No Conspiracies but Surely an Embrace of Business-Driven Schools

Over the past decade, I have heard educators I respect, even admire, say quietly among themselves that public schools were on the road to being privatized. Others, mostly among progressive educators, had no reluctance to speak out publicly about this march toward privatization.

These educators had seen the explosion of charter schools since the early 1990s, the rush of entrepreneurs into preparing teachers and principals, pay-for-performance schemes, and grant-making agendas of business-oriented foundations founded by billionaires like Walton, Gates, Broad, Bradley, and Olin. They concluded that these developments were a direct outgrowth of business-friendly education policies that Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush had championed since the mid-1980s. They pointed to the rise of vouchers (now constitutional but unpopular except in Republican circles and the Cato Institute), the spread of restructuring schools (as had occurred in the manufacturing sector) in the 1980s, the actual outsourcing of public schools to private corporations (Edison, Green Dot, Education Alternatives, Inc.) and advancing choice in public schools (charters, home schooling, and small high schools) as evidence of business influence on educational policymaking. They cited educational entrepreneurs’ anti-union rhetoric and simmering antagonism toward career teachers and administrators.

Rumors of deals cut in corporate offices, gossip about grant-makers, and a touch of paranoia about the traffic between foundation officials and entrepreneurs and the current administration have convinced many thoughtful educators that reform-minded policymakers and grant-makers were determined to privatize public schools for middle class and highly-motivated working class families and leave unmotivated have-nots to fend for themselves in chronically low-performing neighborhood schools.

I do not subscribe to conspiratorial theories. Nor do I believe in cabals of billionaires and policy elites deciding behind closed doors what needs to be done for other people’s children. What I do subscribe to is the gradual drift in the past thirty years of the nation’s schools–like other public institutions as hospitals, the criminal justice system, and public services–to copy successful businesses. While U.S. schools have had an off-and-on romance with business practices since the late 19th century, aping successful corporations has again reappeared.

A convenient marker for when the drift accelerated is the business-dominated Nation at Risk report (1983), and subsequent commissions, often chaired by CEOs, that hammered home
the decline of U.S. schools compared to other nations, the lack of skilled graduates, and becoming less competitive globally. But the reported decline in U.S. schools also mirrored a decline in trust for other government supported social institutions.

The constant drumroll of anti-government rhetoric beginning with Ronald Reagan– “government is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem” —has been non-stop. The alternative for too much government is to trust the free market to solve social, political, and economic problems. Market-driven champions said: Look at how the Soviet empire–a society based on the premise that government leaders knew best–disintegrated in the early 1990s. Market-based societies triumphed over state-run socialism.

It is no accident, then, that U.S. campaigners for state and federal office have intoned the anti-government message for decades–don’t tax because what’s collected gets misspent and wasted. Even incumbents rail against the very government they serve. Is it any surprise then that everything from publicly-funded roads, parks, and courts to hospitals and schools are suspect and not deserving of further taxation?

And so public schools, along with other tax-supported institutions (except the military), have been flailed constantly by both Democrats and Republicans for ineptness, corruption, bad judgment, and waste. The solution: rely on market-based competition and copy successful businesses that provide choice to their customers, “incentivize” employees to work harder, and focus only on measurable results. And the outcomes thus far: After the 2008 Great Recession and colossal bad judgments of very smart but greedy people committed to market solutions to problems, county and state governments have had to make cut after cut in public expenditures for roads, social and medical services, and schools.

This three-decade long anti-government campaign harnessed to unrealistic perceptions that schools have to introduce market-based practices and copy businesses to be effective have led to cuts in services that, as Paul Krugman points out, “everyone except the very rich need, services that government provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling.”

No conspiracy among business and policy elites to privatize schools exists. What does exist, however, is the continuing mindless imitation of business practices–a romance that deserves to sour–amid unrelenting anti-government rhetoric from both Democrat and Republican administrations. Both have contributed to sustaining an inequitable three-tiered system of public schooling where urban and rural poor districts now compete for Race To The Top dollars ladled out by state and federal officials.


