Tax Avoidance Lets the Wealthy Set the Policy Agenda

In June, ProPublica released the data: “In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes. He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes three years in a row. ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data… (which) provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg… Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.”

When these facts were published, and after Republicans in Congress balked at funding President Biden’s infrastructure plan with increased taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr seized the moment as an opportunity to explain how it has come to be that these people and many others pay so little to support the basics of our society: “The main federal tax is the individual income tax, which accounts for roughly half of all federal revenue and which tens of millions of middle-class people pay throughout the year as employers withhold taxes from their paychecks. To a great degree, however, the income tax is essentially voluntary for the nation’s richest people. Much of their income comes in the form of gains in the value of their stocks and other assets, and they can avoid taxes on those gains if they hold on to these assets rather than sell them. When high-income households do pay tax on their income from their assets—such as capital gains and dividends—they pay at tax rates that are far lower than the tax rates they would pay on wages and salaries. These tax breaks, which policymakers have expanded in recent years, help to widen the enormous gaps in income and wealth between the nation’s richest people and everyone else. The top 1 percent of households in terms of income receive the vast majority of capital gains and a large chunk of dividend income, and they are reaping most of the benefits of a new deduction, enacted in the 2017 tax cut law, for what’s known as ‘pass-through’ income, which the owners of partnerships and certain other businesses report on their individual tax returns.”

There are two primary consequences of the fact that wealthy Americans pay almost no taxes.

First: There is a shortage of public revenue to pay for the basics society desperately needs—infrastructure repair, public schools in poor communities, and adequate child care.

Today Republicans in Congress balk at paying for President Biden’s desperately needed national infrastructure plan to repair what everyone agrees are rapidly deteriorating bridges and roads and old water systems where hundred-year-old pipes break deep underground and where in too many places water is carried in lead pipes. The American Families Plan, which would help our society’s poorest children in myriad ways, is deemed unaffordable. And at the same time across the states, where Republican-dominated legislatures have adopted tax cuts, the shortage of federal funds has been magnified as old infrastructure and poorly funded schools proliferate.

In Ohio last month, for example, when the Ohio Legislature argued about the 5 percent income tax cut the Republican-dominated Ohio Senate wanted to include in the new state budget,  Policy Matters Ohio’s’ Wendy Patton demonstrated that only the wealthy would benefit: “Nearly half of the tax reduction would go to those in the top 5%, who are paid more than $221,000 a year. The top 1% percent, who have income of at least $526,000, would average a cut of $1,712 and receive a quarter of the tax reductions. The tax reductions in the Senate bill come on top of huge tax cuts the richest Ohioans have received over the past 16 years. While lower-and middle-income Ohioans on average saw little change or paid more in state and local taxes, the top 1% received more than $40,000 a year in tax cuts.”  After a long debate and much pushback, the new Ohio budget includes only a 3 percent tax cut, but the primary beneficiaries will be the wealthy.

Tax cutting has become a trend in many more states than Ohio. In The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, education historian  Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire write: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker… took aim at education through Act 10… (which) made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-36)

Second:  When they don’t pay taxes, the extremely wealthy can invest their money privately through philanthropy in ways that distort our institutions according to their own theories and whims. 

Charitable foundations no longer operate by responding when worthy organizations submit applications to fund needy projects. Instead staffs at large foundations influence policy according to their and their funders’ theories and priorities.  They pay for their own research studies to prove their theories, they buy media coverage, and, in education, they make grants to the school districts which agree to try out their experiments.

Last week, California teacher blogger Tom Ultican provided an update on what has happened to the late Eli Broad’s public school leadership program aimed to form school leaders through business principles instead of education theory. Here is a bit of background behind Ultican’s recent post. In December of 2019, a little more an a year before his death in April 2021, Eli Broad donated $100 million to Yale University’s School of Management. The gift came with a quid pro quo: Yale University’s School of Management now houses the Broad Superintendents’ Academy and Broad Residency in Urban Education. What this means is that mega philanthropist, Eli Broad, with a background as an accountant who bought a life insurance company which he turned into a retirement savings business, purchased a prestigious institutional home for a school superintendents’ training program he alone devised.  Eli Broad’s personal philosophy of education management now has the imprimatur of Yale University even though there is no academic, peer-reviewed research endorsing Eli Broad’s theories of education management.

