Melinda Gates and the Blindness of Privilege

Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an interview—David Marchese talking with Melinda Gates—about the enormous power of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for shaping our lives.  Marchese asks Ms. Gates directly about the Gates Foundation’s role in driving today’s neoliberal public education policy. Doesn’t a giant foundation—“Its endowment at $50.7 billion… the largest in the world.”—have an outsized impact on social policy? “What about the notion that the foundation’s work on an issue like public education is inherently antidemocratic?  You’ve spent money in that area in a way that maybe seems like it’s crowding out people’s actual wants in that area. What’s your counter to that criticism?”

Ms. Gates cheerfully counters his critique: “Bill and I always go back to ‘What is philanthropy’s role?’ It is to be catalytic. It’s to try and put new ideas forward and test them and see if they work. If you can convince government to scale up, that is how you have success.  But philanthropic dollars are a tiny slice of the United States education budget. Even if we put a billion dollars in the State of California, that’s not going to do that much. So we experiment with things.”

Despite Melinda Gates’ protestations, as we look back, we can see that when the Gates Foundation has experimented with with reforming institutions like public schools, there have been no real consequences for Bill and Melinda and their staff at the Foundation when projects have failed. In the history of the Foundation’s projects with America’s public schools, however, there are many examples of negative consequences for the schools, our communities, and our children.  Here are two.

The first is local—situated in metropolitan Tampa, Florida.  In 2009, The Gates Foundation made a $100 million grant to the Hillsborough County School District in Florida.  The money was to pay for  a huge experiment in merit pay for teachers. Then in 2015, the Gates Foundation deemed the experiment a failure and walked away, leaving the school district to cover millions of dollars of sunk costs and the responsibility for undoing the damage. According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times, the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave. Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations. A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year. The total scores now factor into teacher pay.” Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools. More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts. Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The second example of a Gates experiment gone wrong continues to affect all of us across the United States.  It is embedded in the policies Arne Duncan forced states to enact into law in order to qualify to apply for a Race to the Top grant. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was involved in every level of the development of test-and-punish school accountability. In a stunning expose for Dissent Magazine back in 2011, Joanne Barkan traces the evolution and outsized impact of a Gates Foundation project which upended public policy at the local level in Chicago and subsequently created the framework for Arne Duncan’s policies at the U.S. Department of Education. The new project replaced an earlier Gates experiment to break large high schools into small schools.  The Gates Foundation had given up on the small schools initiative, but, as Barkan writes: “No matter. The power couple had a new plan: performance-based teacher pay, data collection, standards and tests, and school ‘turnaround’ (the term of art for firing the staff of a low-performing school and hiring a new one, replacing the school with a charter, or shutting down the school and sending the kids elsewhere). To support the new initiatives, the Gates Foundation had already invested almost $2.2 million to create The Turnaround Challenge, the authoritative how-to guide on turnaround. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called it ‘the bible’ for school restructuring.  He’s incorporated it into federal policy, and reformers around the country use it. Mass Insight Education, the consulting company that produced it, claims the document has been downloaded 200,000 times since 2007.  Meanwhile, Gates also invested $90 million in one of the largest implementations of the turnaround strategy—Chicago’s Renaissance 2010.  Ren2010 gave Chicago public schools CEO Arne Duncan a national name and a ticket to Washington; he took along the reform strategy.”

In her groundbreaking 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch explores the role of the Gates Foundation and today’s other venture philanthropies in the development of corporate school reform: “Foundations exist to enable extremely wealthy people to shelter a portion of their capital from taxation, and then to use the money for socially beneficial purposes… Foundations themselves may not engage in political advocacy, but they may legally fund organizations that do.  They may also support research projects likely to advance the foundation’s goals. Education has often been high on their agendas… 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 district 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. 197-201)

Philanthropic dollars these days shape public policy in myriad ways, and the consequences are rarely neutral. A profound new book by Eve Ewing, a University of Chicago sociologist, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, is the best refutation I know of Melinda Gates’ rather theoretical defense in last Sunday’s NY Times of philanthropic experimentation with education policy.

Ewing describes in wrenching detail the experience for parents, children, grandparents and teachers of what happened several years after the Gates Foundation underwrote Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 experiment.  In May of 2013, after the vast expansion of charter schools, Rahm Emanuel’s administration shut down 50 traditional Chicago public schools—schools said to have failed their turnarounds and become underutilized. Over 80 percent of the students in the schools eventually shut down were African American. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research independently confirms Ewing’s finding of overwhelming community grieving across the areas where so many of the schools were closed.

The philanthropic model—experiments with turnarounds and merit pay—experiments with opening and closing schools and shuffling children from one school to another—misses the role of institutions like public schools in the lives of families, neighborhoods, and entire communities.  Ewing urges policy makers to ask a very different set of questions:  “What do school closures, and their disproportionate clustering in communities like Bronzeville, tell us about a fundamental devaluation of African American children, their families, and black life in general?… What is the history that has brought us to this moment? How can we learn more about that history from those who have lived it?  What does this institution represent for the community closest to it?  Who gets to make the decisions here, and how do power, race, and identity inform the answer to that question?” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 158-159)

Today’s Philanthropy: Giving Back While Perpetuating Inequality and the Power of Big Money

Although he died in 2006, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, longtime pastor of New York’s Riverside Church and a lifetime advocate for justice, speaks to our times: “Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo….”

