Applying a Critical Theory Framework to Public-Private Partnerships

Our society is undergoing a profound change which is revolutionizing the way we live, learn, earn and consume. We are exiting the Information Age and into an age where knowledge is highly valued and considered a primary economic output. The question of our time is whether our education systems are adequately prepared to bring our young into a radically different working world in which they can produce knowledge and content in a highly competitive economic marketplace.

In this paper, I use a critical theory framework to examine conditions that create social injustice in public-private partnerships. Of specific interest to this paper are partnerships between private corporations and schools in the provision of Information Communication Technology (ICT) for use in the classroom by students. I begin by making the case that ICT use in schools is a necessary prerequisite of a knowledge society (Hargreaves, 2003) and, furthermore, that public-private partnerships (PPPs) are a compelling method in which ICT can be implemented into the classroom to ensure digital equity. Then, using a critical theory framework I examine two conditions of social injustice in PPPs: neoliberal forces that threaten the democratic public education system and power dynamics that oppress particular partners.

Table of contents:

A necessary prerequisite
Applying a critical theory framework to explore PPPs
Neoliberalism and democracy
Consider power

A Necessary Prerequisite

Many educational theorists from Dewey (1902) to Hargreaves (2003) have situated the public education system within the broader social-political-economic context. A common thread through the various theories of education is that an education system is meant to prepare young people for the challenges and opportunities of an economically productive adult life.

Hargreaves (2003), a contemporary education theorist, has written much on the burgeoning knowledge society that is defining our contemporary world–a world in which economic growth and prosperity are increasingly influenced by the creation of knowledge and the resulting economic output of services, ideas and communications.

Within this new society the education system is tasked with creating learning opportunities and environments for young people to develop multiple literacies to contribute to the creation of new knowledge (Kellner, 2003). These new literacies in media, computer, and information will, “empower students to participate in the expanding high-tech culture and network society” (Kellner, 2003, p.60). Furthermore, these multiple forms of literacies respond well to postmodern (Bourdieu, 1983) concepts of knowledge and learning that are defining young people as a ‘digital native’ (Crook, 2011). It is becoming increasingly important that classrooms have multiple and diverse sets of ICTs to meet the needs of the postmodern student who will interpret and produce knowledge through multiple literacies.

In light of this burgeoning new society, the influence of the private sector is increasingly being felt within the public education system (Jones & Bird, 2000). In contrast to the traditional classroom that utilized low-tech tools such as the pencil and paper, the postmodern classroom will increasingly rely on high-tech tools such as computers, tablets, mobile phones, and the Internet (Aviram, 2001), all of which fall under the umbrella of ICTs. The design, production and distribution of most ICTs exists within a highly competitive and profit-driven corporate industry. Therefore, in the provision of ICTs for the classroom, public-private partnerships are increasingly being formed to ensure a contemporary, digital classroom for the postmodern digital native.

Many studies have underscored the importance of distributing ICTs at a large-scale in order to ensure digital equity (Chen, 2006; Jones & Bird, 2000; Judge & Puckett, 2004). This large-scale implementation of ICTs in schools rests in part on the ability of private enterprises to supply a large amount of technology to many schools. Considering the importance of digital equity and responding to multiple literacies, private enterprises stand to profit immensely in the provision of proprietary products within a capitalist society.

Despite the high stakes for both partners, there are relatively few studies on how schools acquire ICTs for use in the classroom. This gap in research alludes to the misunderstood and unregulated nature of public-private partnerships which many studies have documented (Eyre, 2002; Jones & Bird, 2000; White, 2007; Miraftab, 2004).

In sum, recognizing the unique needs of a postmodern digital native and their ability to function in an emerging knowledge society, public-private partnerships have an increasing role in the provision of ICTs for use in the classroom. This paper uses the implementation of ICTs in the classroom as a backdrop to critique the role of private enterprises within the public-private partnership. The need for a critique is largely due to the recognition that private enterprises have increased roles and obligations in digital equity, while at the same time, stand to generate immense profit by selling proprietary products thus fulfilling a self-interest goal. This seeming contradiction between obligation and self-interest may create the conditions of social injustice which will be explored in the succeeding sections of this paper.

Applying a critical theory framework to explore PPPs

A critical theory framework will be used to deepen our understanding of PPPs, its role in the provision of ICTs, and the conditions that create social injustice. Building on the theories of Hegel and Marx, Kellner (2003) developed a critical theory framework that allows for, “more inclusive positions and to connect education directly to democratization and the changing of social relations in the direction of equality and social justice” (p. 13). This framework takes into consideration the changing nature of education in light of radically different social-political-economic conditions which characterize the emerging knowledge society. Furthermore, according to Kellner, this critical theory of education can assist in conceptualizing specific features of existing capitalist societies and the manner in which power dynamics create conditions of domination and subordination, as well as, openings for progressive social change in an inclusive education system.

Neoliberalism and Democracy

The traditional private sector is run by private individuals with minimal control by the state and for the purpose of generating profit. In contrast, the public sector is state controlled for the purpose of delivering social goods and services for the well-being of citizens. Within an increasingly globalized and complex world these two sectors are blending, whether intentional or not, in order to construct a functional social, political, and economic system. However, ideological chasms still remain which create the conditions of social injustice. The main ideological chasm is between neoliberalism and democracy.

