South American educators meet to plan strategy for resisting education privatization

Representatives from education unions in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia on September 9 gathered in Santiago, Chile to develop a continent-wide strategy for resisting the privatization of public education.

The Santiago meeting was called by the regional office of Education International, a global federation of 396 education associations and unions whose member organizations represent 32.5 million educators and support professionals. The meeting was a first step toward building a coordinated movement against the commercialization and privatization of public education in South America.

“We are witnessing the emergence of private actors whose size and power we would never have imagined,” said Angelo Gavrielatos of Education International (EI) at the meeting.

Fátima Silva, EI’s vice president for Latin America, said that the privatization of public education in Latin America has been going on for 20 years and that supporters of public education on the continent need to define a common-plan based on country specific research in order deal with this growing threat to an important public institution–the public school.

The commercialization and privatizing of public education isn’t just a South American phenomenon.

Worldwide, governments spend trillions of dollars on education, and global corporations and private equity fund managers have been trying to convert this public investment into private revenue streams.

Capital’s foray into the education market usually goes under the guise of education reform, which in most instances means operating public schools as business enterprises, relying more and more on standardized tests to gauge student achievement, and replacing professional educators with so-called education technology and technology facilitators.

The privatization of public education topped the agenda of EI’s 7th World Congress held in Ottawa, Canada in July.

At the Congress, delegates passed a resolution noting “that privatization in and of education, in its many forms and arrangements, is a fast-growing global trend with various, and often negative, consequences for teachers, education support personnel, students and society as a whole.”

The resolution also mandates EI’s executive board to build a coordinated, worldwide movement “to defend public education and against attempts to privatize and commercialize education.”

One of the big actors in the emerging education market is Pearson, a UK-based corporation that started out as a publisher of textbooks but has branched out to take advantage of new growth opportunities.

At one time, standardized testing was seen by Pearson as the best way to funnel public investment into the company’s coffers.

Pearson penetrated the US’ standardized testing market in 2000 when it began developing and evaluating standardized tests for Texas. Since then Texas has paid Pearson more than $1 billion.

But the standardized testing market has become crowded with competitors. For example, Pearson was recently forced to share its Texas standardized testing market with other education businesses.

As a result, Pearson has looked for new ways to profit from education. It recently diversified and rebranded itself as “a learning company.”

The new learning company has been lobbying governments, especially those in developing countries, to allow it to set up low-cost, government subsidized for-profit schools.

These profit-oriented schools rely heavily on technology provided by Pearson and de-skilled learning facilitators instead of qualified, professional teachers.

Pearson’s new education vision has made inroads in Ghana, South Africa, and India.

The expansion of Pearson and others selling a similar vision of for-profit learning has concerned other public education advocates.

The UN Human Rights Council in July issued a resolution urging countries to regulate and monitor education businesses because of the “wide-ranging impact of the commercialization of education on . . . the right to education.”

Eight international public education advocacy groups including the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights praised the UN resolution.

“Our research has shown that privatization in education leads to socio-economic segregation and discrimination against the poorest children in schools . .  as was recently recognized in the case of Chile,” said Sylvain Aubry, a researcher for the Global Initiative. “The resolution adopted today (by the UN Human Rights Council), crucially highlights the obligation to provide educational opportunities for all without discrimination.”

At the Santiago meeting, participants shared their own stories about how the privatization of education is being carried out in their country. One common theme that united their narratives was that their countries’ governments have been listening to lobbyist for the learning companies and diverting more of their public investment in education to these companies.

“Governments have to regulate profit-seeking corporations’ activity, especially when they benefit from public funding. Taxpayers’ money has to be invested and to benefit students, not multi-millionaire corporations,” said Gavrielatos.