Federal Opinion

Schools 4 $Sale: Inquire at U.S. DOE

By Diane Ravitch — May 18, 2010 6 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You and I are old enough to remember heated debates about what democracy in education means. Some argued that it had to do with the governance of education, with the ability of the public to participate in decisions affecting their children. Some maintained that it had to do with the provision of a high-quality education in every school, so that the education available to those with the least resources was as good as the education available to those with the most resources. There were many other definitions, but this much is clear: The argument did not center on whether to have good public schools, but how to make them better for all.

Now we are at a new juncture. The Obama administration has resolved that “school reform” requires privatization of as many public schools as possible. Officials in the administration point to examples of truly excellent privately managed charter schools and imply that all privately managed schools will be equally excellent, just by being privately managed.

Now, anyone who pays attention to the newspapers knows that this presumption is wrong. There are excellent charter schools, and there are fly-by-night operations, and there are greedy speculators who see a chance to make money while drilling kids on the basics, and there are many in-betweens who are yet to prove themselves.

The charter concept is a promising one, but only if the charters commit to helping the kids who can’t make it in regular public schools. Then they would serve an important public service. Most, however, seem to think that they are supposed to compete with public schools and drive them out of business so that privately run schools can take over a basic public function and take over public space, leaving themselves free to remove the most difficult students.

Whence comes the strong and powerful push to turn more public school students over to privately run schools? Well, let me name a few sources. First, there is Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top fund, which dangles $4 billion before the states if only they are willing to open the door to more privately managed schools. Secretary of Education Duncan signaled his intention to promote the charter school “silver bullet” by hiring the CEO COO* of the NewSchools Venture Fund as CEO of the Race to the Top. Honestly, when you put a charter school promoter in charge of $4 billion in federal funds, what else would you expect other than advocacy for privatization?

Then come the billionaires. We already know that the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation are all big-time supporters of privatization. See Chapter 10 in my book for the story of this convergence of agendas.

Then come even more billionaires, usually clustered around one or two overlapping groups. One such group is the aforementioned NewSchools Venture Fund. A recent article in The New York Times described a gathering of this group at a “luxury hotel in Pasadena, California.” At that tony meeting, investors who started companies such as Google and Amazon mingled with executives from the Gates Foundation, McKinsey consultants, and scholars from Stanford and Harvard. Secretary Duncan spoke to the assembled throng by video from Washington and pledged “to combine ‘your ideas with our dollars’ from the federal government.” Yes, indeed, it is a real movement, led by the richest entrepreneurs in our society.

The other group of billionaires devoted to privatization is Democrats for Education Reform. This is a small and politically powerful organization that involves some of the nation’s wealthiest hedge-fund managers. A story in The New York Times explained that when New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo wanted entrée to the hedge-fund crowd for his political fundraising, he had first to meet with Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. No money for his candidacy unless he showed a favorable stance towards privatization. Democrats for Education Reform—referred to as DFER (dee-fer)—is active nationally, promoting the candidacy of pro-charter candidates for state legislatures and for national office.

When I visited Colorado, the local teachers’ union leader told me that her group was vastly outspent by DFER in the debate about legislation meant to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores. That’s another issue DFER is supporting, in tandem with Secretary Duncan and the Race to the Top.

Who is DFER? The Times says it includes the founders of hedge funds such as: Anchorage Capital Partners, with $8 billion under management; Greenlight Capital, with $6.8 billion; and Pershing Square Capital Management, with $5.5 billion. DFER is actively supporting candidates in many states who will help charter school legislation and actively opposing those who do not.

Now, I know Joe Williams, used to have coffee regularly with him when he was a reporter for the New York Daily News, and I like him a lot. And, I don’t begrudge the right of the hedge-fund managers to get involved in political action. It’s a free country.

But something about this scenario is troubling. I guess it is the fundamental unfairness of a fight in which one side has an all-star list of billionaires (and mere multi-millionaires), and the other side has parents and teachers whose resources are meager. Granted, the teachers’ unions have some independent resources, but what they have to spend politically to defend public education is peanuts compared with what the billionaires spend to privatize public schools.

When you add the resources of the billionaires to the vast power of the U.S. Department of Education, it is a very lopsided battle indeed. Arne Duncan has $4 billion-plus to push privatization (on the day this blog is published, he will visit a charter school in Brooklyn that achieves remarkable results; I assume he will not visit the one in Queens that is housed in trailers in a muddy field, placed there to help a developer sell apartments in a not-yet-built building).

Yes, it is troubling to see the full-court press to privatize big chunks of public education. We should have a full public debate about this. With so much of the media fawning over the super-rich and the celebrities who are supporting privatization, it is hard to get that debate. One place to start is this blog: //charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/. Sharon Higgins, a parent activist in Oakland, Calif., is doing the investigative work that the media should be doing. (I notice that her file on charter scandals around the nation is not yet up, but bookmark the site, as it will be, including the fact that 18 charter schools in Philadelphia are under federal investigation for corruption and various financial misdeeds.)

Let me repeat what I said in my book: Some charters are excellent; some are awful. In aggregate, they do not produce better results than regular public schools. But while so many in the media and the glitterati are agog about charters, let’s not forget that more than 95 percent of our students are in the regular public schools. We have a public school system that needs improvement. Nothing coming from Race to the Top will help. It may even do untold harm to the system on which our nation has relied for more than 150 years.

*Bridging Differences initially misidentified Joanne Weiss, the director of the Race to the Top fund, as the former CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund. She was COO. Bridging Differences regrets the error.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.