Rich guys and the assault on public education

(Cross-posted from “Bridging Differences” a blog on the website of Education Week that features a series of letters between national education policy analysts Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. The following post is by Diane Ravitch.)

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?



  1. John Grooms

    November 16, 2011 at 10:40 am

    This is an excellent view of a part of the big problems facing public education in the U.S., and it’s especially relevant to North Carolinians in its reporting on Art Pope’s disastrous influence on our state. As a Charlotte resident, I would urge education advocates in the Triangle to also be more aware, and beware of, the Broad Foundation, which was briefly mentioned in Ms. Ravitch’s post. Under our former school superintendent, Peter Gorman, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System has been largely turned over to the Broad Foundation, which preaches a top-down, “corporate model” of organization, long on testing, testing and more testing, and short on input from, never mind respect for, teachers and parents. The community here is in the midst of a school board campaign in which the Broad forces are being challenged, albeit quietly, by advocates for teachers and students who want less corporate influence on the schools. You can get a capsule view of the Charlotte situation in this article written by yours truly for Creative Loafing newspaper: http://clclt.com/charlotte/charlotte-mecklenburg-schools-broad-foundation-award-not-so-pretty-on-the-inside/Content?oid=2486994
    As an aside, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Gorman, who is Broad-trained and rewarded, left Charlotte for a job with the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp.’s Education Division. That division was launched so Murdoch could turn a profit from the increasingly lucrative “school reform” business, which largely amounts to peddling for-profit education technology. Read about that nauseating development here: http://clclt.com/charlotte/murdoch-peter-gormans-employer-gathers-schoolkids-personal-info/Content?oid=2388909

  2. Eunice

    November 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    You folks are in a time warp. The world is moving right by us, and you are still pushing some old model that’s 50 years old, and not working very well. You should be embracing the new innovation and competition in the schools, not fighting it. I compare current education with the 1980’s union- built cars that were so shoddy everyone stopped buying them, and who came in with the innovative cars, Japan. You can spin the current model any way you want to, but folks it ain’t working.

  3. frances

    November 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Super Pac of the Democratic Party gave money to Hill in the school board race in Wake county. PPP’s Mr. Dean gave $5,000.00 in the race. Groups in several other area of the coutry gave money. Is this okay, so big money and outside money is controlling education in NC. If it is not okay for Art Pope, why is this okay?

  4. kimb

    November 17, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Ultimately, this is about money. Here in the triangle, we have never had a strong market for private schools. By discrediting and then dismantling the public school system Art Pope and his buddies hope to move in with for-profit private schools all to make a few dollars. Don’t believe me? Count the non-religious private schools in Wake county. I spent 13 years in Wake County public schools as a student. Art Pope has been attacking public education since the 1980’s.

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