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The CCPA Education Project

Learning About the Commercialization of Education

by Erika ShakerCanadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
July 8th, 1998

"Public education... has not outlived its usefulness to this country, but unless it embraces the emerging education marketplace, its power and significance will rapidly diminish as people choose superior free market options... It's time for education to roll up its sleeves and play hardball on capitalism's new frontier."
-- John McLaughlin, editor, Education Industry Report

Public education occupies a fundamental position in democratic society. To insist that every individual, regardless of race, gender, age or socioeconomic position, is entitled to a quality education, provided by and for the public, says a great deal -- in fact, says everything -- about our values as individuals and, more importantly, as a society. At the same time, mandatory school attendance virtually guarantees the school an enormous influence on each student, as well as on the wider community.

Though recent political discussion has been preoccupied with "restructuring," what we are in fact witnessing is a massive overhaul of the entire public education system, cleverly justified by the alleged "crisis" in education today.

The crisis has been fabricated on the claim that schools are not -- at least according to the government and the corporate sector -- turning out properly "educated" students. According to the National Alliance of Business, the fundamental responsibility of the school is to "teach basic skills," and, by neglecting this corporate-determined responsibility, the public schools have failed.

Canadians are moving towards a philosophy of education and society which makes it virtually impossible to think outside of the market metaphor. This is made even more evident when recent discussions of the school borrow the language and terminology of the business sector: students are "clients," parents are "customers," teachers are "front-line service providers." Education is increasingly referred to as a business, and we are told it must compete in the same manner as a private sector institution. Taxpayers, we're told, want their money's worth. We must strive for efficiency.

There is something deeply troubling, however, about equating virtually every human impulse with a consumer transaction, or with making consumerism the defining act of citizenry. In the words of Michael Apple: "Instead of people who participate in the struggle to build and rebuild our educational, political, and economic relations, we are defined as consumers. This is truly an extraordinary concept, for it sees people by and large as either stomachs or furnaces. We use and use up. We don't create. Someone else does that. This is disturbing enough in general, but in education it is truly disabling. Leave it to the guardians of tradition, the efficiency and accountability experts, the holders of 'real knowledge'" (Apple, Ideology and Curriculum x).

The philosophical attack on the very concept of universal, public education has resulted in the complete denigration of the public system by factions of the corporate sector: "public" is now associated with free (no charge, and therefore no value) and non-competitive, meaning without quality. On the other hand, "private" is associated with competition, responding to consumer (market) demands, and therefore synonymous with quality, according to this rhetoric. "If we really want to improve education," the discourse goes, "we need to rediscover the power of unregulated markets" (Rinehart and Lee Jr., "Can the Marketplace Save Our Schools?" 2).

While the total elimination of public education is unthinkable, at least for now, what does seem to be perfectly acceptable is for the government to "encourage" public education to be more responsive to competition and market demands, in order to foster school "improvement." This responsiveness takes the form of increased private sector involvement -- from corporate donations to outsourcing of programs and school services to, finally, the complete privatization of public education.

We cannot afford to concentrate on isolated examples of private sector involvement in public education. To fully comprehend the enormous resources and effort behind this movement, we must look at the "big picture," or what has come to be known as the Education Industry, representing over $600 billion in the United States and approximately $60 billion in Canada (both figures in U.S. dollars). Certainly it has been of enough significance for the Fraser Institute to have a "continuing thrust" into the area of privatization of education, also called "education choice". National boundaries are reduced in importance as the Fraser Institute plans to establish international links, particularly with the Friedman Foundation, to pursue this field of interest from a global perspective. Estimated costs of this project are $250,000 a year for the next five years. Clearly, the privatization of education has already attracted the attention, and the financial support, of an influential and wealthy segment of Canadian society.

