Bill Gates Billionaires Broad Foundation Democracy Gates Foundation Parent trigger Walton Foundation

Joanne Barkan: How Plutocrats Undermine Democracy and Public Education

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Joanne Barkan has written several brilliant essays about the billionaires who use their philanthropies to undermine democracy and public education.

This is one of her best.

She writes:

“For a dozen years, big philanthropy has been funding a massive crusade to remake public education for low-income and minority children in the image of the private sector. If schools were run like businesses competing in the market—so the argument goes—the achievement gap that separates poor and minority students from middle-class and affluent students would disappear. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have taken the lead, but other mega-foundations have joined in to underwrite the self-proclaimed “education reform movement.” Some of them are the Laura and John Arnold, Anschutz, Annie E. Casey, Michael and Susan Dell, William and Flora Hewlett, and Joyce foundations.

“Each year big philanthropy channels about $1 billion to “ed reform.” This might look like a drop in the bucket compared to the $525 billion or so that taxpayers spend on K–12 education annually. But discretionary spending—spending beyond what covers ordinary running costs—is where policy is shaped and changed. The mega-foundations use their grants as leverage: they give money to grantees who agree to adopt the foundations’ pet policies. Resource-starved states and school districts feel compelled to say yes to millions of dollars even when many strings are attached or they consider the policies unwise. They are often in desperate straits.

“Most critiques of big philanthropy’s current role in public education focus on the poor quality of the reforms and their negative effects on schooling—on who controls schools, how classroom time is spent, how learning is measured, and how teachers and principals are evaluated. The harsh criticism is justified. But to examine the effect of big philanthropy’s ed-reform work on democracy and civil society requires a different focus. Have the voices of “stakeholders”—students, their parents and families, educators, and citizens who support public education—been strengthened or weakened? Has their involvement in public decision-making increased or decreased? Has their grassroots activity been encouraged or stifled? Are politicians more or less responsive to them? Is the press more or less free to inform them? According to these measures, big philanthropy’s involvement has undoubtedly undermined democracy and civil society.

“The best way to show this is to describe how mega-foundations actually operate on the ground and how the public has responded. What follows are reports on a surreptitious campaign to generate support for a foundation’s teaching reforms, a project to create bogus grassroots activity to increase the number of privately managed charter schools, the effort to exert influence by making grant money contingent on a specific person remaining in a specific public office, and the practice of paying the salaries of public officials hired to implement ed reforms.

“You Can’t Fool All of the People All of the Time

“The combination of aggressive style, controversial programs, and abundant money has led some mega-foundations into the world of “astroturfing.” This is political activity designed to appear unsolicited and rooted in a local community without actually being so. Well-financed astroturfing suffocates authentic grassroots activity by defining an issue and occupying the space for organizing. In addition, when astroturfers confront grassroots opposition, the astroturfers have an overwhelming advantage because of their resources. Sometimes, however, a backlash flares up when community members realize that paid outsiders are behind a supposedly local campaign.”

Barkan describes the Parent Trigger Law, which was financed by billionaires to enable low-income parents to take control of their schools and turn it over to a charter operator. The money was used to send organizers into low-income communities, create discord, and persuade parents to sign petitions. “The process was bound to divide communities, and it was open to abuse and outside manipulation. But most important, the law destroyed the democratic nature of public education. This year’s parents don’t have the right to close down a public school or give it away to a private company any more than this year’s users of a public park can decide to pave it over or name a private company to run it with tax dollars (see Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error, 2013). Voters—directly or through their elected officials—decide on and pay for public institutions in a democracy.”

In retrospect, Parent Trigger was a bust. Seven years and many millions of dollars later, only one or two schools were charterized. And there have been no studies of whether it made a difference. The billionaires did get a hardworking Mexican-American principal fired, and almost every member of her staff left with her in protest. What a waste.

Barkan writes that the most grievous misdeed of the billionaires is their assault on democracy. If they can’t get what they want through normal channels, they use their resources to buy what they want.

“Philanthropies risk losing their tax-exempt status if they donate directly to candidates for public office, so some foundations have tried other ways to ensure they have the people they want in key posts.

“The Los Angeles–based Broad Foundation stipulated in the contract for a $430,000 grant to New Jersey’s Board of Education that Governor Chris Christie remain in office. As the Star-Ledger reported (December 13, 2012), the Newark-based Education Law Center had forced the release of the contract through the state’s Open Public Records Act. For the center’s executive director, David Sciarra, “It is a foundation driving public educational policy that should be set by the Legislature.” The Broad Foundation’s senior communications director responded, “[W]e consider the presence of strong leaders to be important when we hand over our dollars.”

“The foundation sector will fight reform ferociously—as it has in the past. When asked to forgo some influence or contribute more in taxes, the altruistic impulse stalls.

“The keep-Chris-Christie clause was not the first time a staffing prerequisite was discovered in a grant contract with a public entity. In 2010 Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee negotiated promises for $64.5 million in grants from the Broad, Walton, Robertson, and Arnold foundations. Rhee planned to use part of the money to finance a proposed five-year, 21.6 percent increase in teachers’ base salary. In exchange she demanded that the union give her more control over evaluating and firing teachers and allow bonus pay for teachers who raised student test scores.

“In March 2010 the foundations sent separate letters to Rhee stating that they reserved the right to withdraw their money if she left. They also required that the teachers ratify the proposed contract (Washington Post, April 28, 2010). Critics challenged not only the heavy-handed intrusion into an acrimonious contract negotiation but also the legality of the stipulation on Rhee: hadn’t she negotiated a grant deal that served her own employment interests? The teachers ratified the contract, but the extremely unpopular Rhee resigned in October 2010 after Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had hired her, lost the Democratic mayoral primary. By that time, much of the grant money had been spent, and the new schools chancellor kept Rhee’s policies.

“Private foundations have used another tactic to exert influence on the Los Angeles Unified School District: they paid the salaries of more than a dozen senior staffers. According to the Los Angeles Times (December 16, 2009), the privately financed “public” employees worked on such ed-reform projects as new systems to evaluate teachers and collect immense amounts of data on students. Much of the money came from the Wasserman Foundation ($4.4 million) and the Walton Family Foundation ($1.2 million); Ford and Hewlett made smaller grants. The Broad Foundation covered the $160,000 salary of Matt Hill to run the district’s Public School Choice program, which turned so-called low-performing and new schools over to private operators. Hill had worked in Black & Decker’s business development group before he went through one of the Broad Foundation’s uncertified programs to train new education administrators. A Times editorial on January 12, 2010 asked, sensibly, “At what point do financial gifts begin reshaping public decision-making to fit a private agenda?…Even the best-intentioned gifts have a way of shifting behavior. Educators and the public, not individual philanthropists, should set the agenda for schools.”

The Plutocrats want to abolish public control of public education. They have sponsored one failed “reform” after another.

They never learn.

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