Last week the New York Times ran a stunning piece about the investments made by the Libyan dictatorship's sovereign wealth fund. According to the article, the fund owns a 3.27 percent stake (valued at $453 million) in Pearson, publishers of the Economist, the Financial Times, and Penguin Books, making it the company's third largest shareholder.
What the Times does not mention is that Pearson is also one of the biggest standardized testing companies in the U.S., touting themselves on their website as "the largest commercial processor of student assessments." They score statewide tests for 30 states, as well as the SATs and ACTs. In fact, Pearson's North American education division is responsible for almost half the company's profits.
Ironically, the revelation of the Libyan dictatorship's stake in Pearson came simultaneously with the issuance of the company's annual report, which documented a 28 percent rise in profits in 2010 and a 9 percent increase in dividends, the largest in a decade (Financial Times, 2/28/11). At the press conference announcing these results, Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino (who ranked 17th on Forbes' list of most powerful woman in the world in 2007) said she was "uncomfortable with the holding." The company announced that the Qaddafi-controlled fund will not see any payout of these dividends and that its stake had been frozen (Bloomberg, 3/1/11).
Apologizing for the Libyan fund's shares in the company, Scardino explained, "We don't choose our shareholders, they choose us." Bloomberg reported that she "said she's never met with anyone from the Libyan Investment Authority and that the company once spoke to a 'middleman.'"
Still, it's notable that Scardino is also the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors at Nokia, which signed a $120 million contract with the Libyan government in 2004 to provide cell phone service to Tripoli and the Western part of the country.
These deals were part of a general trend among Western corporations, as many in the business lobby sought access to the vast wealth amassed by the Qaddafis and to the Libyan market.
None of this is meant to imply that Qaddafi's ownership of three percent of Pearson's stock had any impact on standardized testing in the U.S. (or on the editorial lines of the Financial Times or the Economist). But it is supremely ironic that the Libyan dictatorship thought it was a good move to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a company that makes money off of tests that have been widely lambasted for their tendency to stifle creativity and critical thinking in U.S. children by sucking the joy and spontaneity out of the classroom.
The larger point is that control over standardized testing and the U.S. education system as a whole is increasingly being placed in the hands of some very powerful for-profit corporations. From testing to textbooks, and charter schools to for-profit colleges, education is increasingly being turned into a commodity, something that can enrich the shareholders of big corporations, who just might happen to be vile dictators. [emphasis mine]Is this what it's going to take to get us to wake up? Dictators investing in corporate education "reform"?