Ultican reports that The Broad Center at Yale School of Management has just “enrolled its first cadre of 17 fellows into the ‘Fellowship for Public Education Leadership program.'”  Although many of the staff at The Broad Center have previously worked as public school leaders or staff from state departments of education, they are likely to have completed the program themselves as Broad Residents in years past. Some were leaders in privately managed Charter Management Organizations or state departments of education which created state takeover agencies to manage struggling public schools. Ultican concludes: “Significantly, the late Eli Broad chose a business institute instead of an education school to continue his training program. The Broad Center at Yale School of Management appears to be in complete fidelity with the late Eli Broad’s privatize the commons ideology.”

Also last week, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reported on a new collaboration of some of America’s richest education philanthropists “aimed at dramatically improving outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students.”  Certainly that is a worthy purpose, but the philanthropists who are leading this effort are not aiming to invest in reducing class size, hiring guidance counselors, creating school orchestras, or restoring the school libraries that have been cut in lean times: “The Advanced Education Research & Development Fund… is already funded to the eye-popping tune of $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), and the Walton Family Foundation… AERDF (pronounced AIR-dif) says its focus will be on what it calls ‘inclusive R&D,’ or bringing together people with different expertise, including educators, to design and test practical ideas like improving assessments and making math classes more effective. Still, the ideas will have ‘moonshot ambitions,’ said the group’s CEO Stacey Childress…  The organization emerged from work that began in 2018, when CZI and Gates teamed up to invest in R&D. That resulted in a project known as EF+Math, which funds efforts to embed lessons in executive functioning—a set of cognitive skills related to self control and memory—into math classes. ‘These executive functioning skills allow you to focus on what’s important, ignore distractions, let you think flexibly to solve problems and keep track of ideas,’ said Melina Uncapher, the program’s director. ‘Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re strongly related to math skills’… The other project that AERDF announced Wednesday is called Assessment for Good, and will focus on creating better student tests that shift from focusing on students’ deficits to their strengths.”

Notice that the aim here is to change the focus of standardized testing, not to reduce our nation’s overreliance on standardized test scores that these same philanthropists have promoted for a quarter of a century. And it is important to remember that decades of sociological and educational research overwhelmingly blame poverty and growing economic inequality along with economic and racial segregation—not the lack of students’ executive functioning—for the struggles of groups of students whose test scores have lagged.

AERDF is merely a new way for mega-philanthropists to focus microscopically on technical research without addressing the rising inequality in which they are complicit.  If they paid taxes on their vast incomes, the states and the federal government would have more revenue to address the problems that simply stare us all in the face: class sizes of 40 students; shuttered school libraries; a shortage of guidance counselors; absence of school bands and orchestras; school newspapers that stopped publishing when there was no money to hire a journalism advisor; reliance on outdated computer technology; and urban schools that lack the academic enrichments suburban children take for granted—challenging literature, civics, advanced math, and lab science classes.

In Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas considers what it means when the wealthiest individuals cease to pay their fair share of taxes for the public good and instead attempt to shape society according to their personal priorities via philanthropy:

“What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests.  We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves. Yes, government is dysfunctional at present.  But that is all the more reason to treat its repair as our foremost national priority.  Pursuing workarounds of our troubled democracy makes democracy even more troubled. We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.” (Winners Take All, pp. 10-11)

Betsy DeVos Still Doesn’t Get the Connection Between Democracy and Our System of Public Schools

A week ago, at one of the nation’s most conservative Christian colleges, Betsy DeVos delivered a vehement attack on the idea of public education. With the election coming up next week, we can hope it was the final attack on the institution of public schooling DeVos will deliver from per perch as U.S. Secretary of Education.

In a column last Wednesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s Hillsdale College address: “In 2015, billionaire Betsy DeVos declared that ‘government really sucks’—and after serving nearly four years as U.S. education secretary, she has not tempered that view one iota.  She gave a speech this week at a Christian college disparaging the U.S. public education system, saying it is set up to replace the home and family. While blasting the government is nothing new for DeVos—critics see her as the most ideological and anti-public-education secretary in the Education Department’s 40-plus-year history—she gave what may be her fiercest anti-government polemic at the Hillsdale College event in her home state…. She explained how her philosophy was formed by Abraham Kuyper, a neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian-turned-politician who was prime minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905 and who believed that Protestant, Catholic and secular groups should run their own independent schools and colleges. The United States could fix its education system, she said, if it were to ‘go Dutch’ by embracing ‘the family as the sovereign sphere that is, a sphere that predates government altogether.'”

