The long read: By Carol Anne Spreen (with assistance from Carrie Anne Coleman), New York University
Last month nearly 1000 educators, politicians, academics and union representatives gathered in Toluca, Mexico to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the right to education enshrined in Mexico’s Constitution. Despite this recognition, the right to a quality public education for all is slowly being eroded in Mexico and elsewhere through commercialization and privatization.
Many governments are committing themselves to a form of market logic: assuming that education will be more efficient if it operates according to the rules of competition (choice, standards, information about performance, and so on) leading to improved quality and assuming private firms will deliver goods and services more efficiently than governments (leading to cost savings).
The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM)
Over the last year Unite4Education has profiled numerous scholars who have been tracking what has become known as the Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM) – a neo-liberal, corporate driven approach to school reform, which emphasizes privatization, competition, choice, accountability and testing. The movement is led by powerful and influential global actors with enormous leverage and resources devoted to circumventing funds away from the public sector. Through GERM, the commercialization of education is promoted, products and services are created, circulated and ‘sold’ to governments by corporations and private foundations.
“Edu-preneurs” have positioned themselves as offering ‘solutions’ to the education crisis. They falsely argue that privatization provides choices to parents, makes schools more responsive to market demands, and produces greater cost efficiencies and even better quality education. The broad ideological underpinnings of these reforms have roots in the United States, and market-based policy ideas born here are increasingly being packaged and promoted to governments around the world through multinational corporations, private foundations, and policy “think-tanks”.
This approach is derived from the idea that the state should have as little as possible to do with the delivery of education and other services which are best left to market mechanisms for their resolution. In this blog we show how the promotion of market ideology extends to active participation in policy making and forming powerful networks between countries and international organizations like the World Bank.
Estimates place the potential value of the global education reform market at over $5 trillion. Surprisingly, children and families in some of the world poorest communities have become the primary target of this industry, with shareholder reports and investment prospectus referring to the “untapped potential of the worlds bottom billion.” The reach of corporate reformers is extensive – from the much promoted ‘low cost schools’ to shadow schools to vouchers and for-profit charters, this movement is simply profiteering disguised as philanthropy: an evangelizing and moralizing endeavor assisted by the failure of many governments to fulfill their mandate to provide quality public education.
Selling the Market Ideology
In the US the Constitutional right to education does not exist. Individual states can determine children’s rights in and access to schooling. This has created the conditions for one of the most unequal education systems, resulting in the exclusion of migrant and vulnerable children from schools, and mediocre results at best for the majority of children.
The education reform market in the US is a multi-billion dollar industry, increasingly for-profit, linked to corporate entities that control textbooks, curriculum models and assessment instruments and the creation of educational software and “virtual” education packages that are sold to public schools.
These products and services are designed to take curriculum and teaching away from teachers. Increasingly educational materials are placed on a tablet where classroom learning is aligned with daily online practice tests that allow teachers to monitor student progress. While this seems “efficient” to policymakers, taking a multiple choice test online 5x a week is not learning. Observers note that students and teachers are not engaged in dialogue or debate, students are not reading and discussing literature, or taught to ask critical questions, they are further alienated from each other and their teachers.
Complex alliances and power blocs have formed across a number of countries that have increased their influence in education policymaking (from driving testing, assessment, to providing curriculum, teacher training and credentializing, to school organization models and packaged online curriculum).
Many of the leading actors have large bases in the US (e.g publishing corporations like Pearson, international franchises like Bridge International Academies, Teach for All; and private foundations linked to corporations like the Gates, Dell, Zuckerberg, and Walton Foundations; policy “think-tanks” such as Broad Foundation, American Enterprise Institute; and the far-right Hoover and Heritage Foundations) and are linked to international financial institutions like the World Bank and IFC.
All consider education a vast market with enormous profit potential. All have market-based goals for overhauling public education and in the US in last year alone these private philanthropies spent almost $9 billion (USD) to promote their “corporate education reform” agenda.
Policy sharing across borders through media and lobbying
Corporate reformers seeking to privatize education know that framing the conversation is key and both the mainstream media and documentary films, such as the critically-acclaimed Waiting for Superman, have served as a catalyst for this movement.
In Waiting for Superman (which is a scathing critique of the public school system in America), teachers are demonized and are the scapegoats for a failing school system. Corrupt unions, which are powerful and resistant to change, provide inept teachers protection and union leaders are painted as cartoonish, villainous characters.
Just months after Waiting for Superman was launched in 2010, ¡De Panzazo! premiered in Mexico City.
Private education has grown enormously in Mexico over the past 20 years, although its students’ performance is similar on standardized tests as public school pupils. Private education has changed the way in which the curriculum is decided and taught, how student performance is assessed, and how students, teacher and schools are judged. Private firms are active in selling education products and services and through this are part of an ensemble for shaping innovations, organizational changes. They are also active in policymaking itself: through advice, consultants, research, evaluations, and funding influencing policy formulation and the way decisions are made.
In both Mexico and the United States, schools are an ideological battleground. Both films have several elements in common: they criticize public education and mostly blame teachers. Both films are financed and backed by corporate reformers. Both films depicting teachers as lazy and ineffective bureaucrats and use interview clips with kids and hidden cameras to promote the perception of teachers’ ostensible ‘malfeasance’.
