citizenry. Sounds all very democratic, doesn’t it?
Fast forward to the 1970s and a new idea began to spread from a group of economists at the Chicago School of Economics. One of them, Milton Friedman, wrote a seminal paper suggesting that public education be privatized. For most people in North America this was an outrageous idea akin to suggesting that we should sell motherhood. Because of the strong resistance to privatization of public education, it has to be sold to the public in a way that is subtle, is soft, is slick.
HOW TO PRIVATIZE A PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM
You will need the help of politicians. This is easy to obtain since they are always looking for donations for their election campaigns. Spending a few million will reap rewards ten times over. Once you have politicians on board, direct them thus:
Erode the collaborative and co-operative foundations of public education by introducing competition between schools. As an example, in B.C. the Fraser Institute began to rank schools in 1998 in a way that completely ignored multiple variables that made each school unique but that made sense to a public used to hockey team rankings.
Create a two-tier education system, one public and one private, both supported by public funds. Keep increasing the amount of public funds that go to private schools while decreasing the funds that go to public schools. Watch while private schools advertise everything that public schools are accused of not having: small class sizes, new technology, support for students with learning disabilities.
Promote the idea that funding public education is too expensive and outside of the “affordability zone” for taxpayers. Keep changing the formula used to fund schools while you repeatedly tell the public that you’re increasing funding. They won’t realize that you’re spending less and less each year as you no longer fund things you used to fund in the past.
Insist that public schools be accountable. Insist that students be subjected to standardized tests like the FSA so that taxpayers can see whether they’re getting what they pay for. Ignore all the protests about standardized tests being invalid and that they don’t reveal anything of value regarding a student’s learning experiences.
Implementing these steps needs to happen over a long period so that the pattern is not too obvious. While you are waiting for the public to accept that privatization is good and is inevitable, it is also important to ensure that groups that may be natural allies, do not unite. It is therefore necessary to divide parents from teachers. Use every opportunity to increase any dissension that may arise.
For example, when Parent Teacher Associations in BC were replaced by Parent Advisory Councils, teachers and parents moved to separate camps, so to speak, and this was good for the privatization agenda. When the provincial body of PACs, the BCCPAC, was led by those in support of accountability, this was also good for the privatization agenda since the perception was that the parents of 500 000 students were in support of the BC Liberal government’s education policies.
Speaking of perceptions, another important project is to change public perception of teachers. There should be no limit on the budget spent on public relations in this regard. Painting teachers as greedy and lazy will turn public sentiment against them.
Also, support and encourage attacks on the teachers’ union. In BC, the attacks on the British Columbia Teachers Federation took the form of newspaper articles and editorials and also social media comments made by digital influencers.
You should also try to weaken teacher unions by other means. For example, court cases that take over a decade to resolve.
Finally, patience is required for the privatization project since most people in society value public education and strongly believe that it’s a public good.
It’s the soft sell that will win them over.
Remember there is a big reward: a piece of that $5.5 Trillion pie.