Public Schools Serve the 99%, Are Increasingly Driven by Wealthy Donors and Thinkers

Public education is the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent—the families of the roughly 50 million children and adolescents enrolled in public schools across America.  The problem is that the interests of the children in the nation’s more than 90,000 public schools are not currently driving education policy.  If you wonder about the truth of this allegation, you need only read recent reports about all the ways the One Percent are buying and promoting research, promoting particular programs, and investing in public policy and the politicians who dominate state governments.

American education is being shaped by the vast fortunes of today’s mega-philanthropies like Gates, Broad and Walton, by Wall Street investors and hedge fund interests, by giant corporations like Pearson who influence policy through the American Legislative Exchange Council, by the Silicon Valley crowd—the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Laurene Jobs and Eli Zuckerberg, even by Reed Hastings, the Netflix titan.  Part of this is the result of tax laws that favor those in the investment class—both inadequate tax rates for the wealthy and laws that give privileged treatment to large fees collected by hedge fund managers.  It is alleged, of course, that such tax policies will encourage investment and grow the economy, but today’s tax policies enrich those at the top while leaving the public unable to fund essential infrastructure and public institutions.

Here is how the political philosopher Benjamin Barber describes our situation: “First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting pubic goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself.” (Consumed, p. 131)

This week the NY Times provided new evidence of the power of wealth in public education in Kate Taylor’s piece on the power of the One Percent in policy and philanthropy affecting the students in the New York City Public Schools.  Taylor reports that Bill de Blasio, NYC’s new mayor, is less well connected than his predecessor Michael Bloomberg; de Blasio’s lack of access to the One Percent is hurting philanthropic giving to a private foundation that supports enrichments and experimentation in New York City’s public schools:

“Mr. Bloomberg and his first schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, were connected to a world of wealthy donors in a way that Mr. de Blasio and his chancellor Carmen Farina are not.  The Fund (for Public Schools), which was started in 1982, was little known until Mr. Klein recruited Caroline Kennedy, a friend of his wife’s, to oversee it.  Ms. Kennedy attracted a high-powered board and persuaded some of New York City’s biggest corporations to lend their support.  Many of the major education philanthropists who emerged in the last two decades were also philosophically aligned with Mr. Klein, who infused the school system with the DNA of the private sector.  He promoted privately run charter schools as an alternative, used test scores to guide important decisions, and replaced schools deemed to be failing.”

Mayor de Blasio was elected by New Yorkers on a platform that disdained inequality in the city— a tale of two cities, separate and unequal—and he is being punished for abandoning the investment class.  His schools chancellor Carmen Farina is a lifetime public school educator with a sterling reputation as a public school leader.  Taylor reports that the Fund for Public Schools has raised only $18 million in the fiscal year that will end on June 30; under Mayor Bloomberg, the Fund averaged $29 million in annual philanthropic gifts. There has also been ongoing  pushback against de Blasio and his education policies from Wall Street interests who call themselves Families for Excellent Schools and who have underwritten the massive “Don’t Steal Possible” television ad campaigns that promote the well connected charter chains over the interests of traditional public schools.

And again this week on a national scale, Anthony Cody challenged Bill Gates and the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Cody, a retired science teacher from the public schools of Oakland, California and now a writer, has taken upon himself the responsibility for challenging, from the point of view of a public school teacher, the policies of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Cody has insisted on meetings with Bill Gates and leaders at the Foundation, and last year he published a book, The Educator and The Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges The Gates Foundation In a blog post earlier this week, Cody once again confronts Bill Gates, who spoke recently of the Gates Foundation’s work on education in a CNBC interview.

In the interview Gates defended the priorities of the Gates Foundation: charter schools, mayoral control of school districts, portfolio school reform strategies and the dangerous power of elected local school boards and teachers unions as entrenched institutions.  Cody charges Gates has not paid attention to the damage such philanthropic investments have caused:  “The man is  highly intelligent, and describes himself as a ‘technocrat.’  He speaks as if he were a scientist, citing research and statistics to support his views and even calling the work his foundation sponsors ‘experimental.’  But I have worked closely with scientists before, and one thing I have noticed is how carefully they attend to the results of their experiments.  And in medical science, great care is taken to monitor potential adverse effects on human subjects.  If there are signs that harm is occurring, experiments must be discontinued, even if they are not complete.  Gates has used billions of dollars to promote an experimental course of reforms… yet he seems remarkably incurious about the results we are already seeing.”

