Is It Time to Escort Bill Gates Out of Our Schools?

Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pauses during a session on day three of the World Econ
Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, pauses during a session on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the five day event runs from Jan. 22-25. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

American constitutional democracy seeks a balance between the empowerment of individuals and the checks and balances necessary to protect the rights of the community. Bill Gates, like so many other billionaires, does not seem to respect the wisdom of poet Robert Frost. "Good fences make good neighbors."

Post-World War II prosperity and freedom was based in no small part on "firewalls." Unbreachable barriers were supposed to separate the investment side of banks and their customers' savings accounts. The wall between the newsroom and the business operations of newspapers was sacrosanct. Labor earned many protections separating the Human Resources departments' agendas and workers' rights to their personal opinions and for asserting their democratic rights. Medical regulations protect personal privacy.

And, medical ethics prevent health providers from experimenting on children without informed and explicit permission by parents. Corporate reformers have been unique in their propensity to roll the dice and gamble on policies that often cause severe damage to children. No other institution would be as dismissive as school reformers have been of the principle of First Do No Harm.

It is not just in education where corporations seek to tear down those fences. Checks on the flow of information are also checks on their cash flow. Whether they are opposed by Paul Volker, Elizabeth Warren or teachers, elites are notoriously impatient with efforts to regulate the flow of their data, their capital, or their political power.

When the Gates Foundation first became involved in education, it could be argued, they were not necessarily unneighborly. They should have taken the time to communicate with educators before jumping into their expensive small schools initiative. But, many of its first contributions were beneficial.

The Billionaires Boys Club was notoriously impatient, however. They were not willing to earn a seat at the head of the table. Corporate reformers quickly concluded that it was necessary to break eggs, as they saw it, to make omelets. They called it "disruptive innovation." Destroy local school boards, university education departments, and the power of unions, and "transformational change" would presumably occur.

So, before long, Gates and the other elites replaced win-win policies, that teachers would have welcomed, with metrics for reward and punishment. For their policy preferences to win, others had to lose.

Gates and Arne Duncan were at the forefront of tearing down the walls that protect educators and students but that would have slowed risky experimentation. The most notorious example was their ridicule of the firewall between the individual teacher's test score growth data and evaluators.

Corporate reformers were contemptuous of the very valid reasons of why some sort of fence needed to be maintained between the guestimates produced by value-added models and HR Departments.

Gates and company were just as oblivious to the necessity of a wall between administrators who conduct professional development sessions and those who evaluate teachers. Remove the barrier between the two and the free flow of ideas about teaching and learning often stops.

They were similarly obtuse about the need for a balance between the autonomy of principals and the autonomy of teachers. Without some sort of fence between the longterm needs for an open classroom culture, and the shortterm need of management to maximize test score numbers, the fundamental principles of public education were placed at risk.

The Gates Foundation has been equally dismissive of the fences designed to protect student privacy. I was shocked the first time I entered a high-performing charter elementary school and saw publicly displayed data walls that violated federal privacy and special education laws. But, then, the Gates InBloom betrayed an even greater insensitivity to the difference between the corporate use of data and the barriers needed to protect students' rights and welfare.

And, that gets us to the reason why teachers are protesting at the Gates Foundation. We did not invite Gates into our classrooms in order to conduct reckless gambles for advancing his vision of disruptive change. We never approved of his jumping the fence and turning our students into lab rats.

Teachers are naturally welcoming of all stakeholders who want to pitch in and make things better. We aren't comfortable with No Trespassing signs. But, the Gates Foundation and other corporate reformers have overstayed their welcome.

If Bill Gates would respect the fences that are necessary to protect educators and students, in particular, and our constitutional democracy in general, most of us would re-welcome his foundation back into school improvement. But, until he repudiates dangerous, under-planned education policy gambles, and starts respecting the principles of public education governance, Gates and the other edu-philanthropists must be escorted out of our schools.