By Donella Meadows
–October 1, 1992–
The scariest article I have read in a long time appeared in the September 21 issue of The Nation. It was written by Jonathan Kozol, and it is about the plan George Bush, Lamar Alexander, and Chris Whittle are hatching for America’s schools.
You know who George Bush is. Lamar Alexander is his Secretary of Education. Chris Whittle is Alexander’s friend and one-time business partner and the chairman of Whittle Communications, the purveyor of Channel One, a 12-minute television program beamed into schools every day, carrying news and ads for candy bars, fast food, and sneakers. To receive this program schools are given a satellite dish and TV equipment for each classroom. In exchange they must show Channel One on at least 90 percent of the schooldays to at least 90 percent of the students. Teachers are not allowed to interrupt the show or turn it off.
When I first heard of this forced consumption of commercials by children who must attend school, I thought no school board would allow it. I was very wrong. Channel One now plays in 10,000 schools to almost 8 million students. Whittle charges $157,000 each for the four daily 30-second ads. That brings Channel One revenues of more than $100 million a year.
Now Whittle is getting ready to open his own schools, 200 of them by 1996 and 1000 of them, serving 2 million kids, within a decade. This venture is being financed largely by two media conglomerates, Time Warner and Associated Newspapers, a British tabloid publisher.
The schools will charge $5,500 a year in tuition, about the same as the national average for public schools. Whittle plans to keep costs down by using fewer teachers and more computerized instruction. Twenty percent of the students will attend on scholarship.
Whittle schools, with a lot of corporate front-money, will be jazzy. They will be new, colorful, and loaded with electronic gadgets. Kids will love them. They will also be exclusive. As private schools they won’t have to, and don’t intend to, admit just any riff-raff kids who happen to live in the neighborhood. John Chubb, a Whittle employee states that the schools will be open only to kids who don’t need “more slowly paced instruction” and whose parents are “informed” and “supportive.”
Whittle’s plan will probably go ahead regardless of November’s election, but it will really take off if George Bush is re-elected and Lamar Alexander continues as Education Secretary. Alexander, a shareholder in Whittle Communications until he assumed public office, will do his utmost to implement Bush’s enthusiasm for education vouchers. Vouchers will allow children (the ones Whittle chooses to admit) to attend Whittle schools at taxpayer expense.
If private interests of any sort can tap into public education funds, this is the opening of a multi-billion-dollar market. Whittle isn’t the only entrepreneur ready to grab it. Burger King already runs 14 high schools. A firm called Educational Alternatives is operating formerly public schools for profit in Miami, Baltimore, and Duluth. Apple and IBM are thinking of getting into the education business. Dunkin’ Donuts, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell are angling to serve school lunches. They have managed to weaken federal school-lunch nutrition standards so their fast food qualifies; the recent Congressional act that permitted this was informally called the “Pizza Hut exemption.” McDonald’s has already taken over two high-school cafeterias in Colorado. In the math classes of one of those schools students study McDonald’s inventory and ordering procedures; in the business classes they learn about McDonald’s marketing practices.
There may be some readers who have gotten this far and are still wondering: what’s wrong with this? Our public schools are failing. American 13-year-olds rank 15th in the world on standardized math tests, just behind Spain and Slovenia. Some of our city schools are combat zones. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for corporate know-how to come in and shape things up?
No, it wouldn’t. Not only because profit-makers think it’s fine for kids to be forced to watch Snickers ads. Not only because corporate bottom lines will see teachers as costs, to be minimized or replaced by machines. And not only because these schools will be segregated and elitist and will train kids to be good corporate citizens. Those consequences are frightening enough, but the worst consequence is that business-run schools will break down whatever shreds are left of our ability to act as communities and to practice democracy.
Kozol writes: “As parents scramble to get children into one of Whittle’s schools … they will by necessity view almost every other parent as a rival. They will feel no obligation to raise tax-support for public schools attended by their neighbors’ children. Instead of fighting for systematic excellence and equity for all, we will have taught them to advance their own kids at whatever cost to other peoples’ children…. The commercial products Whittle sells may be far less pernicious than his noncommercial products: an attitude, a set of values, a body of political beliefs.”
People don’t seem to realize, as they willingly let businesses control more and more of their lives, that corporations are not democracies. They are central planning organizations, as beset by bureaucracy, as remote from the needs of ordinary people, as ripe for corruption, as impervious to advice from below as any centralized government. The argument that we control them through our free use of our purchasing power holds true only if the market is made up of many small, decentralized suppliers, and only if we all have reasonable amounts of purchasing power.
We need healthy businesses, but we don’t need them to run schools. Communities should run schools. If they are failing to do so, the solution is not to take resources and power out of community hands, but to put more back in — and to stop the poisonous rhetoric of individualism and public distrust that is undermining the ability most of our communities did have, not so very long ago, to run the best public schools in the world.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992