Coffin continues: “We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’) we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.  As a matter of fact, many of us are eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it.”  Charity “is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality.”

The meaning of these words is echoed in Anand Giridharadas’s recent NY Times column, written to promote Giridharadas’s new book, being released today.  Giridharadas has studied the role of philanthropy from the inside as a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Here is his critique: “At first you think: Rich people making a difference—so generous! Until you consider that America might not be in the fix it’s in had we not fallen for the kind of change these winners have been selling…. Of course, world-changing initiatives funded by the winners of market capitalism do heal the sick, enrich the poor and save lives. But even as they give back, American elites generally seek to maintain the system that causes many of the problems they try to fix—and their helpfulness is part of how they pull it off.”

Giridharadas continues: “What their ‘change’ leaves undisturbed is our winners-take-all economy, which siphons the gains from progress upward. The average pretax income of America’s top 1 percent has more than tripled since 1980, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold, even as the average income of the bottom half of Americans stagnated around $16,000, adjusted for inflation, according to a paper by the economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.”

In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines Giridharadas’s new book and several others written to examine the social and political impact of the rapid expansion and power of philanthropy: “We live, it is often said, in a new Gilded Age—an era of extravagant wealth and almost as extravagant displays of generosity. In the past fifteen years, some thirty thousand private foundations have been created, and the number of donor-advised funds has roughly doubled.”  Kolbert quotes Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, challenging today’s philanthropists “to openly acknowledge and confront the tension inherent in a system that perpetuates vast differences in privilege and then tasks the privileged with improving the system.”

One problem is that an increasing amount of wealth is untaxed and, therefore, unavailable to public projects to benefit us all. The other side of that problem is that philanthropists themselves are defining the way problems should be solved, making grants that fulfill their specific priorities, and increasingly pushing the edges of their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to promote their own public policy priorities—by funding the think-tank research that drives the grants they make, paying for the promotion of their ideas, and skirting the limits on direct policy advocacy by philanthropic foundations. Kolbert explains: “The result is doubly undemocratic. For every billion dollars spent on advocacy tricked out as philanthropy, several hundred million dollars in uncaptured taxes are lost to the federal treasury… In 2016, the tax deduction for charitable contributions cost the federal government at least fifty billion dollars.”

So… how has all this affected trends in public education policy? Especially during Arne Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary, after he hired five former Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation staff people for key Department positions, his Department’s policy was directly shaped by priorities of the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies that share Gates’ goals. The very best investigation of the impact of philanthropy on public education policy is Joanne Barkan’s Got Dough? Public School Reform in the Age of Venture Philanthropy, published by Dissent in 2011.

Barkan begins: “The cost of K-12 public schooling in the United States comes to well over $500 billion per year. So, how much influence could anyone in the private sector exert by controlling just a few billion dollars of that immense sum?  Decisive influence, it turns out.  A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed to define the national debate on education; sustain a crusade for a set of mostly ill-conceived reforms; and determine public policy at the local, state, and national levels.  In the domain of venture philanthropy—where donors decide what social transformation they want to engineer and then design and fund projects to implement their vision—investing in education yields great bang for the buck.”

Barkan identifies the particular projects which are the priorities of the Big Three in education—Gates, Broad, and Walton—working in sync: “Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision making.  And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher.  Other foundations—Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few—often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement’s success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.”  Barkan has continued to track this issue; here is a 2014 update.

Barkan’s work focuses on the power of philanthropy driving education policy. It is important that Giridharadas and others are investigating more broadly how our society is being shaped by the growing concentration and power of money—along with tax policies that increasingly allow our wealthiest citizens to invest in their pet causes (and ideologically driven policies) instead of paying what ought to be their fair share of taxes.  As William Sloane Coffin challenges, “One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition. Thus it is that private property in America has come to be considered all but sacred. Obviously this makes its redistribution difficult, even through taxation.”

Quotes from William Sloane Coffin are from Credo, pp. 60-64).

Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy

In her annual letter summing up the year’s accomplishments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellmann, offers a sort of mea culpa to explain what has happened in the organization’s philanthropy in education. Gates has been at the forefront of strategic philanthropy, by which a foundation sets the priorities and tries to accomplish particular reforms its chosen “experts” have identified.

Here is what Desmond-Hellmann confesses, specifically regarding the Foundation’s push for the Common Core Standards: “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.  We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators—particularly teachers—but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning… This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.  The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated, and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”  Desmond-Hellman also explains that the Gates Foundation is committed to evidence-based experimentation: “From the beginning, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to be a learning organization; one that evolves and course corrects based on evidence.”

Desmond-Hellmann doesn’t seem to question the wisdom of the foundation’s strategy, merely that the Foundation missed engaging all the stakeholders.  And she seems to assume that a sort of apology will cover any worry about the collateral damage inflicted by mega-experiments, most particularly the experiments that were abandoned.