Strauss reprints DeVos’s Hillsdale College speech in its entirety. In it DeVos confides to her audience the secret she has learned while serving as our education secretary: “I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much. These past few years I’ve gotten a close-up view of what that building focuses on. And let me tell you, it’s not on students. It’s on rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting ‘the system.'” Remember Betsy’s notorious rebuke all those years ago: “Government really sucks.”

DeVos brags about her accomplishments as Secretary of Education: “(W)e restored state, local, and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), by ending Common Core, and by urging Congress to put an end to education earmarks by consolidating nearly all Federal K-12 programs into one block grant.  We expanded the in-demand D.C. voucher program…. We supported the creation of more public charter schools… And we support the bipartisan School Choice Now Act.”  Strauss explains that ESSA was passed in 2015 before DeVos became Secretary of Education and tells us that the Common Core had already faded, though it is still in place in several states. Strauss reminds readers that many of the supposed accomplishments DeVos brags about were mere initiatives proposed but never enacted. Congress did not, for example, buy into consolidating all of the Department’s programs into a single block grant, and the School Choice Now Act, introduced by Senator Tim Scott, is merely a proposal for DeVos’s $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships, a tuition tax credit program DeVos has inserted into the department’s budget every year, but a budget appropriation Congress has repeatedly refused to enact. Scott introduced the program as a piece of stand-alone legislation this year, but Congress has not passed the law.

In her Hillsdale College address DeVos suggests that the average U.S. public school expenditure-per-pupil (encompassing federal, state and local dollars) of $15,000 should be given to families like a little portable backpack that the child could carry to whatever education institution the family chooses. Neglecting to point out that the bulk of that money pays for teachers and other essential school staff, DeVos says: “Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: ‘I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!’.. You could improve your child’s outcomes with that kind of money.  A single parent in Detroit, or Flint, or Grand Rapids could open the door to a better life for their child if only they had control of how taxpayer dollars are spent on their child’s education. America’s parents agree. There’s a mighty chorus, rising in volume and urgency, supporting parental ‘school choice.'”

While Betsy DeVos suggests that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, the political theorist Benjamin Barber explains why choices based on self interest fail to protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards necessary in a modern complex democracy: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)

Because our schools are public, over more than two centuries of our nation’s history, Congress and the 50 state legislatures have been able to pass statutes to protect the rights of all children, and the courts have interpreted these laws to ensure that the the meaning of the promise to protect every child’s rights has expanded. As primary civic institutions the public schools have inevitably embodied the biases and injustices embraced by our society, but over time as advocates have insisted that we learn to understand the ways our public schools have failed to live up to our nation’s promises, our legislative and legal systems have been able to ensure that schools have moved closer to justice.

We have already come a long way. Since the early nineteenth century the history of U.S. public education has been the story of the struggle—justified by the promise of equality in the founding documents—to expand the definition of the right to public education to include students who were previously discounted and excluded—to girls and women—to African Americans during and after the Civil War, freed slaves who had been intentionally excluded from literacy—to American Indians—to immigrants—to the disabled.

The battle to expand the meaning of equality included the struggle to ensure that African Americans would not be segregated into inferior and separate schools and once able to enter a city’s public schools, would not be pushed into manual training classes and excluded from the academic track.  Women, African Americans, and immigrants finally have increased the possibility of pursuing all kinds of professions that once excluded them. American Indians, once shunted into boarding schools for forced assimilation into the dominant culture, have fought for the right to attend public schools in their communities, schools which incorporate heritage languages and indigenous culture. Disabled students, formerly locked in institutions, have finally earned the right to attend public schools in the most inclusive settings possible and to not be excluded into sheltered classes. Immigrant students have fought for and won, in some states at least, the right to bilingual education. Undocumented students won the right to a public education only in a 1982 Supreme Court decision, but they are too often still denied financial assistance through in-state college tuition. The fight for justice and equality in our nation’s public schools is the history of citizens trying to win for their children the very equality promised in the founding documents.  If American education were transformed by Betsy DeVos’s vision of universal privatized parental choice, none of these rights could be protected.

In a wonderful new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Educaton and the Assault on American Democracy, Derek Black, a professor of constitutional law, demonstrates how, over the centuries since the founding of our nation, our society has been able to expand the democratic protection of every student’s right to public education: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

Betsy DeVos’s belief that we should “go Dutch” and adopt universal school choice for families is contrary to the promise of our American democracy.

