It’s so easy to stumble upon legalized corruption in America

[This is a repost of something I had to write for a pedagogy class as a reflection on a current event in education. I was shocked. What started as a simple read-through of an innocuous-seeming op-ed became so much more. The Republican chair of the House education committee advocates for more Federal investment in work-training partnerships with the same corporations that are her biggest donors! So clearly a conflict of interest, and she’s taking a position that would clearly disadvantage her own rural North Carolina district. Enjoy!]

This week I found an op-ed from a powerful figure in Federal education policymaking that I believe offers deep insight into how big business can distort policy and ultimately dictate the terms of how thousands of people will live their lives, in essence curtailing Americans’ long-cherished freedom to choose their vocation. 

In “The Dangers of the College Degree-for-All Mentality” (National Review), Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC-R), Chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce urges readers to give up the “harmful myth” that all students should go to college. Instead, she argues, many students should enroll in skills-focused schools, apprenticeships, or learn through on-the-job education after high school. Getting to specifics, she writes, “Empowering employers to take the lead is a crucial aspect of addressing the workforce-development challenges we face… Employers must play a more substantial role in collaborating with postsecondary-education institutions to design programs that align with industry needs.”

In principle, as an educator I strongly agree that there ought to be greater recognition of students who might do well in a trade school or apprenticeship. Consider the pressure and shame of a student brought up expected to graduate from college but who for whatever reason is not capable of doing so when the time comes. Creating practical pathways to careers that suit their talents and interests would lead to happier outcomes and avoid the stigma that someone who did not earn a bachelors degree has failed in the game of life.  

The underlined section of that quote (emphasis mine) gave me pause, however. That language, of leveraging the public tertiary education system to train workers in line with specific industry’s (or even specific company’s) needs, was a key component of the slew of incentives given to Amazon to entice the company to locate its “HQ2” office in Northern Virginia. Notably, Virginia Tech is building an “Innovation Campus.” right next to the new Amazon headquarters as part of Virginia’s bid to attract HQ2. 

Rep. Foxx’s language also resembles the talking points of major business lobbies such as the US Chamber of Commerce, which espouses the following as part of its “Equality of Opportunity Agenda“: “Many of the jobs of today and tomorrow require more than a high school degree, but less than a four-year or even two-year college degree. Yet, our nation lacks a way of recognizing, accrediting, and helping individuals access credentialing and other “earn & learn” programs. Working with the private sector, federal and state officials should establish a process to recognize alternative career pathways and provide financial assistance to help individuals access these programs.”

What, you may ask, is the through line from Rep. Foxx, the Amazon HQ2 incentive package, and the US Chamber? The answer is, as is so often the case in politics, money. 

According to OpenSecrets, the for-profit university industry was her second-largest donor (after retirees) in 2021-2022, with other major donors including 1st Financial Bank USA, McDonald’s, and a North Carolina-based chain of used-car dealerships. She also received $10,000 from Amazon in 2019-2020. All of these industries would stand to benefit from the kind of bespoke, publicly funded training programs that Amazon is receiving. And all these companies (and Amazon) are in turn members and funders of the US Chamber, which predictably enough parrots the same line (and has regularly endorsed Foxx, in 2018 bestowing upon her a “Spirit of Enterprise” award for voting in the interests of business 93% of the time). 

What sort of conclusion could one draw? Is there a conflict of interest here? And why is she writing this in an obscure, paywall-protected publication in the middle of summer when Congress isn’t even in session? An uncharitable view of the situation could conclude that Rep. Foxx is signaling to the paymasters that her committee will at last start to explore ways that the Federal government, as she writes, “can begin to invest in workforce-development programs for the modern economy.” 

Why is this relevant to educators? 

What is the purpose of school? Is it to instill in students a love of learning that unlocks their potential for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Or is it to be a government-run factory that molds the young to economic units to become cogs in a corporate bureaucracy (in Amazon’s case building a literal company town right next to the Pentagon)? 

The tension between these two goals will always exist to some extent. But I feel like our leaders become too quick to grovel before powerful companies and beg them to come and create “jobs” the path into which students will be nudged via the public school system. Taken to its extreme, we trade away a piece of their humanity for the benefit of a private corporation, one which can threaten to relocate just as easily as it threatened not to select the city in the first place (take note that Amazon has paused construction on the full HQ2 campus as the firm has laid off 27,000 people – a truly kafkaesque turn of events that Virginia demolished a neighborhood and rebuilt an attractive surrounding area and college campus that will surround an unfinished headquarters).

Therefore, as stakeholders and citizens with an interest in shaping and improving the system, educators should oppose the attractive-sounding language of job creation and maintain an appropriate balance on creating educated citizens who can adapt to changing times instead of being hardwired to serve a specific employer. 

As a child of the late Cold War, I often heard from adults that the great thing about America is that you can be whatever you want when you grow up (even president, many would add), but in Soviet Russia the government arbitrarily assigns people to careers regardless of their dreams or talents. Increasingly I wonder if we are tiptoeing toward a similar future. 

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