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The Failure of Corporate School Reform: Toward a New Common School Movement

In the United States, a corporate model of schooling has overtaken educational policy, practice, curriculum and nearly all aspects of educational reform.

While this movement began on the political right, the corporate school model has been heralded across the political spectrum and is aggressively embraced by both major parties. Corporate school reformers champion private-sector approaches to reform including, especially, privatization, deregulation and the importation of terms and assumptions from business, while they imagine public schools as private businesses, districts as markets, students as consumers and knowledge as product. Corporate school reform aims to transform public schooling into a private industry nationally by replacing public schools with privately managed charter schools, voucher schemes and tax credit scholarships for private schooling. The massive expansion of deunionized, nonprofit, privately managed charter schools with short-term contracts is an intermediary step toward the declaration of their failure and replacement by the for-profit industry in Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). EMOs extract profit by cutting teacher pay and educational resources while relying on high teacher turnover and labor precarity.(i) Corporate school reform seeks solutions to public problems in private-sector ways, from contracting out schools and services, to union-busting, a wholesale embrace of numerical benchmarking and database tracking and the modeling of schooling and administration on multiple aspects of corporate culture. Policy hawks make demands, for example, for teacher entrepreneurialism, or insist that students dress like retail chain workers and call school heads "CEO"; or install corporate models of numerical "accountability," paying students for grades and teachers for test scores; or leaders play intricate Wall Street-style shell games with test performance to show rising "return on investment"; or teachers assign students the task of crafting a resume for Benjamin Franklin; BP was involved in creating California's new science curriculum: the examples are endless.

Despite the fact that corporate school reforms have expanded at an exponential speed, the dominant corporate school reforms have failed on their own terms. Such reformers have insisted on "accountability" through test scores and lowering costs, but it is precisely in reference to these accountability measures that corporate school reforms have failed. The failing policies that are being aggressively implemented nonetheless include: contracting out management to privately managed charters or for-profit educational management organizations;(ii) putting in place voucher schemes or neo-voucher scholarship tax credits;(iii)expanding commercialism;(iv) imposing corporate "turnaround" models on schools and faculty(v) that often involve firing entire faculties and administrations, reducing curriculum and pedagogy to narrow numerically quantifiable and anti-intellectual, anti-critical test-based forms; the creation of "portfolio districts" that imagine districts as a stock portfolio and schools as stock investments;(vi) reorganizing teacher education and educational leadership on the model of the MBA degree;(vii) and the elimination of advanced degrees and certification in favor of pay-for-test-performance schemes such as value added assessment.(viii)

These corporate school reforms are deeply interwoven with commercial interests in the multibillion dollar test and textbook publishing industries, the information technology and database tracking industries and the contracting industries.(ix) The corporate sector has in the last decade positioned education in the United States as a roughly $600 billion per year "industry," ripe for takeover.(x) As directions for future economic growth are uncertain, public tax money in public services appears to corporations and the super-rich, who are flush from decades of upward redistributions, as tantalizing to pillage.(xi) These upward redistributions of public wealth and governance are particularly obvious in Wisconsin and New Jersey as tax cuts on the super-rich and corporations and slush funds for business development are funded by defunding public and higher education; attacking teacher pay, benefits and unions; expanding privatization schemes including vouchers, charters, tuition fee hikes; and shifting educational costs onto individual working-class and professional-class individuals. The same agenda is being enacted in Michigan, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - to name a few. Chicago could be considered the blueprint with its Renaissance 2010 plan designed by the Commercial Club and implemented by Arne Duncan. That plan - which resulted in failure to raise test scores or lower costs - succeeded in privatizing and deunionizing about 100 of the 600 schools in the district.

The Original Common School Movement

The US public school system has its origins in the common school movement spearheaded first in Massachusetts by Horace Mann in the early 19th century. The movement eventually spread throughout the United States. Mann emphasized the need for an educated public for a functioning democracy, a system of publicly financed schools, that schools should be composed of children of different backgrounds, that education should be nonsectarian, that students should be taught by professionally trained teachers and that the educational disciplines and methods should express the values of a free society. The common school movement was promoted as a means of political inclusion, workforce preparation and individual character building aiming to bring together children of different classes and provide a common learning experience. The common school movement sought to increase provision of educational resources including the quality of schools, increased duration of schooling to the age of 16, better pay for the mostly female teacher workforce and a broader curriculum.

