The Creeping Privatisation of Public Education

Last month, the Brumby Labor Government in Victoria launched a new foundation to make it easier for businesses to make donations to government schools in Victoria. The Business Working with Education Foundation has been established as a registered charitable company to co-ordinate and facilitate business donations to schools.

Under existing tax laws, businesses cannot make tax-deductible donations to individual government schools. Unlike independent schools, which are able to generate millions of dollars from tax-deductible donations, public schools are not considered to be “charitable organisations” under federal tax laws. The new foundation provides a way for business to contribute to funding public education.

The chairman of the foundation is Michael Andrew, the chairman of KPMG Australia and member of the Business Council of Australia (BCA). Mr Andrew is also the chairman of the BCA’s Task Force on Education, Skills and Innovation.

As an example of the potential offered by the new foundation, Victorian Education Minister, Bronwyn Pike, highlighted the establishment of a new P-9 school at Doveton, in south-east Melbourne, where millionaire poker player, businessman and philanthropist Julius Colman has pledged more than $5 million over eight years to early childhood needs.

The Colman Foundation is donating $1.8 million towards the new school building and an early childhood centre as well as $500,000 a year for at least eight years for early childhood services. It is the first long-term investment by a philanthropic organisation in a single Victorian government school.

While additional funding support for government schools will be widely welcomed, there are dangers ahead if business donations are not governed by strict protocols and guidelines and closely monitored.

As Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly wrote: “from little things, big things grow”. And the big things that philanthropy for government schools can grow into are apparent today in the United States with the creeping privatisation of public education by business and philanthropic foundations. Increasingly, education policy is being held to ransom by wealthy philanthropists such as Bill Gates and the Walton Family.

Last week, education blogger for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, wrote about how billionaire philanthropists are perverting the funding of public education and driving education reform in the United States by targeting specific projects that are not backed by sound research.

Very wealthy people are donating big private money to their own pet projects: charter schools, charter school management companies, teacher assessment systems…. What this means is that these philanthropists—and not local communities—are determining the course of the country’s school reform efforts and which education research projects get funded. [Washington Post, 18 October]

Bill Gates is investing hundreds of millions in efforts to create teacher assessment systems that are based on student standardized test scores despite the fact that several research studies have been released recently showing that the results of such schemes are unreliable, unfair and ineffective.

The foundations and other corporations are aggressively promoting their own agenda – choice, competition and the privatisation of public education through the establishment of charter schools. As one public schools superintendent said: “They should come out and tell the truth. If they want to privatize public education, they should say so.” [ Washington Post, 15 October]

Many of these foundations are also promoting a longer school day and a longer school year; standardized tests in every subject; assessing teachers by standardized test scores; for-profit education; and training new college graduates for five or six weeks as teachers and then sending them into the toughest schools in America. As Strauss commented in her blog:

That none of their projects is grounded in any research seems not to be a hindrance to these big donors…..The fact is that there is no strong research to show that any of those elements will do much to help education by themselves, and even together, and some will hurt.

Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has called big philanthropy foundations the “Billionaires Boys Club”:

We have never in the history of the United States had foundations with the wealth of the Gates Foundation and some of the other billionaire foundations—the Walton Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation. And these three foundations—Gates, Broad and Walton—are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And that’s now the policy of the US Department of Education. We have never seen anything like this, where foundations had the ambition to direct national educational policy, and in fact are succeeding. [Democracy Now, 5 March 2010]

It has, she writes in her book, profound implications for democratic control over education policy:

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions….
They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power. [pp. 200-201]

This is the fundamental lesson that the Victorian Government, and others, should learn from the US experience – public education policy and programs should not be leveraged by big money. As the President of the South Australian Association of School Parents Clubs, Jenice Zerna, rightly asks:

What sort of influence are businesses going to want and is that going to affect the curriculum and learning? That would be our concern. [ Crikey, 30 September 2010]

These are key questions arising from the appointment of a senior BCA representative as chairman of the new Business Working with Education Foundation in Victoria.

The BCA represents 100 of Australia’s largest companies. Its agenda for schools is simple – treat education as a business and apply the principles of competition and the market. It is an outspoken supporter of school league tables, performance pay for teachers, greater school autonomy and power for school principals to hire and fire teachers, and more testing in literacy, numeracy and science. None of this has been shown to improve student results and decrease achievement gaps between rich and poor.

Trevor Cobbold


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