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David Callahan Persuasively and Reasonably Defends the Billionaires

October 23, 2018

Are ALL billionaires trying to undercut democracy or are they trying to inject innovative ideas into an ossified bureaucracy? In his thought provoking essay that appeared in Inside Philanthropy, “Enemies of the State? How Billionaires Think About Government“, David Callahan asserts that the great majority of philanthropists are not trying to undercut democracy, they are trying to inject it with innovative ideas.

While acknowledging that some philanthropists are eager to line their own pockets by reducing taxes and deregulating their businesses, he contends that most are interested in supporting and sustain democracy and, to that end, are interested in improving public education by injecting it with innovation. Early in his essay, Mr. Callahan asserts that most philanthropists are not aligned with those who have been demonized in this blog and the blogs of other anti-privatization writers:

The crusade to shrink government down to the size “that it can be drowned in a bathtub”—to paraphrase Grover Norquist’s memorable phrase—has never been a shared project of the upper class, but of a powerful libertarian faction within that class. Even the ceaseless drive for tax cuts over a generation has mainly animated wealthy people on the right. Many less ideological rich people aren’t so worked up over taxes; after all, when you’re loaded, you can easily afford them. And while polls show that the wealthy are more fiscally conservative than the public writ large, it’s also true they tend to favor many government functions: a globalist foreign policy, infrastructure, education, scientific research, space exploration, environmental protection, and so on. They understand that these things cost money…

If you put aside the libertarian ideologues like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, what you’ll find is that most of today’s wealthy philanthropists think about government in much the same way that big donors and foundations have always thought about government: as a sector with enormous power to solve problems, but also with major limitations—such as a reluctance to take risks and experiment with new ideas, an inability to move quickly or pivot easily, and a tendency to neglect causes or concerns that don’t animate ordinary voters or which antagonize powerful interests.

In this assessment, I fear that Mr. Callahan overlooks the powerful grip the “…libertarian ideologues like the Koch brothers and the DeVos family”  have on the public’s impressions of “government schools”. He also fails to grasp the fundamental reality that those who have been identified as “successful” as a result of the existing paradigms in education are the most reluctant to “take risks and experiment” with the dominant paradigm because the rules inherent in the dominant paradigm have worked in their favor. Why should the existing method of sorting a selecting be changed if the changes might result in their children being placed at a disadvantage when the time comes for them to apply to the elite college their parents attended?

Mr. Callahan is especially upset with the way the Gates family has been cast in the privatization debates and the notion that ALL philanthropists share the world view of the Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos. He acknowledges that the Gates Foundation has been ham-handed in implementing it’s views, but believes that they truly value public education. He writes:

On education, the Gates Foundation has sometimes been cast as a key player in a philanthropic cabal to privatize public schools. This is a caricature. Rather, the foundation’s goal has been to influence how public education works in order to improve student outcomes. The huge Gates role in education is problematic; it gives a private couple way too much power over a key democratic institution. And that power has been abused, too, as a high-handed foundation has pushed through ill-conceived reform ideas.

Still, let’s be clear what’s going on here. Bill and Melinda Gates are not libertarians. Quite the contrary. Like many technocratic donors, they often want to expand the reach and authority of government.

The huge Gates push to enact the Common Core standards is a case in point. This has been viewed—rightly, I think—as a backdoor effort to enact national education standards in an area where federal power has always been limited. It’s not surprising that the right mobilized against the standards early on, pushing back against what they saw as an elite bid to elevate the power of a know-it-all state over the wisdom of local leadership—familiar battle lines that date back to the clash between Jefferson and Hamilton.

To be sure, there are some K-12 philanthropists who really do dream of substantially privatizing public education. But most of these donors, including top charter school funders, don’t believe in true privatization, and that’s not what they’re after.

What these donors want is forpublic schools to operate with more day-to-day autonomy, so that their leaders have the kind of power that effective leaders need, starting with the ability to hire and fire their own staff and control their own budget and infrastructure. These donors are not hostile to government per se; they are hostile toward government that is overly centralized, with a command-and-control model they view as archaic and ineffective.They see charter schools as a means to get around these institutional obstacles and reinvent how government works when it comes to education.

What the pro-charter investors fail to recognize is that the most conservative districts are the ones that serve children raised in affluence: the districts that reinforce the current mechanisms of college entry. The districts that strive to prepare their students for entry into “elite” colleges need to maintain the status quo because in doing so they are preparing their students for entry into colleges that seek a particular kind of student: the kind of student who is “well rounded”, has high grades, and comes from a stable home and stable community environment.

From my perspective, if philanthropists want to disrupt education they could do so by encouraging the “elite” colleges to accept more students from schools that serve children raised in poverty and offer incentives for the “well rounded” children who come from stable homes and stable neighborhoods and who earned high grades to attend the community colleges in their communities and the universities and colleges funded by their state government. Until the top 5% embrace those institutions and walk away from the “elite” schools the economic disparity in our nation will persist.

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