Last Thursday, I was one of about two dozen or so people who crowded into a room at the Halifax Public Library to hear a presentation by none other than Paul W. Bennett.
For those who have followed this particular relationship over the past number of years, that may come as a bit of a surprise. I don’t know if, prior to this past week, I would have crossed the street to hear Bennett speak, let alone have made a special trip into town. However, these are certainly interesting times.
Bennett was presenting a talk on his latest paper released through the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) on school governance, but the real reason I was there was not really the man himself. A group called Educators for Social Justice had, in fact, alerted me of a protest of sorts. The group had gathered to attend the presentation under the fairly clever catch phrase “AIMS has no business in education” and had set out to ask some pointed questions of Bennett and of AIMS.
For those who may not know, the organization has a long history of pushing for a more privatized model of public education. This has included praising school choice, criticizing public school for being too expensive, and promoting charter schools. I recently had a bit of fun exploring some of the possible connections between AIMS and the current government’s rather neo-liberal agenda, so was quite content to join some of my fellow educators in expressing my objections.
By a fortunate bit of happenstance, the session was opened by the current CEO of AIMS, Marco Navarro-Génie who, after chastising the audience for being of the opinion that “AIMS has no ‘business’ in education”, was content to sit back and let Bennett run the show. However, when question time came around, I patiently raised my hand and asked one of him directly. Essentially, I asked if AIMS was looking to privatize public education.
Although unwilling to answer at the time, he did, to his credit, catch up to me after the session was ended, and while I watched out of the corner of my eye (not without some small modicum of satisfaction, I must admit) as some colleagues grilled Bennett, I had a lengthy conversation with his sponsor.
The root of my concerns centered around the overall vision of AIMS. According to their Chairman John Risley (yes, that John Risley), the purpose of AIMS is “…to hold government accountable for its size and activities; to be better at what it needs to be good at and to step aside from those activities that are best left to the private sector and market forces”. I asked Mr. Navarro-Génie if one of those “activities” was public education.
With a frankness that I must admit caught me a bit off guard, he said “Yes”.
He explained that, for him at least, market forces in this context meant having more competition between schools. He spoke of how it made little sense to him that all the schools in Nova Scotia operate in the same way, and that, instead, schools should be free to approach the curriculum in whatever way they saw fit. Once this was achieved, parents could then compare schools, and pick the one that they felt was the best for their child. He drew a comparison between education and child rearing. Since parents get to raise their child at home how they see fit, they should have the opportunity to select how their children get publicly educated.
So five minutes into the conversation, I found myself warming up to the man. He was articulate and well-informed, but what struck me most was his insistence that he was not in fact, anti-public education. He explained that he, himself, was the product of the public education system, and only wanted it to improve.
As I was trying to wrap my head around the conundrum of seeing AIMS as a champion of public education, I asked about standardization. It sounded as if he was proposing a rather “wild-west” approach, where each school was simply allowed to run as it wanted. He said that each school would still need to achieve an agreed upon standard. The manner through which they got to that standard, however, would be more reflective of the local culture and more responsive to the needs of parents.
At this point, he almost had me.
I pointed out that the United States has been working on a similar model for a number of years now, focusing heavily on school rankings and standardized test scores, much to the detriment of their system. Navarro-Génie was quick to counter that test scores, in his mind, were only part of the equation.
If that was the case, I pressed, then how had he come to believe our current model was failing?
Outside of a personal anecdote based on his University teaching experience, (of which the majority, if not all, took place outside of this province) he could give me only one.
Our standardized test scores.
I suddenly realized that I was listening to the CEO of AIMS, trying to reassure me that his view of education included success criteria other than standardized testing, actually using these self-same tests as the only basis he could provide for replacing our current system with a market driven model.
And with that, our honeymoon was over.
There were a few other choice moments in our conversation as well, like when he mentioned that he could not wrap his head around all teachers being paid the same regardless of “performance” (read: test scores) and in the end, I suppose that I should not have been completely surprised.
Back in 2014, AIMS writer Rodney Clifton explained quite clearly how this competitive education system would work. He wrote: “The most effective way… to increase competition is to tie the funding of schools directly to the demand by using vouchers so that parents can send their children to public or independent (private) schools of their choice…students would be tested and the results would be published so that excellent schools attracted more students while low-performing schools withered and closed.”
I must admit, I am not sure how effective this model would be in, say, Sheet Harbour, but that particular paper is of note for one other reason. It was actually a partnership document between AIMS and an organization called The Frontier Center for Public Policy, where Navarro-Génie was previously the director of research. Clifton and Navarro-Génie have, as recently last year, collaborated on a paper for Frontier.
So it seems, despite his protestations, the CEO of AIMS may not be the public education champion he would have had me believe.
Navarro-Génie was articulate and intelligent, and polite enough to speak with me, to be sure. But at the end of the conversation, I came to the conclusion that my assessment of AIMS has not been far off the mark. They are determined to create a model of schools competing against each other for students, where a teachers’ worth is measured by test scores, and where public money is used to fund private schools.
Oh, and in case there is any doubt about the connection between this ideology and the current state of educational affairs in our province, I would call your attention to an AIMS report of 2007 , also co-authored by Clifton which had as one of its key recommendations, the removal of principals from the NSTU.
The wolves of privatization are not just at the door, folks.
They have been welcomed in, and are curled up, rather contentedly, right beside the fire.
(For those of you who may not be aware, I am currently in the running to become the next NSTU president. This piece was originally published on my campaign site frost18.com, on March 20, 2018)