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A Privatization Fever Dream for Post-Crisis Public Education

Millions of students are now learning from home, and pro-charter, anti-teacher forces are trying to seize the moment.

Virginie Lefour/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state will partner with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine education.” “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms; why, with all the technology you have?” he asked at the briefing. It was a revealing, troubling question.

Meaningful education is built on connection, and fostering relationships requires proximity. This is what a classroom does. It’s a space for students to establish relationships while experimenting with being in public. And while we don’t yet know the details of Cuomo’s plan, there’s reason to be suspicious. The Gates Foundation’s top-down approach to education reform, along with Cuomo’s history of supporting charter schools, inconsistency around unions, and exclusion of New York City educators from the project’s council, suggest a deeply undemocratic push to defund and privatize the public school system.

American public schools—“all these buildings, all these physical classrooms”—are cultural spaces as much as they are physical locations. Cuomo’s reimagining threatens to flatten public education into informational transaction, turning teachers into tech support in the process.

We have long struggled, as a country, to use technology to provide public education at scale. In the first half of the nineteenth century, an English schemer named Joseph Lancaster sold a system of mechanized mass schooling across the continent. Replacing all but one teacher per thousand children with older student “monitors” and teaching reading and writing through drilling, dictation, surveillance, and repetition was cheap, but it made education hollow. The system relied on conformity and demonstration of short-term results through testing. (Sound familiar?) In New York City, a Lancasterian school was the first in the city to be funded by tax revenue, in part because the Public Education Society, the Department of Education’s predecessor, was won over by the idea of a clean, efficient system for the masses. But Lancasterian schools lacked soul and, in turn, integrity. They relied on strict adherence to rules, behaviors, and mannerisms; as public interest in funding education grew through the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Public Education Society’s dominion waned. In 1916, after the Lancasterian system fell out of favor, one critic wrote, “What this experiment did especially exemplify is the insufficiency of benevolent despotism in the province of education.” By failing to consider the power dynamics that would develop as a result of the plan, Lancasterian schools relied on notions of discipline and authority that were incompatible with the true educational values of consent and autonomy.

American public education is not just a platform for coldly disseminating ideas. It’s a living organism. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in New York City, as my students and I have turned to remote learning, it has never been clearer how necessary the physical classroom is to how we learn, and how many people in power fundamentally misunderstand what public education is. During an interview in mid-March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed that, despite mounting pressure to close the schools, “the biggest union in New York City, 1199, the health care workers, asked to keep them open because they said our members are dependent, and they need to get to work at the hospitals.” The implication was obvious to many teachers: We were being mobilized during a crisis as a substitute for childcare, which is a deeply necessary social good but a distinct one from public education.

It’s clear students, at least, understand much of what our political leaders can’t grasp about public education. My students miss the dynamism and zaniness that define a classroom of adolescents, and they miss momentary escape from their defining roles at home. They know what school is, both what they’re there to do and what I’m there to do with them. When I write college recommendations, I ask students to submit a questionnaire reflecting on our time together. Last year, one said, “Writing became something you encouraged us to do when we felt most confused or frustrated, times when I was most likely to give up on doing something. I began to see writing as a way to convince people about the things that meant a lot to me.” Reading students’ faces, peering over their shoulders, and responding to their frustrations and their breakthroughs is integral to helping them match tools to occasions. This sounds saccharine, but it’s real. Those relationships are harder to cultivate on a screen.

Cuomo’s question about whether we need physical classrooms anymore indicates an impulse to redefine not only the shape but the purpose of education. Historically, for the Gates Foundation, notions like growth, agency, and connection have come second to producing data. The Gates Foundation’s role in the state council, while still ambiguously defined, raised alarm among many public school teachers because of the organization’s aggressive, mechanical approach to reform, especially its history of pushing Common Core standards, developed for use in every public school classroom across the nation. The goal for these standards is purportedly college and career readiness, but it’s really test prep. In 2011, McKinsey alum David Coleman, one of the initiative’s architects and a supporter of the charter movement, explained the writing standards’ focus on formality and impersonal modes while exposing the movement’s ethos: “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit what you feel or what you think.” And just as implementing these standards risks turning students into mechanical recipients of knowledge, the Gates Foundation model seeks to turn teachers into much the same thing: The organization has supported linking teacher evaluation to standardized test scores, a practice since debunked as a misuse of the data. (Cuomo was an ardent supporter.)

