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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...