Business not healthy for schools

Published 10:35 am Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Recent stories in Ohio papers have focused on how business leaders have been asserting even more influence on the education of our children — pushing more testing, technology and a “Common Core” curriculum, “suggested” for all schools in the nation.

As citizens and taxpayers, we need to ask if this is a good thing. What is the purpose of education anyway? Are business leaders really qualified to decide what’s best for our kids?

Back in the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge said that “The business of America is business.”

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We passed laws making it illegal for children to work in mines and factories, requiring they attend school instead. We set up an assembly line education, taking kids from kindergarten to grade 12, with broad state requirements, but managed locally by elected school boards, including local business people.

Teachers were required to have an extensive education, with specialties in the areas or age groups they taught, studies in how people learn, and practice teaching. Schools took all the kids from various backgrounds and produced the strongest nation in the world.

It was far from perfect, especially in its segregation by neighborhoods and by policy, giving black children and poor white children unequal opportunity and often leaving out American Indians altogether—though in the 1950s we began to tackle the problem of unequal opportunity, with a long way still to go.

Meanwhile, school employees, following the lead of workers in industry, realizing their pay and benefits were not what they should be, began to unionize and sometimes go on strike.

They also got involved in the political process, endorsing a candidate for President of the United States — Democrat Jimmy Carter — who won and created a Federal Department of Education.

Unfortunately, powerful interests in the business community did not agree with unionization in education or elsewhere, didn’t like government control of education, and thought schools should do more to prepare young people to conform to the practical world of making a living — and making them a profit.

Ronald Reagan emerged as the leader of a business-sponsored Republican reaction. Announcing that “government is the problem,” cutting taxes, and producing a report titled “A Nation at Risk,” which blamed schools for the then declining economy, his administration started us on the current road of painting teachers and public schools as “failed.”

Then began the excessive testing, privatization for purposes of “reform” by well-intentioned but misguided billionaires such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, or exploitation for profit by White Hat industries and religious leaders such as Fethullah Gulen.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich took up the fight, declaring his intent to “break the back of organized labor in the schools,” and to eliminate the income tax — an effective and fair way to fund education and other public services.

Sadly, some Democrats jumped on the kick-the-teachers bandwagon, complaining about how hard it is to fire them, supporting laws that tie teacher pay to student test scores, and giving public tax dollars to for-profit schools.

This has left most teachers, along with others who support public schools, in a quandary politically, straining relations between Democratic leaders and much of its base.

As we all think about our kids and grandkids, as well as everybody’s children and the good of society, we need to ask ourselves if the purpose of education is just business and jobs, or if there’s more to life.

Children are not widgets, schools are not factories, and just because someone knows how to make a profit doesn’t mean he knows anything else. Nor are business people necessarily smarter than everybody else.

Libertarian, multibillionaire David Koch said, “I got my money the usual way. I inherited it.”

Good for him. But children need to learn how to make their way in a world that is much more than just a job. Public schools are not perfect, but they’ve brought this nation a long way. Businesses could help themselves and the economy by doing more on-the-job training with new hires, as they do in Germany, for instance.

We won’t improve our schools by making them puppets or playthings of business moguls who reap huge profits from their testing industries and their privatization schemes.


Jack Burgess is a retired teacher of American and global studies and a native of southern Ohio. He can be reached at