Filed under school reform policies

17 responses to “No Conspiracies but Surely an Embrace of Business-Driven Schools

  1. Steve Davis

    My thoughts exactly.
    I am glad that the business model is starting to be criticized both in the blogosphere and the mainstream media. However, those that have been indoctrinated to the corporate model will not change their mind about the public sector. Now pensions are on the chopping block. The private sector has made everyone else reliant on the stock market (401K’s) for retirement and those in the private sector will not be content until they have further eroded hard fought for and worked for benefits. It comes down to a society of individuals all competing for scarce resources. I wish I could be like the banks and borrow money from the FED at 0% and lend it out for interest. Many in the private sector don’t find anything wrong with that type of government intervention in the market economy.

    Larry, Can’t wait to read more about Los Montanas.

  2. Pingback: Remainders: One teacher’s gratitude for standardized testing | GothamSchools

  3. you assume that the policies being promoted by Gates et. al. are copies of successful business practices; but many experts believe that the current rage for merit pay in schools is not a successful practice in business either; and that it leads to poor outcomes.

  4. Bob Calder

    Certainly not a conspiracy. But what is it when a group of people adopt a pathology and pass it along from one to another?

    I have been sitting for an hour watching a twitter stream with the #tcot hashtag and it’s disgusting, but not a conspiracy, “Top Conservatives On Twitter”.

    Have you read the story about how the Digg community was gamed by a similar group? Digg is probably the second most popular aggregated news site on the Internet, but more important it uses the “wisdom of crowds” to filter items up and down according to popularity being a gauge of importance. Because of their coordination, they were able to shape the way one of the largest news sites in the world served up stories, eliminating stories on pretty much all environmental science and anything favorable about the President for over a year. That *was* a conspiracy since the community was able to uncover a memo to members forbidding them from talking outside of the official forum for fear of official retribution.

    Diane Ravich was part of the official ed reform community and she says it’s a “boys’ club” but she doesn’t say it’s a conspiracy. Meh.

  5. Gideon

    Terms like accountability, efficacy, efficiency, outcomes, etc. are given a negative connotation when used in the context of education by associating them with business practices. But they are serious issues for all organizations: for-profit companies, non-profit organizations and government agencies alike. While not everyone can agree on how to measure outcomes in education, or hold teachers and principals and superintendent accountable, these are important debates to have if we care seriously about our children’s education and society’s well-being. Instead, merely raising issues of what a quality education should achieve is attacked as privatizing public education and leads to maintenance of the status quo: which is clearly unacceptable education for a large percentage of students in this country.

  6. Ticked-off Taxpayer

    Larry — if there’s no conspiracy to privatize it’s only because the movement has moved from conspiracy — e.g. the Business Round Table meeting on education in 1989 — to reality — eg the USDOE handing out endless edu-dollars to private contractors who then come in and tell schools and districts what to do and how to do it, regardless of whether the contractors have any real experience or track record in improving student results. Google “the big enchilada, public schools” for more, especially Jonathan Kozol’s article of that title from 2007 at

    • larrycuban

      I guess you were not convinced by my alternative explanation for the dominance of business-inspired policies and practices in U.S. school reform. Conspiracy theory sure looks promising in light of the feeding frenzy occurring now over federal dollars for turnarounds. And Jonathan Kozol suggests as much when he connects the dots in his piece–thanks for sending it to me since I had not read it before. Yet connecting the dots is a tad too easy. Connecting dots to make the case that business leaders have planned and acted in concert to privatize schools is, for me, insufficient to be compelling analysis once you know the history of the continuing struggle in the U.S. between government and business since the mid-19th century (Andrew Jackson fighting the National Bank, anti-trust movement in 1890s, regulatory commissions and laws in the 1930s, etc.)

  7. Catherine Lugg

    It *IS* mindless public service bashing, to be sure. And if someone sat down and crunched the numbers, privatization is probably wildly MORE expensive (see the contrasts with US health care and say, France).

    On “Race to the bottom:” Again, if states would actually make some long-term projections on potential litigation costs alone (because teacher assessment is still in it’s “arbitrary and capricious stage” when it comes to measurement) states are better off NOT competing for what is, in the long run, chump change.

    For a detailed discussion on the potential litigation costs, please see my colleague Bruce Baker’s blog, SchoolFinance101.

