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Issue #1433      28 October 2009

Editorial

Gillard prepares ground for privatisation of education

There’s an old saying about judging people by the company they keep. If there is any truth in it then the public education system in Australia is seriously threatened. Earlier this month federal Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard was one of three international speakers at the right-wing Foundation for Excellence in Education in Washington at the invitation of Jeb Bush. Bush founded the FEE and is its chair. He is the former Republican governor of Florida who played a key role along with his state judges in the appointment of his big brother George W Bush as US President in 2000. The other two speakers joining Ms Gillard were British Professor of Education James Tooley and Swedish education entrepreneur Peje Emilsson.

Emilsson founded and chairs a corporation which has a chain of 22 private, for-profit schools in Sweden. The company has 500 employees, 6,500 students and an annual turnover of 45 million euro (A$73 million). He played an important role in the introduction of a voucher system as a means of publicly funding and facilitating the proliferation of private schools in Sweden, where two thirds of private schools are now run for profit.

Tooley’s vision for education is large private companies with brand names as familiar as Tesco and Safeway, running chains of private schools. “Big profits mean better schools”, says Tooley in an article published in the British journal New Statesman (31-01-2000).

Tooley, whose background includes experience with the International Finance Corporation, the private finance arm of the World Bank, talks in hard, cold terms of quality control, standardised testing, privatisation and public-private partnerships. His main focus is on private investment opportunities in education in developing and east European countries. In Britain, he has been involved in policy development for the privatisation of local education authorities and “failing schools” and the development of national curriculum and assessment for measuring school performance.

He set up the EG West Centre for Market Solutions in Education at Newcastle University. “The Centre’s mission is to develop knowledge and understanding of how choice, competition and entrepreneurship operate in education around the world, and which regulatory frameworks best allow educational enterprise to flourish.”

“We’re in an education arms race with the rest of the world,” Bush told the Conference in Washington. “All of the traditions of education, starting with the education-school system of credentialing schoolteachers, are under challenge here today.... The future of a prosperous nation depends on a competitive education system.”

Ms Gillard also met with Michelle Rhee who runs Washington’s schools. She is credited with closing 21 schools (15 percent of the total), sacking 270 teachers, 36 principals and 100 other staff involved in the running of education in her first 18 months. “She’s obviously bringing a single-minded, relentless focus on making a difference for those kids,” said an admiring Gillard.

Gillard signed a memorandum of understanding with US Education Secretary Arne Duncan while in Washington. She expressed interest in US ideas, saying the two countries have similar challenges and common views on how they should be tackled. Duncan, like Gillard, is determined to publish school league tables, base teacher pay on performance (as measured by results in national testing), clean up “failing schools”, and promote the private sector.

So what did Gillard said in her contribution to Bush’s conference? The Foundation for Excellence in Education responded to The Guardian’s request for a copy of her speech by referring us to her website. Nothing has been placed on the website and a request to her media representative has fallen on deaf ears. It appears that she is not ready yet to tell Australia what she has in mind. We can only assume that with similar rhetoric to her friends in the US, the fact they saw her presence as important, that she could be taking Australia down a similar path.

Labor’s education revolution is looking more and more like an outright privatisation of under-funded state schools competing on an education market. Vouchers are on the way in to give parents “choice” and feed the profits of private schools. Teachers and principals will be assessed, paid, hired and fired and public schools funded and closed on the basis of a narrow system of measurement of skills and facts drilled into students. The wealthy schools will still provide an education in the true meaning of the term, the poorer remaining state and the growing market of low-cost for-profit schools will provide narrow training and drilling to look good on the national league tables.

If Gillard’s friends are any indication, then parents, teachers and their unions and students have a big fight ahead to save public education in Australia. They need the full support of all democratic and progressive minded Australians and the trade union movement.  

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