Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's All About the Corporate Benjamins, Baby: Education, a.k.a., My 2010 Year in Review Post

(This has been cross-posted at Rachel's Rants Raves & Recollections.)

During 2010, thanks to the work of Lawrence Lessig and Chris Hedges, I became much more aware of the unhealthy corporate influence in American democratic institutions. I put aside my creative writing to launch a series of posts on my more general blog on the topic. I wrote about corporate money in politics and government, after which I took a break to write about the VA-07 congressional election, writing, and journalism, and to start a blog dedicated to education. I've intended to regularly update my food blog, as well, but the best laid plans. . .

Right before the Christmas holiday, I completed a piece about Teach For America, which I am hoping will be published somewhere bigger (not likely, I know). In the meantime, I was going to use winter break and the grandparental child care that comes with it to write, blog, publish, write, blog, publish. However, as I tried to organize my thinking about the present and future of journalism, of writing as a profession, of teaching as a profession, of public education, and of efforts to reform education, the topics all swirled together to form a toxic sludge of anxiety that, helped along by my kids' germs, rendered me existentially and then physically ill. As miserable as it was, being sick forced me to take a step back and ignore all of it for a number of days. From this pause grew a less fevered end-of-year collection of thoughts about the confluence of corporate influence and public education.

I am vulnerable to conspiracy theorizing about what's currently happening in the name of education reform, and I understand why others are, too--I think, in fact, that democracy benefits from this type of push back. Are the reforms of wealthy and politically connected individuals harmful to the institution of public education? I have said on my education blog and continue to say: yes, that in many cases they are. But are those folks sitting around together and villainously hatching some grand scheme to bring down public education? No, that's way too simplistic of an explanation for what's going on. Furthermore, I'm doubtful that describing problems with their efforts in terms of a conspiracy is productive. The problem with talking like a conspiracy theorist, even if there's at least some truth to what's being said, is that you're likely to be dismissed by the very people you need to be taken seriously by. In that vein, it is equally hysterical and irresponsible to cast teachers and teachers unions as the villainous "deep-pocketed" (ha!) root of all of our nation's problems or even as the root of our education system's problems, or as sitting around conspiring to ruin children's lives because they only care about the "adults." Unfortunately, these seem to be prevailing narratives these days.

Teachers' unions may defend some people who don't deserve defending and they may make mistakes, and yes, there are educators out there who aren't doing their jobs and yes, teachers need fair and rigorous evaluations, but as a group, teachers and their unions are not responsible for how our society has failed us over the past year. Did teachers unions cause twenty-seven plus percent of America's children to live in poverty? No. Have teachers and their unions driven up heath care costs? Do they deny coverage and care to our the most vulnerable among us? Nope. Did teachers and their unions cause our economic system to melt down? No, that was another group of professionals. Did teachers and their unions go start costly and futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did teachers and their unions create a criminal justice system that disproportionately and often unjustly imprisons poor people and minorities? No, they aren't behind such travesties. Did teachers and their unions fail to recognize the impending dangers of climate change and then sabotage legislation meant to lessen the havoc it's going to reap? No. It's not been teachers or their unions that have done all of these things, but our political leaders, policies, and system. And who is now clearly behind those? Not a bunch of middle class educators, but business, financial, industrial, and corporate interests.

While I don't believe that there is some evil master plan being hatched by the likes of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons, their influence is unhealthy, undemocratic, and dangerous. Teachers unions and organizations like the National Education Association at least are accountable to the systems and large numbers of people they represent, systems and people whose work and studies will be most affected by the reforms being brought. Whom do DFER, Gates, Broad, and the Waltons represent? To whom are they accountable? Were they elected? Since when should a handful of unelected, extraordinarily wealthy people be entrusted to represent the interests of millions of poor, working, and middle class people?

Two of the most egregious examples of corporate influence in education are in higher education. As there is less public funding of public universities, wealthy patrons such as the Koch brothers are stepping in to establish "institutes" that put out research and teachings that serve not the interests of citizens, but the interests of the industries they own. In medical schools and schools of public health, much research on drugs and treatments traditionally funded by public monies is now funded and supervised by the very pharmaceutical companies who stand to reap profits from their successful trials.

