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Corporate Self-Interest and Public Education: Two Perspectives

March 26, 2012

Two recent articles shine different lights on the roles of corporations play in directly supporting… or indirectly NOT supporting public education. A Fast Company article by Judah Schiller and Christine Arena titled “How Corporations are Helping to Solve the Education Crisis” opens with an analysis of how schools are turning out students who lack STEM skills and describes the steps corporations are taking to remedy that problem. One paragraph stood out from my perspective:

The questions Anthony Salcito (Microsoft VP for Worldwide Education) contemplates are fundamental to the process of reinventing a system that no longer meets the needs of the population it serves. Today’s public schools were designed for 19th-century industrialism, not an era of globalization and interconnectivity. Evidence of this inadequacy abounds: Standards and textbooks have grown outdated. Campuses are becoming dreary and homogenized. Teachers are increasingly disenfranchised. Students remain largely uninspired. And as a result, corporations are hard pressed to recruit new talent. These issues require more than federal funding and moderate reforms. (emphases added)

From Microsoft’s perspective, improved public education is in their enlightened self-interest because they are seeking new talent, and the talent they need must have a strong background in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

Paul Krugman’s NYTimes column describes a darker form of self-interest: the private sector’s desire to take over public enterprises and/or drive down their costs. Krugman’s article is NOT about education per se; it is about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council that I wrote about in an earlier post. ALEC provides training and writes bills for State legislators, bills that “…seem to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.

I am a proponent of businesses working with schools in their enlightened self interest and very interested in ways to integrate technology into public education. But the wholesale privatization of public services is an anathema because private corporations answer to private stockholders and private stockholders are only interested in profit. McDonalds makes a profit selling food that is full of calories but lacking in health. If the only measure of education quality is test results, there will be an educational enterprise analogous to McDonalds: it will turn out students who score well on tests but who lack a wholesome, well rounded diet.


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