Beware: Opponents of Elizabeth Warren’s Education Plan Have a Vested Interest in Expanding School Privatization

In October, Elizabeth Warren released an exemplary plan for public education. As she campaigns across the country to be chosen as the Democratic candidate for President in 2020, I hope she will continue to advocate for the important principles in her public education plan.

In the past decade public schools in many places have been beleaguered by dropping state revenue in the 2008 recession and politicians further cutting taxes. And over several decades, a new philosophy of education has been acted into law by ideologues who promote corporate accountability driven by evaluating schools and teachers by students’ standardized test scores and punishing schools that fall behind in a system based on competition. Because aggregate test scores in any school have been shown by a half century of research to correlate with the family income of the students in the school, and because our society has become highly segregated by income, this system has shut down public schools in the poorest neighborhoods, produced state takeover of struggling big city schools and school districts, and prescribed school privatization—more charter schools and vouchers—as though it is a solution.

Warren’s plan turns away from corporate, test-and-punish school reform and calls for strengthening America’s public schools.  The plan demands that Congress quadruple the federal investment in Title I, the 1965 Great Society program to support public schools serving concentrations of children in poverty. Warren’s plan calls on Congress fully to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal program which mandates that schools provide specialized services for disabled students. In 1975, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of IDEA’s cost, but last year Congress continued years of underfunding when it chose to fund only 15 percent of the IDEA’s mandated programming.  Warren calls for adding 25,000 Community Schools, making these public schools into neighborhood centers for families in impoverished neighborhoods—with schools housing wraparound health, social service, and after school and summer programs right in the school building.  Warren calls for strengthening English language education for students whose primary language is not English, and she insists that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights be strengthened after four years of Betsy DeVos’s weakening civil rights enforcement.

Warren also calls for reining in out-of-control diversion of public school funds to privatized charter schools and vouchers.  Warren would not only ban for-profit charter schools but she would also ban the lucrative arrangements by which states now permit nonprofit charter schools to be operated by for-profit management companies, which reap massive profits from our tax dollars.

Finally, Warren advocates ending the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), a stream of federal grant money used by states authorizing charter schools and charter management organizations to start-up new charter schools. In a scathing report, Asleep at the Wheel, released last March, the Network for Public Education found that the federal Charter Schools Program, launched in 1994, has awarded $4 billion in federal tax dollars to start up or expand charter schools across 44 states and the District of Columbia.  This program has provided some of the funding for 40 percent of the charter schools across the country, but, as the Network for Public Education has shown, at least a third of the schools receiving CSP dollars either never opened or opened and then quickly shut down due to financial or academic problems. The findings by the Network for Public Education are mirrored in a series of  biennial investigations, beginning in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General, which has repeatedly condemned this program for lack of record keeping and the utter absence of oversight of states’ and charter management organizations’ use of the funds.

It shouldn’t be surprising that supporters of the rapid expansion of charter schools have begun condemning Warren’s education plan. Warren makes a solid case for curtailing the publicly funded expansion of privatized alternatives to public schools.  Advocates for  public education, however, strongly endorse Warren’s plan and dispute the arguments of the charter school supporters who are criticizing it.

Three weeks ago, in the Washington Post, Carol Burris published a column to refute arguments being made against Warren’s education plan by charter school supporters.  Burris, was one of the authors of the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report.  In her column, Burris points out that in 2018, under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the federal Charter Schools Program was expanded to include a new funding stream, the National Dissemination Grants Program, under which DeVos began awarding federal grants from the CSP to charter school advocacy organizations themselves. In 2018, for example, under the new National Dissemination Grants Program, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools received a federal grant of $2,385,960.  Burris explains: “The new National Dissemination Grants Program has… been a financial windfall for charter advocacy groups … Grants to private organizations totaled $16 million in 2018, federal records show.  Joining the National Alliance were the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the California Charter Schools Association….”

Burris describes strong condemnation of Warren’s plan, for example, by Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who responded to the release of Warren’s plan in a fundraising letter: “Today Presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren called to end federal funding for the expansion of charter schools… Please contribute to the Charter Schools Action PAC today.”

Burris also describes resistance from Tom Torkelson, the leader of one of the nation’s largest chains of charter schools, IDEA Charter Schools. Burris explains: “Torkelson, the CEO of the IDEA charter chain has a… vested interest in the preservation of the Federal Charter Schools Program.  IDEA Charter Schools has received $225,000,000 from the Charter Schools Program since 2010. In 2018, IDEA had nearly $900 million in assets. That year, Torkelson earned over $550,000 from the charter chain and its related organization….” When Elizabeth Warren released her education plan, Torkelson sent this to his allies: “Senator Warren has proposed to cut the entire charter schools federal program. We need your help today.”

