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Pearson’s “Evil Empire” Gives 3rd World Children an Economic Opportunity

April 21, 2016

I recently read a statistic that seemed so outlandish I needed to check the source and validate it through a Google search: if you earn over $32,000/year in wages and benefits (including health insurance) you are in the top 1% in the world.

Since reading that statistic I’ve changed my thinking a little bit about poverty. As readers of this blog realize I am appalled at our country’s unwillingness and/or inability to address the increasing economic gap and believe that an equitably funded public education is the best means of closing that gap. I am also one who cannot believe that the 1% in our country need more money. After all, as an upper middle class retiree I have a nice three bedroom home on three acres surrounded by woods, two cars with at least 40,000 miles on them, enough income to take vacations every year, and a full pantry. What would I do with a bigger house, fancier cares, and more food? But when I read that I am in the 1% from the world perspective it gave me pause… Someone living in the middle class in the rest of the world must look at my lifestyle in the same way I look at the lifestyle of the 1% in our country and ask the same kinds of questions. Why does that old person and his wife need that big house, two cars, all that property, and so much food?

With that context, reading Anya Kamanetz’ article about Pearson’s global reach in Wired magazine gave me some second thoughts about the school privatization movement as well, underscoring a conundrum that occurs when governmental greed and an idealistic capitalist collide. Kamanetz’ article, Pearson’s Quest to Cover the Planet in Company Run Schools, profiles Michael Barber, “…Pearson’s white-haired, indomitable yet excruciatingly polite chief education adviser”.  Mr. Barber’s background

Barber’s quest to transform education began when he was a young man, married with three daughters, teaching school in a newly independent Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. His initial idealism about the yearning of rural black Africans for education and the aspirations raised by self-rule faded to frustration with the slow pace of change. Later he became a key member of Tony Blair’s administration, where he focused on schools, health, and literally running the trains on time. Next came his stint at McKinsey, during which he started his work in Pakistan, and then he brought his mission to Pearson. He depicts working in the private sector as the ultimate expression of his pragmatism. “Are we going to get more children education by building more and more public schools?” he asks me. “In the developing world, that plan hasn’t worked.”

And the main reason that plan hasn’t worked? Because many of the schools in third world countries are “dogged by corruption” because those countries are led by kleptocrats who siphon off government funds for their own personal use, staff schools with incompetent teachers to reward political contributors and/or cronies, and reduce taxes and regulations on the wealthiest in their country to curry their favor and retain their businesses. If the national government is corrupt why would any NGO seeking to lift children out of poverty make any investment in public institutions? Wouldn’t they be better of taking those funds and giving them to a private entity that will be rewarded for operating efficiently and effectively instead of giving them to a government that would use it to buy another palace owned by the leader?

This scenario of endemic government corruption frustrates an idealist like Mr. Barber who sees hundreds of families who desperately want a good education but cannot afford it in the marketplace as it exists. Knowing that technological advances provide a means of providing a low cost educational opportunity for parents who want a better life for their children, he finds a wealthy backer and meets their needs as well as the needs of the striving families who live in poverty.

This is precisely the argument being advanced by the conservative and neo-liberal politicians. They start with the premise that anything run by the government is corrupt or inefficient and come to the inevitable and logical conclusion that raising any money for the government is therefore foolish. These politicians look at the functions of government the way a consultant from, say, McKinsey looks at a corporation’s functions and determine which of this functions can be outsourced to increase efficiency, lower costs, and increase profit (or, in the case of governments, lower taxes). This premise that “government is the problem” has been fully embraced by the public. Near the end of the article Ms. Kamanetz describes this how this paradigmatic shift has played out in schooling in the context of a conversation she had with a leader of the privatization movement:

One morning in Manila, I had breakfast at a five-star hotel with James Centenera, who… was key to launching the APEC (for-profit) schools. In his view, for-profit schools have quickly become an accepted part of the educational landscape here—just another option. “I’m glad people have stopped asking whether the schools are better.” Startled, I realized his remark spoke to a mantra of Barber’s: irreversibility.

“In other words, create enough momentum around any change and you’re no longer arguing the merits of your idea. You’re simply treating it as a fact on the ground and rallying others to the cause.”

Is anyone arguing that government is the solution and not problem? Is anyone arguing that we need to raise more money for schools and not less? Is anyone arguing that government can solve our seemingly intractable social problems?

Whether this abandonment of our faith in government is evil or good is a conundrum. Is an idealistic capitalist like Mr. Barber who is helping thousands of children get a better education immoral? Would he be a better human being if he stayed in his teaching assignment in newly independent Zimbabwe teaching 50+ students in an ill-equipped classroom for a pauper’s salary? And to bring this question even more close to home, would I be willing to change my standard of living as part of the global 1% in order to send money to a non-profit NGO in a third world country who is training individuals to enter a workforce that will ultimately displace workers in this country?


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