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Before I wrote about philanthropy, I wrote about education, the subject of my first book, Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds. I reviewed education books for the Washington Times for 16 years, and one reason why I gave up was that I had heard all the arguments four or five times. There are always people who want more choice in schools and people who think the neighborhood school is fine for everyone. The history of public schools alternates between people who want kids free to discover their inner talents and those who want to make sure children know to read, write, and count. There are those who think tests and a national curriculum (such as Common Core) are the answer and those who think tests are some sort of plot.[1]

So when I read an article in, of all places, Wired, that says that kids ought to be able to use vouchers to go to private schools, that’s not very interesting. But when the article, by Anya Kamenetz, argues that a giant education publisher wants to be the “Big Pharma” of education through a global network of private schools serving poor people, the piece becomes considerably more interesting.

I’m pretty sure that Kamenetz’s article is not available online, but I learned from her website that she is, among other things, the chief education blogger for NPR, author of a book on testing, “and comes from a family of teachers and mystics.”

The company Kamenetz is discussing is Pearson. I used to bloat Pearson’s profits when they owned the Financial Times, but they since have sold that newspaper and the half of The Economist they own to double down on the education market. [2] They’ll happily sell you tests, test preparation courses, and expensive textbooks. The news I got from Kamenetz’s piece is that Pearson would happily go to the Third World and sell everything you need to operate a private school.

The venture Pearson is operating is the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund an educational venture capital firm that invests in Third World education chains. Pearson started the fund with $15 million in 2014 and then added an additional $50 million in 2015. The fund invests in education chains in Third World countries, usually requesting one or two seats on the board in return for their investment.

Sir Michael Barber, who was an education adviser to Tony Blair and worked for the National Union of Teachers in the 1980s, heads the fund. In 2013, anti-Common Core activist Christel Swasey declared Barber the seventh scariest person in education because he advocates global education standards.

Pearson has acquired many enemies in its effort, none louder than the teachers unions. Last year, the heads of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association combined with their counterparts in Great Britain and South Africa as well as the British charity ActionAid to denounce Pearson’s efforts, saying that the company “is essentially ensuring that a large number of the world’s most vulnerable children have no hope of receiving free, quality education.” The United Nations Human Rights Council chimed in with a resolution condemning private education providers.

The Economist, however, notes in a 2015 editorial that “teachers’ unions dislike private schools because they pay less and are harder to organize in.” And if I was worried about Common Core centralizing education, I’d be really worried about the UN trying to be global school regulators.

As Kamenetz notes, “in many parts of the world, low-cost private schools are a big step up from existing public schools, where buildings may be falling down, philanthropic grants are used to line local officials’ pockets and teachers don’t bother to show up.” She notes that the father of recent Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai has started a chain of private schools in Pakistan.

What are these schools like? Kamenetz visited some that Pearson has backed with a $3 million investment in the Philippines. There she found small schools, with no room for a nurse’s station or science labs, but with high-tech computers and plenty of security cameras, so parents know their children are safe. All the classes are in English, something the parents insist on. From her description, the private schools come across as interesting experiments that are too new to tell if they will be successes.

Private schools charge fees, and fees are controversial. In the 1980s the World Bank started a campaign to have fee-charging private schools, but they changed their mind and declared that education should be free to the parents,

Sir Michael Barber argues that vouchers are the best way for the state to subsidize private education. The Economist endorses his position, in the editorial I quoted earlier.

“Governments should therefore be asking not how to discourage private education, but how to boost it,” the magazine argues, suggesting that governments should regulate schools and run exams to give parents information on how their children are doing.

“But governments that cannot run decent public schools may not be able to do these things well; and doing them badly may be worse than not doing them at all. Such governments would do better to hand parents cash and leave schools alone. Where public exams are corrupt, donors and NGOs should consider offering reliable tests that will help parents make well-informed choices and thus drive up standards.

"The growth of private schools is a manifestation of the healthiest of instincts: parents’ desire to do the best for their children. Governments that are too disorganized or corrupt to foster this trend should get out of the way."

[1] Left unheard in this debate are traditionalists like me, who might think that tests show a student’s intelligence (that’s why the SAT used to be called an “aptitude test”) but don’t really show that kids know anything other than the skill to take tests.

[2] Pearson trivia: when they bought the Financial Times in 1957, they were primarily a construction company.

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