Public education is the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent—the families of the roughly 50 million children and adolescents enrolled in public schools across America. The problem is that the interests of the children in the nation’s more than 90,000 public schools are not currently driving education policy. If you wonder about the truth of this allegation, you need only read recent reports about all the ways the One Percent are buying and promoting research, promoting particular programs, and investing in public policy and the politicians who dominate state governments.
American education is being shaped by the vast fortunes of today’s mega-philanthropies like Gates, Broad and Walton, by Wall Street investors and hedge fund interests, by giant corporations like Pearson who influence policy through the American Legislative Exchange Council, by the Silicon Valley crowd—the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Laurene Jobs and Eli Zuckerberg, even by Reed Hastings, the Netflix titan. Part of this is the result of tax laws that favor those in the investment class—both inadequate tax rates for the wealthy and laws that give privileged treatment to large fees collected by hedge fund managers. It is alleged, of course, that such tax policies will encourage investment and grow the economy, but today’s tax policies enrich those at the top while leaving the public unable to fund essential infrastructure and public institutions.
Here is how the political philosopher Benjamin Barber describes our situation: “First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting pubic goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself.” (Consumed, p. 131)
This week the NY Times provided new evidence of the power of wealth in public education in Kate Taylor’s piece on the power of the One Percent in policy and philanthropy affecting the students in the New York City Public Schools. Taylor reports that Bill de Blasio, NYC’s new mayor, is less well connected than his predecessor Michael Bloomberg; de Blasio’s lack of access to the One Percent is hurting philanthropic giving to a private foundation that supports enrichments and experimentation in New York City’s public schools:
“Mr. Bloomberg and his first schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, were connected to a world of wealthy donors in a way that Mr. de Blasio and his chancellor Carmen Farina are not. The Fund (for Public Schools), which was started in 1982, was little known until Mr. Klein recruited Caroline Kennedy, a friend of his wife’s, to oversee it. Ms. Kennedy attracted a high-powered board and persuaded some of New York City’s biggest corporations to lend their support. Many of the major education philanthropists who emerged in the last two decades were also philosophically aligned with Mr. Klein, who infused the school system with the DNA of the private sector. He promoted privately run charter schools as an alternative, used test scores to guide important decisions, and replaced schools deemed to be failing.”
Mayor de Blasio was elected by New Yorkers on a platform that disdained inequality in the city— a tale of two cities, separate and unequal—and he is being punished for abandoning the investment class. His schools chancellor Carmen Farina is a lifetime public school educator with a sterling reputation as a public school leader. Taylor reports that the Fund for Public Schools has raised only $18 million in the fiscal year that will end on June 30; under Mayor Bloomberg, the Fund averaged $29 million in annual philanthropic gifts. There has also been ongoing pushback against de Blasio and his education policies from Wall Street interests who call themselves Families for Excellent Schools and who have underwritten the massive “Don’t Steal Possible” television ad campaigns that promote the well connected charter chains over the interests of traditional public schools.
And again this week on a national scale, Anthony Cody challenged Bill Gates and the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Cody, a retired science teacher from the public schools of Oakland, California and now a writer, has taken upon himself the responsibility for challenging, from the point of view of a public school teacher, the policies of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Cody has insisted on meetings with Bill Gates and leaders at the Foundation, and last year he published a book, The Educator and The Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges The Gates Foundation. In a blog post earlier this week, Cody once again confronts Bill Gates, who spoke recently of the Gates Foundation’s work on education in a CNBC interview.
In the interview Gates defended the priorities of the Gates Foundation: charter schools, mayoral control of school districts, portfolio school reform strategies and the dangerous power of elected local school boards and teachers unions as entrenched institutions. Cody charges Gates has not paid attention to the damage such philanthropic investments have caused: “The man is highly intelligent, and describes himself as a ‘technocrat.’ He speaks as if he were a scientist, citing research and statistics to support his views and even calling the work his foundation sponsors ‘experimental.’ But I have worked closely with scientists before, and one thing I have noticed is how carefully they attend to the results of their experiments. And in medical science, great care is taken to monitor potential adverse effects on human subjects. If there are signs that harm is occurring, experiments must be discontinued, even if they are not complete. Gates has used billions of dollars to promote an experimental course of reforms… yet he seems remarkably incurious about the results we are already seeing.”
Five years ago Diane Ravitch raised the alarm about the power of mega-philanthropy in education policy. “(I)t is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are, after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any districts or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 200-201)
As the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown wider, the power of private money has increasingly undermined the public system of education that has historically distinguished our society. With all the problems and challenges that can be legitimately directed at public schools, public education remains the only institution where it is possible systemically to address the needs and protect the rights of our society’s children. As public institutions they are accountable to citizens if we choose to hold them accountable and to make them work.