Billionaire Power? Two Decades of Education Policy Are a Cautionary Tale

Anand Giridharadas’s NY Times analysis of the recent Democratic candidates’ debate is the week’s most provocative commentary.  Giridharadas, author of the recent best seller about the role of venture philanthropy, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, devotes his recent column to The Billionaire Election:

“The Democratic debate on Wednesday made it clearer than ever that November’s election has become the billionaire referendum, in which it will be impossible to vote without taking a stand on extreme wealth in a democracy. The word ‘billionaire’ came up more often than ‘China,’ America’s leading geopolitical competitor; ‘immigration,’ among its most contentious issues; and ‘climate,’ its gravest existential threat… With the debate careening between billionaire loathing and billionaire self-love, Mr. Buttigieg warned against making voters ‘choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.'”

As someone who has been watching billionaire-driven, disruptive education reform for over 20 years, I find it fascinating that the role of billionaire power has become a primary issue in presidential politics. If you haven’t been paying such close attention to the education wars, you might not realize that policy around education and the public schools has for two decades been the locus of experimentation with the power and reach of billionaire philanthropists seizing a giant public sector institution from the professionals who have been running the schools for generations.  The billionaires’ idea has been that strategic investment by data wonks and venture philanthropists can turn around school achievement among poor children.

All this fits right in with America’s belief in the enterprising individual, and an attack on public institutions by far-right ideologues.  Disruptive education reform also arose chronologically with the development of big data, which fed into the idea of management efficiency, once tech experts could manipulate the data and help entrepreneurs more efficiently “fix” institutions to raise achievement.

The other part of the story, of course, is that school teaching is not a glam job. You don’t become a celebrity by teaching second grade, or supporting students trying to conceptualize algebra, or helping five sections of fifteen-year-olds every day learn how to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Teachers work on behalf of children; they are not known for their individualism or for competing to be successful. But the business stars—particularly when they are also tech entrepreneurs—have become marketplace celebrities. And so we have given them a chance.

Mike Bloomberg himself brought the experiment to New York City when he got the state legislature to grant him mayoral governance. He hired a well known attorney, Joel Klein, as his schools chancellor.  Without a a bit of training or experience in education, they took over the schools, opened district-wide school choice in a school district serving over a million students, opened charter schools, colocated charters into buildings with public schools and other charters, tested everyone, rated and ranked schools by test scores, and closed the “failing” schools. It was all about technocratic management and attacks on the teachers’ union.  Many of the charter schools were “no-excuses” experiments with children walking silently in straight lines—schools with high suspension rates to create a rigid culture of obedience.  After Joel Klein left to work with Rupert Murdoch on a tech venture, Bloomberg hired socialite Cathie Black to run the city’s schools.  Black was a magazine publisher at Hearst.  She had no advanced degree and no education experience or training. Unable to show any feeling or empathy for the 1.1 million children enrolled in NYC’s public schools or their parents, Black lasted in the position from January until the first week of April in 2011.

Bloomberg was one of the billionaire, ed tech leaders, but there were lots of others:

  • Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation brought us a bunch of experiments that eventually petered out: small high schools, the Common Core, incentive pay for teachers based on their students’ test scores. And Gates money seeded the vast charter school experiment in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane.
  • The Walton Family Foundation has spent more on charter school expansion than any of the other billionaires.
  • The Edith and Eli Broad Foundation just bought a place in the Yale School of Management for the Broad Superintendents’ Academy that has for years been training school leaders with business management principles.
  • Mark Zuckerberg (the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) has promoted so-called “personalized” learning in which the software is programmed to tailor online instruction “personally” according each child’s needs and rate of learning.

Arne Duncan filled the U.S. Department of Education with staff from the Gates Foundation and the New Schools Venture Fund and formalized all the competitive, business-tech theory into a Race to the Top, which was going to reward success and punish so-called “failing schools” with mandated quick turnarounds—firing principals and teachers, charterizing or privatizing schools, and finally closing schools.