Given the onslaught of media and political criticism of our schools, it is interesting to note the glowing market terminology used to describe public education. According to the Cape Cod Times (Feb. 5, 1997) the education industry is growing at 25% annually, and the stock value of 30 publicly-traded education companies increased more than twice as fast as the Dow Jones average. In the past three years, literally hundreds of education businesses have been established across North America. The education crisis -- or at least the claim that there is one -- is a fundamental reason for the success of the education industry. According to Montgomery Securities (an American investment banking firm which authored The Emerging Investment Opportunity in Education), "From an investment perspective, this [education] crisis has created an enormous opportunity and powerful momentum for those companies with solutions to our educational problems -- whether through better management of traditional resources or the innovative application of technology". This is an intriguing set-up: a crisis is necessary to justify the claims that the school system is failing, thereby requiring an overhaul and permitting the lucrative investment which is currently growing at an explosive rate. One has to wonder which factor is truly the catalyst.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the necessity of a crisis in education, in order to justify overhauling the system, was illustrated by the Ontario Minister of Education and Training. John Snobelen, caught on videotape explaining to the managerial level of the Ministry the need to "create a crisis" to justify the restructuring (some would say dismantling) of public education in Ontario, provided a grim reminder of the beneficiaries behind this scheme, and the subsequent duping of the public to justify it.

The Ontario Ministry's push-poll is a clear example of how public opinion has been manipulated to promote the "crisis-in-education" myth and to intensify the demand for education "reform." The poll was disguised by the pollsters as being for "all Canadians," perhaps to "de-politicize" the questions, which would have special meaning in Ontario as a province in the forefront of the education restructuring discussion. It was also presented as an OISE report in order to further disguise its ulterior motive.

The poll began by asking respondents to assess the "degree of change necessary to fix the problems of the education system...and make it work for people." This removes from debate the key question of whether or not the system needs to be fixed at all. This "non-analysis" bears a striking resemblance to discussions of commercialization in the classroom that ask "how much is too much?" as if only a little bit is okay.

Further push-poll questions (limit your answers to the choices provided, please) included: "Would your opinion about change be affected if you were told that major changes in education have not been made in over 20 years (yes or no)?;" "Education is important but we cannot spend beyond our means (yes or no);" "Teachers should spend as much time in the classroom as their students (yes or no);" "Most professional jobs require additional hours of preparation that are not paid for. Teachers should accept that the economy does not support as much paid planning time as it once did (yes or no);" "To cut education spending, would you increase class size, reduce class time, or cut salaries by 5%;" "Leaders of teacher unions have been right to refuse to discuss how they can help cut $400 million or about 3% from school board budgets (yes or no);" "Breaking contracts is OK as teachers have had it too good for too long (yes or no)." Clearly, the questions have been selected and worded in such a way as to manipulate the discussion, placing it securely within the realm of "crisis", or, at the very least, "necessary restructuring."

We may also want to consider that the education industry maintains that it is parents (because of their unhappiness with and distrust of traditional public schools) and business leaders who are driving the education "reform" movement in the direction of for-profit education. Based on the ways in which public opinion is clearly shaped by the political agenda, the validity and the source of parental dissatisfaction with education must be examined. However, the pressure by the business community to consider for-profit education is certainly a reality -- if not a gross understatement.

It is also interesting that those aspects of an education system which have resulted from society's changing needs (child care, kindergarten, adult education, night school, extra tutoring, etc.) have been, for the most part, threatened and even eliminated by government restructuring, in the name of fiscal restraint and "belt-tightening." These very aspects are enjoying increasing popularity in the private sector where private day care, private tutoring centres, and private educational institutions for adult students (DeVry and the Toronto School of Business) are reaping the enormous financial benefits of the program cuts in our public educational institutions.

In some provinces the privatization agenda is blatant. In Manitoba, if you can operate a private school for two years, you are eligible for provincial funding. This has resulted in a decrease of provincial funding for public education by 6% between 1992-96, but a 54% funding increase for private schools (Pearce 18).

