What’s common between business in school and Education Business ?

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“Schools are important to everyone, and it has recently become a high-stakes game for that very reason. How much is that business worth ? I doubt we’ll ever be able to answer that question fully. But we’re going to continue to be very aggressive and proactive in getting our share of the school business” (Molnar, p 71). Ten years have passed since David Van Houten, vice-president of Coca-Cola Enterprises, made this frank declaration. And when you read Alex Molnar’s last book, School Commercialism, it seems that he delivered the goods.

School Commercialism ALEX MOLNAR, 2005 New York and London: Routledge 177 pp., ISBN 0-415-95132-1

Privatization of State Education CHRISTOPHER GREEN, 2005 New York and London: Routledge 249 pp., ISBN 0-415-35474-9

Molnar is Director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory in the College of Education at Arizona State University and, probably, one of the most important American critics of the merchandization of education. He habitually separates commmercial activities in schools in three distinct categories : “selling to schools” (sales of supplies and services to schools), “selling in schools” (direct selling to students or utilization of schools to bring students or parents in contact with advertisements and other marketing initiatives) and “selling of schools” (the privatization of education and the development of education business).
The first of these three categories is the most common and the oldest one. It’s also the least controversial. Since schools exist, there is a market for tables and chairs, buildings, heating installations or didactic supplies. Nevertheless, one can notice a growth of this market, due, firstly, to investments in multimedia and computer technologies, and secondly, to the growing trend towards oursourcing of activities to private companies : cleaning, maintenance, school restaurants, etc.

But the main subject of School Commercialism is the second form of commercial activity in education, the break through of merchants in the US educational temple, to promote their products. Molnar’s book is extremely well documented. With the help of multiple and sometimes stupefying examples, he examines the various types of commercial exploitation of children and schools. The first one is sponsorship of programs and activities, of which the unquestionable leader seems to be Coca-Cola, with support actions that can reach up to $ 20,000 per student. A second type are exclusive agreements between schools and corporations, like the $50-million, 12-year pact between Pepsi Bottling Group and Hillsborough Country school district (Florida).

Incentive programs provide money, goods or services to a school when its students, parents or staff engage in a specific activity, like eating at Pizza Hut. Appropriation of space for advertising messages is another growing sort of commercial activity in schools; today, that can even mean allowing corporations to assign their names to rooms, wings, or entire buildings in a school district : in the Colorado Springs school-district, a program coordinated by DD-Marketing brought $ 140.000 in to the district. An example of sponsored education material is given by “Pick Protein”, a joint curriculum about choosing a healthy lifestyle, sponsored by America’s Pork Producers. And finally, we have electronic marketing, like for instance the Channel One television network that reaches 8 million students in 12,000 schools with it’s daily twelve-minutes news program including two minutes of commercials.
According to some studies, reported in Molnar’s book, the total amount of funds harvested by American schools thanks to their “business relationships” would reach up to $ 2.4 billion a year. About 70 % of the US school districts are engaged in one or more commercial partnerships. Molnar has calculated the growth of several forms of school commercialism between 1990 and today. He found growth rates ranging from +146 % (for sponsorship) to + 1038 % (sponsored educational materials).

How can one explain this infatuation ?

On the side of the private companies, the explanation is obvious. “It’s about locking in brand loyalty when kids are young”, explains Robert Kozinets, teacher at the Kellogg School of Business (p 32). The leaders of Channel One announce proudly to their clients that “teens are veritable eating machines, generating more than 36 billion eating and drinking occasions each year”. This represents $ 90 billions direct and indirect sellings each year. Or, as John Alm, président of Coca-Cola Enterprises, tells in his own words : “the school system is where you build brand loyalty” (p 55).

As far as those who have the responsability for the education system are concerned, the main motivation behind the penetration of marketing in schools is finance : “Schools seek corporate money because they find themselves unable to meet the demands of their daily tasks relying solely on the ressources available from traditional means: local, state, and federal tax dollars” (p 29). All the more so that external pressure is growing with a fierce competition between schools, higher achievement standards, more expensive technologies, etc.

