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The Octopuses in School Reform

By Walt Gardner — May 23, 2011 3 min read
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When Michelle Rhee announced that George Parker is joining Students First as its initial senior fellow, the news was greeted with disbelief (“Former Foes Join Forces for Education Reform,” The New York Times, May 21). That’s because as former president of the local teachers union, Parker had often done battle with Rhee as former chancellor of the District of Columbia schools.

It’s hard to know exactly why Parker decided to go on board with Rhee. The news story read much like a press release in trying to explain the reason. Parker said he did not do so for the money. Instead, he said: “We in the unions have to change or we’re not going to be relevant.” He acknowledged that union leaders would see his decision as selling out, but he maintained that he can’t change their opinions.

Perhaps Parker naively swallowed Rhee’s rationale for establishing Students First, or perhaps he just cynically decided that if you can’t beat the big boys, then you have to join them. In either case, his move is a harbinger that does not bode well for the future of public schools. It’s another indication of the power of billionaires to get their way. Although Students First has already amassed $1 billion in the short time it has been in existence, that’s chump change compared to the potential of the Big Three (the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation) to spread their tentacles into all aspects of school reform.

Unlike traditional philanthropy, which supported public schools, these foundations, which collectively are referred to as venture philanthropy, push for privatization, deregulation, and competition. Their primary goal is to produce workers and consumers. They see education strictly in terms of economics. This corporate approach has great appeal to taxpayers who have been led to believe by a sophisticated disinformation campaign that public schools are failing.

Who can blame them for their opinion? If I had not taught in a public school for 28 years and instead relied solely on media reports, I would probably agree. Good news about public schools is rarely accorded the same attention that bad news receives. Even in a nation that guarantees freedom of the press, many of the analysts who write about education issues for the media are financially backed by venture philanthropies.

They’ve been extremely successful in feeding taxpayers a steady diet of horror stories about public schools, in the process convincing them that drastic measures are immediately needed. New groups with such moving names as Rhee’s Students First or Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos’s All Children Matter have an undeniable appeal.

In a front-page story on May 22, The New York Times provided an insight into the influence that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone exerts in school reform (“Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates”). In 2009, the latest year for which its tax returns are available, the foundation spent $373 million on education. This amount is quadruple the amount it spent on advocacy in 2005. The money includes about 360 education grants.

What makes the news so disturbing is that public education reform is supposed to be shaped by open debate. But according to the Times, the Gates Foundation is expected to pour $3.5 billion more into education, with up to 15 percent of the amount on advocacy alone. This is unprecedented in the history of education in this country.

I don’t deny that there are far too many underperforming public schools across the country. Whether they total the 5,000 that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has identified is beside the point. The real issue is what should be done to improve them. It’s on this point that the controversy centers. But I’m willing to bet that once all schools are privatized we won’t hear a peep out of venture philanthropies about performance. They will have achieved their ultimate objective.

Correction: Students First hopes to raise $1 billion. It has not yet reached that goal.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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