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Are Privatized Schools Acceptable in a Corrupt, Kleptocratic Country?

August 10, 2016

USNews and World Report ran an online article by Diane Ravitch that describes the international privatization movement in public education. In the article Ms. Ravitch describes the roots of the privatization movement in our nation and decries the movement by billionaire privatizers in their efforts to open schools in  Africa. She writes:

The British multinational corporation Pearson has ambitions to open for-profit schools using its products in many nations across the world. In Africa, a corporation called Bridge International Academies (BIA) is opening for-profit schools in poor countries that cost $1 a week. Liberia is considering outsourcing its entire elementary program to BIA, which is funded by American billionaires Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others from Wall Street.

The Economist magazine wrote a glowing article about BIA’s plan to make low-cost schooling available in Africa, because existing public schools are so poorly resourced. The potential market of hundreds of millions of children is alluring and sure to be profitable. Teachers in the Bridge schools are uncertified; They teach a scripted curriculum from a notebook computer. Many families cannot afford even $1 a week, especially if they have more than one child. Meanwhile, the state is relieved of responsibility to supply what is being outsourced to private enterprise.

Ms. Ravitch then links the international privatization movement to “…ideas and funding that started in the United States” and then describes the way politicians used standardized tests to brand public schools as “failures; how profiteers branded themselves as “reformers” who could fix “failing” public schools by replacing elected school boards with corporate boards and replacing expensive unionized schools with technology-based instruction; and how these profiteers proceeded to pillage state and local school budgets. She was especially (and rightfully) hard on the anti-democratic nature of the charter schools that are tied to the privatization movement, writing:

Charter schools claim to be public schools, but the only thing “public” about them is their funding. They are run by private boards that do not hold open meetings, as elected boards of education do; they are neither transparent nor accountable in their finances.

After reading this paragraph, I was struck by the reality that the governance structure for public education in the United States is unique and anomalous. In most countries there is a national ministry of education that is overseen by the national government. Public school governance is not local, it is not overseen by directly elected boards, and its degree of transparency and accountability is a function of the national leadership. Furthermore, in many parts of the world universal public education is completely unavailable due to infrastructure challenges and/or the kleptocratic and totalitarian leadership at the national level.

If I were an idealistic entrepreneur seeking to increase literacy in the world I would avoid funneling any money to national leaders with a track record of corruption. By providing a means for parents to secure an education for their children such an idealistic entrepreneur could circumvent the national apparatus that skims large sums of money. In doing so, the entrepreneur could greatly expand the number of children in that country who receive an education, albeit an education that is tightly scripted from a notebook computer. In this way the idealistic entrepreneur would be giving parents and their children an opportunity to gain the knowledge and understanding needed to function in a democracy, knowledge and understanding that their current leader might want to withhold from them.

As readers of the blog know, I wholeheartedly share Diane Ravitch’s perspective regarding the privatization in this country. But as I think about the best way to provide education and information to as many citizens of the world as possible as quickly and cheaply as possible, and operate on the assumption that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions are grounded in the idealistic belief that knowledge is power and a necessary pre-requisite for the establishment of democracy, I think this market-based approach in undeveloped countries might be the best way forward in some parts of the world. Who knows, once citizens in undeveloped nations gain knowledge and understanding they might seek a more local form of governance for their schools and seek a better way to become educated.

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