To read other articles by Kenneth J. Saltman, visit The Public Intellectual Project.

While many aspects of public schooling have been struggled over since the common school movement - including racial segregation and integration, the question of secular versus religious-based moral instruction, the politics of the curriculum and the role of public schools in workforce preparation - neoliberal privatization in the last 20 years has in many respects undone many socially valuable aspects of the legacy of the common school movement. The aspirations for a common educational experience, the commitment to nonsectarian schooling and the value of citizenry educated for public participation are collateral damage in the privatization trend. Voucher schemes, home schooling and scholarship tax credits have contributed to an effort by especially the Christian right to capture public resources to pay for religious education. The neoliberal emphasis on schooling for work and consumption has dramatically undermined the central value of promoting democratic citizens imbued with the knowledge and dispositions for self-governance. The relentless push for charter schooling has worsened racial segregation in public schools. Magnets were transformed as well during Reagan from being an effort in racial integration and equity into being seen as a "market" in schools. The values of universal and equal provision and the common benefit to publicly paying for schooling has been damaged severely by the centrality of the metaphors of "competition" and consumer "choice." In addition to transforming schooling into something that is more class stratified, neoliberal privatization redefines schooling into an individualized responsibility undermining the sense of shared value for the benefit of others.

Corporate school reform represents hopelessness for the future and an assumption that unlimited capitalist growth is the only alternative. That is, corporate school reform not only actively contributes to the reproduction of economic exploitation, political marginalization and the crushing of imagination as all social and individual values are reduced to market concerns; it also contributes to planetary destruction, which makes life on the planet a kind of terminal illness while waiting out the imminent cascade of ecological collapse and human disaster in responding to it. As a number of scholars have suggested, capitalism and its imperative for unlimited growth of consumption is a waste production system, despoiling not only the planet, but rendering wasted lives and disposable populations.(xii)

Corporate School Reform Is an Enclosure of the Commons

Corporate school reform represents not merely better or worse school reform approaches - adjusting pedagogical methods, tweaking the curriculum, and so on. It is crucially about redistributed control over social life and, as such, is part of a much broader trend. It represents a capitalist enclosure of the commons - that is, the violent taking of "the shared substance of our social being."(xiii) As Zizek points out, there are three crucial enclosures of the commons at present:

the commons of culture, the immediately socialized forms of "cognitive capital," primarily language, our means of communication and education, but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, the postal system and so on;

the commons of external nature, threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to rain forests and the natural habitat itself);

the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity); with new biogenetic technology, the creation of a New Man [sic] in the literal sense of changing human nature becomes a realistic prospect.(xiv)

A fourth enclosure of the commons involves the de facto apartheid situation of new "walls and slums" that physically enclose people separating the Excluded from the Included. These four enclosures of the common are being struggled over and the stakes in the struggle are, for Zizek, the very survival of the species and the planet itself. Capitalist enclosure of the natural commons produces ecological catastrophe. Capitalist enclosure of the knowledge commons makes ideas into private property rather than freely shared and exchanged knowledge of use and potential universal benefit. Capitalist enclosure transforms the biological information that is the stuff of life into property setting the stage for new forms of bio-slavery and profit-based control. Corporate school reform colludes with and deepens these enclosures of the commons. It makes knowledge into a commodity rather than being shared and freely exchanged. It naturalizes a natural world defined by private ownership rather than public care. It privatizes the process of maturation and socialization, making human development into business and children into product. Finally, the lower tier of privatized public schooling expands repression in the form of new walls and slums.

