I ran across a couple of things that have coalesced for me. One was Chris Thinnes’ wonderful blog post, The Abuse and Internalization of the ‘Free Market’ Model in Education. In this post, Thinnes cogently dismantles the theoretical underpinnings of the neoliberal project that values the free market as the arbiter of all, and its effect on education. The other was the revelation in Michigan of the Skunk Works Project, another real life attempt to bring the free market to the publicly held common good. Let me start with Thinnes’ post as it provides some context for understanding the Skunk Works Project.
Thinnes quotes Pauline Lipman, who describes neoliberalism as, …
“…an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.”
The neoliberal project promotes individual self-interest over the common good, the market as the arbiter of values, and overall offers a hyper-privatized view of society. Thinnes’ post goes on to show how much of this way of thinking has become the air we breathe, even within the field of education. He writes,
“The particularly vexing dilemma of this current ‘social imaginary’ of the ‘free market model’ — especially insofar as educational practice and policy are concerned — is that it is a deeply anti-social, so much so as to devalue not just the theoretical benefits but the practical urgency of prioritizing creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thought, and cultural competency in our education policy. …We are preoccupied as a nation with products, rather than processes; with competition, rather than collaboration; with dominance, rather than participation; with achievement, rather than imagination; and with results, rather than with passion. The same has become true in our schools.
This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.“
And this attempt to purposefully, ostensibly improve our schools is where the Skunk Works Project fits in.
The Skunk Works Project is a secret group of top aides to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder who have been meeting to sculpt a voucher like system of “value school.” That is, a school that would operate on the “efficiency” of $5000 per student. As quoted in the Detroit News, the group hopes to apply ”concepts familiar in the private sector — getting higher value for less money.”
After reading Thinnes’ blog post, it is easy to see the neoliberal agenda at work here. The application of private sector principles to the publicly held common good- and until recently in secret outside of the public eye- is a trademark this agenda, regardless of how these principles have worked in any sector.
Since the news story broke, Snyder has asked Michigan Schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan to head up the group, thereby lending the appearance of acceptance by the education community. However, this is a very superficial appearance. As far as I can determine, there are no actual K-12 educators involved. (I’m sorry, but I don’t call a state superintendent who has never taught an actual educator. I don’t begrudge him this, and I would be willing to accept it if there were more evidence that he supported public education. In my mind, his agreement to head this group is a huge conflict of interest for the head of education in the state.) The only educator who had been involved was Paul Galbenski. Paul is a person who I know as someone with great integrity, who said, “It really kind of looked like for me that they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system. That’s when I started questioning my involvement.” Galbenski is no longer working with the group.
So, it looks like we educators and parents who care for the common good and public education have a lot of work ahead of us.
Please do your homework. Start with Progress Michigan’s blog post that gives more background to this situation here.
Next, recognize the Skunk Works Project has officially changed their name to the catchy, 21st Century Learning styled title of The Education Technology Work Group. They have a Facebook page here that will let you post your opinion. There is also a survey to take that will allow you voice your thoughts (However, though I’m not fully up on Facebook etiquette, I don’t suggest you ‘like’ their page.)
Also, please be sure to read Chris Thinnes’ full blog post here.
To the degree the Skunk Works Project succeeds is the degree to which the common good is at stake for all of us.