Our future is public

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OSSTF/FEESO and PEHRC—the Privatization in Education and Human Rights Consortium

In Ontario, the election of a Ford Progressive Conservative (PC) government in 2018 signalled the beginning of a new phase of attacks and the deployment of the privatization playbook on the healthcare and public education sectors. Many, including organizations like the Transnational Institute, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Education International (EI), the Privatization in Education and Human Rights Consortium (PEHRC), and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO), have noted the ease at which privatization can be implemented by government authorities. This approach is common because it is pushed by influential players who provide plenty of international funding and are enabled by favourable legal conditions; in essence, the fix is in.

Privatization is a global phenomenon. That is why it is so crucial that organizations, unions, and civil society groups, including OSSTF/FEESO, embrace opportunities to learn from, and support, united efforts to combat its destructive effects on public education.

Fortunately, progressive forces can counteract the privatization agenda by offering a vision for alternatives rooted in solidarity and cooperation. The vision is supported by empirical evidence, but also by staunch advocacy for concrete solutions such as decent jobs, as well as improved access to public services for all as fundamental human rights and to strengthen local communities and economies.

OSSTF/FEESO has a long history of solidarity and cooperation against neoliberal ideas and actors fueled by a desire to monetize and corporatize public education provincially, nationally, and internationally. However, the surge in policies, legislation, and regulations that, directly and/or indirectly, promote a privatization agenda has necessitated OSSTF/FEESO to: perform greater analysis of the privatization movement, develop new strategies, form new coalitions, and develop action plans focused on countering the privatization of public education in Ontario.

That is what led to OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Executive and staff participation in the Our Future is Public (#OFiP22) Conference in Santiago, Chile in November, 2022.During the conference Federation representatives joined over 1000 attendees from over 100 countries, representing grassroots movements, advocacy, human rights and development organizations, feminist movements, trade unions, and other civil society organizations. This diverse group of activists met in person and virtually, to discuss the critical role of public services for our future, and to mobilize a global effort to defend them from privatization.

In Chile, OSSTF/FEESO representatives had the privilege of actively engaging in education sector-specific meetings led by the Privatization in Education and Human Rights Consortium (PEHRC). Those meetings led to the creation of the Santiago Declaration.

In addition to helping craft and being a signatory of the declaration, OSSTF/FEESO quickly recognized the strength of the Privatization in Education and Human Rights Consortium (PEHRC). Thankfully, shortly after the #OFiP22 Conference, OSSTF/FEESO applied and was accepted as a new member of PEHRC.

Countering the privatization movement cannot be successful if done in isolation.

As a provincial union, OSSTF/FEESO must continue to develop new relationships with other organizations worldwide that have experience, have utilized evidence-informed strategies, and have a history of effective mobilization tactics. All these are meant to strengthen and defend public education at the provincial, national, and even continental levels. By collaborating with coalition groups like PEHRC,

OSSTF/FEESO will significantly improve its chances to defend public education and public services at home and worldwide.

PEHRC—a relatively new but significant, progressive actor in the defence of public education

Created in 2014, PEHRC is an informal, grassroots network of national, regional, and global organizations and individuals whose mission is to fight for education before profit and to actively mobilize and fight back to reverse the ongoing creep of privatization of education while ensuring there are public services in place capable of realizing economic, social, and cultural rights.

In July 2023, Alice Beste, PEHRC Coordinator, along with other coalition members, discussed the history, organizational structure, and successes of the consortium with Education Forum.

The genesis of PEHRC

As a network, PEHRC began in 2014 as an informal space for organizations to share collective concerns about the number of private actors entering the education space. The group organized a horizontal network of members, endorsed by one another to join. Today in 2023, PEHRC includes nearly 150 members from around 90 organizations across the globe.

5 values drive the Consortium’s actions and efforts:
  1. the defense and promotion of human rights, particularly the right to education, as defined in national and international law;
  2. the promotion of the humanistic nature of education to achieve both personal and collective realization;
  3. the provision of free quality public education for all without discrimination or segregation of any kind;
  4. the protection of labour rights, in particular teachers’ rights, as defined at the international and domestic levels; and
  5. the promotion of social justice and cohesion in and through education.
Flexible, informal, strategic

PEHRC uses a flexible, informal governance model that seeks to be horizontal in its operational and strategic decision making, functioning without a board of directors, thus allowing the organization to respond to the needs of member organizations quickly and with appropriate cultural understandings. The current coordinator of PERHC points out that since its inception several similar consortia models have emerged focusing on public health and other public services, as well as on public education specific to Francophone regions.

The movement works on various levels—locally, nationally, regionally, and glo­bally—thereby reaching various levels of society. It has also spawned a side network of academics and a students’ network to connect civil society organizations with those researching this field. Despite being an informal network, through extensive collaboration, PEHRC has managed to amplify its voice and achieve some concrete outcomes since its inception less than a decade ago. PEHRC has had several significant achievements since its inception, including helping achieve several public divestments in private for-profit enterprises.

Abidjan Principles—a tool for supporting the worldwide right to public education

One external achievement frequently referenced at the November 2022 conference and, arguably the most significant accomplishment initiated by PEHRC, are the Abidjan Principles.

Initiated by PEHRC, but drafted by a group of independent human rights experts (non-PEHRC members), and then adopted by a broader group of experts in Côte d’Ivoire, on February 13, 2019, the Abidjan Principles outline the human rights obligations of States to provide public education and to regulate private involvement in education. They serve as a “reference point for governments, educators and education providers when debating the respective roles and duties of states and private actors in education. They compile and unpack existing legal obligations that States have regarding the delivery of education, and in particular the role and limitations of private actors in the provision of education. They provide more details about what international human rights law means by drawing from other sources of law and existing authoritative interpretations.”