The most significant aspect of corporate school reform involves privatizing the public schools. In an economic sense, privatization involves enclosing commonly held wealth, assets and land. Value is produced by collective labor in any enterprise. But capitalism individualizes the profits from collective labor. As David Harvey points out, the commons as a form of collective laboring must ground collective rather than individualized property rights and result in collective control over the production process.(xv)Public schools are not simply commonly held property, but the collective labor of teachers, administrators and staff comprises the commons of the public schools as well. As Harvey explains:

...  the collective laboring that is now productive of value must ground collective, not individual, property rights. Value, socially necessary labor time, is the capitalist common and it is represented by money, the universal equivalency by which common wealth is measured. The common is not, therefore, something extant once upon a time that has since been lost, but something that, like the urban commons, is continuously being produced. The problem is that it is just as continuously being enclosed and appropriated by capital in its commodified and monetary form.(xvi)

Corporate school reform encloses and appropriates for capital the collective labor of teachers, administrators, staff and students. And it does so by using public financing for privatizing public schooling. In fact, as real estate schemes by charters and the vast array of contracting deals exemplify, corporate school reform also encloses the collective property of the public school. In some cases, the actual public school building is given to a private entity such as a charter school. More frequently, the contracting arrangements that districts do with for-profit firms results in the extraction of surplus wealth, most often by decreasing teacher pay and skimming off profit by contractors and inflating administrator salaries. For Harvey, the problem of the commons is that unregulated individualized capital accumulation threatens to destroy the laborer and the land, which are the two basic common property resources.

The promise of corporate school reform for its proponents is that it increases the efficiency of the teacher-laborer through the enforcement of discipline (tighter controls over time, subject matter and pedagogical methods) and that such efficiency increases the delivery of knowledge to the student-consumer, increasing, in turn, the potential economic efficiency of the future student-worker. The promise is false at every point. For example, chartering which has become captured by a corporate logic and much of it exists for profit extraction, aims to replicate and scale up the most efficient delivery models, extend the teacher day, pay the teacher less, burn the teacher out, turn over the teacher workforce. All of these are proven effects of chartering and there is no doubt that these are good means of maximizing short-term profit for for-profit management companies and other contractors. The problem is not only, as a liberal like Darling-Hammond emphasizes, that these destructive reforms are bad for test-based student achievement.(xvii) More significantly, these are means of worsening the creative, intellectual, curiosity fostering and critically engaged qualities of teaching and also worsening the future productive force of the students' labor.(xviii) But controlled, rigid, anti-critical teaching results not in subjects with a greater capacity for economic productivity, but the opposite. If the goal is to produce docile, disciplined low-skill workers or marginalized people who are excluded from the economy altogether, then these corporate school reforms are right on target. However, ethics and politics aside, this is short sighted as an economic strategy, if, as the corporate school reformers allege, the aim of public schooling is to produce future high-tech workers with knowledge of math and science and the creativity to create new projects and create new value. The dominant justification for corporate school reform is for the US to develop its labor capacity in the high technology arena toward the end of winning global economic competition. Usually, proponents of the dominant justification call for encouraging students to develop their capacities for entrepreneurialism. It is difficult to see how eroding the capacity of teacher labor to inspire vigorous, creative thinking and intellectual curiosity could contribute to such a capitalist goal. The point not to be missed here is that, even on its own bad terms of education for capitalist accumulation, corporate school reform undermines it own aims. Enclosure of the public school through privatization does create short-term profit - turning kids into commodities and creating a new, two-tiered system that is privatized at the bottom. But enclosure destroys the labor and resources of the public school - that is, it destroys the value of it by pillaging it as productive force. Perhaps the ultimate failure of corporate school reform is that it does nothing to challenge the historical reality of a two-tiered public education system that reproduces the labor force: the upper tier produces the professional class managers, while the bottom tier reproduces the low-paid, low-skill workforce. Hence, the respective different emphases on critical thinking as problem solving in professional-class schools and the emphasis on discipline and docility in working-class and poor schools.

If we consider corporate school reform in terms of the recent literature on the commons, we can ask the question of how it helps us formulate a response to the problems posed by public school privatization in terms of economic control, political control and cultural control. The issue at stake here is not whether privatization threatens critical, public and democratic forms of education. We begin with assuming that as a given. Rather, the questions are: How do critical forms of education create the conditions for collective labor toward collective benefit? And how do private forms of education create the conditions for collective labor toward private benefit?