Finally Burris quotes Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation and one of the founders of the huge Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school chain.  Barth condemned Warren’s education plan in a fund raising plea from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools PAC. He wrote: “Friends, We can’t let Senator Warren’s plan of cutting charter school funding become reality.”  Burris adds that in 2010, KIPP charters received $218,457,063 from the federal CSP.

In a second column last week, Burris responds once again to charter school advocates’ attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s education plan.  In her recent column, Burris is joined by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor of education policy.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss published the column from Burris and Wener, and she adds that Welner, “was among the researchers consulted by Warren’s policy team as they drew up her education plan—but they (NEPC researchers) had no involvement in, or awareness of, this commentary” by Burris and Welner.

Burris and Welner confront charter school operators who have said they would lose essential dollars if the federal Charter Schools Program were eliminated. Burris and Welner note that because charter schools, like traditional public schools, receive federal Title I dollars and IDEA dollars, charter schools would gain more from Warren’s plan than they would lose from the elimination of the federal CSP: “Consider two… elements of Warren’s education plan.  First, she proposes quadrupling Title I funding so that it rises to levels that have long been pledged by Washington politicians but never actually reached. Secondly, and similarly, she would more than double federal funding for students with special needs served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—again aiming for levels long promised but never fulfilled.”

Burris and Welner criticize charter schools for serving fewer English language learners, fewer students with disabilities, fewer homeless students, and fewer students eligible for subsidized lunch than the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods.

Burris and Welner add that federal Charter Schools Program grants have disproportionately been awarded to the enormous chains of charter schools which enrich their operators with huge salaries: “(A) greatly disproportionate amount of the funding has been funneled to large Charter Management Organizations.  The Success Academy charter chain in New York City, for example, has received $47,540,399 from CSP, even as it paid its CEO nearly $800,000 in 2016.”

Last week, charter advocates gathered in a public demonstration against Warren’s education plan.  As Warren addressed an audience at Clark Atlanta University, a crowd of charter school advocates in matched t-shirts showed up to challenge her proposal to cut support for charter schools.  It turns out that this was not a spontaneous grassroots protest; instead the crowd was recruited by charter school support organizations from across the country and led by Howard Fuller, the charter school advocate who also led organizing for the Milwaukee voucher program twenty years ago.  Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum reports: “Fuller, former Milwaukee schools chief and advocate for private school vouchers, told Warren that her language is helping anti-charter efforts across the country. A number of states, including California, Illinois, and Michigan, have recently moved to limit charter schools or cut their funding.”

Who were the people at the Clark Atlanta University protest? Barnum reports: “Fuller told Chalkbeat that roughly 200 people from a number of overlapping groups took part in the protest. That included the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools, a group that Fuller started with Connecticut charter school leader Steve Perry. They (protest organizers) worked with the Powerful Parent Network—a collection of groups in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, and elsewhere… They were funded by an online campaign, which has raised over $16,000 from a mix of small donations and several anonymous $1,000 contributions.”  One of the participating groups, Memphis Lift, “has received $1.5 million from the Walton Family Foundation since 2015.”  Another participating group was the Oakland Reach: “(M)ost of the staff of the Oakland Reach, a parent group, was in Atlanta for the protest.  The Oakland Reach is funded by local and national foundations, including Walton and The City Fund, which is backed by John Arnold and Read Hastings… Bryan Morton, who leads a Camden group supported by The City Fund, was also present.”

Elizabeth Warren’s education plan is radical, ironically, simply because it supports America’s traditional system of public schools. While advocates for charter schools imagine using public tax dollars to create escapes for a small percentage of students from public schools into an unregulated education sector which has, incidentally, become saturated with corruption and academic failure, Warren’s plan aims instead to ensure well funded, high quality public schools in every school district.  Warren is suggesting the kind of adequate funding, for example, that public school teachers, on strike in Chicago, bargained for last month when they won a promise for an additional $35 million every year to restore reasonable class sizes across the district’s schools. The size of that increase alone for class size reduction is the clearest indication I have observed of how totally out-of-kilter funding for education has become in many states. Similarly, a central demand by striking teachers in Los Angeles was for the most basic level of staffing in every public school—including a school nurse, a certified librarian, a social worker, and an adequate number of guidance counselors.

