Home > Uncategorized > Democracy Compromised II: The Insidious Effect of Philanthropy on Public Education

Democracy Compromised II: The Insidious Effect of Philanthropy on Public Education

A few days ago the Naked Capitalism website included a link to an Intercept article by Michael Massing titled “How the Gates Foundation Reflects the Good and Bad of Hacker Philanthropy”. In the article, Massing critiques tech magnate Sean Parker’s June 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled “Philanthropy for Hackersand the recently published books No Such Thing as a Free Gift by Linsey McGoey, a sociologist at the University of Essex, and The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by journalist Dale Russakoff.

Massing insinuates that Parker’s article overstates the “disruptive” tech philanthropist’s desire “to treat philanthropy as “a series of calculated risks” and “big bets””. Quoting from Alessandra Stanley’s Times article in late October that “offered a skeptical assessment of the outsized claims made by Sean Parker and other Silicon Valley philanthropists” , Massing writes:

“Tech entrepreneurs believe their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else — and in many ways it is,” she observed. “But despite their flair for disruption, these philanthropists are no more interested in radical change than their more conservative predecessors. They don’t lobby for the redistribution of wealth; instead, they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.”

Massing’s analysis of McGoey’s book criticizes the superficiality of her perspective, particularly when it comes to the Gates’ impact on public education. In his rejoinder to McGoey Massing seems to side with Gates’s spending on schools:

In McGoey’s view, the Gateses’ missteps stem mainly from their refusal to see that the real problem in American public education is not failing public schools nor ineffective teachers but poverty. If Gates and other wealthy backers of charter schools were to admit this, she writes, they would have to face the question of why people like themselves are allowed to make so much while so many others have so little. This is a standard critique of the wealthy elites who support the school reform movement. It’s persuasive, in its way, but too easy. Many public schools clearly are substandard, and many teachers are ineffective. Assuming that poverty is not going to be solved overnight, what other, more immediate steps might be taken to address these problems? How might Gates spend its money more wisely? McGoey offers little guidance on this. She seems to have visited few schools and talked to few teachers or parents. Nor does she give much space to the perspective of the Gates Foundation itself. As a result, her conclusions carry less weight than they otherwise might.

In this critique of McGoey’s criticisms, Massing diminishes the most compelling argument she offered against Gates’ foray into public education. In the book McGoey noted Gates’ acknowledgement that many of his disruptive innovations (e.g. smaller high schools, VAM, and charter schools) either failed or made no difference whatsoever. Yet, their “disruptions” remain in place:

While the willingness of the Gateses to change their minds in the face of evidence is admirable, McGoey writes, the reforms they championed “are now entrenched. For many teachers and students, their recent handwringing over the perils of high-stakes testing has come a little too late.”

Russakoff also looks into the philanthropy of Tech magantes, specifically Mark Zuckerburg’s $100,000,000 gift to Newark (NJ) Public schools. In doing so, Russakoff shines a light on the ultimate problem with all philanthropy that attempts to “fix” public schools: it’s lack of grassroots input from teachers, administrators, and school boards, the group elected by voters to oversee schooling:

Spending time with politicians, administrators, teachers, and parents, Russakoff showed how the “reformers” — convinced that they knew what was right for Newark largely excluded teachers and parents from the policymaking process. That sparked strong grassroots opposition, and in the end little headway was made. Sobered by the experience, Zuckerberg and his wife last year announced $120 million in grants to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Bay Area, with the express intention of getting more input from teachers and community leaders.

The underscored phrase is the key issue I have with tech reformers: they are convinced that the talents they brought to bear in creating a product that earned them billions of dollars are transferrable to public schooling. What they fail to understand is that programming is complicated but political policy is complex. A complicated problem can be solved by engineering and the persistence of a small cadre of individuals… but a complex problem requires artistry and collective will… and developing collective will takes more than slick salesmanship: it takes time to bring to life.

“Reformers”, like businessmen, rely on top-down edicts instead of bottom up consensus building… they are more totalitarian and less democratic… and when politicians embrace the quick fixes advocated by the business experts who view complex problems as complicated ones they invariably find “strong grassroots opposition” because the people on the ground are not invested in the ideas the businessmen advocate and— it is entirely possible that some of their ideas, like the ones Gates promoted for over a decade, are flawed.

Democracy takes time… and it invariably adds layers of complexity… but it is worth fighting for. I believe our country would eventually rue the day when the private sector with it’s top-down market-based quick fixes took over the governance of schools…  because the bad ideas they champion, like test-and-punish, become entrenched and irreversible…. and the consequences of bad ideas and good marketing can be seen everywhere around us in the obesity crisis, the offshoring of manufacturing, and the over-reliance on legal and illegal drugs to alter our moods and way of thinking.

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