There are, of course, other reasons for the boom in the education market. As a group, kids are, to put it simply, rich. According to StatsCan, kids spend $1.5 billion each year, and influence how an additional $15 billion is spent. According to Carol Green-Long of Children's Creative Marketing, "The financial clout of the children's market is growing, therefore marketers are paying more attention to it" (Beckett, Strategy Magazine 23). More attention, Green-Long continues, means that marketers must get into children's heads, to find out their "hot buttons;" Disney, for one, has done remarkably well in this area.

One of the results of assessing the wealth of this youthful consumer group is intensified target marketing: to get into kids' heads, marketers must go where kids are. And, for six or seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year, this means school. It's no accident that school-business relationships have been cited as one of the top 10 "hot marketing areas" of the '90s (Canadian Consumer Kids). And that fact alone is reason to take a closer look at corporate educational endeavours which are often labeled "philanthropic."

Obviously, the classroom is a unique and powerful environment in which to target students; for one thing, according to What! A Magazine promo material, it's uncluttered, so your advertised message is more likely to stand out. It's an environment of trust and familiarity, where what the teacher as authority figure says is likely to be thought of as true by the students. What better way to target "future consumers" (as they are called by Procter and Gamble) than in this environment where the teacher becomes the most effective corporate spokesperson, and where parents (or "gatekeepers") are not there to monitor corporate content?

One of the most significant components of the education industry is the redefining of knowledge and information as "commodities" which can be bought and sold like any other product. According to Montgomery Securities, "economic success in the emerging knowledge-based economy -- of a country, corporation or individual -- demands that enormous brainpower be acquired and continually replenished as a lifelong necessity. Those who are effectively educated and trained through the active acquisition, delivery and processing of this exponentially changing information will be able to survive and thrive economically. Those who do not will be rendered economically obsolete."

We are living in what is called the "new knowledge-based economy," where the most important resources are brainpower and information acquisition, delivery, and processing. Montgomery Securities claims that "survival in this new world assumes the ability to conquer the physical as a given commodity," but this esoteric philosophy seems to contradict the very (physically-based) reason companies like Montgomery Securities and EduVentures Inc. and their clients are involved in the education industry: to mine the resources of this still largely unplumbed market. And, based on the financial reports from the education industry's giants, their profits are already rising to unprecedented heights.

This of course begs the question: if traditional resources like coal, lumber and oil are now effectively controlled by the private sector, who will control the new intellectually-based resources of the 21st century? And what are the implications of this control? We are aware that knowledge is power, but the corporate clamor for knowledge-as-an-economic-resource underscores the extent to which capital is inextricably implicated in this economic power equation.

To what extent is the technological revolution facilitating -- or demanding, or requiring -- these changes to the education system and our expectations of it? According to Montgomery Securities, the time for involvement in the education market is ripe for a variety of reasons -- in fact, the timing has never been better, from a "crisis" perspective. And technology has a crucial role to play here. But it is significant that in this equation technology is not once referred to as a tool, but rather as a "master" which requires these changes to our school system:

"The timing for entry into the education and training market has never been the problems with American education have elevated education reform to a high political priority and technology is demanding and enabling a transformation in the delivery of education....If health care is a good indicator, private companies will benefit strongly from a climate that stresses change and technology that enables it to occur."

Clearly, the question is whether technology enables these changes, or requires them. And how does this impact on the concept and delivery of public education?

One of the ways in which the public school system is degraded is by carefully shaping the discussion about what the purpose of an education is, exactly, and then projecting the results of the "failure" of schools. This "failure" can also be read as "all-of-society's-ills." The U.S.-based National Alliance of Business is very clear on what it sees as the goals of an education: it is even clearer on what it sees as the results of schools failing to live up to these selected goals. This list is provided in its entirety, because it clearly illustrates how responsibility for virtually every social problem has been laid at the schoolhouse door.

