Fraser Institute gets defensive

Photograph of Premier Gordon Campbell from Wikipedia Creative Commons

Last November, the keynote speaker at the sold out annual gala for the Fraser Institute in Vancouver was Premier Gordon Campbell. Campbell's presence at the expensive event was remarked upon by those with the perception that efforts are being made to privatize the public education system in BC.

“If policy remains as it is, we’ll see the erosion of public education," Paul Shaker, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University,  said recently.  "We’ve already seen it in Vancouver.  Eighteen percent of school age children now attend private schools.”

“Part of the international movement of neoliberalism is to treat schools as simply another service that can be commodified and deserve no special place in society. This movement has been coming along since Thatcher and Reagan and reached a fevered pitch over the last ten years.” If you want to analyze why things have deteriorated in Vancouver, Shaker said, “it probably has to do with this global and political movement.”

The name of the Fraser Institute came up often in interviews with parents, teachers, administrators and academics, in discussions about the dispute between the province's education ministry and the city's school board over a shortfall in funds, a shortfall which school trustees said last week might very well result in the closure of five elementary schools and six annexes.  Those interviewed seemed to believe that the Liberal government was carrying out a larger agenda of privatization, an agenda perceived to be supported by the policy papers and school report cards issued by the Fraser Institute.

“The Fraser Institute’s school report-card program is merely the opening salvo in a campaign to strip public education of its funding and direct the resources to the private and nonprofit sectors," Donald Gutstein, professor in the School of Communication at SFU, recently wrote in The Georgia Straight. Gutstein pointed out that Campbell had been a speaker at the Fraser Institute dinner and so the Observer sought to confirm this.

When questioned about whether Campbell had appeared at the event, Dean Pelkey, Direction of Communications for the Fraser Institute, quickly became suspicious of what a reporter was getting at.

"An event last year, we presented Peter Brown the chairman of Canadacord Capital -although I think they've changed their name since then, you have to check their website."

"When was this?" the reporter asked.

"It was in fall of 2009. It was an event to honour Peter Brown’s contributions to BC’s economy. Gordon Campbell was not the keynote speaker but he spoke at the event," he said.

"Was it a successful event?"

"I would say it was a successful event in that we sold it out," Pelkey said.

"How much money did you raise?"

"We don't disclose that kind of information."

"How many people were there?"

"We don’t disclose that information. What is this story about?" 

"Well we’re just trying to confirm facts. A source told us that Gordon Campbell was the keynote speaker at your last event."

"But what’s the story about?" 

"It’s about education, the Vancouver School Board budget."

"But how is that related to Gordon Campbell and the Fraser Institute?"

"You know, we’re just trying to investigate all aspects of the story, including the political dimensions."

"But I don’t understand why an event honouring one of BC’s most successful businessmen is related to the Vancouver School Board Budget.  I don’t understand why you’re asking me this question."

"We’re just trying to confirm facts."

"Are you going to write a story saying that the Fraser Institute has influence over the Vancouver School Board Budget?" Pelkey asked.

"I don’t know what the story is going to be yet, the story is developing. As I said, what happened was, in our research on the VSB budget, someone mentioned to us that Gordon Campbell was the key note speaker at your last event. All we’re trying to do is to get our facts straight."

"I don’t see how that’s related."

"Is there a reason why you’re being defensive?" 

"No, I’m not being defensive. What is this really about?"

"Did you want to comment on the VSB budget?"

"No, I don’t want to do that," said Pelkey.

Neoliberalism, American-style

Privatization, as an agenda, isn't owned by the Fraser Institute.  It has its origins in Milton Friedman's University of Chicago brand of economic theory. Naomi Klein wrote about it broadly in her book, "The Shock Doctrine." And neoliberalism is a market driven approach to economic and social policy based on neoclassical theories of economics that maximise the role of the private business sector in determining the political and economic priorities of the state.

David Hursh, a Professor at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, is a specialist in neoliberalism and the American school system.  “The belief is that markets are self-regulating so whatever comes out of markets is based on people making choices and that this is inevitably better than having the government interfere with people," he said.

The move towards charter schools, which are publically-funded but privately-run, may appear to give parents more choices but will end up hurting kids, he said.

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