The Los Angeles Times, responded to Desmond-Hellman and the Gates Foundation in a stunning and scathing editorial about the damage inflicted.  The newspaper’s editors recount the history of Gates’ experimentation in education:

  • “The Gates Foundation’s first significant foray into education reform, in 1999, revolved around Bill Gates’ conviction that the big problem with high schools was their size… The foundation funded the creation of smaller schools, until its own study found that the size of the school didn’t make much difference in student performance. When the foundation moved on, school districts were left with costlier-to-run small schools.”
  • “Then the foundation set its sights on improving teaching, specifically through evaluating and rewarding good teaching… In 2009, it pledged a gift of up to $100 million to the Hillsborough County, Fla., schools to fund bonuses for high-performing teachers, to revamp teacher evaluations and to fire the lowest-performing 5%…  (T)he Gates Foundation changed its mind about the value of bonuses and stopped short of giving the last $20 million; costs ballooned beyond expectations, the schools were left with too big a tab and the least-experienced teachers still ended up at low-income schools.  The program, evaluation system and all, was dumped.”
  • More recently the foundation has been investing in the development and implementationof the Common Core Standards, the subject of last week’s sober explanation of problems in what Desmond-Hellmann says was the roll out.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board concludes: “(T)he Gates Foundation has spent so much money—more than $3 billion since 1999—that it took on an unhealthy amount of power in the setting of education policy… Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools.  The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.”

In a recent column on the impact of Gates’ investment in the promotion of charter schools in the state of Washington, Joanne Barkan reflects further: “Gates, who has no training as an educator or researcher, easily dismisses the work of professionals in the field, but it’s never been clear how well, or even if, he knows their work.  He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him.  His entree into policy-making is money, not expertise.”

And Diane Ravitch, who identified the work of the Billionaire Boys in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (which is just being republished in a revised edition), defines the problem of large-scale, money-driven experimentation on America’s school districts and 50 million children: “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 district or state.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan quotes Bill Gates from an interview in May 2015, when he discussed the challenges democracy poses for his foundation: “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.”

Another Incisive Critique of Venture Philanthropy

This post is about today’s venture philanthropy, a world so foreign to most of us that I think we need a frame to help us get our bearings.  Here with some familiar principles is the gifted preacher, and longtime pastor of New York City’s Riverside Church, the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin:

“The way we are cutting taxes for the wealthy and social programs for the poor, you’d think the greedy were needy and the needy were greedy.” (CREDO, p. 61)

“One of the attributes of power is that it gives those who have it the ability to define reality and the power to make others believe in their definition. Thus it is that private property in America has come to be considered all but sacred. Obviously this makes its redistribution difficult, even through taxation.” (CREDO, p. 60)

“Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable.  Charity, yes always; but never as a substitute for justice.” (CREDO, p. 56)

These statements speak to the operations of today’s mega-foundations, the recipients of the fortunes of the super-rich.  Donations to philanthropic foundations are tax-free, the counter-democratic idea being that the rich can define, with the assistance of the staff they employ, what’s good for the rest of us. These days mega-foundations are defining the “solutions” to some of the world’s greatest challenges—global agriculture, global health, and in our own country, public school reform—in ways that many of us do not understand.  Foundations are defined as charities, but increasingly they influence the legislation that shapes our primary institutions and they drive the policies of international agencies like the World Health Organization.  According to Lindsey McGoey’s new piece in the fall Jacobin magazine, The Philanthropy Hustle, they blur the lines between between charity and business.  McGoey’s subject is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropy, whose endowment is $42 billion, and which every year makes grants of $3 billion.

“(M)ore and more, corporate philanthropy is not about corporations giving money to charity,” explains McGoey. “Corporate philanthropy today is about private, tax-exempt donors such as the Gates Foundation giving their charity to corporations.”  McGoey continues: “(I)t’s not true that foundations must direct grants only to charitable entities.  They are free to offer donations to for-profits that fulfill the foundation’s charitable mission—an extremely permissive criterion that donors such as the Gateses are interpreting in novel and unprecedented ways.” Much of McGoey’s  discussion is unrelated to education—the Gates’s Foundation’s gift of $11 million in 2014 to Mastercard to create a wireless payment system in Kenya—gifts to international organizations that encourage the use of expensive hybridized seeds in the developing world, seeds that may be unaffordable for farmers.

Then there are the “gifts” to for-profits that have been shaping what has become understood in the United States as “corporate education reform.”  “In 2010, the Gates Foundation offered $1.5 million to ABC News and a little over $1.1 million to NBC in 2011 ‘to support the national education summit.’  The following year, the Gates Foundation gave another million to NBC, this time for the more vague purpose of ‘inform(ing) and engag(ing) communities.'”  McGoey reports that in 2011 the Gates Foundation granted Scholastic $4,463,541 to support “‘teachers’ implementation of the Common Core State standards in Mathematics.” Gates donated $817,468 in 2012 to Tutor.com, a large on-line tutoring company that charges school users for its services, “to create an ‘on-demand’ professional development system geared at math training for middle and high school teachers.” Gates has granted more than $3.5 million to BetterLesson Inc., which “circulates free online lesson plans to teachers but charges schools a service fee.” All of this is justified because these services are said to help teachers implement the Common Core Standards across the nation’s public schools, a Gates priority, but at the same time Gates is directly supporting the bottom line of these businesses.

McGoey wonders whether all this matters: “Obviously, a number of Gates Foundation’s grants have directly benefited private companies, their management teams, and their shareholders.  The question is, even if this contravenes IRS private benefit rules, does it really matter?  On the one hand, the money going to for-profits is a lot less than grants geared to non-profit organizations—the foundation has given away over $33 billion to date, and the vast majority has gone to non-profits.  On the other hand, it’s not just about the money—it’s the precedent.  If a grant to Scholastic or Mastercard can be justified as charity—then why not a tax-deductible donation to Goldman Sachs or News Corp or Monsanto?”

