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Teacher Unions, Teachers & Resistance to the Privatisation of Government Schooling

published 27 February 2019 updated 27 February 2019

By Bob Lingard, Emeritus Professor, The University of Queensland and Professorial Fellow, Australian Catholic University [1]

There has been opposition of various kinds to the privatisation and commercialisation of government schooling in nations around the globe, including from parents, community groups, activists, teacher unions and teachers.

Teacher union opposition has been important and necessary, given one important motivation of private sector actors who have moved in to schooling has been to weaken teacher unions as the collective representative voice of teachers.

Along with that privatisation strategy has been a concerted attack on government schooling by these same private sector actors, including large edu-businesses, philanthro-capitalists with interests in schooling, edtech companies, hedge-funds with interests in schooling for tax benefit purposes and the like.

David Hursh in his 2016 book, The End of Public Schools, demonstrates quite clearly that the corporate reformers in the USA have an explicit political strategy of first critiquing government schooling as failing and then seeking to weaken the collective voice of teachers expressed through their unions, representing them unfairly as barriers to reform and improvement.

In this context, teachers and the teacher unions in many nations have provided significant and often very effective opposition to the multiple aspects of the privatisation and commercialisation of schooling.

Research, organise, mobilise 

For example, teachers constitute more than half the membership of the opt-out movement in response to standardised high stakes testing in various states of the USA. The introduction of test-based modes of school and teacher accountability has also opened spaces for edu-businesses in relation to test construction and data analysis, teacher professional development, teacher resources, edtech innovations and the creation of data infrastructures and data management systems to name a few.

Teacher and teacher union opposition to the InBloom attempt to create interoperability between data systems in number of US states, including New York, and between data held by different government departments, was successful, despite considerable financial backing from the Gates Foundation. Teacher and parent opposition centred on two matters: legitimate concerns about data privacy and the potential that such data might be on-sold to third parties for profit.

In research I conducted with colleagues (Anna Hogan, Sam Sellar and Greg Thompson) in Australia for the New South Wales Teachers Federation, teachers expressed deep concern about student data being in private hands and related ethical and privacy issues.

Teachers in that survey also expressed a good deal of concern about schools being run like businesses with business language colonising that of educators, especially that of school leaders, with business also perceived to have too big a say in meta-policy settings for schooling, with the collective teacher voice often excluded.

Additionally, they were concerned about teacher activities being outsourced (for example, some schools outsourcing curriculum areas such as health and physical education and music) and about lack of support from their departments of education.

Teachers in the survey data held to a broad social democratic world view and were worried about the impact of the privatisation of government schooling on the social justice, democratic and multicultural purposes of government schooling, and on the common good.

I commend the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation for commissioning our research, which they have used strategically to great effect.

I would also make the larger point that education research of all kinds is an important political resource for the teacher unions in their opposition to the broader neo-liberal and privatisation agendas and their negative impacts on the work of schools and teachers. This includes research done and commissioned by the teacher unions, as well as that conducted in university education faculties.

Here I agree strongly with Toni Verger and his colleagues in their 2016 book, The Privatization of Education, that this context of privatisation, commercialisation and neo-liberal and corporate agendas in schooling demands a research and knowledge response as one element in a strategy of opposition to these anti-democratic and anti-social justice agendas.

In this time of post-truth politics, such a research base, and support for it by the teacher unions, is more important than ever, especially in our contemporary era when Think Tank and Consultancy Firm research appears to have more policy influence than quality academic research.

Strike action has been another significant resource for teachers in pursuing their collective professional, political and industrial interests. I want to turn next to a successful recent example in Los Angeles, which worked together teachers’ professional and industrial concerns to great effect.

After a week of strike action, the teacher union in Los Angeles ended their strike on 23 January this year after winning gains of various kinds. Los Angeles has a Democrat Mayor, Eric Garcetti, while the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Austin Beutner, has been pro the privatisation/Charter School agenda and supported by wealthy businessman and philanthropist, Eli Broad, a very prominent supporter of Charter Schools.

Important in this strike was teachers’ and their union’s opposition to this privatisation agenda that argued public schools were failing and that school choice through the creation of more Charter Schools (publicly funded, privately managed schools) would enhance opportunity and learning for those able to attend these schools.

While the teachers won a 6 percent pay rise, a deal on class sizes, and on the employment of nurses and librarians in schools, they also had victories in relation to standardized testing and the growth of Charter Schools in Los Angeles. This agreement will require more funding and come up against the current chronic underfunding for schooling in California, an effect of property tax laws.

Central in this teacher union led strike was voiced opposition to the privatisation agenda and an argument that the proliferation of Charter Schools was seriously hurting government schools in various ways, including in funding and enrolment levels and philosophically challenged the democratic ideal of all being educated together in the local, neighbor government school.

An agreement important in the settlement of the strike was that there would be an investigation of the need for a cap to be placed on the number of Charter Schools in the city and also a review of the function and number of standardised tests.  The Union thus campaigned on a broad range of issues, cutting across the industrial, professional and political.

Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, who attended the strike and picketed with teachers, was reported in the New York Times (23/01/19) as saying the strike settlement was indicative of a paradigm shift.

She noted, ‘The elite types who use charters as a force for competition will see this as a blow. We’re now seeing a mainstream shift toward neighborhood public schools with the goal being: let’s make them work for all kids" (p. A11).

Importantly as well, all the current Democrat Presidential hopefuls supported the teachers’ strike action.  This is important, given Democrat support for the privatisation and Charter school movement, by the Obama Presidency and by Democratic governments in other states, New York, for example.

What is also interesting in respect of the week long teachers’ strike in Los Angeles is that the public very strongly supported this action.

The co-articulation of teachers’ industrial interests with the broader political agenda in support of quality government schooling for all was effective in garnering public supporting in the winning of gains in relation to the privatisation agenda. Here we saw the effective coming together of teachers’ interests, students’ interests with the public interest and an argument about the common good.

Of course, there is still much to do, given the large numbers of Charter Schools in Los Angeles already and the Trump administration’s proclivity and passion for the privatisation agenda and the ongoing reductive impact of standardised testing, but we also must celebrate victories, even if they are partial and ongoing resistance and struggle are still necessary.

[1] Dr Bob Lingard is Emeritus Professor at The University of Queensland and a Professorial Fellow in the Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, at The Australian Catholic University, Brisbane. Email: [email protected]

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