Whatever happens with Warren’s candidacy in the Democratic primary election season, I hope she won’t back off her plan to demand justice for the public schools which serve nearly 50 million children and adolescents across the United States.

JEB! Comes to Harvard

It seems JEB! is back, sort of.  He has taken on a new gig as a lecturer about education policy this fall at Harvard University. His position will be to present on education issues at the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is part of the Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local GovernmentValerie Strauss reports that he will be lecturing in a course titled, “The Political Economy of the School.”

Let’s review Jeb Bush’s contributions to education policy in Florida, where he was a governor who prioritized education “reform.” Later, after his term as governor of Florida ended, he founded a national education advocacy organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.  This blog has covered Bush’s ideas and so-called school reform “accomplishments” here and here in posts that highlighted a report by Lindsey Layton for the Washington Post and an in-depth profile by Alec MacGillis in the New Yorker.

Here is a brief summary. Jeb worked very hard to bring school vouchers to Florida. His first attempt back in 1998, the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign, was later found to violate the state’s constitution, but eventually he got the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program operating. He rapidly expanded charter schools during his term, and he encouraged the non-profit schools to hire the big for-profit management chains to operate the schools. Bush introduced the A-F letter grades for schools and school districts that this blog has shown to promote segregation by income across metropolitan areas in states that have tried it. Under Governor Bush, Florida launched the (much-copied) Third Grade Guarantee, that denies promotion to fourth grade for any third-grader who cannot pass the state’s reading test—even though research demonstrates that retention-in-grade at any time in a student’s academic life increases the risk of dropping out when the student becomes an adolescent. After his term as governor ended, Bush formed an education advocacy foundation to promote privatization and his other pet education theories. This Foundation for Excellence in Education created Chiefs for Change, a network of far-right state secretaries of education who were shown to be willing to be paired with corporations in the education sector and who fanned out across other states to serve as matchmakers between state education leaders and companies partnering with the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Bush launched a for-profit chain of phonics-based, after school tutoring programs that profited from No Child Left Behind’s Supplemental Educational Services tutoring dollars. Bush has actively promoted the Common Core.

In 2015, Jeb Bush resigned from the board of his foundation to run for president, but in May 2016, Bush rejoined the Foundation for Excellence in Education as its Chairman and President of the Board.

Valerie Strauss explains that Bush’s education theories seem to have fallen out of favor: “Bush as much as anyone led the reform movement that centered on using standardized test scores as the chief metric of ‘accountability’ for schools and pushing for the privatization of public education… But in recent years, Bush’s view of school reform has run into rough waters. The test-based accountability system that he built in Florida essentially collapsed as the integrity of the test scores was questioned repeatedly by school districts, and as a movement against corporate school reform has gained significant traction across the country. Critics accused him of wanting to privatize the entire public education system and noted that he doesn’t call public school districts ‘public school districts,’ but rather says that the United States has ‘over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.'”

So why is Harvard bringing in Jeb Bush as an education expert?  Actually Bush is coming to the Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, not the College of Education. What is the Program on Education Policy and Governance?

Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, explain how philanthropists promote their own agendas by underwriting “individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles…  While groups have traditionally done this through the quasi-lobbying think tank sector, market advocates have increasingly seeded and sustained academic units that provide an added veneer of objectivity to the empirical claims supporting their political agenda.  These university-based groups, in turn, have quite often declined or failed to pass their pro-market research findings through established, peer-reviewed academic journals….  Two academic entities aptly illustrate these patterns.  The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-vouchers scholars and public figures on its board.  Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”  (The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, pp. 135-136)

Paul Peterson is the director of Harvard’s program. And Jay P. Greene is listed on PEPG’s website as leading one of its Research Affiliates—the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Among the other researchers affiliated with PEPG, according to its website, are Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and Caroline M. Hoxby, the Stanford University economist whose research has reliably supported vouchers.

Valerie Strauss explains further: “The course to which Bush will contribute at Harvard is taught by Paul E. Peterson, a professor and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance; and John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent for education.  Peterson and White have been supporters of the kind of school reform that Bush made famous.”

Governors are becoming famous for their metaphors describing school choice. Ohio’s John Kasich was parodied by comedian, John Oliver for comparing choosing charter schools to choosing pizza toppings. Valerie Strauss quotes Jeb Bush’s metaphor: “Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose. Go down any supermarket aisle—you’ll find an incredible selection of milk.  You can get whole milk, 2 percent milk, low-fat milk or skim milk.  Organic milk, and milk with extra vitamin D. There’s flavored milk—chocolate, strawberry or vanilla—and it doesn’t even taste like milk.  They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk. Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools?”

