Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let Big Business Save Our Schools and Our Children!

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN TRENDS in U. S. education you've probably noticed the push, led by politicians and business leaders on the right, to privatize America's public schools.

The rationale for change goes like this:  We have a "school crisis" in America. Based on test scores from the most recent international comparison, U. S. students rank 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. Clearly the schools are failing. This, in turn (or so the right-wing theory goes), is wrecking our economy because U. S. kids can't compete on a world stage with kids in Finland and Japan and South Korea. The underlying problem, according to the right, is that all our teachers belong to evil unions.

What can we do to fix this mess? We bust all the unions and turn schools over to business people to be operated with business efficiency. Business methods are always superior to public sector sloth and waste. Government is never a solution. Government is the problem. Businessmen and women are innovators, engines of wealth creation.

Business people are our newest national heroes.

WELL THEN, LET'S SEE HOW BUSINESS PEOPLE in other fields are doing and try to get some idea where our schools may be heading. Consider the pharmaceutical companies and their methods as a model. No lazy union members here! Just efficiency and innovation and maybe a little tidy profit in the end. 

Oh, and a $3 billion dollar fine for corrupt practices. This week, GlaxoSmithKline, plead guilty to criminal charges, related to illegal promotion of a variety of drugs, including Paxil, a best-selling antidepressant. It was prescribed with increasing regularity, in recent years, for teens and younger children.

Certainly, many doctors were on board. GlaxoSmithKline made sure of that by paying them to attend conferences in exotic locations, lavishing them with expensive gifts to gain their backing. Sales people were paid bonuses according to how many prescriptions they sold and almost everyone involved lived happily ever after. Of course, Paxil had a variety of side effects that the company glossed over or tried to hide from consumers, including a pronounced increase in the risk of suicide among teenagers.

It's not just one company, either. Abbott Laboratories paid a $1.6 billion fine in a similar case; and Johnson & Johnson has set aside $2 billion in anticipation of penalties related to its sales tactics for Risperdal.

In November 2008 The New York Times sounded a note of caution. The use of antipsychotic drugs in children was increasing:  “Powerful antipsychotic medicines are being used far too cavalierly in children, and federal drug regulators must do more to warn doctors of their substantial risks, a panel of federal drug experts said Tuesday.” 

More than 389,000 children, the Times noted, had been treated with Risperdal in 2007, two thirds twelve years of age or younger.  (Zyprexa, Seroquel, Abilify and Geodon were also of concern and use of these drugs had increased fivefold in fifteen years.)

Reporters explained:  “The growing use of the medicines has been driven partly by the sudden popularity of pediatric bipolar disorder.”   

THE LEADING ADVOCATE OF THIS DIAGNOSIS turned out to be Dr. Joseph Biederman, a child psychiatrist at Harvard, a man with the kind of credentials you'd think you could trust. But a Congressional investigation revealed that Biederman had failed to report $1.4 million in outside income from the drug manufacturers. In the meantime, 1,200 children suffered serious health problems after using Risperdal. Thirty-one died, including a 9-year-old who suffered a stroke twelve days after beginning treatment.  

The Times followed up with a series of stories. It seems Dr. Biederman had pushed Johnson & Johnson to fund a research center, which he would head, with one stated goal:  “to move forward the commercial goals of J & J.”  The company (relying on a practice called ghostwriting) prepared a draft summary of a key drug study and Biederman signed it. Presto! Between 1994 and 2003 the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder increased forty-fold. 

Unfortunately, Dr. Biederman and the drug companies had been tap-dancing round the truth. A report in 2002, for example, called for more study of medicines prescribed for children. Without proper data many experts would question the use of such medications, “especially those like neuroleptics, which expose children to potentially serious adverse events.”                                         

“Adverse events” apparently meaning death.

And profits.

DON'T FORGET THOSE PROFITS! Turning our public schools and our children over to business people? It's going to be great.   

P. S. No one seemed to notice that the "school crisis" in America was still limited almost entirely to the poorest inner cities and rural areas.

No one seemed to notice that in the very best public school districts, teachers were also unionized.

No one noticed that Japan always ranked near the top in education but that the Japanese economy stalled out in the 1990s and hasn't grown since.

And none of the right-wing thinkers bothered to explain how--if schools were failing--we were losing jobs to Mexico and Bangladesh and not Finland and South Korea.

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