Billionaire-Powered Education

Once, back in the late sixties, I studied the interlocking boards of directors of major corporations, banks, hospitals and cultural institutions in a small mid-western city.  The power elite of the metropolitan area came sharply into view.  With that “power map” in hand I could follow the values and money shaping the community where I lived—and become a more effective community organizer.

In previous posts I have been following the values and money that shape the current “education reform” movement in the U.S.  Billionaire funders of the movement may not be represented on a formal set of interlocking directorates, but their goals overlap to serve interests of the corporate sector and the ideological right wing. 

Educators are influenced more than many of them realize by the mega-millions of corporate and right wing sponsors of think tanks, front groups and “grassroots” social movements like the Tea Party.  The amount of money these sponsors provide is staggering.  The nonpartisan National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) in its 2007 report on conservative efforts to privatize public education lists totals of over $100 million for 2003 and 2004.  In the other years of its 2002-2005 sampling period, $86 and $91 million were donated.   It also makes clear that many corporations give donations outside of their corporate foundations, so these figures are seriously underestimated.

The report lists “vouchers, tax credits and charter schools” as “three of the usual forms of school choice-related efforts to privatize public education.”  Its focus, however, is on vouchers and tax credits—and only marginally on charter schools, reasoning that the latter draw support from across the ideological spectrum.  For the “privatizers” charter schools are a positive bridge toward the privatization of all schools.  Others see them as a constructive (but privately run and non-unionized) alternative within the government-funded schools framework.

Vouchers provide public tax money for parents to send children on scholarships to secular or religious schools.  Tax credits serve a similar purpose by allowing tax-displacement money to be directed by parents and corporations for scholarships to the same types of private schools.

Diane Ravitch entitled a chapter of her insightful book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.”  In it she features three billionaires and their foundations, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton Family.  See previous posts on the Gates and Broad Foundations.  The Walton family, worth more than $90 billion, according to the NCRP, is far and away the biggest contributor to the school privatization movement.  But Ravitch presents evidence that in recent years the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations fund the same programs in many places. She underscores the fact that their policy goals came together in recent years to the point where, because of their enormous power, they control the policy direction for the entire system, from state educational policy to the national Department of Education.

These heavy hitters in the Billionaire Boys’ Club are both serious and effective in undermining and chipping away the very foundations of public education (Think of what $300+ million can do to change policy over four years!).  As they pursue their agenda, they are turning public schools into test-taking factories, particularly in low-income urban areas.  Those of us who care about public schools as a vital force for democracy need to reverse the tide of this well-financed “reform” movement.  Strengthen public schools, yes; make them more effective for all students, yes; create more critically aware, responsible citizens through them, yes!  Wake up!  Keep the “public” in public schools!

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