Part of what is at stake in the privatization of schools is the diminishment of the public sphere. We should recognize that there are at least four clear ways that those committed to democratic education must understand how public control differs from private control. These differences in control are crucial for expanding the public schools as a common and resisting its enclosure.

1) Public versus private ownership and control: for-profit education companies are able to skim public tax money that would otherwise be reinvested in educational services and shunt it to investor profits. These profits take concrete form as the limousines, jet airplanes and mansions that public tax money provides to rich investors. These profits also take symbolic form as they are used to hire public relations firms to influence parents, communities, and other investors to have faith in the company. This is a parasitical financial relationship that results in the management of the schools in ways that will maximize the potential profit for investors while cutting costs. This has tended to result in anti-unionism, the reduction of education to the most measurable and replicable forms, assaults on teacher autonomy, and so on. There is no evidence that the draining of public wealth and its siphoning to capitalists have improved public education or that it is required for the improvement of public education. If the state is going to use privatization as a tool (as the advocates of the Third Way in the United Kingdom do), then it could exercise authoritative state action directly in ways that do not upwardly redistribute wealth or funnel such wealth into misrepresenting the effects of privatization. Moreover, such a redistribution of economic control shifts the collective control over the processes of teaching and learning to the owner or private manager of the privatized educational approach. It captures such educational labor and channels it toward profit making for owners in the short term and future exploitable capitalist labor relations in the long term.

2) Public versus private cultural politics: privatization affects the politics of the curriculum. A for-profit company and a nonprofit dependent on a private venture philanthropy (Gates, Broad, Walton) cannot have a critical curriculum that makes central, for example, the ways privatization threatens democratic values and ideals. While most public schools do not have wide-ranging critical curricula, the crucial issue is that some do and most could. This is a matter of public struggle. Privatization forecloses such struggle by shifting control to private hands and framing out possibilities that are contrary to institutional and structural interests of corporations. The possibility of developing and expanding critical pedagogical practices are a major casualty of privatization. Democratic society requires citizens capable of debate, deliberation, dissent and the tools of intellectual engagement. Privatization fosters anti-democratic instrumental and transmission-oriented approaches to pedagogy such as standardized testing and standardization of curriculum. The privatization of mass media represents an important parallel to the privatization of public schooling with regard to cultural politics. For-profit media disallows representations and questioning that runs counter to the institutional interests of corporations.(xix) The corporate takeover of schooling means the overemphasis on standards and standardization, testing and "accountability" that replicate a corporate logic in which measurable task performance and submission to authority become central. Intellectual curiosity, investigation, teacher autonomy and critical pedagogy, not to mention critical theory, have no place in this view. "Critical" in this context means not merely problem-solving skills, but the skills and dispositions for criticizing how particular claims to truth secure particular forms of authority. Democratic forms of education enable critical forms of agency fostering political interpretation that can form the basis for collective social action. Critical curriculum and school models could provide the means for theorizing and acting to challenge the very labor exploitation to which schools such as these prepare students to submit.

3) Public versus private forms of publicity and privacy including secrecy and transparency. Private companies are able to keep much of what they do secret. EMOs and charters that straddle the line between public and private selectively reveal financial and performance data that would further their capacity to lure investors. Such manipulation is endemic to privatization schemes. Such secrecy represents a tactic on the part of privatizers to disallow collective control over school financing and budgets. The secrecy of privatization prevents collective educational labor for common benefit.

4) Public versus private forms of selfhood. Privatization produces social relations defined through capitalist reproduction that function pedagogically to instantiate habits of docility and submission to authority at odds with collective control, dialogue, debate, dissent, and other public democratic practices. Privatization fosters individualization in part by encouraging everyone to understand education as a private service primarily about maximizing one's own capacity for competition. This runs counter to valuing public schooling for the benefit to all. A new common school movement can be involved with producing a new public person imbued with the capacity to recognize and value both the collective labor of social life and imagine ways of common benefit from such labor.

