Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"The Nuisance of Democracy" and Bill Gates

Nonprofit Quarterly, a journal on "innovative thinking for the nonprofit sector" has always been a  lately favorite of mine.  They are generally very straightforward in their thinking.  This particular article, Charitable Plutocracy: Bill Gates, Washington State, and the Nuisance of Democracy, by Joanne Barken, is much more harsh than their usual writing but, on this topic, I don't mind.
Joanne Barkan is a writer based in New York City and Truro, Massachusetts. For the past six years, her work has focused on the relationship between “big philanthropy” and democracy, and the intervention of private foundations in public-education policy.
(Barkan also has another excellent article, They (Not We) Shall Overcome: Private Largesse and Public Education, that I hope to write about in context of what I see happening in Seattle around discourse on public education reform.)

She describes how it used to be that many foundations had a more "wide-open" mission to many of today's foundations (particularly around public education):
They aim to do good in the world, but each defines “good” idiosyncratically in terms of specific public policies and political goals. They translate their wealth, the work of their foundations, and their celebrity as doers-of-good into influence in the public sphere—much more influence than most citizens have.
Call it charitable plutocracy—a peculiarly American phenomenon, increasingly problematic and in need of greater scrutiny. Like all forms of plutocracy, this one conflicts with democracy, and exactly how these philanthropists coordinate tax-exempt grantmaking with political funding for maximum effect remains largely obscure. 
She uses this broad point to launch her case study about Bill Gates and Washington State, mostly around charter schools.  (Those who have been around longer could certain talk about other efforts - or failures - that Gates tried to push.)
The education-reform movement in general, and charter schools in particular, attracted a new wave of philanthropists, many of whom had made fortunes in high-tech industries and finance. Although they had no experience as educators, they aimed to “disrupt” and rebuild public schooling for urban low-income and minority children. They embraced the idea that giving grants to K–12 reform projects corresponded with investing capital in a business. They described their philanthropy in terms of strategic investments to maximize returns and data collection to verify results. Having succeeded in business, they reasoned, they would succeed in education. They came to see funding education-reform candidates and ballot initiatives as part of the same effort.
So, if you think about the pending litigation against the latest charter school law, you can see the race is on.  I'll double-check but I believe that the plaintiffs are planning to ask for an expedited ruling.  That means that a court could make a ruling before summer? or fall?  The point is, before the next elections in November where - no surprise - money is being poured into races for Supreme Cour t justices.

I am also gladdened to see her figures on how much money the teachers unions take in (between the
two, it's about $710M in total receipts; that's not even spending.)  Contrast that with the muscle coming from Gates, Broad, Waltons, Fisher - there's just no comparison.

Barkan takes us thru the charter history in Washington State and how Gates, after the last win, immediately jumped to funding for the Washington State Charter Schools Association and another org, Charter Board Partners, who opened an office here.

As well after the charter law reconsideration was quashed,
Undeterred, three Gates grantees—the Washington State Charter Schools Association, Stand for Children, and League of Education Voters—partnered to create a PAC to channel money to legislators willing to vote for a modified charter law. When the PAC was announced, in December 2015, checks had already gone out to twenty-four lawmakers.
Man, that's fast work but when you have money, those kinds of set-ups can get done quite quickly.

Then, we get to her proposal that Bill Gates seems to find democracy "a nuisance."
The Washington charter saga highlights the workings of charitable plutocracy. Multibillionaire philanthropists use their personal wealth, their tax-exempt private foundations, and their high-profile identities as philanthropists to mold public policy to a degree not possible for other citizens. They exert this excessive influence without public input or accountability. As for the charitable donors who are trying to reshape public education according to their favorite theories or ideological preferences, they are intervening with too heavy a hand in a critical institution that belongs to the public and requires democratic control. But in any public domain, the philanthropist’s will and democratic control are often at odds.
There's a long list of what Gates has said about his frustration:
In a CNBC panel, aired on May 4, 2015, and titled “If I were education czar…,” Bill Gates discussed the problems he’s had in spreading the “best practices” of charter schools throughout the United States: “It’s not easy. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power, so teachers need to see the models that are working.”