It is time to remember several things about the reforms brought to us by the tech billionaires, for these same lessons may apply to the way, if elected, billionaires would “reform” the country just as they “reformed” the schools.  In the first place, No Child Left Behind, the federal program that encapsulated all this ed-reform theory, didn’t raise test scores.  Neither did it close test score gaps between wealthy children raised in pockets of privilege and poor children.

And the turnaround strategy created a mess in the cities where it was tried.  Year after year, New York City qualifies as the nation’s most segregated school district, because marketplace school choice promotes racial and economic segregation.  In Chicago, where Gates money enabled Arne Duncan to launch Renaissance 2010 before he took the same ideas to the U.S. Department of Education in Race to the Top, University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing describes the human collateral damage when technocrats forgot about the role of human institutions in real communities. In the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, Ewing documents community grieving for the destruction of neighborhoods when schools were closed:  “The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home. So when they come for your schools, they’re coming for you. And after you’re gone they’d prefer you be forgotten.”  Ewing continues: “It’s worth stating explicitly: my purpose in this book is not to say that school closure should never happen. Rather, in expanding the frame within which we see school closure as a policy decision, we find ourselves with a new series of questions…. These questions, I contend, need to be asked about Chicago’s school closures, about school closures anywhere. In fact, they are worth asking when considering virtually any educational policy decision:  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. 155-159)

Mike Rose, the education writer and professor who has educated future teachers during an entire career writes about the kind of education policies the billionaire technocrats have never understood. After a trip across the United States observing excellent teachers, Rose writes about what classrooms look like when teachers know how to nurture and respect human connections with and among our children:  “The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment….  Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels.  It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population… Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class with direction, others came with a curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place.  But two things were always evident.  A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility.”

Do we really want the billionaires to be able to direct their philanthropy, however well-intentioned, privately to shape public institutions with the money they are not paying in taxes?  Giradharadas concludes his recent column with that very question: “Do we wish to be a society in which wealth purchases fealty?  Are we cool with plutocrats taking advantage of a cash-starved state to run their own private policy machinery, thus cultivating the networks required to take over the state from time to time, and run it in ways that further entrench wealth? Just this week, Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced his creation of a $10 billion fund to fight climate change.  Once, such a gift might have been greeted with unmitigated gratitude. But now, rightly, people are asking about all the taxes Amazon doesn’t pay, about its own carbon footprint, and about whether any mortal should have that much power over a shared crisis.”

Plutocrats in New York Flood Albany with Anonymous Gifts to Promote Education Agenda

There are a lot of ways to shape a story, and there’s an important contrast between the story about the politics of public education that appeared in yesterday’s NY Times and another story published earlier this week in the Albany Times Union.  Both are about the same subject—the impact on New York’s public schools of Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein and a bunch of billionaire hedge fund managers.  But Kate Taylor’s story in the NY Times is framed as a political battle—StudentsFirst NY vs. teachers’ unions.  The story to which Taylor pays less attention—though it is the backstory behind her report— is the attack on traditional public schools and public school teachers (not their unions) by a bunch of wealthy investors who are far less likely than most New York families ever to use public schools.

If this is a political fight with two sides, it is really about the 99 Percent whose interests are served by the institution of public education and the 1 Percent represented by New York’s Wall Street investment community.  And Chris Bragg in the Albany Times Union focuses on the question we should all be thinking about: In these times of exploding inequality, is it a good idea that anonymous political gifts of the very rich are buying the policy that shapes the institutions that serve the majority of our children?

Bragg explains: “Three groups pushing education reforms that spent heavily lobbying state government this year funded at least a portion of their efforts through donations whose original sources are essentially untraceable…  StudentsFirst NY Advocacy, the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, and Families for Excellent Schools spent more than $8.3 million during the 2015 legislative session lobbying state government to promote charter schools and other issues, according to recent lobbying disclosure filings… The original donors behind more than $3.4 million of the spending remain murky in the groups’ biannual filings.  In one instance, StudentsFirst NY Advocacy received a $1 million donation from a heavily overlapping but technically separate group run out of the same office, obscuring the original sources of the seven-figure gift.”

