Public Tools for Public Schools: Stopping tech giants’ online education takeover
Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, left, New York Governor Cuomo, center, and Mineola Superintendent of Schools Michael Nagler use special glasses while watching a 3D technology demonstration in a Mineola Middle School classroom, Oct. 27, 2014. Cuomo visited the Long Island school to receive the Smart Schools Commission report which calls for NY State to invest $2 billion in its schools in order to enhance teaching and learning through technology. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo is teaming up with Microsoft's Bill Gates to "re-imagine" education. | Alejandra Villa / Newsday via AP

The tech oligarchs are about to get a lot richer, and you and I are going to pay for it. Naomi Klein’s recent Intercept article, “Screen New Deal,” illustrates one particular example of this rapidly developing process, describing how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo could not contain a sly smile during his press conference on Wednesday, May 6 as he contemplated the millions of dollars he was about to funnel to his billionaire friends under cover of responding to a health emergency. The story is always the same. The governor presents this handover of our public commons to the super rich tech giants as an act of generosity on their part. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Michael Bloomberg are coming to the rescue to save us all from the scourge of the present pandemic.

To quote the governor, “We went to Bill Gates, and he is going to work with us on re-imagining the education system.” As humanity confronts the deep crises of ever-growing wealth inequality and the limitation of the biosphere to absorb the injuries we are inflicting upon it, we are asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. Bill Gates is a man who, to paraphrase author Mark Fisher, has a much easier time imagining the end of the world than the end of the capitalist system that has put us in the mess we’re in.

Gates is among the most dangerous people one could imagine to “re-imagine our education system.” We need an education system that helps develop the creative, expansive, caring thinkers required to re-imagine the social and economic relations that are at the root of our problems. Instead, we are asking guidance from a tech giant who cannot imagine anything that does not funnel ever more wealth and power to tech oligarchs such as himself.

Inequity is about to get worse

As a public school teacher, I am in the middle of the swirling conversation about what will happen with our schools when the new school year is due to start next fall. Will classes resume in person? Will we instead have online learning only, or perhaps some combination of the two? It seems pretty clear to me that online learning will play a growing role in whatever plan finally emerges. It is equally clear that this plan will involve a large transfer of wealth from our struggling community to tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon.

Working people here in Arlington, Va., are already suffering the effects of Amazon, which, by announcing its intention to move into our neighborhood, is making life untenable for working folks in our community by driving up the cost of housing. Now, the tech giants are salivating over the prospect of taking a big slice of our diminishing resources to pay them to provide us with online learning tools.

The move to online learning will add to the growing inequity. A study by Professors Spiros Protopsaltis and Sandy Baum, Does Online Education Live Up to Its Promise? A Look at the Evidence and Implication for Federal Policy, comes to a clear conclusion:

“Despite the explosive growth of online education, which has been disproportionately large in the for-profit sector, our review of the evidence shows that this potential has not been realized. Instead, on average, fully online coursework has contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability.”

I experienced this inequity first-hand in the large disparity in participation rates between my more privileged students and those who have long been victims of the inequities built in to our social and economic system.

It doesn’t have to be this way

There is an alternative to the tech oligarchs. A combination of government, democratic worker cooperatives, and new economic relations that favor the needs of people and the biosphere in which we live could combine to build the tech tools we need, while at the same time creating community wealth instead of ever increasing inequality.

Active support from local, state and national governments is needed to change the rules of the game under which our economy operates. The new rules need to favor democracy, equity, and equality.

Our democracy is rapidly eroding. With growing income inequality comes growing power for a tiny minority of super rich, who use this power to modify the rules under which we live to favor even more wealth and power accumulating in their hands. The Citizen’s United U.S. Supreme Court decision is probably the most famous example of this clear power grab by the super rich, but it is only one among many.

This is an existential threat to the very existence of democracy in the United States. The election of Donald Trump makes this danger abundantly clear, but too many leaders in both political parties are deeply in bed with the neoliberal system that is leading us toward disaster. The game is rigged against our common interests by the logic of those at the top. They can’t fix it, since they are incapable of seeing beyond it. They got where they are, after all, by embracing its logic. Only those harmed by the system directly, which includes the vast majority of humanity, are in a position to see beyond it and work to break from its stranglehold.

While the struggle in Arlington around Amazon coming here made it clear that the local government is still subservient to the demands of the oligarchy, the current uprising sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd points to the opportunities possible when people take action. All of our local politicians are making a show of bending over backwards to demonstrate how committed they are to ending inequity.

While there is little doubt many of them will rush to return to business as usual as soon as the protests die down, the current situation does show us how quickly change can take place at the level of local government. Change is more difficult at the state and national government level, but it’s required if the basic rules of the economic game are going to be made to bend toward justice.

Democracy at work is another key part of the solution. Worker cooperatives are committed to cooperative principles and are rooted in their local communities. They have an organic commitment to the well-being of the communities in which they reside. They won’t just pick up and leave after extracting everything they can, moving their operations where the opportunities for exploitation are greater. They are far less likely to poison the environment where they are located, or to disregard the impact of decisions they make on their workers.

In the specific example of online tech for schools, the Agaric Tech Co-op is currently working with a few schools in the Boston area to build a free software solution to online learning. Efforts like this are woefully underfunded, but they point to what could be accomplished if adequate social resources were applied to the problem. Using open tools and open standards is crucial in any effort to move toward the society we need to co-create. The big tech oligarchs are compelled by the design of present social and economic relations to lead us to more inequity, more injustice, more surveillance, and more control—all with the aim of ever increasing profits.

Marxist economics professor Richard Wolf has been writing about these issues for a long while now, and the time is overdue for those of us on the socialist left to engage actively in this conversation with him. We need to co-create an alternative that puts people and the planet before profits. Those of us in both the tech industry and education can start by demanding public tools for public schools!

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.


Jeffrey Elkner
Jeffrey Elkner

Jeffrey Elkner is a high school computer science teacher in Arlington, Virginia, where he has been teaching for 25 years. He is politically active with his NEA local, and in the South Arlington community where he lives. His main areas of interest are the movement for democracy at work through worker-owned cooperatives and the fight against the neoliberal privatization of our common social heritage, including the software we all run that is becoming ever more present in our lives.