Oklahoma Primary Election Results and Supreme Court Decision Show Teachers Changed the Narrative

The New Yorker‘s Rivka Galchen reports on the stunning results in Oklahoma’s primary election. Being anti-tax seems to have doomed several prominent Republican incumbents. And many public school educators, running for office for the very first time, won their parties’ nominations. The Oklahoma Policy Institute’s David Blatt tells Galchen: “It’s the opposite of the way it has been, when legislators expected to pay for it in votes if they supported a tax increase… Now they’re paying for it in votes for having been against a tax increase. That is pretty dramatic for Oklahoma.”

The Associated Press‘s Tim Talley describes the role of public education in Oklahoma’s primary election: “Almost 100 schoolteachers and administrators filed as candidates in this year’s round of elections and at least 55 won their races in the primary or advanced to runoffs in August. Many of them were motivated by the Republican-led Legislature’s cuts to funding for public schools in recent years and nearly a decade without a pay raise, funding issues that prompted thousands of educators to walk off the job in April—a walkout that coincided with the filing period for this year’s round of elections.”

Galchen analyzes the results: “One question going into the elections was how well teacher candidates would fare; another… was how well the incumbent Republican legislators who had voted against the teachers’ pay raise would fare. Republican legislators who opposed the pay raise were mostly either beaten or forced into runoffs. Chuck Strohm, a Republican state representative, lost by more than twenty-five points to a more moderate opponent. The like-minded Scott McEachin, who represents a neighboring district—they are both solidly red areas—lost by a similarly decisive margin. Meanwhile, more than fifty educator candidates advanced….”

And, recently a referendum petition filed by Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite!—a referendum to nullify the modest tax increases the Oklahoma Legislature passed (by the outrageous 75 percent supermajority required by Oklahoma law) to pay for modest raises for school teachers—has been rejected by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. These were the first tax increases passed in Oklahoma since 1990. For Tulsa World, Barbara Hobercock reports: “A referendum petition seeking to repeal tax hikes used to fund teacher raises is invalid…. Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! sought to ask voters to repeal House Bill 1010xx, which hiked taxes on cigarettes, little cigars, fuel and gross (energy) production. State Question 799 drew two legal challenges before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. ‘Upon review, we hold that the petition is legally insufficient and invalid,’ the court opinon said.  It ordered SQ 799 stricken from the ballot. The tax increases will take effect July 1, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.”  Further, “The court ruled that had the tax hike measure been repealed, it would not have nullified the teacher pay raises contained in House Bill 1023xx. The average raise is $6,100.”

Hobercock adds that the court will permit those seeking to repeal the taxes to file a new referendum, but only if the anti-tax organizers can secure 41,000 valid signatures by July 18. None of the signatures on the first petition can be reused.

How is it that the funding for the public institutions in which we have traditionally educated our children has come to encapsulate our society’s ideological war?  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education has become a top priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Oklahoma’s fight over taxes and teachers’ salaries epitomizes the battle about the role of taxes and the public good that is engulfing our society. Hobercock presents the competing narratives by which Oklahomans have described the state Supreme Court’s recent decision and the stunning primary election results. A spokesperson for the anti-tax Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! predicts his organization will erase the new taxes by managing by July 18th to secure the required 41,000 signatures: “The people did not support this egregious and unnecessary, burdensome tax hike. The people will have their say…. Our mistakes will be corrected.  Our motivation has been renewed.”

On the other hand, Oklahoma’s State School Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, presents the view that seems to have prevailed in last week’s primary election: “At long last, we can reward our dedicated, hardworking public school teachers with the competitive pay they deserve… On the heels of a school year in which 1 in 7 students was taught by an untrained teacher, we can, and we must, now begin stemming the tide of Oklahoma’s crippling teacher shortage. Today’s decision clears the way for funding regionally competitive teacher pay, ushering in a new era of stability that is not only a win for public education, but for our kids and the future of our state.”

“Government Schools” vs. “Public Schools”

Last weekend, the NY Times published an important story by Julie Bosman about the political importance of how we name our institutions: “Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court… Somewhere along the way, the term ‘government schools’ entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system.”

Bosman briefly quotes George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on the metaphoric thinking that characterizes our politics.  In his book, Moral Politics, Lakoff describes the way savvy communicators frame political issues with language that connotes deep values and morals:  “(M)ost of our thought is unconscious—not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. We think and talk at too fast a rate and at too deep a level to have a conscious awareness and control over everything we think and say. We are even less conscious of the components of thoughts—concepts. When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system…  (M)etaphorical thought need not be poetic or especially rhetorical. It is normal, everyday thought. Not every common concept is metaphorical, but a surprising number are.” Moral Politics, (pp. 4-5).

