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Danielle Holly: Billionaires are Undermining Democracy By Their “Investments” in Education

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Danielle Holly writes in the NonProfit Quarterly that billionaires who put their philanthropic dollars into education are benefiting themselves, not children. How do they benefit? Their donations put them in control of what is supposed to be a democratic institution. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and dozens of other “philanthropists” have decided on the basis of their whims that schools need the change that their money buys or imposes.

Perhaps Holly would not be so blunt, but that is what her article says.

Two philosophical challenges have arisen with the nature of these investments. The first, which NPQ has discussed at length, is that it limits democratic control over the nation’s public education system. In effect, education philanthropy puts education program design in a few hands who are, by definition, outsiders, and often less expert and less informed than those who are doing the work. In the case of CZI, which was established as a limited liability corporation instead of a philanthropic foundation, there are also related issues of transparency.

“Philanthropy is the least democratic institution on earth,” says Professor David Nasaw, a historian who has researched Carnegie’s philanthropic focus on education. “It’s rich men deciding what to do.”

She puts Andrew Carnegie’s gift of free public libraries on the same plane as the gifts of Gates, Zuckerberg, and Bezos, but I disagree. Carnegie did not tell any library he funded what books to buy nor did he tell patrons what books to read. Carnegie’s gift of public libraries were good charity that did not detract from democracy. By contrast, our billionaires today have invested heavily in privatization of public schools, which is a direct attack on democracy. They buy compliance with large gifts. When they can’t buy compliance, they buy local and state school board election. That should be illegal. They should be prosecuted for attacking democracy. Their in-the-daylight efforts to buy control of state and local school boards should be seen as akin to the Russian efforts to manipulate the 2016 elections. Both illegitimate.

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