The Billionaire Boys: Reinvesting A Small Percent of the Spoils of Capitalism

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber may be a little theoretical for the general reader, but he really gets what’s happening these days:   “We can be glad Carnegie built libraries, glad that the Gateses are battling AIDS, but inequality will not end because billionaires give back some of the spoils of monopoly.” (Consumed, p. 77) “Philanthropy is a form of private capital aimed at achieving public outcomes, but it cannot substitute for public resources and public will in confronting public calamities… Rescuing victims through individual philanthropy cannot be a substitute for helping citizens avoid victimization through effective public governance in which citizens share real power.” (Consumed, p. 131)

In his blog this week, the Rev. John Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, examines the role of mega-philanthropy and the power of the people the education historian Diane Ravitch has dubbed “the Billionaire Boys Club.”

Rev. Thomas names the ethical contradiction embedded in today’s venture philanthropy: “First, the concentration of philanthropic capacity in the hands of a relatively few white men is fueled, in significant measure, by tax policies that favor the already wealthy at the expense of public coffers, policies that are enacted by politicians beholden to the gifts of those same wealthy few… In addition, these policies are frequently fronts for an anti-government and anti-union bias which dismisses the role of public initiatives… in favor of a benevolent paternalism.”  One reason the Billionaire Boys have so much to invest through their mega-foundations is that tax cuts at the federal and state level have been tilted to favor the extremely wealthy and burden those whose incomes are far lower, exacerbating inequality and the plight of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Rev. Thomas identifies three problems embedded in venture philanthropy. (Rev. Thomas attributes the identification of these problems to Lester M. Salamon,  Director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.)   The first is philanthropic particularism, which Rev. Thomas defines as: “the tendency for givers to  focus on particular groups that appear to be ‘deserving.’ But of course that calculation is colored—let’s use this term deliberately—by social location.”  Rev. Thomas is very clear about the social location of the wealthy white men who control this conversation.

The second is philanthropic paternalism.  Rev. Thomas writes: “Philanthropists today focus on the outcomes they deem appropriate or interesting, either creating the organizations that will advance those outcomes, or bending the traditional missions of established institutions to fit their agendas.  As control of philanthropic resources is more and more concentrated… money is more and more channeled toward the passions of a few individuals….”

And finally, there is philanthropic insufficiency.  According to Rev. Thomas:  “Particularly in times of economic recession, and an attendant agenda of government austerity, the voluntary sector becomes incapable of matching what has been lost by the deliberate gutting of the public treasury to be used for broad purposes.” However well intentioned, charity cannot replace systemic justice.

Writing for Dissent Magazine, Joanne Barkan has detailed how all this affects public education: “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… But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad… Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field…  Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the reforms are not working… Gates and Broad helped to shape and fund two of the nation’s most extensive and aggressive school reform programs—in Chicago and New York City—but neither has produced credible improvement in student performance after years of experimentation.” (Just last month this blog covered  Lindsay Layton’s Washington Post piece exposing the role of the Gates Foundation in underwriting all aspects of the development and promotion of the Common Core Standards and tests.)

Barkan describes the interests and passions in which the three giants of education philanthropy have been dabbling: “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.”

The fact that the Billionaire Boys can buy an extensive and long-running public relations and media campaign is one reason we haven’t had a thorough public conversation to compare the experiments of the philanthropists with our historic system of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public.  We ought to be asking which sort of schools do a better job of balancing the needs of each particular child and family with the capacity to secure the rights and address the needs of all children.

Walmart Has Ruined our Towns: Will We Let the Walton Foundation Destroy our Schools?

Motoko Rich’s recent blockbuster article in the NY Times explores the vast reach of the Walton Foundation to promote and support the privatization of public education.  What has happened in Washington, D.C., writes Rich, is a microcosm of Walton’s investments in the promotion of an education revolution across the country: “In effect, Walton has subsidized an entire charter school system in the nation’s capital, helping to fuel enrollment growth so that close to half of all public school students in the city now attend charters, which receive taxpayer dollars but are privately operated… The foundation has awarded more than $1 billion in grants nationally to educational efforts since 2000, making it one of the largest private contributors to education in the country.”

Rich describes grants of over $1.2 million from the Walton Foundation to DC Prep, a Washington, D.C. network of four charter schools.  Walton also supports Teach for America, the alternative, five-week, Peace Corps-like certification program that has become a primary supplier of teachers for charter schools not only in the nation’s capital but across the country.  Not only does the Walton Foundation support particular privatized charter networks and programs to certify teachers outside the colleges of education, but it also funds the think tanks that have created and promoted the theoretical basis for today’s wave of school privatization including the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  It even “bankrolls an academic department at the University of Arkansas in which faculty, several of whom were recruited from conservative think tanks, conduct research on charter schools, voucher programs and other policies the foundation supports.”