The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of the school system. So you have one executive, and the school board isn’t as powerful.”
Oh, like a mayor taking over a school board?  
He appears continually in the media promoting his chosen policies, but he doesn’t engage in depth—at least not publicly—with experienced educators or scholars who disagree with him. 

Talking to Ifill, he brushes off opponents as obstructionists who merely want to flaunt their autonomy—as if disagreeing with him were an exercise in peskiness rather than part of a necessary substantive debate.
 Here's another fact that is useful to the discussion about the role of education philanthropy:
When a baron says, “It’s my money to use as I please,” he or she is wrong. A substantial portion of every tax-exempt foundation’s wealth—39.6 percent at the top tax bracket for filing in 2016—is diverted each year from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.
She ends her article with a useful set of questions:
Questioning the work of megaphilanthropists is a tricky business. Many readers of this article will be fuming in this way: Would you rather let children remain illiterate, or allow generous people to use their wealth to give them schools? Would you rather send more money to our bumbling government, or let visionary philanthropists solve society’s problems?
Here is a counterquestion: Would you rather have self-appointed social engineers—whose sole qualification is vast wealth—shape public policy according to their personal views, or try to repair American democracy?
 I go with democracy, every single time.


Brian Duncan said...

John Adams, 1785, cited in Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error book:

"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expense of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves."

Justice Scalia would surely have been pleased that one of the nations Founders so clearly expressed Original Intent on this very question of, for example, Mr Gate's largess in support of his vision to improve education today!

I'm with Charlie on trusting a democratic process to be more likely to arrive at a good outcome in the long run, consistent with thinking of the Framers. There's also the old chestnut from Thomas Jefferson highlighted on American Federation of Teachers posters:

"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional
--Thomas Jefferson Letter to W. Jarvis, 1820.

Brian Duncan said...

Oops, I mean, I'm with Melissa on this!

Teacher Greg said...

So disheartening to see it all in one spot. I've thought a lot about this article for the past few hours and it led me off in a variety of directions across the internet. Its surprising to me how many people make their living off of "education reform" groups. What bothers me the most is that the idea of talking with actual teachers (or having someone with an actual education background running the group in question) seems to be an anathema.

Those who support strong public schools will never be able to outspend them, and too many of us will be too tired from our day jobs of actually teaching to spend 50 hours a week organizing people to fight DFER, Stand On, the fake LEV and all their hired hands.

It seems like a key victory is to eliminate big money from politics and to publicly fund our campaigns. Until then the corrupting influence of people like Gates will continue to be able to slap the system around however he (or his ilk) sees fit.

I realize that the WEA and their limited funds is out there fighting for quality public education, but they can't match the funding, the PR campaign, or the ability to create 5 astro-turf organizations overnight to funnel more cash to kill public education.

As a veteran teacher it makes me sad for those who enter this profession. It seems like a lot of younger would-be teachers are going in other directions (given falling enrollment in teacher prep programs and the existing teacher shortage). After all who wants to take a job where you are constantly told in the media how terrible a job you are doing (or being told by people paid by billionaires about how "greedy" you are -- that is some serious irony there).

As a history teacher I was thinking of the past American Oligarchs. I am sure there are a lot of examples of bad behavior, but one good one that contrasts strongly with Gates' efforts in Washington is Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie gave most of his money away to fund the creation of a public library system giving access to information to millions. In effect he created the PUBLIC library system. Carnegie created a public institution, and this stands in stark contrast to Gates' efforts here in Washington. Rather than build up a public institution he is trying to tear it down. This in a nutshell -- the privatization and destruction of cherished public institutions and the weakening of our republic -- is in the end what I predict Gates will be known for.

Anonymous said...

Very true, Teacher Greg.
Gates and his arrogant ideology is attempting to destroy anything he doesn't feel has value, like public education and public health, even as he claims to be supporting it. The ideological strings tied to the money cannot be cut.