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Company Hired to Manage Ontario’s COVID-19 School Reopening Highlighted Business Opportunities for Private Education Providers

Emails a ‘chilling reminder’ of Ford’s privatization agenda, experts say

Documents found on an education stakeholder group’s website show McKinsey & Company, the firm hired by Doug Ford to advise Ontario’s 2020 school reopening, promoted COVID-19 as an opportunity for public schools to “collaborate” and “partner” with the private sector.

McKinsey — one of the world’s most prominent management consultancy firms and linked to controversial wage and job cutting policies, ICE detention centres, opioid manufacturers and the Saudi monarchy — was contracted for $1.6 million to turn Ontario’s pandemic health table into a “command table” filled by business leaders after a cold call to Ford’s office last March.

From March to April 2020, McKinsey designed Ontario’s COVID-19 “Central Coordination Table” to advise cabinet on pandemic-related measures and interface with “private sector supply chains.”

According to government documents, industry representatives alongside former “red tape reduction” deputy minister Giles Gherson and Canadian Tire Chief Operating Officer Allan Macdonald were further included in the “command table” as its membership mushroomed to up to 500.

Soon after, McKinsey was also awarded a contract to manage the province’s 2020 school reopening for $3.2 million.

McKinsey has served a similar role in other education systems elsewhere in the world, including jurisdictions where the private sector has a bigger role in delivering education services.

One McKinsey report, titled “School-system Priorities in the Age of Coronavirus,” encourages school officials to consider outsourcing with private education providers to meet the unique challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Crises can be a spur to creative problem solving” the report states. “Under the pressure of the COVID-19 crisis, school systems can take the chance to rethink some of their traditional ways of doing things.”

The report suggests that to “provide more direct student support, schools can start internally” but “eventually, partnerships with external providers and nonprofits may be required.”

As examples of what this could look like, McKinsey points to “teacher-collaboration platforms,” including a pair of private US businesses called “Teachers Pay Teachers” and “BetterLesson” which sell remote teaching resources and services.

The report, which is posted to the site of the Ontario Public Supervisory Officers’ Association — an association representing “education leaders” at the province’s various school boards — further suggests schools respond to the crisis by exploring “collaboration” with the private sector:

“There are some things that schools can start doing now—for example, looking for savings in areas such as utilities and transportation, and asking vendors for discounts. There is a limit to what schools and school districts can do alone however. Many will have to seek additional funds to help their students recover, whether from governments, bilateral donors, or philanthropists. Creating post-coronavirus budgets needs to be a joint process between schools, which understand the needs on the ground, and district, state, and federal governments, which may be able to provide access to resources. Collaboration across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors may become easier to achieve.”


McKinsey’s website on “Education” touts its past experience “helping both for-profit and philanthropic investors deploy their capital to deliver outcomes for students, while generating financial returns for those who require it.”

“That’s a chilling reminder of Doug Ford’s real agenda for Ontario,” Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions told PressProgress.

“It’s no surprise that his government is willing to overpay a transnational management consultancy for advice on how to carry it out,” Walton said. “Under a Ford government, our public services will always be potential targets for privatization, up to and including the services that education workers provide in schools and to students.”

Professional educators also question what business McKinsey has in getting involved with Ontario’s public education system.

“I cannot recall a previous government using a big box excuse for a consulting company used to justify privatization,” Ontario Institute For Studies In Education Professor Charles Pascal told PressProgress.

“Too many governments take short cuts by using consulting firms to add input to decision making rather than ensuring they spend money on in house research and evaluation that should be embedded into projects and policies when started rather than at the end when deciding to change, eliminate or keep something in place,” Pascal added.

“The problem with most firms is that they make their money by using boiler plate frameworks to write their reports.”

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According to information disclosed by Ministry of Health executive director Allison Blair notes from the start, the command table was meant to establish “cross ministry collaboration” and guide the COVID-19 response in schools.

McKinsey’s advice was sharply criticized by Ontario’s auditor general months later. The office noted the McKinsey-endorsed table repeatedly made decisions contrary to health experts’ advice. “Those with public health expertise did not play a leading role” the AG said of the table.

The reopening McKinsey advised was repeatedly criticized by education workers and health experts for underfunding on hiring cleaning and teaching staff and for ensuring adequate social distancing. By April 2021, as Ford himself noted, Ontario’s schools were “the sources of more outbreaks than workplaces or any other location.”

Last week, the Toronto Star noted Ford has repeatedly faced criticisms that his pandemic response has been again and again dictated by business over public health — especially in cases involving lobbyists close to him.

 

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