In K-12 education, there are not as many cases of such overt conflicts of interest, but I'm afraid we're moving in that direction.  Gates, Broad, and the Waltons support market-based reforms that would include mayoral takeovers, vast expansion of charter schools (which are public schools that can be run in some instances as private institutions), the de-professionalization of teaching, and CEO-like leadership of schools and school systems, and they are pouring money into the system to see such reforms actualized. Influential organizations with deceptively neutral-sounding names such as right-wing ideologue Jeanne Allen's Center for Education Reform directly promote privatizing our public education system. As they already have in New York City Public Schools, test prep companies such as Kaplan (which is owned by the pro-corporate education reform Washington Post) stand to make millions from the new education reformers' policies which rely heavily on standardized tests.

As public schools are being told by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to do "more with less" and as school budgets are being reduced and reduced and stimulus money runs out, with no enthusiasm for alternative means of raising revenues, the private sector is stepping to fill in the gaps often with strings attached, shaping our education system to their liking, whether its largesse benefits its supposed recipients or not. What's about to happen in Los Angeles Unified School District is only the tip of the iceberg.

An example of private takeover of public schools already in progress is in DC. The DC Public Education Fund is privately run on private donations with no public oversight, and very little of the money that's raised goes directly into the DC Public Schools' budget or is dispersed by those appointed to run the schools; yet, the fund directly influences outcomes in public schools. For example, the organization funded IMPACT, DC's controversial new evaluation system, teacher bonuses, as well as the infamous new contracts with teachers. During the negotiations, then-Chancellor Rhee stated that if she wasn't going to be around later, aka, if Adrian Fenty didn't get re-elected, that the money raised for the teacher contracts would go, too. That is a clear example of private interests using private money to influence public elections and public policy. When public money is used to fund public schools, such blackmail can't take place, at least not legally. Much more democratic would be for the wealthy individuals who are behind such efforts to be taxed appropriately with the tax revenues funding social and educational programs vetted by democratically elected and appointed officials.

The Gates Foundation and the DC Public Education Fund have their hands in many places, and surely, not all of them are harmful to public education, but when I read Gates's thoughts and ideas about education, for example in these interviews about teaching in Parade and Newsweek, I'm horrified. (I'm also horrified about what such coverage means about the state of education journalism, but that's another story.) Not only has Gates not been elected or appointed by an elected official, he speaks simplistically and ignorantly about education even just at the level of basic facts, and his ideas have not been shown to work or improve the systems they impact.

While Eli Broad is no right-wing ideologue, his private education foundation and school leadership training centers have profound impacts on the public systems they're meant to reform. This New Yorker article about Eli Broad's influence in the Los Angeles art world is very instructive on Broad's approach to philanthropy. Broad has good intentions and interesting ideas, enlarging the arts scene in LA and making art exhibitions more accessible, for example. But he doesn't simply give money directly to art institutions or entrust the experts with funding; rather, he has to own and control the institutions, even if that means promoting poor practices or destroying the institutions. I can only imagine that a similar dynamic occurs in the Broads' education philanthropies.

If Gates, Broad, the Waltons, and the hedge funders behind DFER weren't rich, would they be listened to? Why are they being listened to now? Why are such a small group of extraordinarily wealthy individuals allowed to wield so much power and control over education policy? This is at the expense of democracy. Obama has rightly stated grave concerns with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Why is he not concerned with big money in our public education system? Why does he, in fact, welcome it? Is corporate influence any less problematic in the halls of our schools than it is in our halls of government?

One need not launch ad hominem attacks, speak of ethical dilemmas, or list the hypocrises of these education reformers. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation and educational ideology, can agree that our great nation was founded on the ideals of democracy. Corporate money and influence in our public democratic institutions, especially in our public schools, corrodes and corrupts our democracy. Anti-democratic forces are un-American. A healthy democracy requires a well and publicly financed, equitable public education system. Unfortunately, that's not what the Obama administration and the particular education reformers they throw their support behind are going to produce. Unchecked private and corporate influence in our public education system is as big a threat to our democracy as the unchecked corporate influence is to our political system. In fact, they are one in the same. Our public schools should no more belong to Gates, Broad, Bush, or any DFER member as they do to any taxpayer and any citizen; it is from them we must take our country, our democracy, and our schools back.

UPDATE 1/6/11: Too bad I didn't see this brilliant piece by writer Joanne Barkan before I posted this. I could have saved myself the trouble--it's a much better, more comprehensive piece on the problems with education philanthropy than anything I have ever written. Read it in Dissent Magazine or in truthout.

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