At last, the political and ideological context is, nowadays, particularly favorable for opening schools to commercial partnerships. In the United States, the governmental report “A nation at risk”, published in 1983, has largely spread the idea that schools were failing the economy, that corporations had expertise that could imprive the school, and that schools were hostile to corporations and needed to open their doors to corporate “partners” : “A Nation at Risk helped create and maintain the pressure on schools to cooperate with — and to be seen cooperating with — corporations. It opened the schoolhouse door to all forms of corporate involvement in schools”. (p 10-11)

Alex Molnar develops a merciless and methodique critique of these commercial practices, particularly those linked with the drink- and food-business to whom he dedicates a special chapter (“Eat, drink and be diabetic”). He shows that the financial benefit for schools is often far from what was expected. He denounces, with many concrete examples, the dangers that those practices imply for the integrity of education administrators. Some of them don’t hesitate to abandon fundamental educational aims for the lure of a few dollars. Like this administrator of a Florida school district, answering some very critic articles in the local press, about an exclusive agreement with Coca-Cola : “I don’t think the schools have the responsibility of being the food police. And I don’t think schools should be expected to turn up their noses at $4 million annually” (p 50). Alex Molnar notices anyway that the strongest resistance against every attempt to regulate more severely school commercialism comes from directors and administrators of school districts. “We should not ignore the unintended consequences of restricting schools’ freedom to create business partnerships at a time when cuts in school budgets make every dollar count” (p 60) tells one of them.

The author is also very concerned about the scientific and pedagogic value that one can recognize to a leaflet about “how to control your personal budget”, when it’s edited by credit-card sellers; or to a campaign on “balanced alimentation” sponsorized by vendors of sugar and lipides. Indeed, to respond to the growing objections against school-marketing, the companies are trying to give a more positive image of themselve. So are McDonald and PepsiCo sponsorizing campaigns asking children to spend enough time to sports and walking. But, as Alex Molnar reminds us, the problem is that a “little bit sport” will not be enough : to burn the 1,790 calories of a Big mac menu with fries and Coke, you’ll need at least 15 hours of walking or 13 hours of volley-ball !
Above all, Molnar stigmatizes the political consequences of this massive entry of brand names in school : “school commercialism becomes a vehicle through which corporations can deliver a broader ideological massage promoting consumption as the primary source of well-being and happiness” (p44). In the opinion of Alex Molnar, consumer values lead not to happiness, but to alienation, loneliness and loss of freedom.

In the two last chapters of School Commercialism, Alex Molnar leaves the subject of the commercial presence of companies in education (“selling in schools”) for another one: the privatization of education (“selling schools”). His starting point is the experience of Edison Schools, an enterprise initiated in 1991 by an American business man, Christopher Whittle. Whittle is the one who created already the commercial school television Channel One, in 1989. In the beginning Whittle expected to surf on the wave of school vouchers, promised by the Republicans, to start a network of private schools, the Edison Project schools. He promised to “qualitatively transform schooling”, ensuring investors that his initiative could “wring huge efficiencies from the educational system and do a better job than public schools” (p 93). But the victory of Bill Clinton at the 1992 elections put an end to the hope of seeing the federal governement supporting the implementation of school vouchers. So, Whittle had to change his project and reoriented Edison as a private manager of public schools and charter schools. The first contract was signed in 1995, with a charter school in Boston. Edison grew steadily, but never reached it’s profitability level. In 2002, the company signed it’s most important contract ever, covering the management of about twenty public schools in Philadelphia, counting 13.000 students. But the ink on that contract was not yet dry, when Edison anounced that it could not honor it’s engagements, asked the Philadelphia School District an extra $ 1.500 per pupil, fired 211 employees, closed the school libraries and replaced them with a system of computerised tests.