While New York’s legislature passed a state ethics reform law in 2011, Bragg reports: “The law took effect in 2013. Loopholes quickly became apparent… If a donation is given to an intermediary that then gives to a lobbying group, only the intermediary’s identity must be disclosed under the 2011 ethics reform. The state lobbying and ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, acknowledged in a February report that entities were currently able to ‘construct funding mechanisms that may avoid disclosure while still technically complying with the law and the regulations,’ and suggested lawmakers might address the issue. The State Legislature has not done so.”

One group that operates within the letter but not the spirit of the law is Families for Excellent Schools. Bragg tells us: “Families for Excellent Schools, another Manhattan group that also lists the same address as StudentsFirst NY but says that it operates separately, has taken a much more direct approach that has allowed its donors to remain anonymous.  Families for Excellent Schools, which spent $1.6 million on New York lobbying so far this year, has an issue-oriented nonprofit arm that would have to disclose its benefactors.  But the group does almost all its lobbying through its apolitical arm, which does not have to report its donors under New York lobbying laws and can take tax-deductible donations.  The apolitical arm spent a staggering $9.7 million on Albany lobbying in 2014, but it did not disclose a single donor.”  Bragg continues: “The heavy lobbying spending as defined by New York law, plus the IRS restrictions on lobbying by such nonprofits could raise potential issues regarding the group’s tax status.”

Despite its frame that emphasizes a war between plutocrats and teachers’ unions, Kate Taylor’s piece in the NY Times does report some very interesting information about the advocacy effort, begun in the Bloomberg-Klein years, to disrupt what this group calls the traditional public education status quo.  Taylor provides some history: “StudentsFirst NY was founded in 2012 by Joel I. Klein, who had been the schools chancellor for more than eight years under Mr. Bloomberg; Michelle Rhee, a former Washington schools chancellor; and the billionaire hedge fund managers Daniel S. Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones.  It receives some support from StudentsFirst, the national organization Ms. Rhee founded in 2010, but has its own board of directors and functions independently.  Mr. Bloomberg himself does not appear to be involved in StudentsFirst NY.”

Taylor brings the history up to date: “Making teacher evaluations more dependent on test scores, reforming tenure and increasing the number of charter schools in the city were all priorities of StudentsFirst NY and became significant pieces of the governor’s (Andrew Cuomo’s) agenda for the 2015 legislative session…. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, as well as interviews, show that Mr. Cuomo and his senior education advisers were in close touch, by e-mail and telephone, with Ms. Sedlis (Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirst NY) and her board members in the weeks after the governor’s re-election last November.  On Dec. 9, for example, the governor met with Ms. Sedlis and several of her board members at the Harvard Club to discuss education policy issues, a spokesman for StudentsFirst NY said.”

New York City’s current mayor, Bill deBlasio has not made the expansion of charter schools his priority but has instead—with his chancellor Carmin Farina, a career educator—worked to improve the city’s system of traditional schools. The big-money lobbying organizations in New York have helped Governor Cuomo fight deBlasio’s policies to support and improve the city’s public schools.   Taylor describes the dark-money expenditures by Families for Excellent Schools, the same organization examined by Bragg: “Last year, it spent $9.6 million on lobbying, more than any other entity in the state…. Much of this money was spent on advertisements attacking Mr. deBlasio for his opposition to charter schools and a later ad praising Mr. Cuomo for coming to their aid.”

Like Bragg, Taylor questions the tax exempt status of Families for Excellent Schools: “Families for Excellent Schools is approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 organization, referring to the section of the tax code regarding charities, meaning that donations are tax-deductible, and under New York State law, it need not disclose donors.  Those organizations are allowed to spend only a small portion of their money on lobbying, but the federal definition of lobbying, in contrast with the state’s definition, is relatively narrow.”  Taylor quotes Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York about the danger of anonymity in political giving: “The danger is the public really doesn’t know from the advertising who is trying to push public policy and what their motivations might be.”