McGoey concludes her piece with a hundred-year-old warning from the Guilded Age about philanthropy’s limitations: “‘I can conceive of no greater mistake,’ commented William Jewett Tucker, a theologian who went on to to become president of Dartmouth College, ‘than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice.'”

I encourage you to read McGoey’s article.  Here are posts on this blog on the subject of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Billionaire Boys Keep On Experimenting, Charterizing, and Limiting Democracy

Until Diane Ravitch published her 2010, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, we didn’t really have a name for the major transformation in the size and practice of venture philanthropy.  Ravitch describes “the Billionaire Boys Club” to explain a new trend in gigantic philanthropy in our age of the plutocrats, fortunes being used to transform society, and in particular the public schools, in ways citizens cannot really control.

Ravitch worries about the abrogation of democracy as philanthropies with enormous fortunes manipulate public policy privately, accountable only to their own carefully chosen boards of trustees: “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 have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Joanne Barkan, who has written extensively about mega-philanthropy, points out that because gifts to non-profit foundations are not taxed, foundations are making influential investments for which they can take credit, but they are doing so at public expense: “Although this plutocratic sector is privately governed, it is publicly subsidized.  Private foundations fall into the IRS’s wide-open category of tax-exempt organizations, which includes charitable, educational,  religious, scientific, literary, and other groups.  When the creator of a mega-foundation says, ‘I can do what I want because it’s my money,’ he or she is wrong.  A substantial portion of the wealth—35 percent or more, depending on tax rates—has been diverted from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.”  Writing in the NY Times recently about the philanthropies spun from the tech industries, Alessandra Stanley adds: “Tech entrepreneurs believe their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else—and in many ways it is.  But despite their flair for disruption, these philanthropists are no more interested in radical change than their more conservative predecessors.  They don’t lobby for the redistribution of wealth; instead, they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.”

Barkan reminds us that philanthropy has changed significantly in the past two decades through a transformation in the role of grantor and grantee:  “Once upon a time, the mega-foundations established a goal and sought experts to do independent research on how to achieve it.  Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions.  They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas.  Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing non-profits or set up new ones to implement projects they’ve designed themselves.  The mode of operation is top-down; grantees serve their funders.  Mega-foundations also devote substantial resources to advocacy—selling their ideas to the media, to government at every level, and to the public.  They also directly fund journalism and media programming in their fields of interest.  All this mark a a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

It has been five years since Diane Ravitch introduced the Billionaire Boys—the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate of mega-philanthropies engaged in disrupting the workings of the institution of public education. In her book Ravitch describes Gates’ already abandoned project to break up large high schools into small schools.  She recounts the story of the Walton Foundation’s huge investment in school choice and the proliferation of charter schools.  And she tells readers about the Broad Foundation’s investment in training school leaders in business practices including test-based accountability and merit pay for teachers.  She describes the infusion of Gates “solutions” into Arne Duncan’s Department of Education with the hiring of Joanne Weiss and Jim Shelton, and the impact of Gates-Broad-Walton policies on New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg.  Let’s look at what the Billionaire Boys are doing today.

THE BILL AND MELINDA GATES FOUNDATION—We can begin with the Gates Foundation’s $100 million grant—to be matched by the school district— to the Hillsborough County Schools (Greater Tampa, Florida) for a massive experiment in a new plan for evaluating teachers and then incentivizing teachers with merit pay.  Gates has now given up on the idea and moved on. Foundations can abandon an initiative that doesn’t seem to be working without having to worry about any wreckage their exit leaves behind.  But today there are serious consequences in Hillsborough County.

According to an extremely thorough and arresting report by Marlene Sokol for the Tampa Bay Times the Gates Foundation’s plan in Hillsborough County transformed a cadre of 265 of the district’s best teachers into full-time peer-evaluators paid to “observe teachers… (and) score teachers on everything from subject knowledge to how well they get their students to behave.  Their findings, after multiple visits, are combined with results of principals’ evaluations.  A third component, based on student data, is dependent on state test results and comes later in the year.  The total scores now factor into teacher pay.”  Sokol lists some of the failures of this experiment: “The program’s total cost has risen from $202 million to $271 million when related projects are factored in…. The district’s share now comes to $124 million.”  “The greatest share of large raises went to veteran teachers in stable suburban schools, despite the program’s stated goal of channeling better and better-paid teacher into high-needs schools.  More than $23 million of the Gates money went to consultants… After investing in an elaborate system of peer evaluations to improve teaching, district leaders are considering a retreat from that model.  And Gates is withholding $20 million after deciding it does not, after all, favor the idea of teacher performance bonuses…. Hillsborough’s graduation rates still lag behind other large school districts.  Racial and economic achievement gaps remain pronounced….” And the school district itself has spent more than $100 million on a program it cannot afford to maintain.

The editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times  wonders, “The achievement gap affecting poor and minority students still exists even as test scores on the whole are on the rise and as more students take advanced courses.  What’s been going on for the last six years?  What have these hundreds of millions of dollars bought beyond higher salaries and consultants?”  (This blog recently covered the education policies of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation here.  For an excellent summary of the Tampa debacle, see Valerie Strauss’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Bill Gates Spent a Fortune to Build It. Now a Florida School System is Getting Rid of It.)