To define the connotation of “government schools,” Bosman quotes John Locke, a linguist at the City University of New York, who worries that the term “government schools” is austere: “It has an oppressive ring to it.  It sounds rigid, the opposite of open or friendly or charming or congenial. The people who use that term are hoping those words will come to mind.”

Actually, I believe that in the context of today’s battle over school reform and privatization, the term “government schools” evokes far more than concerns about rigid and austere schools.  The term “government schools” works as a metaphor for a very different political frame.

As a pejorative, “government schools” immediately evokes the ideal opposite to which it contrasts: privatized charter schools—free of regulation, and vouchers that privilege the  private institution of the family over the calcified “government schools” that impose on the individual freedom and choice of parents. Those who disparage “government schools” are rejecting the twentieth century public school—paralyzed, as they see it, by bureaucracy, resistant to disruptive change and innovation.  “Government schools” lack the efficiency of schools kept accountable through marketplace competition, where individuals are free to choose, free to thrive, free to race to the top. And, especially in Kansas where there is a long-running school funding battle, “government schools” are known to impose a very heavy tax burden.

“Public schools,” on the other hand,  connotes democratic governance, public funding, universal accessibility, and accountability to the public. The term, “public schools” evokes  the ideals of equal opportunity, equal access, and protection, through democratic oversight, of students and tax dollars. Public schools that operate on a huge scale, constituting a universal system that pulls our society together, are comprehensive—intended to serve all children and protect their rights. Public schools are democratic institutions; citizens are expected to provide ongoing oversight and demand corrections by law.  And citizens are expected to pay taxes as a civic responsibility. Public schools privilege the public—the common good—as well as seeking to educate every individual child. Historically, public schools have been understood as a centerpiece of the social contract. “Public schools” as a term is a metaphor for public obligation and public responsibility.

For the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, the term “government school” would connote a particular individualist definition of the model citizen: “(M)odel citizens…. are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order.  Those who best fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who are against affirmative action… They are the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear.  They deserve to be rewarded and respected.  These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology.  They have succeeded through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned.  Through their success and wealth they create jobs, which they ‘give’ to other citizens.  Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they become philanthropists who ‘give’ jobs to others and thereby ‘create wealth’ for others.  Part of the myth is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and have made it on their own.” (Moral Politics, pp 169-170)

According to today’s school reformers, “privatized schools” are the ideal opposite of “government schools.” But for many of us, traditional public schools remain the best institution to serve our society.  Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, castigates the “government school” frame: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good… It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive… Privatization ideology today encourages us to believe that the market is not only efficient and flexible but can somehow turn its regressive impulses to the service of what is left of the idea of the public good… Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right…  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Hollowing Out the Public

While many imagine that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.  Our society and politics have veered dangerously toward policy that rewards individualism and neglects public responsibility for the well being of all.

Some examples—

There is Kansas, where the state Supreme Court ruled last Friday that unless the legislature does something drastic in the next few weeks, the state cannot open public schools for the 2016-17 school year based on a school funding plan that has long violated the state’s constitution, despite that the legislature has been pretending to fix it.  In 2012 and 2013, Governor Sam Brownback and the state legislature slashed personal income taxes with the promise that the state’s economy would grow as a result.  The growth did not occur, and a state budget crisis ensued instead.  In February, after the state supreme court said the legislature must correct school funding by June 30 or the state’s schools must close, the legislature passed a bill to give poorer districts some additional state funding, but on Friday, according to the NY Times’ Julie Bosman, “In a 47-page ruling, the court rejected that bill, saying the Legislature’s formula ‘creates intolerable, and simply unfair wealth-based disparities among the districts.'” John Hanna of the Associated Press quotes one of the plaintiff’s attorneys: “(I)t would cost the state between $17.5 million and $29.5 million during the 2016-2017 school year to comply with the court’s latest order, depending on whether lawmakers want to prevent any districts from losing aid as they boost funding for the poor ones… Legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday.”  Whether schools open in Kansas next fall will depend on whether the legislature allocates more money at its closing session this week.

Then there is the plight of state colleges and universities.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the 2008 recession devastated state budgets for colleges and universities.  Though states have begun to restore allocations for higher education, tuition is up across the nation and course offerings and even building maintenance have suffered.  “Forty-five states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession.  States cut funding deeply after the recession hit.  The average state is spending $1,525, or 17 percent, less per student than before the recession.  Per student funding in eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—is down by more than 30 percent since the start of the recession.  In 11 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these, three states—Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vermont—have cut per student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”  The report adds that 38 states have begun to restore funding, averaging an increase nationally of 4 percent.  “Over time, students have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education.” “The cost shift from states to students has happened over a period when absorbing additional expenses has been difficult for many families because their incomes have been stagnant or declining.”

