Should K-12 Students Be Treated as Commodities?

At UNESCO symposium, education experts discuss what happens when public good meets private gain.

Participants in “Unpacking Education and the Civic Good: The Potential and Role of Education in an Era of Global Markets and Pow
Participants in “Unpacking Education and the Civic Good: The Potential and Role of Education in an Era of Global Markets and Power."
March 09, 2015

Who decides a country’s educational priorities? What is the effect on students when the market is involved in their schools? Is education a public good or a private service? What constitutes the public good?

These questions and others were the topics of discussion Friday at “Unpacking Education and the Civic Good: The Potential and Role of Education in an Era of Global Markets and Power.” The symposium, hosted by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Chair in International Education for Development in the International Education Program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, took place in Duques Hall.

Scheduled to coincide with the annual meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society, the symposium was the first in a series of public conversations to be hosted at GW in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of UNESCO’s founding. Speakers included Amitai Etzioni, university professor and professor of international affairs at GW, and other education activists and experts.

“Today, we are witnessing the privatization of education in a way we never envisaged several years ago,” said presenter Angelo Gavrielatos, project director for Education International.

Privatization manifests itself in a number of ways, including charter schools, voucher programs and outsourcing services once provided by governments to private companies.

This commodification, Mr. Gavrielatos said, undermines the ideal of high quality, universally accessible public education. If students become “economic units,” then any profit-seeking private enterprise system will be stacked against units that cost more—meaning poorer students, in need of more resources.

“When you monetize access to education, you create the learner as a consumer, so access to quality depends on the opportunity to pay,” he pointed out.

Dierdre Williams, senior program officer in the Open Society Education Support Program, spoke passionately about the way activism shapes education for the public good. Community organization and ownership, she said, is the key to any educational enterprise—and necessary for halting the spread of non-state commercial interference in education.

“In order to do work that advances the right to education in a meaningful way, that work must be accountable to the people in whose name it’s being done,” she said. “The students, the parents, the teachers—those are the people who need to drive this work in order for it to be of value.”