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Education International

The economic crisis and education: key issues

published 31 May 2012 updated 4 June 2012
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The current global economic crisis has its roots in the periodic crises that plague a capitalist, market system. This particular crisis is a product of recent history which promoted an extreme, laissez-faire version of capitalism, generally called neoliberalism or market fundamentalism. The elections of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl signaled a political turning point. All of a sudden, starting in the 1980s, the legitimacy of government was called into question, government budgets were cut, business was deregulated, privatization was lauded, and unions were criticized. This so-called Washington Consensus was enforced in many countries through structural adjustment programs. The resulting global increases in poverty and inequality forced neoliberals to back off a little from these draconian austerity policies in the 1990s.However, the current crisis has offered neoliberalism the opportunity to return once more to draconian austerity policies in the name of a false fiscal responsibility. Neoliberals argue that raising taxes is bad for everyone, and particularly problematic is raising taxes on the rich who supposedly create jobs. Therefore, cutting government to the bone is the only answer to looming deficits from years of supposed out-of-control spending. This is a global discourse, most obvious to me in the U.S. in the platform of the Republican Party.For the past 30 years, neoliberalism has been having a devastating effect on public education, and the current crisis has exacerbated the situation. Neoliberalism has led to expanding enrollments while severely constraining spending, especially in developing countries, leading to larger classes, less-trained teachers, deteriorating facilities, and less access to textbooks and other learning materials. This, combined with the very difficult out-of-school circumstances children face, leads to high rates of repetition and dropouts and little learning for those who manage to stay in school.Unwilling to put the resources needed in schools, in their efforts to control government, neoliberals have focused instead on simplistic and ideological approaches to governance and accountability. For governance, the answer is the privatization of education, meaning encourage private schools, vouchers, charters, business models, and user fees. There is no credible evidence that privatization improves education, and there is considerable evidence it increases inequality.Privatization is based on ideology, not evidence. Some years ago, I attended a meeting at the World Bank soliciting comments on a health-sector-oriented World Development Report. The Bank presenter pointed out how, in many poor countries, poor people chose to be treated at private health clinics for a fee instead of going to free public clinics. This was touted as evidence of the success and value of privatization. To the contrary, I pointed out that this is simply evidence of the success of 30 years of neoliberal ideology in which public clinics had been systematically decimated, ending up without doctors, nurses, or medicine. The same has happened in education. Privatization is supposed to help meet the deteriorating education resulting from years of attack on the public sector, but all it does is replace an attempt to develop good public policy with the vagaries of charity or the single-mindedness of profit-making. It boggles the imagination how we have let neoliberal ideology run so rampant that we accept "low cost private schools for the poor" as good educational policy. What kind of world is it where we consider it legitimate to charge the poorest people in the world for basic education? Not to mention that charging fees runs directly counter to many international agreements on the right to education.Regarding accountability, neoliberals have given us an extremely narrow version focused solely on achievement test scores of students. This has been an unmitigated disaster for numerous reasons. It distorts education away from the many measureable and unmeasureable purposes of education that have nothing to do with test scores. It ignores the awful state of educational inputs to the point where neoliberals recommend using completely unqualified teachers. It yields illogical and unscientific approaches to teacher evaluation, such as value-added. And, in practice, this approach to accountability, after two decades of implementation, has not yielded any educational improvements.International agreements like Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are, unfortunately, mostly a joke under neoliberalism. Sure, they are positive as an expression of values and intent and within them is a discourse of educational quality and rights, but, in practice, they serve more to quell unrest than to expand opportunity. The richer world has been targeting universal primary education since the 1960s, but the goal is continually postponed. We are about to postpone EFA goals once again. This is not a serious effort.What can we do about all this is uncertain and debated. Even looking just at the current crisis, no one is sure what to do. Capitalism is inherently unstable. Critics and advocates admit to recurring boom and bust cycles. But the current crisis is a severe one. Paul Krugman, Noble-prize winning economist, in his new book about what he calls our "Depression," argues the solution is straightforward -- more taxes, more government stimulus.Perhaps the most important problem facing humanity is how to employ the entire planet in safe, rewarding, and ecologically sane employment. While capitalism has increased production, it is the most illogical, inefficient, wasteful system for employment. The market system leaves 2-3 billion people without any or without adequate employment. Poverty and inequality is the direct result. Although education is for so much more than jobs, education will never be adequate until everyone on the planet has meaningful employment. Jobs for All is necessary for Education for All. Government must be involved in the massive direct and indirect creation of jobs if we are to thrive. Taxes and redistribution are an essential part of this equation. Stimulus can come in many forms. Whose spending do we want to direct the economy?Neoliberal policies have led to an education crisis. Teachers have been greatly affected: salaries have been cut, teaching conditions have worsened, and the job has been demeaned and denigrated. Neoliberal ideology is so strong that a recent World Bank book on education reform put a picture of a teacher sleeping in the classroom on its cover. Neoliberals generally are very critical of workers and seem to hate unions, especially in education.In the short run, we need to challenge the attack on government, on government workers, on teachers in particular. Government needs to recover its role of watchdog on the market, of curbing the natural and inevitable excesses of capitalism. In the long run, we need a new economic system, a new approach to both public and private sectors. Neoliberalism is based on the unrestrained greed of the unconstrained market. Even if we are able to constrain the market more, a system based on self-interest naturally leads to greed. We need systems based on a more participatory democracy in government as well as in the private sector. We need an educational system that supports such a transformation.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.