Viewing Education as a Commons

I was recently asked by Anthony Cody, who blogs for Education Week, to explain how the commons paradigm might apply to the public schools.  The topic is of special concern to him and others who are alarmed at the attempted takeover of the Los Angeles school board by billionaires financing the election campaigns of candidates who favor charter schools and “choice.”    

Here are a few select paragraphs from my commentary, “Viewing Education as a Commons.”  You may want to read the comments as well, including the one from the inevitable nut who equates the commons with communism.

Enclosures in higher education consist of corporate research "partnerships" with universities, in which the corporations essentially commandeer the research agenda, dictate many terms of the research and how it may be used, and leverage publicly funded resources for private, corporate purposes. It may also consist of treating student bodies as captive cohorts to be advertised to or given educational loans at exploitative interest rates. At the K-12 levels, enclosure may consist of the imposition of corporate-promoted educational curricula; marketing to students via sports, textbooks and student events; and educational priorities that suit the market-oriented interests of corporate leaders, such as school vouchers and "competition" as a way to improve school performance.

Enclosures bring with them a pathology that most markets entail, however. Their success often stems from "externalizing" as many costs as they can onto the community, students or future generations, so that the business enterprise can become more "efficient" and "productive." This is how markets routinely function -- by generating externalities. It is why industry does not take adequate account of the long-term health of nature.

Enclosures of public schools are doing the same thing. They exclude those students who are more difficult or costly to teach -- the low achievers, those with learning disabilities, and those who may not fit in. They regard students (or their parents) as "consumers," not as co-producers and collaborators in the educational process. Learning that cannot be measured in clear metrics (and therefore which cannot be a basis for market competition) are regard as secondary or inconsequential. The shared commitments of a community to each other, or the need for inclusiveness and social equity, are not seen as important because, as in any market, we are all "individuals." These are just a few reasons why the market paradigm is inappropriate as a regime for understanding the challenges of education and managing public schools.

It's important to note that the privateers are not operating in a vacuum. They are making headway because the schools themselves have become bureaucratized and are not necessarily responsive to people. They are seen as offering a "consumer service," and for many frustrated parents, that is more attractive than trying to reform city school systems that are often remote, bureaucratic and politically captured. Enclosures can succeed only because there is often little genuine "commoning" going on in school governance. Commoning consists of the social practices by which commoners set their own rules and take responsibility for governance and results. In the void of citizen engagement and responsibility, it is easier for officialdom and big money to consolidate their power and enclose the commons of public education for their own (corporate-minded) purposes.


Promoting the communalisation of education

Hi David, great post. Just to say that education as a commons need to be critically thinked in relation with corporate-market and also from burocratic-state.

Some of these issues about "commoning" in schools are discussed in a movie project I worked in recently. The documentary film is called "The Forbidden Education" (, you can watch it online with English subs:

We are now working in a open platform to promote diversity and commoning in education. We plan to map all type of educative experiences (like schools) that are already applying those ideas. See a video intro here:

Best, Franco.