In both the neoliberal and liberal visions of schooling, the collective labor of teaching and learning aims for accommodation to the existing economic structure and political forms that foster it. This is an economic structure that individualizes benefit from such labor. The task ahead for the critical perspective is to imagine pedagogical practices, curriculum and school organization that enact the global commons. How can critical pedagogy make central common labor for common benefit? What path should teachers and students take with communities in recovering control over the work of teaching and learning? How can the struggle against corporate school reform not simply demand limits on testing and a cessation to privatization in all its guises, but also demand that public education be the basis for reimagining the economy in truly democratic forms, reimagining the political system and political action not beholden to purchased and commercialized elections and reimagine the culture as a public rather than a private one?

Corporate school reform threatens the possibility for public schools to develop as places where knowledge, pedagogical authority and experiences are taken up in relation to broader political, ethical, cultural and material struggles informing competing claims to truth. While the battle for critical public schools and against privatization and other manifestations of neoliberalism are valuable struggles in themselves, they should also be viewed as an interim goal to what ought to be the broader goals of developing practices, modes of organizing and habits of social and self questioning that aim toward the redistribution of state and corporate power from elites to the public, while expanding critical consciousness and a radically democratic ethos.

A new common school movement has an inevitably hopeful dimension to it. The common can be built and expanded (as it has been through the Occupy movement) and it can never be fully enclosed because there are parts of human experience that can't be turned into property and have to be held in common. Compassion, ideas, and the planet itself must be held in common.

A first step for educators and others committed to equality and justice to enact a new common school movement is to propagate some key "talking points" to transform public discourse about public education:

Talking points:

  • Corporate school reform has failed.

    Charters, vouchers, privatization, educational management companies have failed to deliver what they promised - namely, higher "student achievement" and lower costs.

  • Corporate school reform worsens racial segregation.(xx)
  • Corporate school reform deepens inequality in educational resources.
  • Corporate school reform introduces a new "audit culture" and "new market bureaucracy" that is expensive, misdirects educational resources and promotes misery and inefficiency.
  • Corporate school reform has no way of dealing with ecological crisis.
  • Corporate school reform is linked to the values of an economic system designed to expand profit and consumerism over human values such as love, care and common living.
  • As the capitalist economy falters, why should control over education be handed over to business people?
  • As the corporate sector realizes the limitations of corporate bureaucracy, why should schooling inherit what doesn't work for business?
  • We need a new commitment to public education for public rather than corporate values.

Finally, a second step is to plan to occupy the Board of Education, the Commercial Club, Chicago Public Schools, suburban schools and the schools being targeted for closure and privatization to hold teach-ins about collective human values. These efforts are an important part of disrupting corporate schooling. The public schools belong to the 99 percent. It is time to take them back.


i. The visions of the right-wing think tanks such as AEI, Hoover and Heritage is made particularly clear by Andy Smarick. (2010). "The Turnaround Fallacy" Education Next, 10 (1). Smarick suggests that public schools should be thought of as private businesses competing against one another and, most importantly, suggests that the "advantage" of charter schools is that they can be easily closed and replaced with other privatized solutions. Paul T. Hill of the Center for Reinventing Public Education regularly champions this aim in advocating "urban portfolio districts."

ii. Miron, G. (2011). Review of "Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education," Boulder, Colorado: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved March 13, 2011,here; Molnar, A., Miron, G., & Urschel, J.L. (2010). Profiles of for-profit education management organizations: Twelfth annual report - 2009-2010. Boulder, Colorado: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved March 13, 2011, here; Miron, G., & Urschel, J.L. (2010). Profiles of nonprofit education management organizations: 2009- 2010. Boulder, Colorado: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved March 13, 2011, here; Murray, C. (2010, May 4). Op-Ed: "Why Charter Schools Fail the Test. The New York Times." Retrieved May 4, 2010, here 56 ; Byrnes, V. (2009). "Getting a feel for the market: The use of privatized school management in Philadelphia," American Journal of Education, 115, 437-455.; Peterson, P. E., & Chingos, M. M. (2009). Impact of for-profit and nonprofit management on student achievement: The Philadelphia intervention 2002-2008 (Working Paper PEPG 09-02). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, Program on Education Policy and Governance.

