There are many reasons to praise Starbucks’ recently announced College Achievement Plan. The program marks the first major attempt among the nation’s foremost retailers to aggressively fund employee education, with few strings attached.
Starbucks baristas will now receive full reimbursement to complete the final two years of college at Arizona State University through their online education program. Employees looking to start their postsecondary education will receive substantial subsidies from the company.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has estimated the costs equal about $30,000 per employee over three or more years. It is expected that of the 135,000 Starbucks employees nationwide, between 15,000 and 20,000 will choose to participate in the program.
Many elements of the Starbucks program, such as the value of an online education and the lack of institutional choice, have been furiously debated since Monday’s announcement. But there’s still more to discuss.
Private Companies to the Rescue
President Obama and his administration have promised a lot over the past six years, but, due in part to the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression and the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, positive educational outcomes have been few and far between.
Right now, however, the American system of education is plagued with many problems that need attention: student debt, the rising cost of higher education, the increased need for highly trained specialists in the workforce, the dropout crisis, underfunded public schools, and the failure of the nation to keep pace with the rest of the world in educational attainment and technological advancement.
It is thus unsurprising that private, philanthropic actors have taken the lead in seeking innovative solutions to problems in the sphere of education. In fiscal year 2012, for example, 83 percent—or $119 million— the Harlem Children’s Zone budget was privately funded by corporations, foundations, or individuals. From this allotment, $20 million came from the Goldman Sachs Gives fund.
Similarly, Teach for America’s 2012 revenue was heavily supported by private funds: $216 million came from private contributions led by The Walton Family Foundation. This same private organization recently announced it would invest $49.5 million in Teach for America in the next five years.
Starbucks’ new plan to provide educational opportunities for its workers is just another step in the trend of private companies delivering social services historically provided through government funding. We, as citizens, should be wary of these changes.
The Tip of the Privatization Spear?
It is difficult to criticize the tremendous generosity of these and similar donations, but the political consequences of private involvement in elementary and higher education are dangerous.
By shifting social services such as education piecemeal into the private sector, citizens lose the ability to determine the values, priorities, and regulations of these vital institutions.
In permitting the strengthening of bonds between private actors and social services providers, specifically health care and education, and implicitly encouraging these relations by simultaneously cutting government funding, our collective ability to steer developments concerning these issues diminishes exponentially.
Steered by wealthy individuals and corporations, the programs we rely on may or may not promote the best interest of society at large.
“We Can’t Wait for Washington”
In a recent interview with Jon Stewart, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, stated, “We can’t wait for Washington—we’ve got to step up, as we’ve done in the past, and demonstrate true leadership.”
Schultz outlined, “It’s time all recognize the country is having serious problems [and that] people are being left behind.”
Though admirable in spirit, the danger of this social enthusiasm rests in its private implementation. While the outcome of such a sweeping educational program may have some positive impact on the lives of many lower- and middle-income families (though that is yet to be determined), the nature of that leadership is private.
In single-handedly wielding a Venti-sized checkbook, Schultz has managed to have his educational agenda dominate the public discussion surrounding higher education. Perhaps most disconcerting, though, is the way this further step in the privatization of education concurrently alleviates the responsibility of government representatives to provide access to affordable education and low-interest loans.
Social movements and community awareness should be driven by groups, not individual billionaires such as Schultz and Bill Gates. This recent generosity makes a bold statement, but perhaps the best outcome will be if it initiates a broader dialogue regarding our societal reliance upon the fiats of the billionaire class for services that could and should be provided by the public sector.