Apparently, Just Being Rich is Enough to Run Our Nation's Schools

 The mulling of Dr. Ben Carson for Secretary of Education by Donald Trump was perplexing, if not alarming. The appointment of Betsy DeVos, however, is a milestone. Indeed, her appointment as Secretary of Education should be viewed as the capstone to a 30-year takeover of America’s public education system by the elite class of this country.

The Most Qualified Candidate in America

In a letter of support for Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush not only described Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education as an “extraordinary choice,” but also noted that he could not think of anyone more qualified to be Secretary of Education. No one. Really? In the entire K-12, higher education, government, or even charter school sector? No one is more qualified than Betsy DeVos?

If one didn’t know any better it would be easy to agree with the former Florida governor. But to those who do know better, it goes without saying that Betsy DeVos does not have the skills or experience to manage America’s K-12 public schools, not to mention the thousands of programs related to preschools, colleges, student loans, disabled students, teacher standards, career and technical education, and so on. This became abundantly clear in the nominees’ fumbling on simple educational policy questions, her openness for defunding public schools, or even her bizarre justification for banning gun-free school zones.

To be fair, no one has chops in all of these areas. But if DeVos were applying for this position as any normal person would, her bachelor’s degree in business and singular work as a school choice advocate would not get her an interview. But in a new America―and one that was shaped well before Trump’s election―DeVos has the one key attribute that matters most: she is a billionaire.

How did we get here?

Wealth and Educational Policy

To understand the transformation of private wealth into control over public education, one must first examine the growth of charitable giving over the last several decades. According to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, today there are nearly 87,000 private charitable giving foundations with $716 billion in assets and $316 billion in direct private giving. This is nearly a 50% increase over the last two decades.

The growth of foundations has in turn had a direct impact on the growth of private companies doing business in education. While 20 years ago one would be hard-pressed to find a community-based organization actively working on education issues, today there are more than 185,000 nonprofit organizations doing business in the K-12 sector, and almost all of these are either receiving or seeking funding from private giving foundations―just like this one.

So what does this have to do with Betsy DeVos, you ask? Everything. Through a deliberate tax policy (supported by Republicans and Democrats alike) that incentivizes private giving at the expense of collecting tax revenue, we have incrementally handed over control of our schools to private foundations and the elites who own them. This is not meant to sound like a leftist argument; the collective election and appointment of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, respectively, proves this is now a cold hard fact. Like it or not, America has created a system where the uber rich are the primary shapers of public education policy, not in their own wealthy communities, but paradoxically in poorer urban centers. It is a return to what some have referred to as the tyranny of missionaries. The neoliberal “broken government” ideology of the 1980s has simply been adapted to a new “broken schools” rhetoric of the 2000s.

So where are we now?

Fast forward and what do we have in 2017? Here are a few prominent examples: A $100 million dollar grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for teacher evaluation in Tampa Bay, Florida, an initiative so massive that the district received exemption from state law. A $100 million dollar grant from the Zuckerberg Foundation to Newark public schools. A $10 million dollar Future School competition sponsored by the the widow of Steve Jobs. Over $600 million generated by President Barack Obama for My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to support mentoring of young African American males. And now, the appointment of an heir to a family fortune, and the head of a major family foundation, as Secretary of Education.

On the surface all of these investments represent generous giving, innovation, and depending on your disposition, progress. Likewise, the appointment of DeVos can be seen as a move to bring fresh ideas to a system plagued by bureaucracy and insiders.

Under the surface it is not so simple. On the contrary, these developments represent elite theory and neoliberal ideology in full force. After all, every one of these examples accounts for zero taxes paid and dubious outcomes to the public. And almost all involve rigorous experimentation with black and brown children. DeVos’ investments and experiments in Detroit are all the more relevant in this regard. Even Obama’s MBK initiative, while arguably worthy, brings to light the specter of morphing educational policy into foundation-driven passion projects of presidents. One may agree with this president’s values, but what about the next?

While there are thousands of examples of progress and innovation through private giving, the point here is that mega giving, which emulates policy, can be problematic. Accountability is nonexistent. Consider the scorecard on recent high profile examples:

  • By most accounts the $100 million grant in Tampa was a failure, leaving teachers demoralized, displaced, and the district in financial distress. When it didn’t go as planned the foundation pulled out and announced they had simply changed their mind on teacher evaluation as an approach to school improvement. Simple as that.

  • The $100 million project in Newark began as a matching gift negotiated between Mark Zuckerberg and then-mayor Corey Booker. The announcement was not made in a school board meeting but rather on the Oprah Winfrey show. Yet today, all fan fare aside, the results are hardly the sweeping reforms one would have hoped for.

  • As for DeVos and Detroit Schools, there are 20,000 more seats in Detroit charter schools than there are children, leaving students and families displaced in a market-based system that not even economists support. This is just one of the many problems plaguing Detroit schools as a result of the reforms attributed in part to DeVos.

  • This phenomenon is not lost on the international stage either, as the abrupt closure of Gates and Zuckerberg schools in Uganda recently demonstrated.

Mark Zuckerberg meets with an inner city class in Newark shortly after donating $100 million
Mark Zuckerberg meets with an inner city class in Newark shortly after donating $100 million

This is not about Generosity, it is about Democracy

Of course, these are just a few examples of how giving can drive education agendas. On a macro level these can be viewed as policy shifts with long lasting implications, as was the case in Tampa Bay. On a micro, admittedly cynical level, these are pet projects for the top 1%. The latter is consistent with research that suggests that when it comes to engagement in education, business leaders care most about their own children’s schools.

It should also be noted that this type of giving is not a reflection of all private donations, even among prominent foundations. There are countless examples of generous giving that is both transparent and contextually appropriate for the community. Most would agree that philanthropy absolutely has its place in America’s schools. Likewise, stalwarts like the Carnegie Foundation, Wallace Foundation and many others give readily to research and initiatives that, while informing and shaping policy, do not necessarily bypass traditional democratic structures or siphon resources from public entities. There is a difference between funding research and programs that impact practice, curriculum, or even school choice, and using this as a means to take over the agency that oversees these policies. It is here where DeVos’ conflicts of interest should sound alarms, not just for the masses but for her peers in the philanthropy community.

Ultimately this is about democracy. Who leads and the values for which one stands should be a reflection of society, the needs and desires of its citizens. That is why we have school board elections, budget meetings, and the democratic confirmation of leaders---even bureaucrats like DeVos. These are servants that meet the needs of the people, at the will of the people. While monolithic and boring, that is democracy. And that is the American public education system. Anything else is, well, elites running America’s schools---just because they have more money.

Disclaimer - The author was an administrator in the Tampa school district mentioned in this article