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.

Opposition puts York, PA school privatization in limbo

High school students in York, Pennsylvania recently passed out flyers urging parents to contact the state board of education and voice their displeasure over a plan to have a for-profit charter school company takeover the public schools in York.

The York school district could become the second school district in the US to be operated by a charter school company or companies (the other is New Orleans).

“We care about our school, we love our school and we love public school,” said Ashlee DeSantis, a York high school student to a reporter from NPR. “We don’t want receivership to happen here.”

When the York school district experienced financial difficulties because of state education budget cuts, outgoing governor Tom Corbett put the district in receivership and appointed David Meckley as the district’s so-called recovery officer.

Meckley, who lives outside the district, decided to hire Charter Schools USA (CSUSA), a for-profit company based in Florida, to operate the York schools.

CSUSA formed a foundation and appointed some business people who live outside the York district to serve on the foundation’s board. If and when the takeover is finalized, the foundation will be responsible for overseeing the new charter schools in York and will function as if it were an elected school board.

The decision to privatize York’s schools has drawn widespread community opposition including members of the elected school board, school employees, parents, and students.

As of now, the fate of the takeover remains up in the air.

In December, York County Judge Stephen Linebaugh ruled that Meckley and CSUSA could carry out their privatization plan, but in January, he allowed an appeal of his decision to proceed.

The election of Gov. Tom Wolf, who opposes education privatization, has also left the takeover in doubt.

Opponents of privatization have voiced displeasure with the choice of CSUSA, which operates charters in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

According to its critics, CSUSA has excelled at one thing–figuring out how to make a profit off public education.

Recent reports on the way  CSUSA operates in Florida have shed some light on how CSUSA makes its money.

In Florida, CSUSA has set up a real estate development company, Red Apple Development, whose mission according to a CSUSA investor presentation “is to identify and acquire land or existing schools, develop the land or expand upon the schools, and to create a pipeline of schools exclusively for CSUSA to operate.”

The pipeline of schools are then rented to non-profit foundations set up by CSUSA to operate and oversee its charter schools.

The charter schools have to pay rent and service any debt taken on to build or renovate their buildings.

One of CSUSA’s charter schools in Hillsborough County, Florida pays an interest rate of 8 percent to CSUSA to service the school’s debt.

That school is Winthrop Charter School. For the 2014 school year, Winthrop will pay $125,700 in rent and $2,073,787 in debt repayment.

Winthrop will also pay CSUSA $383,385 in management fees and $56,565 to Connex 12, another CSUSA owned company, for computer services.

In all, 30 percent of Winthrop’s $8.6 million in revenue for 2014 will go to CSUSA or CSUSA related companies.

The Florida League of Women Voters conducted a study of charter schools in the state.

According to the study, Woodmont Charter School, another CSUSA school in Hillsborough County, in 2011 spent 42 percent of the school’s revenue on administrative expenses and only 44 percent on instruction.

“By contrast,” reads the League of Women Voters report. “Hillsborough public schools spent 86 percent of their revenue on instruction.”

While CSUSA has excelled at making money, its academic achievements are at best ordinary.

A few of its charter schools outperform comparable public schools, most perform at about the same level, and some perform significantly worse.

Woodmont, which spent 42 percent of its revenue on administration, received an F for 2013 and a D for 2012, according to the League of Women Voters study.

Six public schools within one mile of Woodmont all had higher scores on Florida’s standardized achievement tests than Woodmont.

CSUSA has figured out other ways to make money.

In Indiana, CSUSA in 2011 took over some schools in Indianapolis, even though John Hage, CSUSA’s principal owner, said that it would be difficult to turn a profit on the schools.

Hage turned out to be partially prescient; CSUSA wasn’t able to make money on the schools until a stroke of good luck happened–the Indiana Board of Education mistakenly appropriated an extra $6 million to CSUSA.

Coincidentally, Tony Bennett, who at the time was superintendent of the state board of education, an elected office in Indiana, received a $5000 campaign contribution from Red Apple.

The board’s mistake proved to be a contributing factor to Bennett’s subsequent election loss, but Bennett landed on his feet, or at least his wife did. She landed an executive position with CSUSA in Florida.

Whether CSUSA will be able to continue its money-making magic in York appears now to be up in the air.

A spokesperson for newly elected Gov. Tom Wolf said that he and his acting secretary of education Pedro Rivera are reviewing the situation. As governor, Wolf has the authority to revoke the petition that led to York being put into receivership, which resulted in the hiring of CSUSA.

The York community itself seems to be uniting behind a campaign to keep the city’s public schools public.

The local NAACP is sponsoring a forum on January 29 to update the community on the events that led up to the district being put into receivership and the possible options that the community has going forward.

The York Education Association, the local teachers union, and York Concerned Clergy on January 28 will be holding a rally opposing the privatization of the city’s schools.

After the rally, the elected school board will hold its meeting.

A statement released by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) said that the plan to privatized York’s schools has little local support.

“York’s citizens don’t want this, the elected school board doesn’t want this, and parents and educators don’t want this,” said Michael Crossey, PSEA’s president.