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Disaster Capitalists Want to “Reimagine” Public Education

Bill Gates, Andrew Cuomo, and other corporate education reformers are trying to use this moment of crisis to push through free-market school reforms. Their agenda is the exact opposite of what we actually need: a fully funded public education system that attacks racial and class inequalities.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during the daily media briefing on June 12, 2020 in New York City. (Jeenah Moon / Getty Images)

“When does change come to a society?” New York governor Andrew Cuomo asked at his May 5 COVID-19 press briefing. “It’s hard to change the status quo,” he continued, but there are “moments in history where people say ‘Okay, I’m ready for change.’”

According to Cuomo, the empty classrooms, disrupted students and teachers, and severe budget shortfalls created by the pandemic present one of these “moments in history” for the future of education. For him, this is a time when technology can be used to transform the current antiquated system: “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front . . . and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology [we] have?”

Cuomo is right that New York schools, and schools across the country, are confronting a historic moment. From elementary schools that will need to reckon with the collective emotional trauma the crisis has wrought on young people to colleges and universities facing catastrophic financial hardship — felt mostly by students and contingent workers — our schools need an aggressive intervention.

But that intervention should be vastly more public funding. Public schools — properly financed and focused on learning rather than testing and surveillance — are a proven engine for generating a more democratic society. Public, teaching-focused colleges like the City University of New York system, despite suffering decades of austerity, continue to provide poor and working-class students with an excellent education. The mission and work of these schools is not the root of their crisis — it’s a funding issue.

For decades, however, corporate education reformers like Cuomo have argued American schools don’t have a resource problem, but an innovation problem. They need to be “disrupted,” using technology and charter schools and other privatization schemes.

Silicon Valley has been happy to oblige, jumping into the mix and arguing that private-sector innovation and digital technology can fix American schools without raising taxes. As of February — even before the bulk of school closures — the “EdTech” industry was projected to pull in more than $250 billion this year.

And Cuomo’s new czar of education, Bill Gates, is one of EdTech’s biggest proponents. Gates, Cuomo says, is a “visionary” in the EdTech world that has made his ideas well-known “for years.” The present crisis, the governor believes, is a chance to “incorporate and advance those ideas.”

The Case of InBloom

Gates’s record speaks for itself. One of his largest education grants in the last decade was the more than $85 million he gifted to the Shared Learning Collaborative in July 2011. The Atlanta-based group used the windfall to launch inBloom, a “data integration and content search service for students and educators.” The idea was that schools would pool student data that private developers could then use to build apps and technology, which they would sell back to school districts. When inBloom launched in 2013, twenty-one EdTech companies queued up to mine student information from five pilot school systems, including Michael Bloomberg’s New York City Department of Education.

By the following year, inBloom was dead. Parent groups and education activists had organized against the program by the fall of 2012, gaining particular momentum when it was revealed that one of the companies using inBloom was owned by Rupert Murdoch.

In an October 2012 letter to state officials, a coalition of New York advocate groups called the divulging of student data, and its potential use for “commercial purposes,” a “non-consensual disclosure of intimate facts about school children . . . in exchange for promises about untested, unspecified ‘learning tools’ that may or may not be created, or if they are, may not improve children educationally.” These efforts culminated in a New York state law blocking schools from providing data to inBloom and its competitors. Similar movements in Louisiana and Colorado pressured officials into canceling their pilot programs with the service.

The inBloom fight shows that — under normal conditions — progressive activists stand ready to block Gates’s private-sector, technocratic incursions into American schooling. But pandemic conditions, Cuomo knows, are not normal.

Shock-Doctrine Schooling

Milton Friedman, the late titan of neoclassical economics, saw post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans at a similarly historic crossroads. “Rather than simply rebuild the schools,” Friedman wrote in 2005, Louisiana should “take the opportunity to empower the consumers, i.e., the students.” The market reform du jour was education vouchers — stripping the public education system of its funding and sending parents with a stipend into the unregulated wilderness of charter and parochial schools.

The “disaster capitalism” underlying Friedman’s plan — the notion that schools “in ruins” offered a chance to “radically reform the educational system” — also underpins Cuomo’s vision. Silicon Valley technocrats and austerity hawks have spent years laying the groundwork for this kind of chance to attack public schools — and the pandemic may be their moment. An “exciting market opportunit[y],” indeed.

The last few months have given us a glimpse of what the market has prepared for the future of education, and what students and teachers stand to lose. Colleges have begun to pay for invasive proctoring services like Proctorio, which seize control of student computers and record students while they take exams, using either facial recognition or a real person to monitor their behavior. Meanwhile, public universities like CUNY’s Brooklyn College are preparing to cut up to 25 percent of their courses in response to an anticipated budget deficit.

Another Path

In a 1982 preface to Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote that “only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change.” The type of change “depends on the ideas that are lying around.” Friedman’s life’s work was making sure free-market radicalism was “lying around” for the likes of Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet. Gates’s unregulated, privatized vision of American education is practically sitting in Cuomo’s lap. But it’s not the only available option.

We can have robust, well-funded public education from pre-K through college, one that attacks racial and class inequalities rather than reinforcing them, and fosters democracy and individual flourishing rather than simply preparing students to be compliant workers.

And while time is not on our side, we do have existing infrastructure to mount a fight. The New York State United Teachers union, six hundred thousand strong, responded to Cuomo’s statements with a call for “federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy” to ensure a better future for students.

Teacher strikes across the nation over the last few years have reasserted worker power and won meaningful gains. Teachers fight alongside a Left that is bigger and more organized than it’s been in two generations. We need to use that power to push for a democratic vision of public education. Privatization and market-friendly disruption aren’t the only responses to this crisis.