The mismatch between skills required and skills available generates huge costs for industry. Some, like the cost of remedial training in basic skills, are clearly related to school-system underperformance. Others are less obvious, but also result from lax educational standards: the cost of extensive testing and screening needed to identify qualified job applicants because a high school diploma no longer guarantees adequate skills; fees paid to temporary agencies; and overtime costs generated by high turnover.

Corporate taxes also support a range of public sector costs. These costs are not only for K-12 education, but for college-level remediation, welfare, incarceration, and other consequences of school failure.

The growing friction between employer needs and employee preparation generates huge costs for American industry. Yet the price tag may be labeled 'taxes,' 'relocation,' or 'training,' obscuring the role played by lax educational standards. Costs can be saved, and productivity boosted, by helping schools to set and attain clear, measurable standards for student learning, realistically calibrated to workplace needs. (NAB, "Standards Mean Business," emphasis mine).

It is interesting to note how many education reform groups across North America have rallied around the call for "standards." After all, who in their right mind could argue against high standards in education? But why are "standards" such a key component in the demands from the corporate sector for "education reform"? This is again a requirement of (and a strategy familiar to) the business sector; the NAB clearly explains that "recent corporate history shows the power of setting ambitious goals and transforming systems around them." The business sector will set educational standards, and the school system will change -- for the "better," from a business perspective -- to reflect them.

Suffice it to say at this point that we are not talking about moderate changes to the public education system: we are witnessing the complete overhaul of a system and its reconstruction is based on a corporate model, with corporate rules and regulations, or "standards". It is in this light that we must examine the education reform movement, and its corporate roots.

Lest we think that only our hyper-capitalistic neighbours to the south are pushing education reform and the cultivation of workplace habits of mind and body, Toronto Area Partnerships (TAP) shares their position on these issues: "The purpose of the school is to teach our students to 'function' in their many roles: worker, consumer, citizen, life-long learner (in that order). Like it or not", TAP continues, "to build and sustain a strong economy, our students must be skilled in the ways of the workplace -- they must be productive first, then they can participate more fully in other life pursuits."

School must have a definite goal and purpose, we are told, in order to guarantee students entry into the new global workforce. We (parents and teachers) must put aside our idealistic and childish beliefs that the school imparts knowledge for less-tangible reasons. Productivity must be the major academic focus since it is that which then permits students to participate in other activities and life pursuits: it is ability and performance in the workplace that is fundamental. Everything else -- critical thought, political activism, citizenry -- is gravy or, at the very least, "unrelated to the requirements of employers" (NAB).

What are the implications if all students, regardless of different cultural and personal experiences, interests or backgrounds, are held accountable for not only the same information, but the same interpretation of that information? Who makes the decision on what information is or should be considered basic, standard, and universal, and what information is non-essential? Clearly, the discussions of standards and standardized testing are inextricably linked. And if school standards are to be "calibrated to the needs of business," it is not difficult to guess who will be instrumental in setting the tests which determine student proficiency in these standards.

Of course, there are those who do not bother at all with "proving " the existence of an education crisis. For them, a crisis is simply unnecessary, because the public system, by its very nature, is considered inferior to the private. According to Myron Lieberman: " I do not base the argument for private services on the failure of public schools...The argument is one of efficiency....We need a system that generates improvement, and the public system does not do that....The private sector generates constant improvement....The question of public education being a failure is irrelevant as far as I am concerned." (EIR 3 Feb.)

According to this logic, whatever is public is inherently and "naturally" inferior to what is private. While private structures supposedly foster competition and an environment which requires each individual to perform to his or her potential, public institutions are viewed as anti-capitalistic monoliths...monopolies which must be broken up in the name of economic and personal freedom. But not to fear, say leaders in the education industry: "This system will evolve from a failing, government-run monopoly with little accountability and, by definition, no competition, into a market-driven system that competes on price and quality" (Boston, Jan. 10-16/97).

