Please do read Joanne Barkan’s fascinating and carefully written new piece in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Charitable Plutocacy: Bill Gates, Washington State, and the Nuisance of Democracy.
In the first place Barkan summarizes the history of the efforts by their proponents to launch charter schools in the state of Washington. Twice this month, I’ve been part of conversations in which nobody knew whether charters are legal in Washington at this point, but it has been hard to find a coherent history of this effort that, according to Barkan stretches back more than 20 years. Here is a summary of what Barkan tells us. 1995 — A bill is introduced and dies in the legislature. 1996 — A ballot issue is proposed and defeated 64 percent to 36 percent in the November election. House bills are introduced in 1997, 1998, and 1999 are all defeated in the state senate. 2000 — Ballot issue proposed; billionaire supporters outspend opponents 309-1, but charters are defeated on election day. 2004 — Washington legislature passes a bill authorizing charter schools, but the law is repealed by referendum by a large margin despite huge spending by billionaire charter supporters. 2012 — A charter school bill is introduced; the bill dies in committee when leadership in both houses of the legislature opposes it. 2012 — Wealthy charter school supporters launch another initiative campaign and invest millions to get it passed. (Barkan explains: “The vote on Washington’s Initiative 1240 stands out for this reason: despite outspending their opponents more than 12 to 1, the philanthropists barely eked out a victory. The final tally was 50.69 percent in favor, 49.31 percent opposed.”) 2014 — The first Washington charter school opens. 2015 (September 4) — Washington Supreme Court declares charters unconstitutional. (Barkan summarizes the court’s argument: “The state constitution stipulates that only common (public) schools can receive government funding, and all common schools in the state must be subject to local voter control. Because charter schools are run by appointed boards or private organizations, they are not common schools and do not qualify for government funding.”) March 2016 — The legislature passes a new bill that, in an attempt to satisfy the constitutional standard, funds charter schools out of proceeds of the state lottery, not the state’s general fund. Governor Jay Inslee allows the law to go into effect without his signature.
What I have left out in this summary is Barkan’s careful history of the growing impact over two decades of the money of billionaires who like the idea of having charter schools in the state of Washington. Most of this money comes from Bill Gates, but his partners along the way have included Paul G. Allen (another Microsoft founder), John T. Walton, Donald Fisher (The Gap), Alice Walton, Mike and Jackie Bezos (parents of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), Nicolas Hanauer, Katherine Binder, and Reed Hastings (Netflix), along with pro-charter national organizations such as Stand for Children and the League of Education Voters. Barkan also names the organizations that have supported efforts to defeat charters in Washington: the teachers unions, the League of Women Voters, the Seattle NAACP, El Centro de la Raza, the Japanese American Citizens League Board, the Washington State PTA, the Association of Washington School Principals, district and county Democratic Party organizations, and the Washington State Labor Council. It is a stunning contrast: plutocrats vs. the people of Washington.
Barkan isn’t alleging that the charitable foundations of wealthy individuals invested heavily in politics: “When philanthropists finance political campaigns, they act as individual citizens spending their personal wealth, not as the heads of tax-exempt, charitable foundations. Federal and state laws bar private foundations from political activity. Although the regulations have ambiguities and loopholes, high-profile philanthropists are usually careful….”
But huge fortunes yield enormous power today for America’s wealthiest citizens: “Today’s multi-billionaires are a different species of philanthropist; they keep tight control over their foundations while also operating as major political funders—think Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, or Walmart heiress Alice Walton. They aim to do good in the world, but each defines ‘good’ idiosyncratically in terms of specific public policies and political goals… Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny.” Twenty years of relentless investment by wealthy investors to promote charter schools in Washington state finally paid off.
Barkan describes a fascinating and troubling comment by Bill Gates in a panel discussion aired in 2015 by CNBC, in which Gates describes his frustration when democratic institutions that tolerate debate and difference of opinion have complicated the realization of his goals: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working… We’re not making as much progress as I’d like. In fact, of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult… It’s a very big system… very resistant to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”
If you sometimes wonder how the national conversation about public education has tilted so sharply since 1995—away from the value of public schools that are owned and operated by the public and accountable to the public and lately focused on the merits of the introduction of competition from a charter school sector implemented by grant-funded social entrepreneurs—Barkan explains the role of today’s plutocrats: “The education-reform movement in general, and charter schools in particular, attracted a new wave of philanthropists, many of whom had made fortunes in high-tech industries and finance. Although they had no experience as educators, they aimed to ‘disrupt’ and rebuild public schooling for urban low-income and minority children. They embraced the idea that giving grants to K-12 reform projects corresponded with investing capital in a business. They described their philanthropy in terms of strategic investments to maximize returns and data collection to verify results. Having succeeded in business, they reasoned, they would succeed in education. They came to see funding education reform candidates and ballot initiatives as part of the same effort.”