Private corporations are setting their sites on the education industry, as spending on education comes under review as budget concerns continue to plague states and local schools. From the point of view of private industry, this is an extremely lucrative, untapped market, with Federal spending on education alone running well in excess of $500 billion in the US. For-profit private education companies have been salivating at the prospect of getting a juicy a slice of this prize, as they have of the for-profit college market, with often-questionable results.
For-profit colleges rely upon federally subsidized student loans, which allow them to recruit customers from lower economic levels with the promise of jobs. The effort to privatize K-12 education will similarly rely upon voucher systems to allow families to send their children to for-profit schools.
For-profit charter schools have already been started in some areas, and the results have not been attractive. Agora High School of Tennessee was opened as a virtual school by K-12, a for-profit education company, and is funded entirely by taxpayers. Just short of 60 percent of the school’s students are behind their grade levels on math, and 50 percent of the school’s students are struggling to keep in reading. Dropouts number in the hundreds, and 33 percent are failing to graduate with their public-school peers. It is important to remember: how well K-12 educates students may not be the report card that the company is worried about.
Wall Street thinks that Agora is doing just great. With earnings up 34 percent, and total profits for the year looking good, the company is a favorite in the market. With total earnings at just over half a billion dollars and rising, there is no reason for the company to worry at the moment. The theory behind privatization is that the private sector will be able to provide good quality education at a savings. The goal of the companies competing for contracts to provide schooling is to turn a profit.
A New York Times investigation found that K-12 was so eager to turn a profit that it abused the system by recruiting students lacking the necessary discipline and family support for online schooling. The company also pushes teachers to take larger numbers of students for less pay, a cost savings measure. Teachers sometimes have to deal with workloads of 250 students, with all of the accompanying grading, parent conferences, etc. for pay so low that the teachers are now attempting to organize a union. Teachers accuse the company of keeping students who do poor, little or no work to continue as students, allowing the company to continue billing taxpayers for students who should have been removed from classes.
As corporations move in to take advantage of the immense profits available in k – 12 education, they are getting assistance from unexpected sources. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is famous for its work saving lives in Africa, but in the US it is working to encourage virtual classrooms. This includes donations to Jeb Bush’s efforts to make private education not just possible, but a requirement. Given that Microsoft will be a huge gainer in efforts to expand virtual education, one might begin to question whether the foundation’s efforts have any philanthropic element to them at all, or whether it is an effort to further expand Bill Gate’s software empire. Microsoft currently supplies software for servers, educational programs and, of course, operating systems, for many schools. The Gates Foundation has even stooped to making a contribution of $373,000 to ALEC – the Koch brother’s group dedicated to writing conservative-minded legislation for lawmakers to propose as their own.
Efforts to privatize schools would have an additional benefit for America’s conservatives. If schools are privatized, teachers unions could be broken up, eliminating an important support block for Democrats. The GOP has openly targeted public unions in Indiana, Wisconsin and other states across the nation. This would just be a bonus for the private companies that stand to cash in on billions more taxpayer dollars. The effects on America’s children would be a secondary consideration for those pushing these reforms – it even shows up on their radar at all.