Completely overlooked, however, is the crucial issue of whether or not schools and students can be applied to the same economic systems as potatoes or cars or TV sets. Michael Sandler, CEO of EduVentures, assures parents that, "if existing schools can't take care of students, the marketplace will." But why would a marketplace be the appropriate environment to care for our youngest and most impressionable members of society? And if nurturing is still a vital component of an education, the rhetoric of the education industry certainly seems to imply that this too is anti-competitive.

Lisa Keegan, superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, illustrates one component of this market-as-caregiver: "A market always works even when we don't want it to....Ultimately there will be no choice but to go to that type of system [where the money follows the child]....[We must seek to] honour every child so that when she walks through the door she is worth $4,000" (EIR 3 Jan).

In this model, "fairness" does not mean attempting to ensure that all students are given the same opportunities, but rather that all students are already on an equal footing and that fairness only enters into the equation when assuring that no one is treated differently from anyone else. If we do not follow the market system, we are fooling ourselves, delaying the inevitable, and ultimately "dishonouring" our children.

The final question is simple: does allowing the market to take care of each child mean assigning a dollar value to each "client" as well? This is something we may want to consider in determining whether or not the market is capable of looking after children, using the same methods and in the same manner as it "looks after" stocks and bonds.

Certainly, teachers have borne the brunt of anti-public education rhetoric, and this fact has not gone unnoticed by the education industry -- in fact, it has provided the industry with a new angle. It can conveniently explain away teacher concerns about privatizing public education as purely self-motivated, or as evidence of labour's knee-jerk reaction against the corporate sector. Legitimate concerns are thus dismissed, and unions themselves are accused of corruption, or at least of an unreasonable opposition to needed change.

Anti-teacher sentiments even played a part in the 1996 American presidential election: "After Dole's broadsides against the unions, 'the teachers' unions are going to be scrutinized like they've never been scrutinized before...The teachers' unions are now fair game'" (EIR 3 Feb.).

In addition, teacher prep time is being reduced, class size is increasing, there are fewer basic classroom supplies, and money is increasingly siphoned out of the classroom as costs are divided up into "essential" (students, teachers) and "non-essential" (libraries, transportation, principals, utilities, cafeterias, guidance, custodial services, curriculum development, etc.) expenditures. Ironically, the education industry has been able to capitalize on providing these services which are in the process of being defined as non-essential...but just try to run a school without them!

When confronted with the public's concern over these drastic cuts to education, governments respond with the suggestion that schools will have to become more "creative" or "entrepreneurial" in raising funds to maintain existing programs -- or merely to buy books and desks for increasing numbers of students. The most pressing and popular suggestion is for public schools to forge new relationships -- "partnerships" -- with the corporate sector. However, if the underlying principle behind such partnerships is that both parties are on an equal footing -- and it is clear that the schools are not -- it follows that there must be a corresponding "insecurity" in the corporate sector to the insecurity in the schools in order to maintain the required balance of power.

The term "partnership" is used to describe a formal relationship or agreement between two parties -- in this case a school and a corporation. The very terminology implies that both parties are on equal footing, and that any disparity in power can be corrected simply by calling this relationship a "partnership." Further, as partnerships are by nature ethical, all such partnerships are portrayed as beneficial win-win situations, which is how they are sold to the public. But it is this power balance -- or lack of it -- which must be more closely examined in determining whether we are talking about real partnerships at all, or an entirely different kind of relationship.

In the school/business binary, how "equal" are the parties in question? Education cuts are taking place even when there appears to be no need for them. In Manitoba, for example, government expenditures are the lowest in Canada, even though the government's revenue has increased by 14.7% over the past two years. However, cuts to education continue, resulting in the layoff of more than 660 teachers over the last few years (Pearce, EM 18, Spring 1997).

The Canadian Teachers' Federation estimates that, with spending cuts and increasing enrolments, per-pupil expenditure will drop from $7,023 (1995-96) to $6,936 (1996-97) (1). And while public elementary-secondary enrolments increased by 0.8%, the number of full-time public school teachers declined by 0.3% (CTF Economic Service Notes 1997-2, 4). We have two factors here: less money for each student, and more students per teacher, resulting in less student-teacher time, as well as additional work for teachers outside of class with no increase in allotted preparation time.

