The Sharks Move In
issue 248 - October 1993
The sharks move in
Burger King Academies, millions of schoolchildren required
to sit through video ads for chocolate bars – and this is only the
beginning. Jonathan Kozol reports on the grand designs of the
entrepreneurs who are taking over US education.
‘A growing bunch of entrepreneurs,’ The New York Times reported in a 1991 education supplement, ‘are suggesting that unabashed capitalism can succeed’ in the delivery of education ‘where bureaucracy and altruism have failed.’ If private corporations can achieve what government cannot, the Times went on, ‘why should they not make money in the process?’
A number of corporations are now setting out to do exactly that. Burger King has opened ‘Burger King Academies’, fully accredited quasi-private high schools, in 14 cities in the US, and are planning to open another in the UK, in London’s East End. IBM and Apple are contemplating the idea of starting schools for profit too. Educational Alternatives, a profit-making firm in Minneapolis, now runs a public school for profit in Miami and recently won contracts to run public schools in Baltimore and Duluth. ‘It’s open season on marketing,’ says the corporation’s president.
But the most ambitious plans to date for profit-making schools are those announced in May 1991 by Chris Whittle, founder and chair of Whittle Communications, a publisher of upmarket consumer-orientated magazines. Whittle has already pioneered the sale of television news-and-advertising packages to public schools. His commercials for Snickers, Burger King and other products are shown in 10,000 schools and are required viewing for almost eight million students daily. Under the contract that school districts sign, 90 per cent of the children in a school must watch the program 90 per cent of the time, each of the programs must be watched in its entirety, a show cannot be interrupted and the teacher does not have the right to turn it off. In return for 12 minutes of students’ time each day, schools get the loan of a satellite dish and TV sets for each classroom. An advertiser’s dream – and an income for Whittle of $630,000 a day.
Whittle’s ‘Edison Project’ carries all this a great deal further. By 1996, 200 new profit-making schools will be open, and as many as 1,000 schools serving two million children are foreseen within the next ten years. Although Whittle is the front, the media conglomerate Time Warner holds 38 per cent of the stock in the project, with an option to obtain another 30 per cent. And another one-quarter of the stock is held by Associated Newspapers in the UK.
The schools will charge tuition fees of $5,500 – roughly the same as the national average spent per pupil in the public schools. Whittle proposes saving on teachers’ salaries by using volunteers, classroom aides and computerized instruction, and he proposes using the students themselves to do some of the work of school custodians. One-fifth of the students will be granted scholarships, although the kids on scholarships will, for the most part, be in separate schools from those who pay. In an inner-city school, he says, 95 per cent of the kids will be on scholarship, while in suburban settings it may only be one per cent. Whittle appears untroubled by the certainty that he is thereby guaranteeing segregated schooling.
Although Whittle promises he will not be selective in admissions, he does not address the likelihood that those who seek and win admission to his schools will be self-selecting. His promise, furthermore, is one he may well circumvent by simple strategies like opting not to offer services for kids with special needs.
Once a handful of Whittle’s schools exist – and, with the corporate funds he has available, the first schools he opens are likely to be dazzling creations – they may well be exploited as a selling point for vouchers. Parents, he says, who already pay ‘tax dollars’ for the public schools, ‘are going to have to make a decision about whether they want to pay twice’. Whittle undoubtedly hopes that the parents of the children he enrols – and the favourable press he orchestrates – will generate a national demand for the diversion of tax money into private education.
Under the entrepreneurial model Whittle represents, public schools will of course be obliged to advertise in order to compete with the private sector’s marketing, causing a diversion of scarce funds from teaching into selling. This is, moreover, a competition that public educators, having neither marketing experience nor capital, are unlikely to win. With public education starved of funds and with many public schools in disrepair, Whittle’s initial boutique offerings are likely to appear spectacular by comparison.
If the goals of Whittle should be realized, what might education some day look like in America? A vivid answer is given by John Chubb, a proponent of vouchers who has now been added to Whittle’s payroll. Public schools, he has written, ‘must take whoever walks in through the door’. As a result, ‘they do not have the luxury of being able to select’ the students ‘who may be ‘best suited’ to their goals. A private school, by contrast, has the right to keep out students who may need ‘more slowly paced instruction’. Under a voucher system, he says, instead of public schools that try to serve a large diversity of students in one setting, we would see ‘a constellation’ of ‘different schools serving different kinds of students differently’. Such schools, he suggests, ‘might target their appeals’ to ‘chosen segments’ of the population.
Excellence in public schools, says Chubb, is undermined because ‘so many of their students come from families that put little or no emphasis on education’. The virtue of the voucher-funded schools that he proposes, Chubb asserts, is that, like private schools today, they would be attractive to the kinds of kids whose parents are ‘informed’, ‘supportive’ and ‘encourage education’. Children of the other kind of parents – ‘parents who may cause problems’ – are, he says, ‘the ones most likely to drop out’.
What would happen to these children? ‘Larger numbers of specialized schools’, he claims, would soon emerge and would presumably address the needs of children from such families. Strip away the fancy language here and we are looking at a social Darwinist scenario, a triage operation that will filter off the fortunate and leave the rest in schools where children of the ‘better’ parents do not need to see them.