iii. See Kevin G. Welner, "Neo-Vouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling," Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield 2008.

iv. See Patricia Burch, "Hidden Markets: The New Education Privatization," New York: Routledge 2009. For the most thorough tracking of commercialism see Alex Molnar's Schoolhouse Commercialism annual reports available

v. Turnaround consulting in schools has been based not on evidence of effectiveness or a cohesive program, but rather on a metaphor of corporate turnaround consulting and a massive public subsidy for this market experiment. For excellent coverage of the appalling lack of public oversight see Sam Dillon, "Inexperienced Companies Chase US School Funds," The New York Times August 9, 2010, available online; See also my discussion of Alvarez and Marsal's "turnaround consulting" that slashed millions in funding for public schools while netting millions in consulting fees in New Orleans before and after Katrina in Kenneth J. Saltman, "Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools," Boulder: Paradigm Publishers 2007.

vi. Kenneth J. Saltman, "Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of "Portfolio Districts," June 2010, The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice available online

vii. I take this up in Kenneth J. Saltman, "The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy," Palgrave Macmillan 2010.

viii. Kenneth J. Saltman, "'Value Added' Assessment: Tool for Improvement or Educational 'Nuclear Option,'" September 14, 2010, available here; Eva L. Baker, Paul E. Barton, Linda Darling-Hammond, Edward Haertel, Helen F. Ladd, Robert L. Linn, Diane Ravitch, Richard Rothstein, Richard J. Shavelson and Lorrie A. Shepard, "Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers" EPI Briefing Paper #278, August 29, 2010, available at

ix. Patricia Burch, "Hidden Markets: The New Education Privatization," New York: Routledge 2009.

x. "Special Report Education a New Push to Privatize," Businessweek, January 14, 2002.

xi. Usually such pillage is described as introducing "private sector" efficiencies, which fits the classic definition of ideology as a camera obscura inverting reality as private-sector involvement skims wealth out of the system. McKinsey, whose education sector is headed by globe-trotting neoliberal consultant Michael Barber, makes the agenda quite clear: "Drive productivity gains in the public and regulated sectors. Public and regulated sectors such as health care and education represent more than 20 percent of the US economy, but has persistently low productivity growth. McKinsey analysis has demonstrated that, if the US public sector could halve the estimated efficiency gap with similar private sector organizational functions, its productivity would be 5 to 15 percent higher and would generate annual savings of $100 billion to $300 billion." Available here.

xii. See Georges Batailles, "The Accursed Share Volume One," New York: Zone Books 1995; Jean Baudrillard, "The Consumer Society," Thousand Oaks: Sage 1998 was an important early work that recognized this while, more recently, Zygmunt Bauman, "Wasted Lives," 2005, and Henry Giroux, "Youth in a Suspect Society," New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2010, make important interventions. Giroux's book significantly links the death of futurity signified in the ramped up hard and soft war on youth to the dead end of consumer capitalism and ecological disaster.

xiii. Slavoj Zizek, :First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,: New York: Verso 2009, p. 91.

xiv. Ibid.

xv. David Harvey, "The Future of the Commons," Radical History Review (Winter 2011), p. 105.

xvi. Ibid.

xvii, See Linda Darling-Hammond, "The Flat World and Education," New York: Teachers College Press 2010, for abundant empirical evidence as to the destructive effects of these anti-teacher policies on the "quality" of teaching as measured by test outputs.

xviii. By critically engaged I am referring not to critical thinking as problem solving skills, but rather critical in the tradition of critical pedagogy, which takes up questions of knowledge in relation to broader power struggles, interests and social structures.

xix. See Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, "Manufacturing Consent," and the work of Robert W. McChesney such as "Rich Media, Poor Democracy."

xx. Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010), "Schools without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System"; Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from here.

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Kenneth Saltman

Kenneth Saltman is a Professor of Educational Policy Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. His interests include the political economy and cultural p...