Other misadventures like this one and the poor financial and pedogical results of Edison schools contributed to put a discredit on the firm. But, Alex Molnar explains, companies like Edison have been a driving factor in charter-school growth. Hence, “the concept of charter schools — once conceived as a community-based, voluntary institution driven primarily by parents and teachers — has become conflated in practice and in the public mind with for-profit companies” (p 118). The author rejects every claim from the private sector to be supposedly more efficient than the public one to manage schools and deliver good education. On the contrary, it has been proved that a company like Edison has, in several cases, published falsified data about the results of it’s students at federal or local tests. Therefore, Alex Molnar dismisses every form of privatization of education; in his view, it’s only a way of making money and it could not bring anyting good to the children.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Christopher Green does certainly not agree with this conclusion. In his The privitization of State Education, Public Partners, Private Dealings, he announces a balanced point of view on the growth of private education and public-private partnerships in the English education system. But his conclusions and Alex Molnar’s are at loggerheads. Please notice that Christopher Green speaks with the authority of a long experience as a teacher, headteacher, local authority senior education inspector, Ofsted registered inspector, assistant director of education and chief education officer. In this last function, he achieved the outsourcing of the Walsall LEA (Local education authority) to the private sector.
For those readers who, as I do, have only a poor knowledge of the recent evolution of education in England, the reading of this book is edifying. The privitization of State Education describes the genesis of the large involvement of the private sector in English education, as a result of the “growing dissatisfaction” about state schools. Christopher Green reviews in detail the many forms of private education or private intervention in public education. And doing so, he retraces a history of the English education system : the birth of the so-called “public” schools in the fifteenth century, the state education with private support in the years 1870-1944, the grammar schools and the comprehensive schools after World War II.

In this historical overview, Green is very critic about the epoch of the ‘Great Debate’, from 1976 to 1988, when the labor “began the trends that led to moves by successive governments to shift control away from schools and LEAs and centralize educational policy and practices” (p 53), especially with the introduction of a National Curriculum that diminished local authority over the curriculum. “By legislating for greater central control of state schools and dramatically incresing accountability, the scope for innovation and diversity of practice was severely reduced” (p 55) estimates the author. The discontent about this policy was, in his view, one of the main reasons for the subsequent trend towards privatization, which is now largely fostered by the government.
Many forms of privatization, like PFI (Private Finance Initiative), Public Private Partnerships or Private independent schools, are discussed in detail. A whole chapter is dedicated to the experience of partial privatization of inspection services (Ofsted) which was a success in the eyes of Christopher Green : “The privatized system has certainly served its purpose well in being subject to the changing demands of the market. The tariff for inspections from september 2005 is dramatically reduced, with the private sector taking the brunt of the reduction” (p 102). The author points out several domains where the privatized inspection services (Ofsted/contracted) have noticeably done better than the public one (Ofsted/HMI) : he observes for instance less “arrogance by inspectors”, less “inconsistent judgements about schools” and less “pre-determined conclusions”.

Of course, much attention is given to the implication of the private sector in the salvage of low-performing LEA’s ; in a special chapter, Green relates in detail his own experience in the private outsourcing of Walsall LEA. This chapter is symptomatic for the whole book : you get out of it with a certain frustration and an aftertaste of ambiguity. The deliberately pragmatic approach of the author gives rise to an unpleasant feeling : where are the principles ? Green dedicates tens of pages to explain that governmental reports have exaggerated the role of the private sector in the improvement of Walsall LEA, but his conclusion is that the pursuit of privatization is the only way forward.

The whole book is in this trend. At several moments, the author apprises us of his concern about the possible consequences of privatization of education : growing of social inequalities between schools, exclusion, political and ideological control over the curriculum. He notices also than “promotional statements made by the new private companies tend to emphasize very traditional schooling. This opens considerations about potential conflicts between privatization and citizenship based upon meeting social needs and democratic ideals”. (p 61) Green concedes even that there is no scientific evidence that could attest the claim by private sector to deliver better education or better management of schools : “When the literature is reviewed about this in England, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, there appears to be little evidence to substantiate that markets have achieved either higher standards or more choice. What persists is a belief that they should rather more than a fact that they do. The movement towards the idea of the education market being a good thing is based on ideological faith, not rational evidence”. (p 3)