This isn’t unique to New York. Over the past decade, under the aegis of both Betsy DeVos and ostensibly progressive Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, governors of Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, Indiana, and other states have proposed or followed through with cutting public school budgets in favor of privatization. Education is expensive, the thinking goes, and the market can subsidize the cost. The writing on the wall seems to point to broad standardization and privatization of education.

Relatedly, the Advanced Placement program, the College Board’s national program for administering standardized exams that many colleges accept for credit, didn’t cancel exams this year—instead, they’ll be administered at home. Competitors like the International Baccalaureate program canceled their exams. In mid-April, Trevor Packer, head of the AP Program, explained, “This is a massive investment for us—building new exams, new technologies for at-home testing and test security, and new online scoring models.” It’s worth noting that earlier this year, the College Board rolled out AP Classroom—a yearlong prepackaged digital curriculum designed to prepare students for the tests regardless of what their teachers were doing in physical classrooms. The profitable tests, like the Board’s second-bestselling product, the SAT, have also been reworked to hew to Common Core standards.

But it’s clear that competing voices are demanding representation. Teachers going on strike—or threatening to—in California, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and North Carolina have voiced broad feelings of outrage over resources, working conditions, and the turn to privatization. (The Los Angeles Teachers Union, while on strike in 2019, made a pause on charter expansion a core part of its demands.) In New York, parent protests and student boycotts of Common Core exams led to the 2017 adoption of the revised and renamed “Next Generation Standards.” Other states have also struggled with the implementation of the standards. “There is no sharp distinction between education for democracy and democracy in education,” writes Nicholas Tampio, professor of political science and author of Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy. Benevolent despotism is now, as it ever was, insufficient.

Even the Gates Foundation seems to recognize this on some level. In the Gates’s 2020 year-end letter, Melinda Gates wrote about the foundation’s relative success in bolstering access to health care in comparison to its struggles with supporting education. She expressed frustration, in particular, about the field’s nonlinearity: “In global health, we know that if children receive the measles vaccine, they will be protected against the disease, which means they’re more likely to survive. But there’s no consensus on cause and effect in education. Are charter schools good or bad? Should the school day be shorter or longer? Is this lesson plan for fractions better than that one? Educators haven’t been able to answer those questions with enough certainty to establish clear best practices.”

Bill Gates went on to explain that their efforts have been humbling because the quest for universal “best practices” was a messy endeavor. “It became clear to us,” he wrote, “that scaling in education doesn’t mean getting the same solution out to everyone. Our work needed to be tailored to the specific needs of teachers and students in the places we were trying to reach.” This admission is surprising coming from a couple who have played such an influential role in trying to turn education into something that more resembles a widget than a dynamic experience between student and teacher.

“We get moments in history where people say, ‘OK, I’m ready. I’m ready for change. I get it,’” Cuomo said in his remarks last week. “I think this is one of those moments.” It is. But that opportunity, taken as an invitation to further privatize and standardize, will only become another crisis. Times are grim, and America’s social fabric is fragile. Information infrastructures are in danger. In order to “really revolutionize education,” as Cuomo said, we should reflect on its central purposes. The American public school classroom should be an empowering space. A weird, messy, vital place of experimentation and collaboration. Public schools facilitate that opportunity for students, to think both critically and imaginatively and to agree on some kind of common reality. In the best cases, public education helps students situate themselves among broader communities than they may otherwise encounter while building civic trust. It helps them become adults, slowly, clumsily, day by day. There’s no app-based replacement for that.