Plutocrats for Education or Education for Plutocracy?

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Source: Jim Miller and Jonathan McLeod, Obrag.org

Last week the California Community College Board of Governors met here in San Diego to address the results of their task force on “student success.” While much ink has been spilled detailing the ongoing efforts to impose corporate style “reforms” on education at the K-12 level (see Diane Ravitch’s fine work , little attention has been paid to the reform efforts in higher education.

There is a kind of creeping academic Taylorism that comes with the movement toward “student learning outcomes” in higher education that can only be understood if one recognizes the long history of American corporate interests seeking to discipline and, in turn, profit from institutions of higher learning, whether it be plutocrats railing against “dangerous” ideas in the academy or business leaders seeking to transform American colleges into narrow job training factories that provide them with skilled workers without the accompanying bother of having to foot the bill for this service in the form of paying their fair share of taxes.

With the release of the California Community College Board of Governors Task Force on Student Success’s report we see yet another push by some “system representatives” and their “external partners” to advocate for a dumbed-down, totally instrumental view of the mission of community colleges that focuses nearly exclusively on making them more efficient machines in cranking out workers for business. The latest stalking horse is “completion,” with all the requisite hand-wringing and intellectually disingenuous bracketing off of the larger socio-economic forces which make it harder for our students to complete their degrees. It’s all about the students’ success, they remind those of us who teach in these schools, as if we had somehow forgotten them on the way to collecting our fat paychecks and gold-plated pensions.

In sum, the report recommends a comprehensive revamp of community colleges noting that, “Taken together, these recommendations would reboot the California Community College system toward the success of its students.” The “re-boot” metaphor says it all about the ideology behind the report: it’s mechanistic with an open bias toward a technocratic business model that favors reductionist measurement systems over the failed human judgment-based system of old. It’s time to stop allowing students to “wander” through the curriculum and track them more efficiently. If only we do a better job of tracking and push our lax, waste-filled system with more accountability measures, all will improve despite a historic budget crisis, the largest gap between the rich and the poor in modern history, and the legacy of systemic racism.

The end game of all this is, of course, funding based on these mechanistic “outcomes,” but the report doesn’t take us there quite yet. As the authors note, they were “split” on whether this was the solution at present:

After considerable review, the Task Force was deeply divided on the topic of outcome-based funding. A vocal minority supported implementing some version of outcome-based funding, while the majority of Task Force members did not support such a proposal at this time due to various concerns, some of which are noted above. For many Task Force members, the lack of evidence demonstrating that outcome-based funding made a positive impact on student success was an important factor in their decision to reject implementing outcome-based funding at this time. While some states have identified positive impacts, others have not and have terminated implementation of their outcomes-based funding models. The Task Force suggested that the Chancellor’s Office continue to monitor implementation of outcomes-based funding in other states and model how various formulas might work in California.

Of course, those of us who work in community colleges know what the replacement of funding based on enrollment with funding based on completion would mean—even deeper cuts and scarcity and a “streamlining” of the community college system that would limit access and eliminate many programs and classes that don’t accommodate the academic Taylorist party line.

Not surprisingly, in addition to the “system representatives” the report received help from the Lumina Foundation and other corporate funded “external partners.” And these sorts of “external partners” are far from being neutral players with a high-minded interest in the public good. They are, in fact, part of a larger network of influential groups interested in privatization, union-busting, pension reform, and more. As Eric Kelderman noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Lumina Foundation for Education has become one of the best-known higher-education philanthropies in the country, spending nearly $50-million annually on projects to improve college completion . . . the foundation is shifting its focus away from giving money to new projects to develop policy ideas. Instead, Lumina will work to enact the changes needed to drastically improve college graduation rates . . . Still, Lumina’s change in focus doesn’t mean that the organization will be spending less money, he said. In fact, the foundation will expand its efforts by convening business leaders, lawmakers, higher-education groups, and faculty members to build consensus on specific policy measures . . . In addition, he said, Lumina will draft model policies for states, including legislation. The group is already working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative-leaning organization, to write and introduce bills in statehouses.