  8. celdo garcia

    Great and balanced article. Most newspapers have glorified charters and the business model for doing everything now the bubble has burst. Just like before the great depression where everything was dependent on private enterprises and they drove the country to the ground with their corners cutting agenda. BP cut corners so did Enron and most businesses do. In Brown v. Board of Ed the court held that: separate is inherently unequal. Guess what we have schools with state of the art buildings and technology, clean while others with rats while being neglected. The test results in NYC have shown that districts schools are not as behind as charter schools. Many charters underperformed consider they have longer schools days and superior resources. I guess the reality is hitting that charters and other private entities think about profit above all else.

  9. A distinction without a difference. Whether plutocrats act in concert or individually from the same misguided faith that public schools will improve through entrepreneurship, the free market, and simplistic measures of performance, the result is the same.
    That this only could only occur in a hospitable political environment — in some respects created by the same concentration of wealth that produced these policies — is obvious, since it wouldn’t exist otherwise.

    • larrycuban

      Whether “plutocrats”–uncertain whether policy elites fall under that umbrella–act collectively or individually from a similar “misguided faith,” it seems to me, does, matter even if “the result is the same.” Why? Because changing political and socioeconomic contexts allow intermittent social movements that can and do alter what “plutocrats” do. Think of the Common School movement in mid-19th century U.S., the Progressive movement 1890s-1920, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s. Such movements shifted the ideological center of gravity and, in each instance, questioned the dominant business values.

  10. Citizen X

    What’s the difference between “conspiracy” and “good planning”? Or even “creative financing”? It’s surely no coincidence that Marc Tucker sold America’s Choice just after his common core standards have been rolled out. (Here in NYC, can anyone say how much money America’s Choice was paid to do this summer’s very extensive “professional development” with the public schools?) And now Mr. Tucker has turned around and given the profit from his for-profit company to the National Center on Education and the Economy, “which will allow NCEE to accelerate implementation of the ground-breaking [sic] agenda offered in its 2006 Tough Choices or Tough Times.” (

  11. Julia I.

    Your argument about the embrace of business-driven models makes a lot of sense. Have you had a chance to read the latest business trend non-fiction? I have become aware of “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”, a book that draws heavily on the market model and one that promises very different results as soon as schools start using customized software for every child—disruptive innovation.

    The framing of the book and its accomplished authors comes from a market model “incubating the technologies outside the K-12 school system.” Some of the ideas, like factory-model high schools don’t work, and American public schools have responded well to mandates are ones with which I do mostly agree. The model schools, like Rhode Island’s Met are featured as innovators in customized programs for students—no argument there. However, as the book begins to flesh out its central argument (The way American students learn is too standardized. Different students learn in different ways. To remain competitive globally, the U.S. needs to “rethink our understanding of intelligence, reevaluate our educational system, and reinvigorate our commitment to learning.”), the conclusions drawn upon to solve the teaching and learning problems in American schools seem oversimplified and naïve to me. Everybody has a learning style and software can be customized to need the individual needs of different learners! I am curious if you have come across this book and if it factors into your analysis here?

  12. Bob Calder

    In the end, there is much more to running a business and making it a success than measurement and top-down coercive management. Calling it a business model is simplistic. Is choosing a couple of features from the unsuccessful business model of the last century evidence of a conspiracy? It probably represents the misunderstanding most people have of the evolution of management.

    For every business practice that works for Wal Mart, there are several more that are quite different but still work for others. The label “business practice” is incomplete and ultimately useless.

  13. Megan


    You have such an eloquent and down-to-basics way of explaining our educational challenges! As you know, I am deeply concerned with the influence that business models are having on our educational system. Even in my own town, which is relatively well-off, we are considering turning all of our schools into charter schools so as to avoid the constraints and limitations of being solely publicly funded. What is the solution?


  14. Since I left the classroom, over ten years ago for business, I’ve often been intrigued and puzzled by the way so called “business” practices or strategies are imported, usually by public sector employees and not businesses, into the education sector.

    For me, the question whether or not it is valid or appropriate for businesses to run or manage schools is in many ways a red herring because as Bob Calder notes, the term is so vague and unhelpful. It’s far more valuable to ask questions about very specific practices which might be improved or enhanced by business expertise or processes.

    I can provide one example clear example. In my experience, schools are some of the most appallingly badly managed organizations when it comes to basic communications practice I’ve ever come across. Few successful businesses would last five minutes if they managed their day to day communications like most schools do.

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