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Education Privatizers Have Gone Global. So Must We If We Want to Stop Them.

Christian Addai-Poku and Michael Galant

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during the Politico 'Lessons from Leaders' series at the Bank of America offices September 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In Feb­ru­ary 2018, West Vir­ginia teach­ers launched a strike that reawak­ened a move­ment. Tens of thou­sands of teach­ers from around the coun­try have tak­en part in what is now the largest strike wave in decades, demand­ing bet­ter pub­lic edu­ca­tion in the face of years of austerity.

On Feb­ru­ary 11, 2019, as the U.S. wave con­tin­ued, teach­ers union lead­ers from across Africa gath­ered in Addis Aba­ba for a meet­ing of African Union heads of state with their own demands: to halt the continent’s moves toward pri­va­tized edu­ca­tion and pro­vide inclu­sive and equi­table qual­i­ty free pub­lic edu­ca­tion for all.”

Though an ocean apart, West Vir­ginia and Addis Aba­ba are two fronts in the same war. The fight for pub­lic edu­ca­tion reminds us that work­ing-class strug­gles around the world are linked — and that inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty is the key to victory.

In many U.S. dis­tricts, school fund­ing still hasn’t recov­ered from cuts made dur­ing the Great Reces­sion. Teach­ers are under­paid, class­rooms are over­crowd­ed and text­books are out of date. Rather than increase fund­ing, con­ser­v­a­tive pub­lic fig­ures like Bet­sy DeVos, Trump’s Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, have turned to pri­vate and char­ter schools that deep­en inequal­i­ty and fur­ther drain resources from the pub­lic system.

At the same time, for­eign-owned, for-prof­it schools like Bridge Inter­na­tion­al Acad­e­mies and GEMS Edu­ca­tion have swept Africa. There is no doubt that the sta­tus quo of pub­lic edu­ca­tion in much of the region is dire: Edu­ca­tion sys­tems are large­ly under­fund­ed, illit­er­a­cy remains high and a large gen­der gaps pre­vail. But an unac­count­able, prof­it-dri­ven sys­tem fund­ed large­ly by Amer­i­can and Euro­pean investors is not the solu­tion. Pri­vate schools crowd out the pub­lic sec­tor, base edu­ca­tion on abil­i­ty to pay, and exac­er­bate eco­nom­ic and social stratification. 

Investors like Bridge’s dig­i­tal Tay­lorist cur­ric­u­la, which are iden­ti­cal across all schools, planned down to the minute, and require spe­cial­ized tablets that track the fin­ger move­ments of their teach­ers. How­ev­er, there’s lit­tle evi­dence that such lessons ade­quate­ly serve poor and work­ing-class stu­dents. School pri­va­ti­za­tion in Africa is part of the same neolib­er­al project that inspired teach­ers to walk out in West Virginia.

Mil­ton Fried­man — free mar­ket ide­o­logue, advi­sor to both Ronald Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatch­er, and men­tor of the Chica­go Boys” — is con­sid­ered the found­ing father of the school choice move­ment in the Unit­ed States. It was his brand of mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism that was then foist­ed on the Glob­al South in the 1980s, lead­ing to Africa’s lost decade” of growth and the continent’s cur­rent state of edu­ca­tion. Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund aus­ter­i­ty demands inevitably forced pub­lic fund­ing cuts while the World Bank pushed school fees and pri­va­ti­za­tion. The World Bank, along with inter­na­tion­al aid agen­cies like the Unit­ed Kingdom’s Depart­ment for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment, con­tin­ue to pro­mote for-prof­it mod­els even today.

In some cas­es, pri­va­ti­za­tion efforts in the Unit­ed States and Africa are led by the very same bil­lion­aires and cor­po­ra­tions. Phil­an­thro­cap­i­tal­ist Bill Gates has giv­en rough­ly $10 mil­lion to a fund attempt­ing to push Oak­land to the New Orleans” mod­el: full pri­va­ti­za­tion. It is no coin­ci­dence that Gates is also one of the top fun­ders behind Bridge. Pear­son, the con­tro­ver­sial edu­ca­tion giant of Com­mon Core fame, holds stakes in both Bridge and the com­pa­ra­ble Omega Schools in Ghana.

These are more than the­o­ret­i­cal ties. These are proof that we are in the same fight.

In 2016, Ugan­dan courts ruled that Bridge was not ade­quate­ly licensed to oper­ate and ordered the clo­sure of its 63 schools in the coun­try. Short­ly there­after, 10 Bridge schools were shut­tered in Kenya, thanks in part to sus­tained pres­sure from the Kenya Nation­al Union of Teach­ers. Ghana­ian teach­ers are now push­ing for the same.

Since the begin­ning of the strike wave in the Unit­ed States, teach­ers have won vast­ly improved con­tracts, includ­ing pay rais­es and increased school spend­ing, in West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, Ari­zona, Col­orado, Los Ange­les and Oakland.

Each of these vic­to­ries is a blow against the glob­al edu­ca­tion pri­va­ti­za­tion move­ment. Each is a mate­r­i­al loss for fun­ders like Gates and Pear­son, and a polit­i­cal loss for DeVos and her sym­pa­thiz­ers at the World Bank. Each builds the pow­er of glob­al union fed­er­a­tions like Edu­ca­tion Inter­na­tion­al. And each fuels mobi­liza­tion for fur­ther victories.

A court rul­ing against Bridge Inter­na­tion­al in Kenya is a win against school choice” in the Unit­ed States. A teach­ers’ strike in West Vir­ginia is a suc­cess for pub­lic edu­ca­tion in Africa.

The U.S. labor move­ment must not retreat into eco­nom­ic nation­al­ism, win­ning mate­r­i­al gains for Amer­i­can work­ers while aban­don­ing those beyond its bor­ders. The work­ers of the world are a part of the same fight. To win the war, a revi­tal­ized Left must tran­scend bor­ders — build­ing glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty not out of altru­ism, but from an under­stand­ing that the strug­gle of the work­ing class is glob­al.

Chris­t­ian Addai-Poku is Pres­i­dent of Edu­ca­tion Inter­na­tion­al (EI) Africa Region and for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Grad­u­ate Teach­ers (NAGRAT) of Ghana. Michael Galant is a recent grad­u­ate of the Mas­ter of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy pro­gram at the Har­vard Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment. He is inter­est­ed in build­ing glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty for left alter­na­tives of glob­al­iza­tion and devel­op­ment,” and can be found on Twit­ter at @michael_galant
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