The Corporate Takeover of Public Education

Will they create a world of equal opportunity that is the spirit animating our nation's education professionals? Or will they create a world to their liking in which parents and professional educators will have little or any voice?
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Independent research in recent months has documented that the nation's wealthiest philanthropic foundations are steering funding away from public school systems, attended by 90 percent of American students, and toward "challengers" to public education, especially charter schools.

Education Week recently reported that at the start of the decade, less than a quarter of K-12 giving from top foundations was given to groups supporting charter schools and privatization, about $90 million in all.

By 2010, $540 million -- fully 64 percent of major foundation giving -- was directed to these private groups, including KIPP, Teach for America, the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, and the D.C. Public Education Fund.

The best-known alumni of groups now getting the lion's share of funding from the nation's eight largest foundations are Michelle Rhee, John White of Louisiana, and Kevin Huffman of Tennessee, all of whom support vouchers and charters.

The extent to which these groups will go to supplant the public school system is deeply disturbing. In Louisiana, for example, the scheme to redirect public funds to private groups through a voucher system under emergency circumstances in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was especially egregious. As a result of legal action taken by our union, the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), Louisiana's Supreme Court last month ruled 6-1 that the funding scheme violated the state's constitution.

The foundations reshaping America's education landscape are less devious than Louisiana privateers, but no less troubling in their commitment to dictating policy without regard to demonstrable performance outcomes. As New York University Professor and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch points out: "None of the main recipients of foundation funding are models for American education."

In 2009, Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which tracks student performance in 25 states conducted a large-scale study showing that only 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional schools, and 37 percent actually offered children a worse education.

Despite the growing number of studies showing that charter schools are generally no better -- and are often worse -- than their public school counterparts, "the state and local agencies and organizations that grant the charters," The New York Times reports, "have been increasingly hesitant to shut down schools, even those that continue to perform abysmally for years on end."

This disconnect between the claims of "reformers" bent on privatization and demonstrable outcomes in student performance has been enabled, in large part, by the nation's mainstream media, which has been sold a bill of goods about so-called "school reform." As a result, the agenda of the nation's public school system is at risk of being bought out by a relatively small number of corporate billionaires and their tax-sheltered foundations whose privatization models do more to raise profits than student performance.

As media critic David Sirota noted, "The pervasive media mythology tells us that the fight over the schoolhouse is supposedly a battle between greedy self-interested teachers who don't care about children and benevolent billionaire 'reformers' whose political activism is solely focused on the welfare of kids. Epitomizing the media narrative, The Wall Street Journal casts the latter in sanitized terms, re-imagining the billionaires as philanthropic altruists 'pushing for big changes they say will improve public schools.'"

The fact that the principals and administrators who actually run the schools are invisible within this mythology is no accident, as we are routinely ignored by federal and state policymakers, unless it is to be vilified and fired for failing to implement policies that we are called on to implement without ever having a voice in their voracity or viability.

Also ignored by this mythology is the corporate self-interest of the billionaire "altruists" whose foundations turn their backs on public schools as they turn increasingly toward charter schools and vouchers. Recent developments reveal the extent of financing some of America's leading technology gurus, in particular, are willing to provide, creating a virtual corporate takeover of public education.

A recent Washington state ballot initiative expanding publicly subsidized, privately run charter schools was effectively underwritten by Amazon and Microsoft, part of a broader education "reform" push by Microsoft founder Bill Gates' massive foundation.

Absent from media coverage of efforts by Gates and others to dominate the nation's education agenda is any mention of the fact that firms such as Amazon and Microsoft are for-profit technology companies which stand to benefit from lucrative contracts if the policy agenda for education is dominated by a push for science and technology, often to the exclusion of other disciplines. Predictably, increased focus on science and technology leads to the expanded use of their products in the learning process.

Contracts to purchase these products are much easier to land in privately run charter schools, where they are often uninhibited by public schools' procurement rules and standards requiring a demonstrable, educational need for technology.

In the recent Los Angeles school board race, the anti-public-school "reformers" were bolstered by a $1 million contribution from billionaire and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, as it happens, is also founder of a massive information technology company well-positioned to profit from the drive to increase the use of technology tools in teaching.

The privateers in the Los Angeles campaign received another $250,000 contribution from News America Inc., the for-profit education technology arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp that has launched an education technology division to pursue a market it describes as "worth hundreds of billions of dollars."

And The Washington Post recently reported that the education sector now represents nearly nine percent of the country's gross domestic product, with for-profit education valued at $1.3 trillion, constituting one of the largest U.S. investment markets.

Technology tools have a place in the classroom when we have the research to backup their value and when we invest in the blended learning training our teachers need to succeed. More importantly, policy decisions on their appropriate use should be made by educators, not by media moguls and high-tech billionaires whose judgment is, at best, clouded by the profit motive, if not driven by it.

Media technologies are tools to integrate into the learning process, not a substitute for quality teaching and curricula tailored to the needs of a given school or community. In fact, the division of the U.S. Department of Education that rates classroom curricula has found that "much educational software is not an improvement over textbooks." Nonetheless, the Times reports, the likes of Bloomberg, Gates, and Murdoch, through their foundations, are convincing school systems to spend "billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning."

Unless this drive to privatize our public schools is arrested, there is little doubt that the largest eight foundations currently engaged in funding education will succeed in what amounts to a corporate takeover of our public schools, which are the very foundations of our democracy.

Will they create a world of equal opportunity that is the spirit animating our nation's education professionals? Or will they create a world to their liking in which parents and professional educators will have little or any voice?

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