Archive for April, 2016

The Naked Capitalist Takes on Bill Gates Privatization Efforts

April 30, 2016 Comments off

Earlier this week Yves Smith’s blog, The Naked Capitalist, cross posted an article by Joanne Barkan from the Nonprofit Quarterly titled “How Bill Gates and His Allies Used Their Wealth to Launch Charter Schools in Washington State”. At the outset of the article, Ms. Barkan contrasts the traditional foundations of bygone years, who turned the operation and oversight of their philanthropic work to independent Boards, with those started by today’s billionaires, who want to control and direct the way money is spent…  and she then underscores the major problem with the current state of affairs:

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. What follows is a case study of the way charitable plutocracy operates on the ground. (This results in) a tug-of-war between government by the people and uber-philanthropists as social engineers.

The balance of the article uses the funding of the charter school movement in Washington State as an example of how this “charitable plutocracy” is changing the face of philanthropy. Ms. Barkan offers a blow-by-blow description of the 20+ year history of legislation and referenda in Washington State on the creation of charter schools and how, after successive defeats on ballots and in the legislature, the “charitable plutocrats” eventually prevailed by a slender majority… only to have the Washington Supreme Court declare the public funding of private schools unconstitutional. The latest workaround? The plutocrats persuaded the Washington legislature to pass a law that earmarks lottery funds for charter schools, thereby circumventing the Constitutional mandate that moneys raised from taxes be used only for public schools.

Barkan concludes her essay with this synopsis:

American democracy is growing ever more plutocratic—a fact that should worry all admirers of government by the people. Big money rules, but multibillionaires acting as philanthropists aggravate the problem by channeling vast sums into the nation’s immense nonprofit sector. Their top-down modus operandi makes this a powerful tool for shaping public policy according to individual beliefs and whims. And they receive less critical scrutiny than other actors in public life. Most people admire expressions of generosity and selflessness and are loath to find fault. In addition, anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.

So, what to do? The measures required to rein in plutocracy in the United States are plain to see and difficult to achieve: radical campaign finance reform to end the corruption of politics by money, and steeply progressive taxation without loopholes to reduce inequality in wealth and power. Private foundations, too, are due for reform. Congress hasn’t overhauled their regulation since 1969, and watchdog agencies are woefully underfunded. But few, if any, megaphilanthropists give these reforms top priority, although many talk endlessly about reducing inequality and providing everyone with a chance at a good life. The interests and egos of philanthro-barons rarely incline toward curbing plutocracy.

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?

In my work as a Superintendent for 29 years and school-based administrator and teacher before that I found the glacial pace of change to be frustrating… but the long I worked the more I appreciated the fact that school boards were the purest form of democracy. They receive little to no compensation and are only interested in what they believe to be the public’s interest… and the public is generally satisfied with the overall way schools are operated and are, therefore, resistant to the kinds of changes the mega-philanthropists advocate. Indeed, they are often resistant to the kinds of changes that I view as beneficial for children: changes like the provision of social services within the school and support for parents before children enter school. But school boards DO listen to reason and CAN be persuaded, especially if it will yield a better life for the children they serve. I would urge the mega-philanthropists to use their funds to help underwrite the “education” of school boards, administrators, and teachers— to persuade them that the approaches they want to take will work in their schools. Inside Out and Bottom Up takes time… but the end result is always better and who knows… in their efforts to “educate” school boards, administrators, and teachers the mega-philanthropists might educate themselves!

5,000,000 Children Need More Than Higher Test Scores: They Need A Parent

April 30, 2016 Comments off

I just finished reading KJ Dell’Antonia’s latest Well column in the New York Times after watching Michael Moore’s movie “Where to Invade Next” and couldn’t help but think that our country is on the wrong track who it comes to prisons and family support. Dell”Antonia’s piece, “When Parents Are in Prison, Children Suffer”, offers this sobering set of facts gleaned from a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

The Casey Foundation points to research showing that children with an incarcerated parent tend to move frequently, and their family income drops when a parent, particularly a father, is incarcerated. The parent left behind, or the family member who steps in to care for a child, faces reduced earning potential and difficulties finding child care, even as debts and expenses associated with court and legal fees mount.

How many children are affected? Five million American children… have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. And while the article doesn’t mention it, I find it hard to believe that these children who move frequently, experience a decline in their family’s income, and have a parent they cannot see or talk to. And in many cases they cannot even talk about their experience because it causes them shame. Worse, these children hardly have an equal opportunity to advance. What can be done to help?

