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Michaud: Are corporations taking over our kids' education?

We shouldn't allow a bias to defeat a

We shouldn't allow a bias to defeat a program that promises students a brighter future. Credit: Tribune Content Agency / Michael Osbun

There's a disturbing bias that comes up in debates about the Common Core education standards: that business has no business in the classroom.

This bias takes on different forms. Some say the purpose of education is to produce engaged, informed citizens, as opposed to a "flock of hardworking animals" for profit-making corporations, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville. Others worry that test-preparation companies, such as Pearson and Harcourt, will suck profits out of public schools already strapped for funds.

A third concern, most prominently articulated by education historian and activist Diane Ravitch, is the outsized influence of the wealthy -- Bill & Melinda Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton Family -- through their foundations. Is their support for "reform" and "choice" really an anti-union agenda? An effort to privatize public schools? At the least, Ravitch argues, the extreme influence of one man, Microsoft mogul Gates, is undemocratic.

As a parent who hopes my children graduate from high school "college- or career-ready," I find this anti-business bias hard to understand. Naturally I want my kids equipped with the skills they will need to earn a living. That means establishing a connection between what they're learning in school and what employers need them to know.

But I wonder what was the original purpose of public education: to raise citizens or workers or both?

In his "Notes on Virginia," Thomas Jefferson showed how democratic countries have to ensure the literacy and education of their citizens in order to grow and prosper. But even in the earliest of times, there was emphasis on training students for a profession. Harvard, in 1636, opened its doors to prepare doctors, lawyers and ministers for Colonial leadership. In 1862 and 1892, the Morrill Acts established public land-grant colleges to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military science, and to provide business- and industry-oriented instruction.

Practicality mattered then, and it matters now.

Fear of test-preparation companies is understandable, but it's overblown. The same companies that write the tests also sell study guides to schools and students -- British publisher Pearson, which owns the Financial Times newspaper, is most vilified for this cartel-like practice.

But, what about the College Board, writer and grader of the SATs, Advanced Placement and many other tests? Just because it's a "non-profit" doesn't mean it's not making money. With "readiness tools" and expensive SAT-prep courses, this organization has a monopolistic air as well.

The complaints about Pearson also assume that textbook companies like McGraw-Hill, Macmillan and Harcourt Brace haven't been making money selling to schools for eons. They have. But educational publishers don't dictate curriculum or what's taught in the classroom, nor should they.

As for the foundations, Ravitch has a point when she advocates for more transparency about their donations to government, think tanks and other research. However, we also must accept a balance of contributors to education -- of ideas as well as money -- if we are to limit the burden on property taxes.

The anti-business bias against the Common Core seems to be resentment of its top-down nature -- that it was a plan hatched in boardrooms instead of classrooms. That can excite powerful emotions in days of widening income inequality. But we shouldn't allow a bias to defeat a program that promises students a brighter future.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.