Five years ago Diane Ravitch raised the alarm about the power of mega-philanthropy in education policy.  “(I)t is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be.  They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any districts or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 200-201)

As the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown wider, the power of private money has increasingly undermined the public system of education that has historically distinguished our society.  With all the problems and challenges that can be legitimately directed at public schools, public education remains the only institution where it is possible systemically to address the needs and protect the rights of our society’s children.  As public institutions they are accountable to citizens if we choose to hold them accountable and to make them work.

Do We Really Care about the Education of Other People’s Children?

You may have noticed the hot debate about the Common Core Standards (and tests) being rolled out across the states.  The Common Core is the latest chapter in the test-based accountability movement.  The idea is that if we set the standards much higher and make the tests harder, our children will improve and their test scores on international tests will become competitive with the scores of the children in Shanghai and Finland.

The tests for the Common Core Standards have been developed by two statewide consortia—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.  Forty-five states have bought into this effort, which  has been heavily “incentivized” through requirements of federal programs like the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind waivers. Qualifying for a waiver  demands that states adopt “college and career-ready” standards, with participation in the Common Core the most immediate way a state can meet this requirement. Development of the Common Core has been extensively supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

What should children know? What should they be taught at each grade level?  Can we use standardized test scores as a motivator to push teachers to expect more at every level and students to work harder?  These are the questions underneath the standards and accountability movement that has washed across the country in the past quarter century.

There is nothing scientific about any of this.  It is, of course, possible to make academic expectations so unreasonable and the tests so hard that virtually everybody will fail.  If we were to develop a test for second grade that expected all of our children to be able to read the encyclopedia, know the periodic table of the elements, and do trigonometry, all the children would fail.  There are several significant variables here including whether the material on the test has or has not been taught, whether the students are developmentally ready and academically prepared to have learned the material, and how the test are graded.  Where the passing mark on any test is set is an arbitrary matter; cut scores on the Common Core are being set arbitrarily high for the purpose of getting everybody to work harder.

I do not oppose high expectations; in fact I believe all children should have the opportunity to be challenged by and excited about what they are learning.  I have not really taken sides about the Common Core, because in some ways I agree that we need to be more systematic across our fifty states about challenging children everywhere.  However, it is clear that there are problems in the way the Common Core was developed including the dearth of educators among the writers, the unrealistic setting of cut scores that make it look as though a majority of children are failing, and the use of these scores—with passage made very difficult for students—to condemn school teachers.  There are also worries about which companies are going to make huge profits from the tax dollars that will be used to purchase the related curriculum, the tests, and the computers and tablets that are going to be required for on-line testing.  In an excellent and well-documented article last week, Anthony Cody summarizes these issues.

Over this past weekend the debate took on racial overtones when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined that many of the critics are white, suburban moms who want to believe their schools are excellent and their children brilliant but who are being disillusioned as the low scores roll out from Common Core testing.  Duncan’s comment has spawned an outcry from those who feel that Duncan insulted them.

In response to the outcry by those who feel insulted by Arne Dunan’s comment Paul Thomas of Furman University has published a thoughtful and important response.  While Thomas acknowledges that the Secretary of Education ought not to be insulting any group of parents, Thomas wonders why there has been less concern about how Arne Duncan’s policies are hurting black, brown, and poor children than how Duncan’s comment is hurting the feelings of white, suburban moms.

“Duncan has personified and voiced an education agenda that disproportionately impacts black, brown, and poor children in powerfully negative ways.  And the entire agenda has been consistently cloaked in the discourse characterizing these policies as the Civil Rights issue of the day…  Public commentary that highlights that education reform under Obama and Duncan fails the pursuit of equity in the context of race and class in the U.S. tends to fall on deaf ears.  The same urgency witnessed in the responses to Duncan’s ‘white suburban moms’ contrasts significantly from the silence surrounding challenges to Duncan’s discourse and policies that are classist and racist, policy designed for ‘other people’s children.'”

I share Thomas’s concern.  There is an urgent need to build political will for investing in and supporting the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities, places where poverty is concentrated and opportunity stunted.  Like Thomas, I would challenge President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan to begin talking about what we can do to support the educators in our struggling schools.  I worry far more about this project than development of the Common Core.