ELI AND EDYTHE BROAD FOUNDATION—In a brand new project, described in an internal document obtained by the Los Angeles Times at the end of September, the Broad Foundation apparently views itself as the catalyst for charterizing half of the Los Angeles Unified District in California.  Here is how Howard Blume, the newspaper’s excellent education reporter, describes what he learned from the document: “According to a 44-page memo, obtained by The Times, the locally based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other charter advocates want to create 260 new charter schools, enrolling at least 130,000 students.  Organizers of the effort have declined to publicly release details of the plan.  But the memo lays out a strategy for moving forward, including how to raise money, recruit and train teachers…. The document cites numerous foundations and individuals who could be tapped for funding.  In addition to the Broad Foundation, the list includes the Gates, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett foundations.  Among the billionaires cited as potential donors are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major producers of mandarin oranges, pistachios and pomegranates; Irving Co. head Donald Bren; entertainment mogul David Geffen; and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk.”  Blume adds that Los Angeles has more charter schools already than any other school district in the United States.  Charters currently enroll 16 percent of the school district’s students.  While the Broad Foundation has said it’s proposal remains in the planning stage, the Foundation has appointed Paul Pastorek, who helped oversee the charterization of the New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina “to lead the group’s efforts to expand charter schools in Los Angeles Unified.”

Only last week the Washington Post described another recent Broad Foundation initiative: funding education reporting at the Los Angeles Times.  The new project called “Education Matters” is being funded by the K & F Baxter Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.  Paul Farhi, the Washington Post reporter, adds: “The Broad Foundation’s chairman, billionaire businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, has repeatedly expressed his interest in buying the Times.  The newspaper’s owner, Tribune Publishing, has rejected his offers, reportedly including one this month.” Los Angeles Times education reporter Howard Blume has striven to remain independent by explicitly mentioning Broad Funding for the newspaper’s new education project in his reports.  Neither has his reporting skewed to favor Broad Foundation initiatives; he is the reporter who surfaced  Broad’s new plan radically to expand charter schools in Los Angeles.

WALTON FAMILY FOUNDATION—On Monday, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss called our attention to a recent report on a “new direction” being set by the third of the Billionaire Boys.  Strauss reminds us that, “The Walton Foundation is one of the biggest players in the education philanthropy world, having poured some $1.3 billion in K-12 education over the last two decades largely to support charter schools and fuel the ‘school choice’ movement.  But foundation honchos aren’t exactly satisfied with the the results of their work and now they are using a new investment strategy to make a broader impact…  Choice isn’t enough.  So what is?  Apparently dismantling traditional public school systems and creating collections of charter schools across cities.”  The report itself explains, “There are a lot of similarities between the Walton Family Foundation’s approach and what has come to be called a ‘Portfolio Strategy’—a concept researched and supported by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).  Portfolio strategy identifies the entire city as the unit of change with respect to school reform, and tasks education and civic leaders with developing a citywide system of high-quality, diverse, autonomous public (including charter) schools.  These systems prioritize school autonomy, parental empowerment, and system leader oversight and responsibility for accountability.”  (It should be noted that the Center on Reinventing Public Education—with its strategy of “portfolio school reform,” was launched with money from that other Billionaire Boy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Here is how the new report on the Walton Family Foundation describes the Foundation’s priorities for the future: “While choice remains the Foundation’s cornerstone approach to grant making, it acknowledges that there are certain additional conditions and mechanisms necessary for its successful implementation.  The Foundation has identified what it calls ‘choice enablers’—other conditions or supports necessary for choice—including open enrollment platforms, portable and weighted student-funding, and the provision of more readily accessible real-time data on schools for parents.”  The strategic plan acknowledges that its efforts to now have been top down, and there are plans to build better parent and community engagement, though as Valerie Strauss points out, “After 20 years, the foundation realizes that its top-down approach doesn’t adequately address the needs and desires of parents, local advocacy groups and community groups.  Now it wants to engage local partners and communities—not, apparently, to ask what they actually want in their communities but to build ‘a local and civic base of support for the work that’s going on'”—the work that Walton plans to impose according to its theory of school choice.

Joanne Barkan’s prophetic article summarizes pretty well what’s happening with the Billionaire Boys these days: “Have the voices of ‘stakeholders’—students, their parents and families, educators, and citizens who support public education—been strengthened or weakened?  Has their involvement in public decision-making increased or decreased?  Has their grassroots activity been encouraged or stifled?  Are politicians more or less responsive to them?  Is the press more or less free to inform them?  According to these measures, big philanthropy’s involvement has undoubtedly undermined democracy and civil society.”

Philanthropy Stifles Democracy

While many readers of this blog very likely read Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System all the way through, including the tenth chapter on “The Billionaire Boys’ Club,” I suspect most of us struggle to unlearn many of our beliefs about philanthropy.  We may work for organizations that ask us to write grant proposals to underwrite the projects our own organizations imagine would serve our communities or our particular constituents.  As supplicants we continue to believe that foundations are responsive to the needs identified independently by communities outside their own walls. We continue to imagine that if we define our agency’s needs clearly enough and describe our plans to address those needs, we’ll be able to secure funding that will enable our organization or agency to do good work.  The truth is that foundations increasingly fund projects they have identified and sometimes even projects they have themselves created to further their own predetermined goals.