Conversely, according to Statistics Canada, restructuring and downsizing tactics have led to record-breaking year-end profits for corporations and financial institutions. In 1996, the six major Canadian banks earned over $6 billion, up from $5.18 billion in 1995 (CCPA Monitor, March 1997). "Corporate profits have almost doubled since mid-1992. StatsCan reported that corporate profits reached $95 billion in 1995" (OECTA Corporate Involvement in Ontario's Catholic Schools 2) and, according to The Globe and Mail, "profits at 200 of the country's biggest companies hit a record $6.9 billion in the first quarter of 1997, up 44% from the same period a year earlier (Bell and Clifford, B1, May 13, 1997).

Evidently, the corporate sector -- or the echelon of the corporate sector involved most often and most elaborately in restructuring education -- is experiencing none of the financial desperation of the public school system. How, then, can this possibly be considered a partnership, based on the actual definition of the term?

Currently, there is no one organization monitoring the growing education industry in the United States, and the way in which that industry (and philosophy) is affecting Canadian legislation, business practices, schools, education, the delivery of knowledge, and the attributes of our democratic society. While the education industry has been fully operational in the United States since the early 1990s, it is still relatively new in Canada. In fact, the first conference on investing in Canadian education (to be called the "Education Industry Summit") is planned for September 24, 1997 -- on Bay St. The gates have literally been opened. Education investors are now looking at the $700 billion North American education market, instead of using nationally-specific figures -- because national boundaries no longer matter much in the discussion of investment, standards, or (global) workplace expectations.

We need an organization to monitor what will drastically alter not only the delivery of public education Canada, but public access to it, and how education figures in our national and cultural consciousness.

Given the enormous influence of public education on all children, and on the greater Canadian society, and considering the crucial role schools play in our communities, we must use the utmost care when deciding who is to formulate the direction of our education, the ways in which that education is created, structured and delivered, and to whom that education is accountable or responsive.

Rallying cries of "standards," "knowledge," "accountability," "efficiency," "competition" and "productivity" are not value-free. Rather, they are deeply entrenched in a corporate philosophy which at times runs directly counter to our understanding of and investment in public education.

We must revisit and re-identify with those principles of public education which are so integral to our notions of justice, democracy and community: that every individual, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic background or age, is entitled to a quality education, funded by and for all Canadians, for the betterment of all Canadians, both as individuals and as members of our wider communities.


  1. In the words of Henry Giroux, "at all levels of national and daily life, the breadth and depth of democratic relations are being rolled back. We have become a society that appears to demand less rather than more of democracy. in some quarters, democracy has actually become subversive." (Giroux 37)

  2. Market Data Retrieval Mailing Lists catalogue cover

  3. "In a sense, what's going on now in our school system is exactly what went on in East Germany in automobile production. When you have a collective, single, monopolistic producer, inevitably that producer produces a very poor product.... With no competition, some people do very well, but most people do badly. The same thing is true of our current school system; it's a socialist system, the largest socialist entity in the United States, other than perhaps the military. As a result, like all socialist systems, it produces a low-quality product.... And it benefits a small group of people; in this case, primarily the unions, at the expense of a large group of people." (Raney, Interview with Milton Friedman, vol. 5 no. 1, spring 1996)

  4. "Our elementary and secondary educational system needs to be radically restructured. Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major section of the educational system -- ie. by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools." (Friedman, Public Schools: Make them Private 1)

  5. "Creating a useful crisis is part of what this will be about....[s]o the first bunch of communications that the public might hear might be more negative than I would be inclined to talk about (otherwise). Yeah, we need to invent a crisis and that's not just an act of courage, there's some skill involved" (qtd. in Brennan).

For more information on The CCPA Education Project, contact Erika Shaker at: (613) 563-1341, or