Excluding “Over-the-Counter Children” to Protect Elite High Schools

The first time I heard the term “over-the-counter” children, I was with a group visiting New York City, where we were listening to a presentation on school choice in New York from a researcher who used the term in an off-hand way.  We visitors looked at each other and someone asked, “What are over-the-counter children?”  “They are the children who don’t participate in school choice,” we were told.  “Their parents don’t fill out the high school application, or they arrive after the school year begins, or they are homeless.  They just come to the school and try to register.”

My mind jumped immediately back to January of 1960, when my family moved to Havre, Montana on a day that I clearly remember was 35 degrees below zero.  We spent our first night in the Siesta Motel because our furniture had not arrived.  In the morning my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to register me for the second semester of the seventh grade.  I was sent immediately to class while my mother went off to get us settled.

I was an over-the-counter child.  So were most of the members of the group at our meeting that afternoon in New York City.  We talked about that term, “over-the-counter children,” during dinner that night.  Isn’t that a derogatory term, a term that commodifies children—sort of like aspirin, something you can buy over-the-counter without a prescription? Shouldn’t parents be able to show up to enroll their children in school?  Isn’t that what “the public” in public education is supposed to be about?  For most adults across America, if we moved as children to a new place, our parents took us to school to get us registered.  I had not realized that the term had become an official designation in New York City until I read a report published last week by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform: Over the Counter; Under the Radar.  The report exposes shocking details about how these children fare in the system despite that it ignores my own concerns about the term itself.

“Every year, some 36,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education (DOE).  These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade, and students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.”  The report explains that the challenge of placing such students has grown under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the number of zoned high schools where neighborhood students could enroll by default has been vastly diminished.  Under Mayor Bloomberg school choice at the high school level has become virtually universal.

School choice plans always do the best job of serving the students who understand or whose parents understand the way the application process works and have the emotional, social, financial, and linguistic capacity to learn the options and complete the application process.  In a report several years ago, the New School Center for New York City Affairs documented that a serious problem for eighth graders in New York City is that middle school counselors struggle to master the vast array of high school options, and anyway case loads for middle school counselors are so large that students who can best navigate the high school choice process tend to be those whose parents are able to guide them actively as they learn about high school options and fill out the application.

In the new report, the Annenberg Institute examines whether students classified as “over-the-counter,” who are assigned by the system to available seats, are being sent to high-scoring high schools or to schools with lower test scores and most especially to schools that have already been identified for school closure.  Here is what the Annenberg researchers describe in their findings:

“OTC students are disproportionately assigned to schools with higher percentages of low-performing students, ELLs, and dropouts.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.”  “Assignments of such massive numbers of OTC students can quickly destabilize schools’ instructional efforts and dismantle long-established, supportive academic cultures.”  And finally, as New York City has begun phasing out large comprehensive high schools, “During each year of the phase-out process, teachers and support staff leave as the closing school’s student population declines… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out schools, the OTC assignment rate was more than 25 percent.”   The scathing report charges that the New York City Public Schools continue to assign students classified as “over-the-counter”—students who bring enormous needs—to schools that are ill-equipped to serve them. The school district has been protecting the test scores of higher-scoring high schools by neglecting to assign high-needs, “over-the-counter” students to the more prestigious high schools.  At the same time the school district continues to phase out and close low-scoring high schools, where ongoing assignment of the most challenging students further diminishes the test scores and virtually ensures these schools will be deemed “failing.”

The Annenberg Institute report is particularly timely this week in the context of the emergence of an intense conversation in the blogosphere about the morality of what has become a national, corporatized school reform strategy premised on providing escapes for the students who are most motivated or whose parents can successfully negotiate school choice to get them into high-scoring magnet or charter schools.  Michael Petrilli spawned the conversation in his recent post at the Education Week blog, Bridging Differences, The Especially Deserving Poor.  Anthony Cody pushed back, also at Education Week, in his Living in Dialogue post, Social Darwinism Resurrected for the New Gilded Age.  Finally Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute contributed to the conversation with Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement”?  I urge you to read carefully all of these pieces along with the new report from the Annenberg Institute.

Together these thoughtful reflections raise the central moral concern about today’s school reform that devalues all the many children who might be broadly described as “over-the-counter”—society’s least precious—the children we can discount because, we might imagine, they aren’t so likely to amount to much. Once educational opportunity depends on competition for choice slots, the most able children win while those who are most vulnerable are likely to be left out and left behind.  For a vision that lifts up opportunity for every child, check out the new Principles that Unite Us, also released just last week, by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and nearly one hundred allied organizations.  And consider the very profound words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”