The Casey Foundation report suggests that investing in programs designed to help children and families during a parent’s incarceration and then to ease a parent’s return could help equalize opportunities for the children of incarcerated parents. “A prison sentence for a parent shouldn’t be a life sentence for a family,” said Ryan Chao, the foundation’s vice president for civic sites and community change…

Programs that offer education and training in prison, and those that provide job-placement assistance upon release, decrease recidivism and better equip parents to return to their families. That kind of support, according to the Casey Foundation, can help lift children out of a cycle of prison and poverty, and build communities where that cycle is less likely to start again.

“Kids do better when families do better,” Mr. Chao said.

These ideas resonated after watching Michael Moore’s movie, which offered a series of vignettes illustrating how other advanced countries deal with complicated social problems, one of which was incarceration where Norway’s penal system was held up as an example. Unlike our country, where prison is viewed as punishment or retribution, Norway views prison as a place to retrain and refine those committed of crimes so there that when they return to society they can find work and be attuned to the needs of the society whose rules they violated. His movie didn’t show how Norway deals with offenders who are parents, but it DID make it clear that Norway bends over backward to provide job placement assistance and “after care” and, as a result, has the lowest recidivism rate in the world.

We need to rethink the way we treat those who violate the law, particularly those who have children and families they will be returning to. And we should be especially mindful of the needs of the children who are shunted from place-to-place and wonder where their next meal is coming do not fall into the same pattern of behavior…. and remember that “Kids do better when families do better,”

Pennsylvania’s “Experiment” Proves What Everyone Knows: Money Matters

April 30, 2016 Comments off

The Public Interest Law Center, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for social justice, just completed a study of school funding in Pennsylvania that illustrates the consequences of cuts in State funding and the results were devastating to districts serving poverty stricken children. The overview section of the study describes the impact of the $800,000,000 in cumulative budget cuts made since 2011, cuts enacted by the conservative legislators and supported by then Governor Pat Toomey:

The impact from that cut was as foreseeable as it was widespread: Districts eliminated 27,000 jobs and class sizes increased, while test scores and the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college immediately declined. Moreover, those cuts continue to reverberate five years later, with most districts—particularly the poorest districts—still with less state funding than before the cuts.

State funds, like Federal funds, are supposed to mitigate the inability of property poor districts to raise sufficient revenues to operate schools that can provide an equal opportunity for success for the children who reside in the communities and neighborhoods they serve. When State funds are cut, then, the poorest districts suffer the most because they are more reliant on State funds. Moreover, cuts to affluent districts are easier to mitigate because those districts can increase local property taxes or even consider implementing more fees for extra-curricular activities… and residents of affluent communities understand that the value of their homes is dependent on the quality of their schools and they will reluctantly dig deeper into their pockets to retain the programs in their school district that make the purchase of a home an attractive proposition.

Conservative legislators in Pennsylvania, though, demonize public education spending, and especially the unions that push teachers salaries and benefits. They believed that “throwing money at the problem” was not solving the problem and they diverted increasing levels of funding toward for-profit charter schools while cutting funds of public education. And here’s what they learned: taking money away from the problem made it worse.

And now they are learning something else: when the baseline funding is reduced, recovering lost ground is extremely difficult. For the past several months the newly elected Governor, Tom Wolfe, has been at an impasse with the legislature. He wants to restore $500,000,000 of the cuts made to public schools to get most of them back to where they were five years ago and is running into a wall. The Public Interest Law Center, in an effort to underscore the fact that this new money was not going to be “wasted” and to illustrate how devastating the cuts were to public schools, analyzed the plans school districts submitted to the State in order to secure the funds the Governor requested. They summarized the requests on several charts and found that “…districts planned spending funds on basic, integral services such as early childhood programs, books up to date with state standards, and smaller class sizes.” When they reviewed the more detailed explanations for how funds would be used, they found “…districts from every corner of the state in distress, desperate to provide students with basic educational resources.”

The white paper prepared by the Public Interest Law Center concluded with this final lesson the Pennsylvania legislature and— hopefully– the Pennsylvania taxpayers learned:

 Pennsylvania, according to a federal study, has the most inequitable system of education funding in the United States, with a child’s education vastly different depending solely on what side of a school district border he or she was born. Not only is that system inequitable, but it is grossly inadequate, leaving school districts of all shapes and sizes unable to provide children with the resources they need to become productive members of society.

In a fair and just democracy taxpayers would be appalled to reside in such a state. Here’s hoping that in 2016 the voters will change the face of the legislature and help the children born into poverty by funding their schools in a fair and equitable fashion.