There has been a tectonic shift in philanthropic giving, and, writes David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, “Look at nearly any sector of U.S. society, and you’ll find private funders wielding growing power.  Most dramatic has been the reshaping of public education by philanthropists like Gates and the Waltons, but the footprint of private money has also grown when it comes to healthcare, the environment, the economy, social policy, science, and the arts.  Whether you agree or disagree with the specific views pushed by private funders, you’ve got to be disturbed by the growing army of hands-on mega donors and foundations that seems to get more clever every year about converting all their money into societal influence. Love it or hate it, the Common Core is a great example: In effect, private funders are helping determine how tens of millions of kids will be educated for years to come.  And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution! Inevitably, the upshot of all this is a weaker voice for ordinary folks over the direction of American life.”

Callahan directs us to Democracy and the Donor Class, published in the journal Democracy and written by Gara LaMarche, President of the Democracy Alliance, and an insider who has overseen giving by a number of progressive foundations.  He challenges: “I do wonder… about my progressive friends.  They believe in a strong government, in a fair tax system, in a robust social-welfare system, and in a vibrant democracy where all voices count equally.  Why are they not more concerned about the undemocratic and largely unaccountable nature of philanthropy? Why are we—since I too have failed for years to ask these big questions—hypersensitive to the dangers of big money in politics, and the way it perpetuates advantage and inequality, but blind, it seems, to the dangers of big philanthropy in the public sphere?”

LaMarche recounts the history of the Gates Foundation’s enormous influence to drive school districts all over the country to break up their high schools into “small schools” only to have Bill Gates, in his 2009 annual letter, acknowledge that, “Many of the small schools we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.”  LaMarche admits his own bias: “You might suggest, after reading for the last few minutes, that I raise these issues because I am not a fan of the particular policies being espoused.  Indeed, in these cases, I’m not.  The dominant wave of education reform is much too top-down for me, generally heedless of the voices and perspectives of teachers, parents, and students and the communities in which they live.  But in fairness, I should say that the same big questions apply to large foundations interventions for policies I favor, like George Soros’s on drug-policy reform, or Atlantic Philanthropies’ on health care, to name two in which I had a personal role.”

LaMarche laments the decline in press coverage that might help citizens better understand the growing and, he believes, dangerous power of private philanthropy: “As it happens, the period of tremendous growth in the philanthropic sector—particularly the rise of a mega-foundation like Gates, which can by itself steer policy on education reform or global health—has coincided with a significant decline in the resources devoted to investigative journalism… As philanthropy’s power has grown, independent scrutiny of it has waned.”

Must Read: How Bill Gates’ Power Drives Education Policy

The Common Core Standards are the culmination of the wave of accountability-based school reform that has swept the country since the A Nation At Risk report in 1983.  Like the other test-and-punish reforms, the Common Core Standards fail to address the deep and seemingly intractable problems in American public schooling—inequality—shocking and immoral opportunity gaps in a society that supposedly believes in equality of opportunity—high dropout rates among the poorest and most vulnerable adolescents.  This blog focuses on these deeper issues, and you can read recent posts here on opportunity gaps, and here on reducing the dropout rate.

But Lindsey Layton’s recent blockbuster piece in the Washington Post, How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution, is a Common Core story that relates to all the deeper issues, because Layton addresses the issue of power and money in policy-making these days.  How is it that the school “reformers” can get programs established that lack a research base?  And how can it be done in a way that skirts the checks and balances of our democratic system and that even rearranges the prescribed roles of the federal government and the states in school policy? What is the role of today’s mega-philanthropy, especially these days when, ironically, relatively low taxes for the wealthiest Americans allow them to amass fortunes they can spend to impact policy in an underfunded public sector.

Diane Ravitch answers these questions theoretically in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  “It 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….  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 district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

In her blockbuster article this past weekend, Layton provides an example of the power of venture philanthropy—the real-life story of how Bill Gates, the most powerful member of Ravitch’s Billionaire Boys Club, accomplished the adoption of the Common Core.  While many of us have known parts of this story, Layton pulls together all the characters, adds a timeline and tracks a bit of a plot.  It all began in the summer of 2008 when Gene Wilhoit, director of the national organization of chief state school officers, and David Coleman, a primary supporter of common standards and now head of the College Board, approached Bill Gates with an idea they had hatched.  Layton describes the pitch they made based on their theory of the problems of our public schools today: “Coleman and Wilhoit told the Gateses that academic standards varied so wildly between states that high school diplomas had lost all meaning…. The pair also argued that a fragmented education system stifled innovation because textbook publishers and software developers were catering to a large number of small markets instead of exploring breakthrough products.”

Then, because of Gates’ power to shape research, market ideas, and influence those making policy, “What followed was one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn’t just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards.  With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes. Bill Gates was de facto organizer, providing the money and structure for states to work together on common standards in a way that avoided the usual collision between states’ rights and national interest….”

According to Layton, Gates Foundation money was invested in work by the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and on the politically liberal side, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.  Gates invested in work to support the standards by the Democrat-leaning Center for American Progress and the very conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  “The result was astounding. Within just two years of the 2008 Seattle meeting, 45 states and the District of Columbia had fully adopted the Common Core State Standards.”  “And yet, because of the way education policy is generally decided, the Common Core was instituted in many states without a single vote taken by an elected lawmaker.”  “The speed of adoption by the states was staggering by normal standards.  A process that typically can take five years was collapsed into a matter of months.”

Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education also helped.  “Several top players in Obama’s Education Department who shaped the administration’s policies either came straight from the Gates Foundation in 2009 or from organizations that received heavy funding from the Foundation.”  Margot Rogers, direct from Gates, was Arne Duncan’s first chief of staff.  Jim Shelton, a Gates program officer, came to Washington to head up education innovation.  Today he is deputy secretary.  Joanne Weiss, who led the development of Race to the Top was previously head of the NewSchools Venture fund, a Gates-backed effort.  The Race to the Top competition rewarded states with points if their applications emphasized college and career-ready standards (Today to qualify for No Child Left Behind Waivers states also have to adopt college and career-ready standards.)  “Applications for the first round of Race to the Top were due in January 2010, even though the final draft of the Common Core wasn’t released until six months later.  To get around this, the U.S. Department of Education told states they could apply as long as they promised they would officially adopt standards by August.”

According to Layton, Gates “sees himself as a technocrat trying to foster solutions to a profound social problem—gaping inequalities in U.S. public education—by investing in promising new ideas… ‘This is about giving money away.  This is philanthropy.  This is trying to make sure students have the kind of opportunity I had… and it’s almost outrageous to say otherwise, in my view.'”  A serious challenge, of course, is that sometimes the neat, technocratic solution may entirely miss issues like poverty, racial segregation, and the political morass of unequal school funding that a mass of social science research identifies as causes of achievement gaps.

Layton’s piece is so comprehensive, it dwarfs one other important piece of investigative journalism published last week on the subject of Bill Gates’ wielding of influence and power.  In Revealed: Gates Foundation Financed PBS Education Programming Which Promoted Microsoft’s Interests, David Sirota reports that the Gates Foundation actively promoted the Common Core Standards by paying for extensive programming by the Public Broadcasting System via the Teaching Channel.  Sirota points out that “the agenda being promoted also happens to dovetail with Microsoft’s commercial interests in the Common Core.”  According to Sirota, “In February (2014), Microsoft joined up with education publisher and technology firm Pearson on a joint Common Core venture. According to a Pearson press release, the project aims ‘to create new applications and advance a digital education model’… combining ‘Pearson’s Common Core System of Courses with the groundbreaking capabilities of the Windows 8 touchscreen environment.'”   Sirota lists Teaching Channel board members who are also affiliated with the Gates Foundation, including Ted Mitchell, who recently left the Gates-funded NewSchool Venture Fund to become an under-secretary in the U.S. Department of Education and Vicki Phillips who directs education work at the Gates Foundation.

Philanthropic Plutocrats Pushing the Levers and Pulling the Strings

Over the weekend, here and here,  this blog covered last week’s pieces by David Sirota, here and here, that exposed the $3.5 million grant the Public Broadcasting Service solicited from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to pay for a PBS series, The Pension Peril, that has been portraying the advocacy position of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that opposes public pensions.  PBS agreed to return the grant and put the series on hiatus when the conflict of interest was exposed.

It used to be that nonprofits brought ideas to foundations when they submitted proposals for funding.  These days it is far more common for the foundation to set an agenda and then seek organizations who can be granted funds to implement the foundation’s priorities.   Joanne Barkan describes the shift in grant making: “The roles of grantor and grantee have… changed.  Once upon a time, the mega-foundations established a goal and sought experts to do independent research on how to achieve it.  Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions.  They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas.  Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing nonprofits or set up new ones to implement projects they’ve designed themselves.  The mode of operation is top-down; grantees serve their funders.  Mega-foundations also devote substantial resources to advocacy—selling their ideas to the media, to government at every level, and to the public.  They also directly fund journalism and media programming in their fields of interest.  All this marks a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

Over the weekend Connecticut blogger Jonathan Pelto explored another example connected to the Public Broadcasting Service and promotion of a foundation sponsor’s point of view in PBS programming.  Pelto points out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted $20.2 million to the Teaching Channel during the past three years, with the foundation serving as its primary funder.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also a well-known funder of development and promotion of the Common Core Standards.  According to Pelto, “The Teaching Channel is one of the most vocal proponents of the Common Core Standards,” which it has been promoting in hour-long segments on PBS, “Teaching Channel Presents.”  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted to PBS affiliate WNET  $370.091 as a sponsor of “Teaching Channel Presents.”

Here is how political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the new trend in philanthropy. His example, a little dated now from his 2007 book Consumed, relates directly to charitable giving in New Orleans after the 2005, Hurricane Katrina:  “First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public 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. .. The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves, as a public; democracy on the other hand empowers the public to take care of itself.” (p. 131)

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, agrees with Benjamin Barber:  “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’  It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

Examples from this past weekend illustrate that billionaire philanthropists have been spending not only on acts of charity but also on public policy projects, promoting their own “solutions” in many policy areas including public education.  But they do so without the accountability of democratic checks and balances.  They get to decide on their own whether their agenda will serve the public good.  While, of course, there is no absolute guarantee that democratic oversight of publicly owned institutions or democratically developed public policy will serve or protect the public good, at least as projects are undertaken on the part of the public, the pros and cons are publicly debated and public oversight ensures transparency.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch defines the danger of the new philanthropy:  “…it 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 district 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.” (pp. 200-201)

How Gates Foundation Helps Shape Public Education Policy

Stephanie Simon has written a major article for Politico on the growing political influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Simon describes the Foundation’s investment in driving policy in public education: “About $400 million is spent in the U.S.—most of that on projects intended to transform education.  Those grants go to hundreds of research and advocacy groups that often work together to amplify the foundation’s voice and extend its reach into statehouses, schoolhouses and the U.S. Department of Education.”

