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Billionaires for Education Reform

Dear Deborah,

We have often discussed the problems of establishing democratic practices in our schools today. This is something you have written about extensively, and it is integral to your pedagogical ideas. Today, the question of democracy looms large as we see increasing efforts to privatize the control of public schools. There is an even more worrisome and allied trend, and that is the growing influence of money in education politics at the state and local levels.

My recent book included a chapter on "The Billionaire Boys Club," in which I described the ideological convergence of the three foundations that spend the most money in the K-12 education sector: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

The Walton Foundation has long been known as staunchly conservative, a steadfast funder of school choice, of vouchers and charters. Now Walton, Gates, and Broad fund many of the same programs, including KIPP and Teach for America, and the Gates foundation funds ultra-conservative advocates of charters and vouchers, such as Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Since my book first appeared, I have learned that there are many more members of the billionaires' boys club (although I do not know which of them are mere multi-millionaires rather than billionaires).

When I was in South Carolina, I heard about a billionaire named Howard Rich, who does not live in that state but has pumped large sums of money into legislative races in an effort to win control for conservative Republicans. Although he is a graduate of the New York City public schools, Mr. Rich does not like public education; he supports vouchers and wants South Carolina to elect a legislature that agrees with him. See here and here and here and here and here.

In North Carolina, a very rich man named Art Pope has reshaped that state's politics. Unlike Mr. Rich, Mr. Pope lives in the state where he uses his wealth to exercise enormous influence. The Republican majority in the state legislature, which Mr. Pope helped to elect, has cut the budget for public education, public higher education, and preschool programs, while lifting the cap on charter schools. See here and here and here.

Among the best-known billionaires promoting school choice and privatization are the billionaire Koch brothers, who gained national notoriety during the protests against Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. And then there is the wealthy DeVos family of Michigan, which spends freely to promote vouchers, charters, and privatization. Betsy DeVos founded the American Federation for Children, which has played an important role in voucher campaigns in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, and elsewhere. Last May, the AFC held a conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss and advocate for vouchers, charters, and privatization; the featured speakers were Michelle Rhee, Gov. Walker, and Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania. See this and this. The Alliance for School Choice is another DeVos organization.

New Jersey has its own billionaires for education reform: David Tepper and Alan Fournier. These wealthy hedge-fund managers say they are Democrats, but support conservative Gov. Chris Christie's attacks on teachers and his proposals for charters and vouchers. Of course, I can't leave out New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the nation's wealthiest people, who for nine years has sought to impose a free-market model on the public schools he controls, but with meager academic results.

This account would not be complete if I didn't mention the Wall Street hedge-fund managers who are active in school "reform." Their organization is called Democrats for Education Reform, and it is the go-to place for candidates who hope to tap into Wall Street campaign funds. DFER spends freely in state and local races to elect candidates who support charter schools and evaluation of teachers by student test scores (although, ironically, many charters are exempt from state requirements to evaluate teachers by student test scores). A recent article lists the hedge-fund managers who sit on charter boards in New York City, and it is indeed astonishing that so many powerful and very rich men have decided that they know how to fix public education.

This is the background that one needs to understand the recent school board race in Denver and the Louisiana state board election.

What does all this outpouring of interest by the wealthiest people in the United States mean? Some no doubt are motivated by idealism. Some think they are leading a new civil rights movement, though I doubt that Dr. King would recognize these financial titans as his colleagues as they impose their will on one of our crucial public institutions. Some hate government. Some love the free market. Some think that the profit motive is more efficient and effective than any public-sector enterprise. All of them share a surprising certainty that they know how to "fix" the public schools and that the people who work in those schools are lazy, unmotivated, incompetent, and not to be trusted.

For me, as a historian, the scary part is that our public schools have never before been subject to such a sustained assault on their very foundations. Never before were there so many people, with such vast resources, intent on dismantling public education. What does this mean for the future of public education? What does it mean for our democracy?


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Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. She is the Co-Founder and President of the Network for Publi...