Unlike his employer, Chubb is honest to a fault. If his goals should some day be achieved, what we have known as public education will be granted a new definition and a different role in our society. What is now regarded as a right will come to be seen as just one more commercial product – or, more properly, a line of differentiated products. Whatever common bonds still hold together cities and communities are likely to be weakened or dissolved.
As parents scramble to get children into one of Whittle’s schools – or, for that matter, any other ‘voucher school’ – they will by necessity view almost every other parent as a rival. They will feel no obligation to raise tax-support for public schools attended by their neighbours’ children. Instead of fighting for systematic excellence and equity for all, we will have taught them to advance their own kids – whatever the cost to other people’s children.
To the extent that liberal education writers have demurred at Whittle’s plans, they have focused chiefly on the dangers of commercialism in the classroom. But the commercial products Whittle sells may be far less pernicious than his non-commercial products: an attitude, a set of values, a body of political beliefs as well. Whittle disclaims any wish to sell his ideologies to children. He speaks of education as a strictly neutral and mechanical experience. As every teacher knows, however, schools are never neutral. Consciously or not, they shape the soul and style of the future adult population.
When business enters education, therefore, it sells something more important than the brand names of its products. It sells a way of looking at the world and at oneself. It sells predictability instead of critical capacities. It sells a circumscribed, job-specific utility. ‘I’m in the business,’ says Elaine Mosley, the principal of a corporate-sponsored high school in Chicago, ‘of developing minds to meet a market demand.’
The literature of school reform now being churned out by the private sector is unsentimental and straightforward on these matters. Students are described and valued not as children but as ‘workers’. They are seen as future ‘assets’ or ‘productive units’ – or else, failing that, as pint-sized human deficits who threaten our productive capacities – but not as human beings who have value in themselves. The package of skills the child learns, or doesn’t learn, is called the ‘product’ of the school. Sometimes the child is referred to as ‘the product’. A heightened emphasis on testing is one logical result of this utilitarian approach and promises a future in which ‘product testing’ of commodities called ‘students’ will be more and more pronounced.
When wedded to the reach and power of a firm such as Time Warner, a school’s potential for reshaping the entire world view is almost unlimited. One hesitates to contemplate the possibilities when schools, movies, books, magazines and cable-system offerings are governed, produced and orchestrated by a single corporate directorate. Do we really want to give this kind of power over our children to Chris Whittle or others like him?
Ironically, the road that leads to Whittle’s enterprise may have been paved to a degree by liberals who have supported the idea of market choice and competition in the public schools while reassuring us that we can ward off any threat of private-school vouchers. In effect, they have been saying ‘It will go thus far – and no farther’.
I see no reason why. Once we accept the ideology of competition as the engine of reform, we will be hard pressed to say why only certain people ought to be allowed to be competitors. If ‘parental opinion’ is to be the pedagogic gospel, who is to say which options are to be permitted and which will be disallowed? Already ideologues at places like the Heritage Foundation are making just this argument: If choice is good, who are you to draw the line at choices only you approve of? Right-wing intellectuals who make this point are better debaters than most educators on the left; they are also infinitely more successful at encapsulating their ideas and selling them to politicians and the public. They shrewdly see the drive for public schools of choice as an initial thrust – inadequate but tolerable for now – in a campaign that will issue in an unfettered market system.
Old friends of mine in the ‘alternative schools’ tell me with some confidence: ‘We’re not afraid of people such as Whittle. We have something special here that he can’t duplicate.’ I don’t think they understand the forces they are facing. No matter what the ‘special’ thing they do, they cannot do it with the flair and promotional momentum that a massive private company can generate, nor can they profit from the same economies of scale. Business can and will construct dramatic new school buildings, set up space-age science and computer centers, target specific clienteles. Anything progressives have that is unique can be appropriated (even if adulterated) and repackaged to look better in commercial form. Their pedagogy, where it seems of interest to the public, can be copied and reprocessed to provide a Whittle school with a soupçon of liberal inventiveness and charm. Their teachers can be weaned away by better salaries. Their administrators can be bought away as well. Business can also mouth the words of progressive educationalists like Paulo Freire as frequently as we do.
The last thing I want is to create divisiveness among progressive educators, who are already embattled in their efforts at reform. Many of the innovations they have tried to introduce in public education – local school autonomy, empowerment of parents – are enormously important. I do, however, feel uneasy at the risks involved when people I admire end up, even quite unwillingly, helping to propel the juggernaut that Whittle and others are riding. I don’t know exactly how we can avoid this, but I think we should be far more circumspect.
Whittle has shown how easily resistance on the part of local citizens can be defeated by a mixture of doublespeak and savvy. Any man who, in a mere three years, was able to win the power to indoctrinate eight million kids with advertising every day is likely to do very well in breaking open the next market.
Whittle’s enterprise, moreover, may be only the beginning. With the end of the Cold War and the scaling back of military spending, military-industrial companies like Honeywell may well shift their horizons and start to look at education as an even better realm than war for future ‘penetration’. An education-industrial complex cannot fail to represent a tempting prospect.
‘A radical reprivatizing of the public realm is now well under way,’ notes Pennsylvania State University Professor Henry Giroux. Strategists at corporate thinktanks are already mobilizing their resources for the next encounter. If we are serious, we should be mobilizing too.
Jonathan Kozol is a prominent US educationalist and the author of Savage Inequalities. This article originally appeared in The Nation.