Bob Herbert Explains “How Millionaires and Billionaires Are Ruining Our Schools”

Did you see Bob Herbert’s wonderful new article, The Plot Against Public Education, in Politico Magazine?  If not, you should read it.  Bob Herbert was a regular New York Times columnist between 1993 and 2011, when he left to join Demos and to write the book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, from which this article is excerpted.  The book was published this week.

Herbert’s subject is the role of money and the power of elites to shape education policy in America these days.  Herbert skewers Bill Gates: “When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen.”  And he notes that when  Bill Gates’ “small high schools” experiment utterly failed, there weren’t the kind of consequences we might see if a public school district, for example, failed in a similar school restructuring. “There was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C’est la vie.

“This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years… But if there is one broad approach… that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools…  Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow.  They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.  None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.  In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous.”

Acknowledging Bill Gates’ good intentions, Herbert then tells the story of a number of school “reformers” who have been in it for greed—including Ron Packard the CEO of K12 on-line learning, a company whose founding was underwritten by Michael Milken, the junk-bond king.  And there are others.  “It was easy to lose sight of the best interests of children as corporations throughout the country did all they could to maximize profits from public education. Consider for example, the Rupert Murdoch-Joel Klein connection.”  And there is Jeb Bush, who with former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, “started an organization called Digital Learning Now!, which took on the task of persuading state legislators to make it easier for companies to get public funding for virtual schools and for the installation of virtual classrooms in brick-and-mortal schools.”  We are also reminded about Cathie Black, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hapless schools chancellor, a socialite who served for 91 days until it became clear that running a school district with 1.1 million children might be complicated. “Black had had no previous experiences with the public schools.  She hadn’t attended them… She hadn’t taught in them.  She hadn’t sent her children to them.  In one of her first public appearances after the appointment, she said, ‘What I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed.'”

Herbert concludes: “The amount of money in play is breathtaking.  And the fiascos it has wrought put a spotlight on America’s class divide and the damage that members of the elite, with their money and their power and their often misguided but unshakable belief in their talents and their virtue, are inflicting on the less financially fortunate.  Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children?  And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?”

Franklin Roosevelt on the Role of Government to Protect the Public

During a recent driving trip across the country, my husband and I sometimes felt we were threading our way across a map of American consumerism: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, and even Pita Pit. It can be argued that our society’s growing diversity has improved the food—Mexican, Lebanese, Thai, and even a Kathmandu Café in Rapid City, South Dakota, but as Benjamin Barber has pointed out, in marketplaces, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu.”  (Consumed, p. 139) And competition among the choices has not necessarily delivered food that is tasty and nutritious.

As I looked at the fast food marketplace from freeway interchange to freeway interchange, it was sobering to consider that this is the model many are trying to adopt for our schools.

Franklin Roosevelt had a different philosophy, one that I worry is beginning to feel frankly old fashioned. Eighty years ago, in August of 1934, President Roosevelt visited Glacier National Park. The President was traveling by train, making visits to new dams.  He had visited Grand Coulee in Washington and was headed to Fort Peck in Montana. On August 5, Roosevelt delivered his weekly radio address from the lodge at Glacier Park’s Two Medicine Lake: “Today, for the first time in my life, I have seen Glacier Park. Perhaps I can best express to you my thrill and delight by saying that I wish every American, old and young, could have been with me today. The great mountains, the glaciers, the lakes and the trees make me long to stay here for all the rest of the summer.”

His address became sober as he described what he believed is the role of government and the importance of the public space: “Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 by Act of Congress as a ‘pleasuring ground’ for the people. I like that phrase because, in the years that have followed, our great series of parks in every part of the Union have become indeed a ‘pleasuring ground’ for millions of Americans… As is the case in the long fight for the preservation of national forests and water power and mineral deposits and other national possessions, it has been a long and fierce fight against many private interests which were entrenched in political and economic power. So, too, it has been a constant struggle to continue to protect the public interest, once it was saved from private exploitation at the hands of the selfish few.”

President Roosevelt understood that the marketplace enriches private individuals not the commons and responds to the power of money. He believed that an essential role of government is to protect the common good and he looked to the well-being of future generations as well as those who might prosper today. Speaking about the National Park Service, Roosevelt said, “It took a bitter struggle to teach the country at large that our national resources are not inexhaustible and that, when public domain is stolen, a twofold injury is done, for it is a theft of the treasure of the present and at the same time bars the road of opportunity to the future…We have won the greater part of the fight to obtain and to retain these great public park properties for the benefit of the public. We are at the threshold of an even more important battle to save our resources of agriculture and industry from the selfishness of individuals.”

President Roosevelt’s 1934 radio address from Glacier National Park did not touch on the role of ambitious individuals trying to commodify education. Nobody in 1934 would have imagined creating an education marketplace. But Roosevelt’s speech about the role of government to protect the environment for the benefit of the public speaks directly to what is happening 80 years later as entrepreneurs try to privatize K-12 public schools.