But Kelderman’s characterization of ALEC as “conservative leaning” soft-pedals the significance of this group to the point of completely missing the significance of the connection between Lumina and ALEC. Fortunately, John Nichols, in The Nation, has a much keener eye. In a recent piece on ALEC, Nichols outlines their origins and history:

Founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and other conservative activists frustrated by recent electoral setbacks, ALEC is a critical arm of the right-wing network of policy shops that, with infusions of corporate cash, has evolved to shape American politics. Inspired by Milton Friedman’s call for conservatives to “develop alternatives to existing policies [and] keep them alive and available,” ALEC’s model legislation reflects long-term goals: downsizing government, removing regulations on corporations and making it harder to hold the economically and politically powerful to account. Corporate donors retain veto power over the language, which is developed by the secretive task forces. The task forces cover issues from education to health policy. ALEC’s priorities for the 2011 session included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, pass voter ID laws and more. In states across the country they succeeded, with stacks of new laws signed by GOP governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, both ALEC alums.

So when Lumina joins forces with ALEC it means more than just a move toward influencing legislative policy; it means they are part of a larger network of monied interests pushing our country further toward plutocracy and corporate domination. That is why there is nothing about creating educated citizens for our democracy in the CCC Board of Governors Task Force report because that is simply not part of their agenda. Corporate interests collaborating to impose the business model on public higher education want efficient workers trained to follow top-down orders, not critical thinkers who might question their agenda or buck up against the slow creep toward “outcomes based funding” that would serve as a Trojan horse for privatization.

It is in keeping with this agenda that the Draft Recommendations of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force would, “Encourage students to declare a program of study upon admission and require declaration by the end [of] their second term” (Recommendation 2.5). To those who seek to cut waste out of government expenditures on public education by eliminating the temptation students have to explore intellectual horizons and to learn about diverse vocational fields, this requirement compelling community college students to compartmentalize themselves in narrowly defined majors, soon after admission to college, seems entirely justifiable, notwithstanding that students in four-year universities have until their junior year to declare majors. In an effort to discourage frivolous intellectual experimentation, the report asserts, “Declaring a program of study is much more specific than declaring an educational goal. Doing so sets incoming students on an educational pathway and builds momentum for their success.” To that end, “A student who is unable to declare a program of study by the end of their second term should be provided counseling and other interventions to assist them in education planning and exploring career and program options.” And, for the rebels, “If these interventions fail to meet their desired end, students should lose enrollment priority after their third term.”

How to deal with students whose curiosity might get the better of them, even after committing, on cue, to a program of study? Recommendation 3.1, on enrollment priorities, reveals one hammer: “Continuing students should lose enrollment priority if they do not follow their original or a revised education plan.” Woe to the career tech student who might venture to take a course in geography, philosophy, or fine arts! What is the utility of radiation technology or mathematics students enrolling in political science to learn about legislative processes or the impact of free-trade agreements on the national economy and labor force demand? Recommendation 4.1 certainly would eliminate that option for working-class students stretching to meet the costs of community colleges: “Under this recommendation, students having the course in their education plan would pay the credit enrollment fee, while students not having the course in their education plan would pay a fee covering the full cost of instruction” or market value. No allowance for the pursuit of interdisciplinary knowledge in this model. Straight and narrow utilitarianism only. The prospects for reducing public education expenses in running course sections in dangerous majors, such as history and sociology, or literature seem almost endless.

As Jim Miller wrote in “This is What Plutocracy Looks Like,” ALEC’s agenda is part of a larger, nationwide trend toward deepening inequality and corporate rule. What is most disturbing about the role of ALEC and elite interests in the current war against public education is that it has the potential to undermine a century’s worth of democratization in American education. If people don’t start asking questions about whose interests are being served by the business model they are seeking to impose on our educational system, from top to bottom, we may wake up and find out that only some of us still have access to the kind of education that gives students not just skills to get a job, but the ability to think critically about the world they live in and their education helps shape. One need not be sacrificed in the service of the other.

To review ALEC’s activities on a state by state level, see where their money comes from and which politicians are part of the organization, see : www.alecexposed.org. In particular go to the privatizing education page and scroll down to the find the “treating universities like manufacturers” link.

Jonathan McLeod teaches History at Mesa College.

Read at Obrag.org

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