Thanks in large part to PEHRC members, the Abidjan Principles have been cited throughout the world by UN agencies, judges, and governments, and have become a foundational guiding document on the right to education.

Internationally, the Abidjan Principles have equally become a mechanism to ensure that donor funding is compliant with human rights approaches, while the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has acknowledged the Abidjan Principles and no longer funds for-profit education.
Locally, the Abidjan Principles are used as the basis for training of local groups and organizations so they shift their mindset away from the corporate value of education and instead, through the principles, advocate for universally accessible public education as a human right.

For example, in Kenya, the East African Centre for Human Rights (EACHRights) conducts training for policy-makers that now include registration guidelines for basic education institutions. In Spain, PEHRC members supported a local member to make the case for the Abidjan Principles, including translating presentations and creating a short video. In addition, the Civil Association for Equality and Justice and Equal Education used the Principles to bring cases to court challenging private interests that were interfering with access to education for all. The Nepalese Coalition used the guidelines in discussion for the development of local and national education policies. PEHRC continues to monitor where the Principles are being implemented and runs sharing sessions with members to support this process as a means of extending the impact of these Principles.

Some PEHRC members are setting the Abidjan Principles by creating useful international legal tools which are used regularly to defend and advocate for public education worldwide.

PEHRC efforts limit World Bank investment in private education

In terms of a specific example of PEHRC’s successes, in 2022 their actions contributed to the decision by the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Financial Corporation’s (IFC), to freeze investments in the for-profit chain of schools, Bridge International Academies.

Together with other factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, this contributed to academy closures in Kenya and Uganda, caused Bridge International Academies to stagnate globally leading to an ultimately-unsuccessful rebranding campaign to try and revive their pursuit of education privatization.

PEHRC’s continued and cumulative pressure, evidence-based advocacy, joint statements, and collective action were undoubtedly significant factors in affecting this change. Although Bridge International Academies still exists, this case demonstrates how effective united, progressive, movements can protect public education as a fundamental human right.

PEHRC’s achievements have been made possible through cross-country collaboration, the sharing of best practices, and a swarm approach whereby a rapid and strong mobilization targets a specific problem raised by a PEHRC member. PEHRC can collect information at the national level for international advocacy efforts and share and use evidence across countries for national advocacy purposes.

The complexities of privatization in education

On the issue of privatization of education, one PEHRC member noted that “the biggest threat is not necessarily private actors themselves but their enablers who influence the systems being built.” The member went on to point out that it is the enablers, the private companies, philanthropists, and global organizations like the World Bank and World Economic Forum with their—“neoliberal outlook” who exert dangerous influence over educational program design and delivery.

These groups provide and invest in the tools that enable government underinvestment in public services, including education, and lead to pro-privatization legislation and destructive regulations, that undermine public education and fuel the proliferation and deployment of the “privatization playbook” OSSTF/FEESO referred to in 2019.
One PEHRC member from EACHRights Kenya, told OSSTF/FEESO that “privatization is complex and often misunderstood” as an all-or-nothing approach whereby groups like PEHRC are fixated on the elimination of any and all private actors in education.

The member clarified that “in many countries, Kenya included, they [private interests in education] play a role in fixing the failures by the government. However, it’s a result of failure or intentional actions by governments to kill public facilities and prosper private of which they belong to them.”
PEHRC members emphasize the importance of unpacking privatization in a way that demonstrates a commitment to improving access to and the value of public education around the world rather than focusing on the fight against well-resourced and organized private actors.

Instead, as OSSTF/FEESO and other stakeholders have been prioritizing since 2019, the consortium focuses on increasing public accountability and investment in public resources and services.

“Privatization is seeping through organizations and entities. This is why people and groups connected to anti-privatization movements should also work in a network, and work to strengthen transnational and cross-regional movements,” said another PEHRC member from Nepal. There is a need to “share the stories of success and challenges in raising voices against privatization” and focus on the rights-based advocacy to hold governments accountable for their international human rights obligations.”

Many PEHRC members in Chile emphasized how important it is to have collective efforts that reinforce State obligations to provide a well-planned and fully funded public education system as a fundamental human right. At the same time, progressive groups should prioritize actions and advocacy focused on strictly regulating private actors’ roles in any education system.

International coalitions—strength through collaboration, solidarity, and joint advocacy

The Future is Public is not a theme/tagline, it is a movement.

As a key participant in #OFiP22 Conference, PEHRC’s strength lies in its ability to unite members around a common cause, with clear objectives and without competition.

OSSTF/FEESO believes there is tremendous opportunity and strength associated with belonging to such a diverse, global, cross-sectional network of members from over 90 organizations from over 40 countries from 5 continents, inlcuding the allied Francophone subgroup—Le Réseau francophone contre la marchandisation de l’éducation.

PEHRC’s regional and international gatherings—virtual and in-person, special/topical work groups, joint communications, declarations, as well as their practical action kits and resource hubs represent a wealth of information for OSSTF/FEESO.

Joining international coalitions affords the Federation the chance to expand its knowledge about the depth and breadth of privatization efforts from a more holistic and global perspective. And, although OSSTF/FEESO’s membership in the coalition is only in its infancy, the collaboration with PEHRC members should inspire hope as their accomplishments demonstrate the strength of the collective.

As a union of teachers and education workers, OSSTF/FEESO will continue to develop provincial, national, and international networks and coalitions to help understand, strategize, and work collaboratively against the relentless attempt to dismantle public services including education at home and abroad. Thanks to the Privatization in Education and Human Rights Consortium it can do so alongside other advocates, civil society, and human rights organizations from across the globe.

About Dan Earle
Dan Earle (he/him) OSSTF/FEESO Communications/Political Action Department

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