After this overwhelming statement one could have expected, at least, some cautious reserve about privatization, some critical point of view about it’s present proliferation. But not at all, the objections remain superficial, they are never seriously taken into account, they are minimised in name of realism : “It is best not to be over-precious about sponsorship deals in education. Is is inevitable that use of sponsorship in education will expand, as it has in sporting and arts activities”. (p 80) “Inevitable”, “réalism”, “pragmatism”, those words are relentlessly entered in our brains by Christopher Green : it’s useless to try opposing privatization, we can only think about the best — or the least worse — way of delivering it. “On balance, moves towards the privatization of state education are favoured; the strong political consensus for them closes other options. It is largely based on a pragmatic view. The characteristics for privatized education are set within powerful social and economic forces which prevail in many developed countries (…) Wheels have already turned (…) Going private on a global scale is almost ‘the only show in town’. (…) Given these trends and the political consensus for them, serious alternatives are not pragmatic. But the dangers and inequalities described throughout the pages of this book are very real”. (p 195)

The fundamental difference between Alex Molnar and Christopher Green lives in their respective conceptions of the role of education. In Molnar’s book, this conception is explicitly formulated. In his superb fourth chapter of School Commercialism, he operates an amazing and interesting comparison between the ideas of Edward Bernays, the founder of the concept of “public relations” and modern marketing, and the views of John Dewey, one of the greatest American progressive pedagogues. For the first one, freedom means communication and consumption. But for Dewey, on the contrary, “the only freedom that is of enduring importance is freedom of intelligence, that is to say, freedom of observation and of judgement exercised on behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worthwhile” (p82). From the first to the last page, Alex Molnar’s book is impregnated by this philosophy, where education is conceived as an access to liberating and emancipating knowledge or skills.

You won’t find anything like this in Christopher Green’s Privatization of State Education. The sense of education is hardly questioned. The author speaks about the importance of having “decent schools”, about initiatives to “improve the education services”, about “productive partnerships with rhe private sector”. But he never defines what he understands exactly under “decent”, what is an “improvement”, what means “productive”. “What do we want education to be in the twenty-first century ?” questions Green (p 119). But you’ll wait in vain for an answer. Or, to say it better, you have to read the answer between the lines of a discourse that presents itself as being mainly technical. There is actually a vision about education behind the apparent pragmatism of Christopher Green. Some sentences leave no doubt about that : “If education is the road to economic competitiveness and prosperity then the systems around schools must reflect good business practice (…) The state has not been seen as delivering education that is orientated sufficiently towards a competitive economic culture”. (p 17)

“The road to economic competitiveness” ! This could perhaps be a gap in Alex Molnar’s classification. Merchandization of education means not only “selling to schools”, “selling in schools” and “selling of schools”, it is also, more simply and perhaps more importantly, that schools are expected to supply the labour market with workforces that respond the demands of employers. This means the instrumentalization, in service of economy, of the core functions of education systems : the transmission of knowledge, skills and behaviours. In my opinion, this is still, and by far, the most important economic function of education. It surpasses broadly the stakes of education business or school commercialism and it explains, more than any other factor, the present success of school-business partnerships. Christopher Green understands that very well: “We need education to face the cultural and the economic changes which are happening all around us through the acceleration of new technologies. This educational provision will need rather more divergence in the ways it is held to account than those used at present” (p 120).
Which are those “economic changes” ?

Since the middle of the eighties, the economy of advanced capitalist countries faces an exacerbation and an internationalization of economic competition : great instability, high unemployment rates, heavy pressure on public expenditures and a continuous pursuit of competitiveness. At the same time, industry and services have been entering the era of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies, leading to new forms of labor-organisation, more flexibility, just-in-time production and a fast internationalization of production and exchanges. This means that the economic environment is characterized by more unpredictability, more instability, more unequal development, which in return feeds the exacerbation of economic competition. (CEC, 1997; Field, 1997)

