The ‘Screen New Deal’? Disaster Capitalism Eyes the Education World in the Midst of the COVID-19 Crisis

by on May 18, 2020 · 0 comments

in Election, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

Very hard times are here for our schools and colleges.  As expected, the California budget is a train wreck and social services and education will be losing billions of dollars for the coming year at least.  To make matters worse, the Republicans in Congress want to starve the states in the midst of the building COVID-19 depression, but that’s just fine with the lords of the tech world.  They’ll be turning lemons into extremely profitable lemonade in short order if they have their way.

In fact, NYU Business Professor Scott Galloway predicts in a New York Magazine interview that “the coming disruption” in higher education will enable a handful of elite cyborg universities to monopolize education as the top tier universities prosper and grow by offering vastly expanded online options under their brand, while “second tier colleges” slowly perish. In Galloway’s estimation, the top 50 schools will do quite well, but “Nos. 50 to 1,000 go out of business or become a shadow of themselves. I don’t want to say that education is going to be reinvented, but it’s going to be dramatically different.”

The result, Galloway argues, will be that while the unwashed masses stare at screens, only the elite will have a traditional college experience: “I worry they’ll still exist, but they’ll be just filled with rich people. A four-year liberal-arts-campus experience is going to become something that’s largely relegated and positioned to the children of rich people.”

When it comes to K-12 education, there are similar red flags at present.  As Katie Ferrari notes in “Disaster Capitalism is Coming for Public Education” in Jacobin :

Education privatizers are already planning to capitalize on the vacuum these budget cuts will create. Nathaniel Davis, the CEO of K12 Inc., one of the largest for-profit online schools in the country, spoke to investors last month about the “upside of the pandemic on our business.” The company has joined the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, which promotes free-market solutions including expanded virtual learning.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently told Glenn Beck that the pandemic was an opportunity to “look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available.” DeVos has already used over $300 million in discretionary federal grants to launch a new virtual education program that will most likely favor charter schools.

Ferrari notes that here in California, as Newsom is slashing education budgets, he is also partnering with charter friendly billionaires, privatizers, and other corporate interests to help “save” California.  Apparently, it’s more appealing to partner with billionaires than it is to tax them to help fill the budget gap during a national emergency.  The spirit of the New Deal seems not to have moved him.

Naomi Klein, in The Intercept , observes that what we are seeing develop is “something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine”:

Call it the “Screen New Deal.” Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.

This dystopian “no-touch future” may help keep us from getting sick in the short term, but it will also push us into a high-tech gig economy full of convenience for the privileged but underemployment, exploitation, and surveillance for the rest of us.  If Big Tech wins the day, as it appears to have done in Cuomo’s New York, educational policy and investment strategy will be driven by the billionaire boys club rather than educators, parents, or students.  Thus, the hard choices between investing in humans or technology will be easy ones in an era of “manufactured austerity.”

As Klein notes, we are soon to be at a key moment of decision that many of us will not be aware of until it’s too late:

Public schools, universities, hospitals, and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G, and driverless vehicles — their Screen New Deal — there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs.

On the contrary: The price tag for all the shiny gadgets will be mass teacher layoffs and hospital closures.

So, if you care about the future of American education, now is the time to start paying close attention to the choices our leaders are making.  The future of learning and our country’s children are at stake.

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