Schooling, privatisation and post-truth politics

published 10 January 2017 updated 10 January 2017

By Bob Lingard, University of Queensland

Usually each New Year begins with optimistic hopes for something better than what has gone before. Sadly and worryingly, 2017 seems ominous in negative ways rather than inspiring a sense of hope.

This is especially so if one holds that well-funded, valued, supported and high quality public schools are central to functioning and dynamic democracies that support equality of opportunity for all, meritocracy, greater equality and maximising social mobility. Furthermore, we know from the best evidence that schooling cannot work in this way when there is deep structural inequality in a given society.

My pessimism relates to the continuing growth in inequality within nations, the strengthening of support by governments of furthering privatisation and commercialisation of schooling, the failure to acknowledge the strengthening of the socioeconomic status correlation with performance as unequivocally evidenced in performance on the OECD’s PISA, the failure by governments to learn the PISA lesson that redistributive school funding is central to high quality schooling systems, the rise of alt right politics and associated post-truth politics.

Post-truth politics and education privatisation

Think of the situation in the USA with President-elect Donald Trump and his appointment of a pro corporate reformer of public schools and charter school advocate as secretary of state for education, Betty de Vos. Think of Trump’s commitment of $22 billion to make more public schools charter schools – government schools managed with public money by private interests.

Today in the USA one might see charter school as a racialised and privatised intervention in government schools in poor black communities. Trump’s policy stance would spread this ‘experiment’ more broadly across government schools across the nation. Trump’s acceptance that government should be run like a business, thus failing to acknowledge the specific character of democratic government, will mean more opportunities for corporate profit making from public schooling. Trump’s presidency will encourage and give some (limited) legitimacy to such a pro-business interest construction of schooling in other parts of the globe.

The Oxford Dictionary has called ‘post-truth’ the most significant new word of 2016. I would see it as one of the most concerning. Here I see the emergent post-truth era as one in which emotion, affect, belief can be more significant in shaping public opinion, politics and framing policy than facts and evidence.

The Brexit and Trump political campaigns are good examples of this situation. The way politicians argue that funding levels for schooling are not significant factors in the quality and equity of schooling outcomes is another post-truth exemplar, particularly familiar in the Australian education policy context. Such spurious claims are usually made when the very same politicians are using PISA data to decry falling standards, but neglecting the same data sets that show equitable and redistributive funding is central in quality and equitable schooling systems. And of course no education politician acknowledges the impact of the growth of inequality on schooling outcomes.

Now, we need to acknowledge that public policy has always been an admixture of evidence (research, facts), ideology and professional knowledge. This is so in education. With post-truth politics the role of the ideological through beliefs and emotions is strengthened in policy processes, while research evidence and professional knowledges are downplayed and denied. Expertise is also often denied. This is what we are likely to see more of.

We will see this reality in the Trump Presidency’s support for further privatisation and commercialisation of US schooling, despite what the best research tells us about charter schools and despite what professional teachers and their representatives in the teacher unions tell us about these matters from real, on the ground experience.

Mobilising for quality public education

Now, I don’t want to put a dampener on our New Year aspirations in respect of the privatisation and commercialisation of public schooling and opposition to it. Yet, the post-truth situation might tell us how we need to work the politics here in respect of gaining public and political support for the sort of public schooling we would all support and would all demand.

There is, though, mounting political opposition to the corporate reform agenda in schooling. There is some cause for optimism in this. In a survey of Australian teachers on their attitudes to privatisation and commercialisation of Australian government schooling that we -Greg Thompson, Anna Hogan, Sam Sellar and me- have conducted for the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, there is a great deal of hope in the deeply expressed concerns of most of the 4000 respondents to governments treating, funding and talking about government schools and school systems as if they were businesses.

It seems to us in analysing the data that there is an untapped pool of opposition to the corporate reforms amongst teachers that needs to be mobilised. The survey also demonstrated that commercialisation was system-wide and across all areas, urban and rural, and in all types of government schools.

In terms of positive opposition to commercialisation and privatisation, I also think of the effective work in the state of New York of the group, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a grassroots movement of community members and parents now pulling in teacher members, who are mounting effective opposition to testing regimes that deface schooling, benefit private companies and enable the accompanying corporate reform agenda that researchers such as David Hursh have written about in some great detail.

Additionally, there is the work of groups in New York state such as Long Island Opt Out, another grassroots community group, which encourages parents to withdraw their children from the Common Core standardised tests conducted every year (years 3-8), with more than a quarter of a million parents withdrawing their children from the tests in 2016, challenging the validity and reliability of the data so collected. This group is also aligned more broadly with NYSAPE.

Both these groups are asserting their role as citizens in a democracy, demanding a say in the type of schooling their children receive. In effect, they are rejecting the construction of them as merely consumers of a type of schooling determined by others, including corporate interests. The new Chancellor of the Board of Regents in New York state, Betty Rosa, has also expressed solidarity with these groups.

Recently, the Board of Education of The Patchogue-Medford Union Free School District on Long Island voted unanimously to oppose the appointment of Betsy de Vos as Trump’s Secretary of Education. This is a District where more than 70 percent of children have opted out of the Common Core tests. Their reasons for doing so were her lack of experience with public schooling, her lack of support for public schooling, and her support for school vouchers and charter schools. The motion in part read:

Whereas, President-Elect Trump has called for the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education of the United States, a candidate apparently lacking any credentials as an educator, experience in the administration and management of public schools, demonstrating a pre-disposition towards and long-history of support for charter schools and school voucher programs, which by their very nature eviscerate free and appropriate public education for specific economic, social and racial groups, and . . .

And of course de Vos is yet another billionaire Trump has appointed to his administration and was a backer of the failed charter schools in Detroit.

EI’s Global Response project, involving both research and activism, about privatisation and commercialisation are also causes for some optimism in this new post-truth political environment.

Academic research that contributes to the documentation of what is happening in respect of privatisation and commercialisation is also very important in building opposition to the corporate reform agenda. There have been some important new books to contribute to the research base of political opposition.

I am thinking here of Verger, Lubienski and Steiner-Khamsi’s The Global Education Industry, David Hursh’s The End of Public Schools, and Verger, Fontdevila and Zancajo’s The Privatisation of Education, all published in 2016.

We must work with evidence, while also acknowledging the significance of affect and emotions in building political opposition and activism in this emergent post-truth era. In all of this, there is some small grounds for hope and, as Raymond Williams argued some time ago now, progressive politics is always about making hope practical, rather than despair convincing.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.