The Conscious Capitalist and Education Policy: Southwire's STEM for Life Program.

Author:Neely, Adrian N.


Over the past three decades, education reform policies have altered the expectations of and funding for schools (Hursh, 2007; Suggs, 2018). These policies center on market logics and the convergence between corporations and public schools (Apple, 2005; Brosio, 1994; Buras, 2015; Hursh, 2005; Lipman, 2015; Saltman, 2012). The discourse that shapes the educational terrain, largely based on economic rationales, is supported by the socio-political agendas of both progressives and conservatives (Brown, 2015; Saltman, 2012). In other words, most people in the U.S. believe that the primary purpose of school is to prepare students for future jobs (Xiao, Newman, and Chu, 2016). This is the discourse and ideology of neoliberalism--the idea that all aspects of society, including education, should be transformed, by state action if necessary, into commodities that are bought and sold on the market (Apple, 2005; Hursh, 2005; Mirowski and Plehwe, 2015). The ideological appeal of neoliberalism is the characterization of individuals as economic actors competing in the market for resources and that schools should be oriented toward preparing students for economic competition locally, nationally, and internationally (Saltman, 2014). This view positions knowledge as a consumable commodity that teachers deliver, effectively or ineffectively, to their consumers, the students. Moreover, corporate school reform--the idea of restructuring educational agendas to fit under neoliberal ideology--has won over the public discourse to the extent that educational attainment equates to an individual's ability to participate as a consumer and a worker in a corporate economy (Saltman, 2014). In short, the appeal of neoliberal policies has created an atmosphere of corporations exercising control over curriculum, instruction, and knowledge expectations in public schools. Corporate meta-narratives, furthered by both Democrats and Republicans, create a mechanism for providing human capital to maintain the United States position as an international economic power, specifically in school-to-work programs linked to science and technology. These corporate-consumer rationales increasingly replace civic and intellectual virtues of public schooling. As Saltman (2012) notes, "The crisis of neoliberal U.S. public schooling involves a profound abdication of commitment toward investing in public schools as a site for fostering democratic cultural and social renewal" (p. 5). In this study, we critically examine how federal education reform policies promote private-public partnerships. We show, via a case study, how public school student labor is exploited for private profit and justified by corporate rationales that are also embraced by schools.

Critical Policy Analysis as a Tool for Critique

As a case study, we clarify how the metanarratives about the goals and purposes of schools benefit private corporations at the expense of public school students. We draw on Critical Policy Analysis (CPA) as a tool to examine and critique how dominant federal education policy discourse influences public schools in the form of public-private partnerships. The CPA framework allows us to examine complex systems and environments in which policy is constructed and implemented (Diem et al., 2014; Fairclough, 2013;). CPA is normative critique. It goes beyond identifying and describing what a policy is or means. CPA also evaluates policy and "assesses the extent to which they match up to values that are taken (contentiously) to be fundamental for just or decent societies" (Fairclough, 2013, p. 178). We begin, then, by providing an overview of the sociopolitical context of policy-making in Georgia that advances an economistic agenda for schools in the form of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. Next, we note the policy actors influencing the construction of policy. Finally, we present a specific case and examine how dominant federal education policies of private-public partnerships positions STEM as a commodity that uses public schools to financially benefit a private corporation.


A Nation at Risk (National Commission, 1983) blamed schools for the economic recession at the time and the inability of U.S. students to compete on an international level (Hursh, 2007). The report was arguably an extension of the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act--the first instance of federal money supplied to schools to further vocational ends. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 further heightened federal interest in curriculum by mandating, among other things (like foreign languages), an increased focus on science. The lineage of federal policy continued through A Nation at Risk to initiatives like Goals 2000 and America 2000, merging Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in neoliberal rationales for schooling (e.g., workforce readiness and economic productivity). No Child Left Behind built on these initiatives and, while gesturing toward inclusivity and "high standards," had as a central tenet workforce preparedness to compete in a global economy (Boyles, 1998). Importantly, the federal government leveraged this rhetoric to create policies, enacted by the states, that invoked care and concern through a progressive frame (Apple, 2005; Hursh, 2007). As we explore in more detail later, the Race to the Top grant program is an example of using an arguably progressive lens of care and concern to nonetheless advance neoliberal thinking and the meta-narrative of capitalist economics over critical inquiry for schools.

Another report that examined the status of education from a global economic context was The National Academy of Sciences' report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. This report extended economistic discourse of competitive, comparative rankings by repeating the trope that the U.S. essentially lags behind other nations in the push toward technology and globalization. The Academy urged government intervention in education to maintain a stable U.S. economy (National Academies Press, 2007, p.3). More specifically, the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century (a committee within the Academy) was assembled at the request of U.S. policy makers. The committee identified criteria that multinational companies use when determining a location for their facilities and the jobs associated with those facilities. Notably, the list includes the cost of a workforce, availability of capital, and the taxation environment (National Academies Press, 2007, p.3). Public money amounting to, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars are offered to "incentivize" corporations to relocate to specific regions on the promise of economic prosperity. On this logic, maintaining and expanding economic growth in the U.S. is the central focus of existence. As recent research shows, however, school financing suffers from tax breaks given to relocated companies (Parilla & Liu, 2018). School funding is sacrificed in favor of tax giveaways to private companies at the same time as they are reinforced as incubators of a national workforce training students in the skills and knowledge necessary for meeting the demands of a global marketplace, particularly in the areas of STEM. (National Academies Press, 2007). In addition, the Committee included recommendations for the U.S. to implement tax incentives for US-based innovation and the encouragement of private investment in innovation (National Academies Press, 2007, pp.11-12).

The Academy, therefore, advocated education reform policies that have increased the transfer of public education funds to private organizations with a specific vow to prepare STEM-literate students. Our case-study illustrates how economics-driven education reform, through the commodification of STEM, created policies that transferred public education funding to a private corporation. Specifically, we demonstrate how Georgia responded to the need for "work-force skills" in STEM and provided Southwire Company, LLC, access to public education money to serve their private company's purposes. As a case study, this paper highlights how the popular metanarratives about the goals and purposes of schools benefit private corporations at the expense of public school students. A focus on the context of the Georgia legislature and the development of a tax-friendly corporate environment is discussed in the next section. This context provides the factual basis for our critique and offers insight into how policy is enacted in the state.

Historical and Political Context: Policy Actors in Georgia

Our examination of the political context of Georgia helps explain how the creation of a business-friendly environment facilitated private-public partnerships to address the need for a STEM-ready workforce (Apple, 2005). One outcome of such education policies in Georgia was the insertion of a business model directly into the core function of STEM education in Georgia public schools. Georgia's General Assembly evaluated, developed, and passed laws that specifically created and promoted a tax-friendly environment for corporations and start-up companies in the science and technology industry. Connecting this environment to public schools is a primary concern of our research.

During the 2011 Georgia General Assembly, Senate Resolution 68 commissioned a committee of state leaders, including members of the state legislature, state government workers, and leaders in the science and technology industries (State of Georgia, 2012). (1) The committee, named the Georgia Science and Technology Strategic Plan Joint Study Commission (hereafter, "Commission"), was tasked with developing a strategic plan that would facilitate a relationship between the state and science and technology-related business and industry. The stated purpose of the Commission was to assess Georgia's strengths and weaknesses and develop recommendations for government policy changes and...

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