The films also encourage curbing teachers’ unions, tiering their pay schemes, and running schools more like businesses in an educational “marketplace.” Both films suggest that unions are primarily driving their countries educational challenges and pit “unions” against “reform”. This is not by accident, teacher unions are the main opposition to privatizing public education and the main obstacle to profit-making for these edu-businesses.
Policymaking Across the US-Mexico Border
In many ways these philanthro-capitalists, billionaires and moviemakers are driving education reform and defining what good schooling should be.
Backing Waiting for Superman is a powerful coalition of pro-corporate reformers called StudentsFirst. It was founded in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools (who incidentally was fired after 18 months in her job in 2010 because she had no prior experience running a school system and her policies led to mass chaos and disruption across the schools. The organization’s explicit goal, she said, was “to provide some much-needed opposition to the teachers unions’ political power.”
StudentsFirst is made up of several organizations and affiliated political action committees (PACs) that operate across a number of states to influence policy decisions (a structure that’s common among the corporate ed reform’s political groups). Pro-charter and school choice lobbyists such as StudentsFirst (and ALEC) are writing laws and policy blueprints to create environments that are pro-privatization. They have financially supported and campaigned for mayors in major cities to promote this agenda. Together these groups spend millions on lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and outside spending on efforts to commercialize education. For example, StudentsFirst flooded at least $3 million in outside spending into state elections in 2012 in the aftermath of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that made it easier for corporations to fund political campaigns.
Since 2011, the StudentsFirst Institute was expanded by a growing slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropists Eli Broad, Walton Family Foundation, and additional millions in grants from political elites and hedge fund managers – former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
StudentsFirst lobbies relentlessly to advance the corporate education agenda that includes multiplying charter schools (like Success Academy that counsels out special needs students and purloins space from public schools that need it), using state test scores to evaluate teachers, firing teachers and other disastrous efforts that undermine public education. Despite the name, advocating for children and families (before “special interest groups” like teachers!) one can learn to read between the lines to see what’s said (and not been said) to promote the pro-corporate, anti-teacher agenda and its mission of dismantling the public education sector through policy advocacy.
It is no surprise then that StudentsFirst opposes political candidates who align with unions and have poured millions of dollars into anti-union, pro-privatization political campaigns for state legislators, including American President Trump’s new appointee for Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. “Their self-promotion extends to active participation in policy making and forming networks as a means to agitate for policies which offer further opportunities for profit”. Yet, despite this relative windfall of extra money into education in many underserved districts it is not going where it is most needed, many of the very policies they pursue like technology have shown to have little effect on improving education.
These political ties between corporate education reformers in the US and Mexico are also linked to the powerful influence of international financial institutions and development organizations like the World Bank, OECD and USAID.
The near-simultaneous release and ideological resemblance of the movies was no coincidence: in Mexico City, ¡De Panzazo! was screened not in a movie theater, but in the twenty-fourth-floor offices of the World Bank. And, much like the relationship between the filmmakers in Waiting For Superman and lobbyists working for StudentsFirst, ¡De Panzazo! was sponsored by Mexicanos Primero, a think tank that closely aligns its politics (and name) with StudentsFirst. 
The Mexicanos Primero website lays out similar arguments around who is to blame for school failure, advocates for policy change and media campaigns, and reforming education through teacher testing, and seeks to circumvent teacher professional organizations.
The current president of Mexicanos Primero, Claudio X. Gonzalez Guajardo is well-connected politically and part of the wealthy Mexican elite. Gonzalez-Guajardo is the former president of Fundación Televisa (one of the largest media outlets in Mexico), and was head of the Unión de Empresarios para la Tecnología en la Educación (UNETE). He also has deep political connections to Mexico’s political elite having spent 16 years in the Office of the President in Mexico.
Similar policies between both US and Mexican corporate reforms are also supported by the international development community. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has called for abolishing the normal schools in Mexico, and urged President Enrique Peña Nieto to fire teachers who produce bad test results. Similar measures have been advocated by a Washington think-tank, the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas, a project of the Inter-American Dialogue with funding from USAID. Both organizations work in close cooperation with the corporate Mexican education reform lobby, Mexicanos Primero.
The Threat of Education Privatisation
By committing to this form of market logic, Governments around the world are subscribing to the notion that education will be more efficient if it operates according to the business rules of competition. In reality, these reform ideas preserve rather than challenge the status quo because they do not address the fundamental causes of educational inequity.
The long-term challenge for ensuring the right to quality public education is preventing governments from outsourcing a range of education activities such as teaching and running schools, and services such as testing, curriculum and training, to profit-making corporations, given the ability of private actors to assert their influence in policy processes and steer education agendas in ways that may not be in the best interest of students, teachers and societies at large. Competition for rewards (like improved test scores) is only effective for short-term superficial gains while undermining the true collaboration – among teachers and school communities – necessary for long-term quality improvement in education.
Privatisation is an assault on the very essence of public education and education as a human right. The “reform” movement in the United States should serve as a warning, not as an example. Nowhere is there an example of a country with high educational outcomes where the provision of basic education has been in private hands. This myopic mentality misses the fact that educational policy reflects the priorities of the political class and business elite while silencing communities and thus masking the underlying crises that affect educational achievement.
Unite for Quality Education is a campaign of Education International (EI), the voice of teachers and other education employees across the globe. Join the 30 million members EI represents (through its 400 affiliated organisations in more than 170 countries and territories) to demand that quality education for all remains at the top of the agenda for a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future.