In this context of heavy economic competition, governments are put under pressure to adapt swiftly and narrowly the contents and structures of education systems so that they respond better to the changing demand of skilled workforces. That’s why why there is a strong demand for a more work-oriented education. But not only. The new organization of labour needs more flexibility. So, education is asked to attach less importance to knowledge, which “is nowadays, in our fast-moving societies and economies, a perishable product” (Cresson, 1998), and to put more emphasis on those skills that can guarantee flexibility and adaptability of the workforce. Flexibility and unpredictability mean also that education systems themselves have to develop their capacity of adaptation, by becoming more autonomous, more competitive, less dependent from central regulation. “We must encourage manners of training that are less institutional, more informal”, pointed the European Round Table of industrialist in 1993 (ERT, 1993). And the European Commission puts it as follows in the White Paper on Education and Training : “There are many today who think that the time for education outside school has arrived, and that the liberation of the education process which it would make possible will result in the control of education by providers who would be more innovative than the traditional structures” (CEC, 1995).

Those are the main reasons why education is pushed in the direction of privatization and partnerships with private companies. But is it possible to have privatization with no losers ? asks Christopher Green. “If the supply of places at decent schools, and the availability of good education services matches demand then, there seems to be a chance that it is” (p 201). Alex Molnar is much less optimistic: “Market values are concerned with buying and selling. They offer no guidance on matters of justice or fairness, and cannot therefore, represent the interests of all children (…) For the markets to produce winners, it requires that there be losers” (p134).

But won’t those “losers” be “inadapted” for the needs of economy ? Maybe, but that is not really a problem. It is actually a misunderstanding of the concept of “knowledge society” to believe that the present economy would only need high skilled workforces. On the contrary, in all advanced countries where statistics are available, we notice a polarised evolution of labour markets. In the US, for instance, when one looks at the 30 occupations with the largest job-creation, one observes that 22% of them require indeed a very high level of education (a bachelor or doctoral degree), but that almost 70% require only a short-term or a middle-term “on-the-job training” : cashiers, cleaners, waiters, truck drivers, security guards, home care aides, etc (Braddock, 1999). The same evolution is noticed in France, where the number of unqualified jobs has grown from 4.3 millions to 5 millions in the last ten years, while it had constantly been reduced during the previous decades (Chardon, 2001).
The reality behind the myth of the “knowledge society” in the industrialised countries is a polarisation of the education levels needed. That makes us understand why the European Commission can afford to propose something that would have shocked everybody twenty or thirty years ago : “Education could be rationalised by providing a shorter period of general education which is better tailored to market needs” (CEC, 1993). As Alex Molnar concludes: “While all societies produce losers, this may be ther first time a society has explicitely sought to do so”.

  • Braddock, D. (1999). Occupational employment projections to 2008. Monthly Labor review, 122(11).
  • CEC. (1993). White Paper on growth, competitiveness, and employment – The challenges and ways forward into the 21st century (chap III, employment). COM(93) 700 final.
  • CEC. (1995). White Paper on Education and Training, Teaching and Learning Towards the Learning Society. COM(95) 590.
  • CEC. (1997). Towards a Europe of knowledge, Communication from the Commission, COM(97)563 final.
  • Chardon, O. (2001). Les transformations de l’emploi non qualifié depuis vingt ans. INSEE Première, n° 796, juillet 2001.
  • Cresson, E. (1998). Putting our knowledge to work: a second chance for young people, Discours prononcé à Harrogate, 5 March 1998. CEC SPEECH/98/45.
  • ERT. (1993). Les marchés du travail en Europe, Les perspectives de création d’emplois dans la deuxième moitié des années 90.
  • Field, J. (1997). The European Union and the Learning Society: Contested Sovereignty in an Age of Globalisation. University of Ulster.
Nico Hirtt est physicien de formation et a fait carrière comme professeur de mathématique et de physique. En 1995, il fut l'un des fondateurs de l'Aped, il a aussi été rédacteur en chef de la revue trimestrielle L'école démocratique. Il est actuellement chargé d'étude pour l'Aped. Il est l'auteur de nombreux articles et ouvrages sur l'école.