In Sunday’s NY Times, David Chen explains the local implications of this trend in New York City: “The troubles at City College, and throughout the entire CUNY system, are representative of a funding crisis that has been building at public universities across the country.  Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital, governments have been pulling back their support.”  In New York City, “While enrollment has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years, Albany’s funding of operating costs—the main source of public money for the 11 four-year colleges, where two-thirds of students are enrolled—has dropped by 17 percent adjusted for inflation….”  Chen profiles Anais McAllister, a senior English major who had hoped to earn a teaching credential until cancellation of required education courses spoiled her plans: “When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year—and another $6,000 at least—to graduate with the education credential.  With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.”

Finally there is the impact of libertarian politics and far-right lobbying by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in our statehouses.  These are the groups driving efforts to reduce regulation and rapidly expand privatization—with powerful charter school networks and their supporters protecting their right to drain tax dollars out of state budgets.  It has looked as though legislators in Michigan are finally coming together on a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from massive debt driven up under state-appointed austerity managers, but a stumbling block is that while the Senate seems willing to establish a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the location, number and quality of charter schools—many of them in Michigan for-profit, the House is balking.  It is known that the Great Lakes Education Project, supported by the far-right Dick and Betsy DeVos, is lobbying hard against the inclusion of the Detroit Education Commission in the Detroit financial rescue, and Kevin Cotter, Speaker of the Michigan House, is reported by the Detroit News to be opposed to the establishment of the commission that would regulate charters: “Cotter remains concerned the commission could be used to ‘unfairly’ target charter schools.”

Brent Larkin, the former editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in a column on Sunday, quotes U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown summarizing the many ways Ohio’s state legislature is beholden these days to privatization and special interests instead of the public good: “The legislature is so close to the payday lenders, so close to the for-profit charter school operators, so close to the oil and gas people, and so close to the gun lobby… It’s their far-right politics.  It’s their campaign contributions. It’s the whole network in Columbus that betrays the public interest so often.”

Should Private Foundations Set the Direction for Public Schools and Higher Education?

For most of us philanthropy connotes public uplift—Carnegie Libraries — grants to support settlement houses — scientific research.  Today, however, when huge foundations have become primary players in the public education policy debate, there is growing concern that the foundations are accountable to their own boards but not to the public.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch, the education historian and school “reform” critic, declares: “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 should be…  The foundations demand that public  schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.” (200-201)

Ravitch dubbed the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations the “Billionaire Boys.”   Like a growing group of their critics, she worries that powerful foundations are increasingly granting proactively to pursue their own explicit agendas rather than responding to the proposals they receive.

Two recent, thoughtful articles raise similar questions.  Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, decries The Billionaires’ War Against Public Education.  Dreier traces the investment of funders—The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, far-right investor Philip Anschutz, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch—in the creation, promotion, and distribution of  films (Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down) that promote privatization and attack public school teachers and teachers unions.

Drier contrasts the work of the Billionaire Boys to the production of a different kind of film, created (without philanthropic support and with a far more modest budget) by teams of college and high school students and professional film makers, each of which followed one person through a school day in Pasadena, California, “where two-thirds of the 18,000 students come from low-income families, where many parents are jobless, where many students live in homes where Spanish is the first (and in some cases only ) language, and in a state where per-student funding ranks 47th in the country.”   Dreier describes the film, Go Public: A Day in the life of an American School District as a sort of collage of footage of the schools, edited without narrative commentary.  I urge you to read his moving description of the film and check out the website.

A second article, a special report recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explores The Gates Effect.  Gates Foundation grants are supporting a major policy shift at the college level—an agenda of “competency-based” higher education that emphasizes a shift to on-line courses; teachers as on-line coaches, not “deliverers of learning;” and measurement of students’  competencies on assigned tasks rather than required hours in class. The goal is “delivering a college degree priced at no more than $5,000 a year.”  Writers for The Chronicle worry that,  “Gates hasn’t just jumped on the bandwagon; it has worked to build that bandwagon, in ways that are not always obvious.  To keep its reform goals on the national agenda, Gates has also supported news-media organizations that cover higher education… The effect is an echo chamber of like-minded ideas arising from research commissioned by Gates and advocated by staff members who move between the government and the foundation world.”