Within our globalized and complex world, a social-political-economic condition on the rise is neoliberalism and its increasing influence on the public education system (Davidson-Harden & Majhanovich, 2004; Miraftab, 2004; Kellner, 2003; Eyre 2002; White, 2007; Whitty & Power, 2000). Davidson-Harden (2004) defines ‘neoliberalism’ as, “a set of social and economic policy imperatives which have stressed the increasing employment and shift toward the use of market mechanisms as modes of governance in capitalist societies” (p. 269). Furthermore, in states where neoliberalism has taken hold, state intervention has shifted from providing social programs to, “fostering the growth and viability of business interests in various sectors” (p. 269).

As I have outlined above, Hargreaves’ knowledge society is primarily concerned with the type of education that is needed in order to produce employable adults. These adults must be able to produce new knowledge through multiple literacies in the workplace to stay competitive. As such, aspects of neoliberalism are already embedded in a prominent ideologically conception of an appropriate contemporary education system that is based on the burgeoning knowledge society.

Davidson-Harden (2004) acknowledges another aspect of neoliberalism: the state’s reduced role in the governance and provision of education systems. A number of studies in Canada, England, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand have documented the manner in which the state reduced its direct intervention whether through budgetary cutbacks or decreased role in governance (Davidson-Harden, 2004; Jones & Bird, 2000; Whitty & Power, 2000). In each instance, when state intervention was absent or minimized, private enterprises assumed the governance and provision of education, thus fulfilling the neoliberal agenda.

Considering that neoliberalism has already taken hold in many public education systems in Western countries, Kellner’s critical theory framework is apt to explore specific features of existing capitalist societies and its effects on the public education system. Much of the literature on PPPs in education have defined these features as commercialization, commodification, privatization and marketization. Each of these features consider education to be a tradable commodity. This stands in opposition to education as a social right where every individual has a right to an education regardless of income and purchasing ability. This social right characterizes the democratic public education system.

Davidson-Harden (2004) notes the growing ideological tensions that arise between the perspectives of education as a tradable commodity and a social right. Using a critical theory framework, we see that tensions arise because of ideological differences between public education systems and private enterprises. The private enterprise functions within a capitalist society where profit can be generated by viewing education as a tradable commodity. Whereas the public education system is a democratic institution that is meant to provide equal access to education regardless of where the funding comes from. These tensions in ideology is what creates the conditions of social injustice where each partner has differing interests in the provision of education.

In a broad study of neoliberalist reforms in two areas of England, Ken Jones and Kate Bird (2000) described in detail the patterns of governance and the relationship between public and private partners in the establishment of Education Action Zones (EAZ) that were meant to raise the standards in disadvantaged areas. The EAZs were meant to unite public and private governance structures to create a system that was more flexible, decentralized, innovative, and capable of dynamic responses to social exclusion.

The results of Jones and Bird’s analysis indicated that the partners involved in the new form of governance were not attentive enough to the inequalities of power and resources, and the subsequent conflict of interests. The private partners had radically different ideologies in the provision of education and subsequently developed policies that applied market and business mechanisms to the governance of the the EAZs. Tensions arose because the business-oriented policies stood in contrast to the traditional model of public governance that characterized the education system in the past.

Considering power

In the literature on PPPs, the most prominent condition that creates social injustices are the power imbalances that occur between partners with conflicting interests. Various concepts of power have been articulated by theorists and applied to partnerships in education. The dynamics of power can be conceptualized along a spectrum ranging from Anthony Giddens’ (as cited in Stewart, 2001) concept of power as the transformative capacity of an individual to Stephen Lukes’ (as cited in Burbules, 1986) concept of power which involves inevitable conflicts of interest that result in instances of oppression.

For the purpose of this paper, Lukes’ concept of power is used to examine instances of PPPs where conflicts of interest arise because of power imbalances between private enterprises and public education institutions. In these instances of power imbalances, it is typical to observe the subsequent oppression of at least one partner which erodes the possibility of a successful partnership with mutual benefits.

Robert White (2007) conducted a study of corporate involvement in two Canadian school districts and illustrated the powerful influences of private corporations on a public education system. The purpose of the corporate involvement was to implement computers in various schools in response to public pressures to modernize the classrooms. Similar to this paper, White found a lack of critical perspectives on corporate involvement and designed a study to examine the intentions, processes, and attitudes and perceptions of a PPP between an ICT corporation and two school districts.

The results of White’s analysis found that all partners lacked clarity on the process of developing partnerships, especially within the public sector partners. In situations such as this, power relations become ambiguous and create instances of social injustice as one partner strives to meet their interests at the conflict of another’s interests. Furthermore, the absence of policies and laws perpetuates instances of power imbalances as there are no protections for the oppressed partners.

In both cases of the EAZs and the implementation of computers in Canadian schools, power dynamics were ambiguous to one or more of the partners involved in the PPP. This leaves the opportunity for one partner to take advantage of another partner and oppress their interests in order to fulfill their self-interest, thus creating instances of social injustice.

Additionally, both cases recognized the mounting pressures to modernize the classroom in light of a rapidly changing social climate. Amidst the rapid adoption of new technologies and modes of governance with private enterprises as partners, conditions are created for social injustice because there is no critical awareness of the processes of partnerships. A critical theory framework helps to conceptualize the power dynamics occurring so that different policies and partnership arrangements can be developed.

In consideration of the knowledge society, careful attention must be given to conditions of social injustice in order to ensure a more balanced, collaborative and mutually beneficial partnership between private enterprises and public education systems. A central tenet to each and every partnership should be the consideration of the postmodern digital native and their access to a high-quality, contemporary educational experience that will lead them into a fulfilling, yet unknown, society.


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