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Originally published Tuesday, December 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Private firm gets failing grade

POP quiz: (We hope you've been paying attention because this is a high-stakes test; wrong answers may lead to the dismantling of our schools...

Special to The Times

POP quiz: (We hope you've been paying attention because this is a high-stakes test; wrong answers may lead to the dismantling of our schools.)

What is ailing public education in America?

A) Chronic underfunding of public education;

B) Diversion of public monies away from the public schools in the form of vouchers and charter schools;

C) Blaming teachers for problems in education that stem from underfunding and oversized classes;

D) The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which promotes charter schools and overvalued tests that punish underfunded school districts;

E) All of the above.

If you chose "E," congratulations! You have joined parents, teachers and students across the country who are earning top marks on this public-opinion test about the obstacles to achieving the highest quality public schools.

Conversely, many private firms are failing this basic examination as they jump at opportunities presented by NCLB to bring the profit motive into our schools — including the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, a cheerleader for school-privatization schemes, which has been hired by Seattle Public Schools (with $750,000 in private monies) to evaluate our district's schools.

And so we find the attack on public education has reached Seattle — requiring parents, students, community members and teachers to join the growing chorus of voices (quick, before the music program is cut!) against the selling of our schools down the river.

On Nov. 26, we introduced a resolution to the Seattle Education Association Representative Assembly opposing participation in the McKinsey survey of the Seattle Public Schools — a resolution overwhelmingly ratified by teachers across the district who are ready to join the race (quick, before there's a cut in physical education!) against the privatization of public education and for a fully funded school system.

The teachers' concerns stem from McKinsey's recent consultation for the Minneapolis Public Schools, where the firm tried to coerce the district into cutting "high costs," such as teacher health care, and recommended converting the 25 percent of schools that scored the lowest on standardized tests to privatized charter-school status (a plan under which schools receiving public funds are run by independent charter associations, or for-profit entities, and operate outside the authority of local school boards).

Not only do charter schools take public money and place it in schools outside of public oversight, but a U.S. Department of Education study in 2006 found public schools academically outperformed comparable charter schools.

A study of McKinsey's historical record (quick, before a cut in social studies!) reveals the firm also has done questionable work beyond the public-school sector, and makes us dispute the new superintendent's judgment in bringing the company aboard. In 2002, for instance, BusinessWeek reported that "... Enron, which was paying McKinsey as much as $10 million in annual fees, is just one of an unusual number of embarrassing client failures for the elite consulting firm. Besides Enron, there's Swiss-air, Kmart, and Global Crossing — all McKinsey clients that have filed for bankruptcy in relatively short order."

And in 2005, The Washington Post said McKinsey advised Wal-Mart that "... it should find ways to convince the public that its wages and benefits are better than perceived, spread messages that it cares for employees ... "

This is not the sort of company a progressive city like Seattle should be putting its trust in.

While we stand firmly against Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson's decision to hire McKinsey, teachers are not looking for an after-school scuffle with the "new kid" in town — we spend enough of our time breaking up those fights on the playground. Our motivation stems instead from our unshakable belief in the power of public education, and our desire to be consulted about which firm, if any, is used to shape the future of our schools.

Washington state ranks 42nd in per-pupil spending, leading to oversized classes that detract from teachers' ability to give the more-individualized attention students deserve. The underfunding of schools can't be solved by high-priced McKinsey privatization ploys, but real reform can be achieved by robust public support for developing a new state public-education funding formula. Washington's new Basic Education Funding Act offers real hope for getting that done.

With more than $100,000 a minute being spent on the Iraq war, coupled with tax structures that favor the highest income brackets, we know there's money around for what's considered a priority.

Seattle's teachers make this pledge: We won't let anyone sell our kids' future to the highest bidder.

Jesse Hagopian and Vicky Jambor are Seattle Public Schools teachers. They introduced the Nov. 26 resolution opposing participation in the McKinsey & Co. schools survey in Seattle.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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