Jim Shelton, now a deputy secretary to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Margot Rogers, Duncan’s chief of staff during President Obama’s first term, both moved directly from the Gates Foundation into jobs at the U.S. Department of Education. “Both were granted waivers from conflict-of-interest policies to allow them to continue to work closely with the Gates Foundation  after joining the Education Department.”

What has the Gates Foundation accomplished in terms of its policy objectives?  “In K-12 education, Gates gets substantial credit—or in some quarters, blame—for the explosion in charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.  He’s transformed the way educators are evaluated, putting much more emphasis on student test scores as a measure of effective teaching.  And he’s a driving force behind the Common Core academic standards…”  According to Simon, the Gates Foundation has awarded more than $170 million to groups developing the Common Core standards, curricula  and exams.

Other projects that are Gates priorities include the investment of $1.7 million to promote Parent Trigger laws that permits parents, by petition, to take over their public school and transform it into a charter school.  Parent Trigger laws are also a priority of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

And the Gates Foundation has invested $100 million into the data base InBloom, which was imagined to store student data from public schools across the states.  Most states have pulled out of the project due to concerns about protecting the privacy of students’ personal information.

According to Simon, while the the Gates Foundation, like other philanthropies, is precluded from lobbying, “the foundation dispenses hundreds of grants to organizations of every conceivable size and mission.  Think tanks.  Advocacy groups.  Teachers unions.  Public relations firms.  Policy journals.  Political associations. All those disparate groups, in every corner of the country, bring an enormous megaphone to the issues the Gates Foundation wants publicized.”

Privatization Proliferates: Vouchers, Charters, and Portfolio School Reform

If you live in a small city, a rural area, or even a suburb you may not be watching the privatization of K-12 education in your own community.  But privatization is proliferating; just let us count the ways.  Two articles in the press this week and one new academic report will help.

Privatization is happening mainly in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities, places where test scores reflect the poverty of the children enrolled and where, as a condition for awarding Title I Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, the federal government is pressing school districts and states to close public schools and open charter schools.  Privatization is also being driven by conservative politicians and political donors who allege that charter and voucher schools will serve children better and cost less.

Writing for PoliticoPro, reporter Stephanie Simon demonstrates that, Vouchers Don’t Do Much for Students. Vouchers and voucher-like tuition tax credit programs are now paying for 245,000 students in 16 states and the District of Columbia to attend private schools at public expense.  “Taxpayers across the U.S. will soon be spending $1 billion a year to help families pay private school tuition—and there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”  Tracking the oldest voucher programs in Wisconsin and Ohio, Simon demonstrates that students perform no better than their public school counterparts, and in Wisconsin, two-thirds of voucher students never attended the public schools but are receiving public vouchers to cover tuition at parochial or private schools. Simon quotes Wisconsin state legislator Sandy Pope: “The taxpayers are paying for a second, competing school system that doesn’t do as well as the one we already have.”  Simon also notes the many voucher schools across the U.S. that openly violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by teaching biblical creationism in science classes.

In his regular Education Week blog column this week, Anthony Cody reports that while their proponents dub charter schools “public charter schools,” these same charter advocates contend that charter schools are private entities when a school’s operation is questioned as a regulatory case reaches the courts.  Cody describes a California case where a trial court convicted a California couple “of multiple counts of fraud related to their practice of using their charter school bank account for personal expenses and thousands of dollars worth of meals.”  As part of the legal appeals process, the California Charter Schools Association filed an amicus brief alleging that “charter schools are deemed to be private entities under the law of California,” and “employees of the nonrofit corporation operating a charter school are not public employees.”  “So let’s end this hoax,” writes Cody.  “Charter schools are happy to accept public dollars, but reject the oversight and accountability that comes with operation as a public school.”

Finally there is the new report from the National Education Policy Center that exposes the slick sales pitches made to school districts by proponents of “portfolio school reform.”

Portfolio school reform is the model made famous in New Orleans in 2005, when the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina created what Naomi Klein in her important book, The Shock Doctrine, calls the “opportunity” for privatizers to swoop in with a plan to remake a public school district through a business model.  Portfolio School Reform was developed and promoted at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, with the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The model prescribes the rapid expansion of a charter school sector in the “portfolio school district” and the adoption of a theory of disruption or churn, with low-scoring schools closed and “successful” models opened in a continuing cycle.  Although the assumption is that the teachers and the school itself are the variable that determines the test scores,  not coincidentally, all 35 of the “portfolio districts” listed on the Center’s website today are among the nation’s largest city districts with so-called “failing” schools located in neighborhoods experiencing concentrated poverty.  Among the “portfolio districts” on the list are New York City, Washington ,D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Hartford, New Haven, Baltimore, and Memphis/Shelby County.

The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado (NEPC) was established for the purpose of examining the research presented to justify particular school reforms.  In this week’s analysis, NEPC examines two powerpoints from advocates in Memphis and New Orleans that were presented to the Milwaukee Association of Commerce as that organization prepared to decide whether to endorse portfolio school reform for Milwaukee.  NEPC analysts conclude, “Although no rigorous research has yet examined the effectiveness of portfolio governance structures, the presentations are aimed at encouraging their adoption… Policymakers considering such reforms should not act without a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of relevant evidence…. They should acknowledge the thin evidence base on portfolio governance and consider possible alternative explanations for those asserted results.  Specifically, the reported achievement gains are suspect and may be attributable to other unexamined factors such as the massive out-migration of New Orleans students.”