Recently, according to Rich, Walton hired a staff person from the American Legislative Exchange Council as an education program officer. Rich lists Walton’s largest education grant recipients: the Charter School Growth Fund, Teach for America, KIPP charter schools, the Alliance for School Choice, GreatSchools Inc., StudentsFirst—Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.  “The size of the Walton foundation’s wallet allows it to exert an outsize influence on education policy…. With its many tentacles, it has helped fuel some of the fastest growing and most divisive, trends in public education—including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.

While Rich acknowledges serious criticism of the Walton Foundation by supporters of public education including Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roeckel, president of the National Education Association, the stories she tells of high test scores at DC Prep and a father whose son attends Washington, D.C.’s Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and the Arts are from the point of view of particular families and parents who seek school choice for the purpose of meeting their own children’s needs.  The father admits, “Charter schools are a bit of a disservice to the public schools…. But in the meantime, between everyone fighting about it, I did not want my kids to be caught in the limbo.”

One can surely understand the lure of school choice from the viewpoint of individual parents who want to do right by their children, but one wishes Rich had done more to remind us what kind of  disservice to public education the D.C. charter school father may have been thinking about.  She quotes Marc Sternberg, who recently left Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education department in New York City to become director of K-12 education reform at the Walton Foundation: “The Walton Family Foundation has been deeply committed to a theory of change, which is that we have a moral obligation to provide families with high quality choices,” but Rich does not consider whether it is in fact possible to provide good choices for every child and family.  Rich comments, “While charter schools and vouchers may benefit those families that attend these schools, there may be unintended effects on the broader public school system,” but she does not explore closely what those effects may be.  She extolls the high test scores of DC Prep, but she does not examine, for example,  its attrition rate (an indicator in many places that charters have been known to shed students who will bring down score averages).  Neither does she report on the number of special education students, English learners, and extremely poor children enrolled (or not enrolled) at DC Prep in comparison to statistics for the District’s traditional public schools.

What does the Walmartization of American public education mean for the public education system that developed over two of centuries and that aspired to serve all of our society’s children?  Here we move from from the market world of Walmart to the more abstract principles of education philosophy, political philosophy, and public morality.  How quaint these ideas have come to seem in our corporatized and marketized world.  Our society has traditionally affirmed the principle that public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public—is the best way to try to ensure that all children are served.  We have thought of the public schools as the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need for a system that secures the rights of all children.  These goals have been aspirational, and we have made slow but sure progress in expanding the rights of children in marginalized groups to kind of public education that middle class children in the dominant culture have taken for granted.

Even in our corporatized world, there are proponents of a public system of education.  In a stirring address in 2000, at Teachers College, Columbia University, the late Senator Paul Wellstone describes society’s public moral obligation to serve all children.  He critiques the lack of equity in our public schools even as he speaks for public schools as the site where we must work collectively to serve all children: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”  The Rev. Jesse Jackson expresses the same profound ideal in this pithy observation: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run.  Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

Wellstone and Jackson remind us of society’s obligation to our collective children, but the idea is not merely that we aspire to equity for the sake of doing the good thing.  Both also believe that society itself benefits when all are prepared to participate actively in our democracy and all are prepared to share their gifts socially, politically, and economically.  Just over a hundred years ago, John Dewey, America’s best known philosopher of education, described this public benefit from universal public education:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children…. Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

For help thinking about the pervasive consumerism and commercialization of just about everything in our society today, I find myself drawn to Consumed, a fascinating book by the political philosopher, Benjamin Barber. Consider the following passage in the context of Motoko Rich’s article on the Walton Foundation’s school privatization enterprise:  “The transfer of public power to private hands often is associated with a devolution of power; but in fact privatizing power does not devolve but only commercializes it, placing it in private hands that may be as centralized and monopolistic as government, although usually far less transparent and accountable, and also pervasively commercial.”(p. 145)

Barber would worry about turning the privatization of education over to Sam Walton, his descendents and the program officers of the Walton Foundation.  He would caution that these folks are less likely than a deliberative public body to look out for the interests of the children who are being lured into the charter schools in the District of Columbia and America’s other big cities these days: “The idea that liberty entails only private choice runs afoul of our actual experiences as consumers and citizens.  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.  The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.  We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.”(p. 139)