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Philanthrocapitalist Reed Hastings’ View of Public Schooling Will Widen Divides

Reed Hastings, libertarian founder of Netflix and leading funder of the charter school movement in California, has a warped view of public education, one that if brought to scale would undercut public education’s role as a force for equity.

“Reed Hastings: Netflix CEO Goes Nuclear on Public Schools” a lengthy profile of Mr. Hastings by Joel Warner that appeared earlier this month in Capital & Main, describes Mr. Hastings desire to completely destroy the existing governance structure of public schools by replacing elected boards of education with corporate boards who oversee schools that consist largely of internet streaming sites that operate something like Netflix, the corporate he knows best and sees as the best way forward in all operations. In the article Mr. Warner describes how Reed Hastings earned his first millions and decided to use his new found wealth to invest in charter schools:

After the success of his first start-up, the debugging program maker Pure Software, made him a multimillionaire in 1995, Hastings decided to use some of his wealth to tackle the problems he saw in the nation’s schools. “I started… trying to figure out why our education is lagging when our technology is increasing at great rates and there’s great innovation in so many other areas—health care, biotech, information technology, moviemaking,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Why not education?”

Mr. Warner describes how his decision to tackle education combined with his libertarian beliefs led to his determination to overthrow the governance model for public schools. That, in turn, led him to donate huge sums to the charter school movement and, as a by product, to political campaigns of like-minded politicians in California. ultimately, Governor Grey Davis, who benefitted from Mr. Hasting’s contributions and agreed with the need to privatize public education, appointed Mr. Hastings to the Chairmanship of the State Board of Education in 2000, where Mr. Hastings had a short-lived opportunity to put some of his ideas about public education into policy… and some politicians found his ideas abhorrent:

While president of the board, he aggressively pushed for English-language instruction for immigrant students, adopting a policy that limited federal funding for elementary schools that weren’t teaching at least two-and-a-half hours in English every day. That rule, later overturned, was part of what education observers say was a lengthy dismantling of California’s bilingual education programs. Hasting’s stance on the matter caused Democratic legislators to block his reappointment in 2004, despite the fact that he was a key Democratic donor. “Just because [Hastings] and right-wing Republicans thought it was a good idea to force immigrant children to speak only English in school, he gets to derail bilingual education for a decade?” says Karen Wolfe, a California parent and founder of PSconnect, a community group that advocates for traditional public schools. “That’s not disruption. That’s destruction.”

Mr. Warner describes how Mr. Hastings vision for dismantling the existing governance structure of public education will have an adverse impact on economically disadvantaged families. Quoting Derecka Mehrens, co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising, a campaign to raise pay and create affordable housing for low-wage workers in the tech industry, he writes:

“We see profound consequences, both political and economic, when technology industry leaders take action from a position of privilege and isolation from the very communities they desire to help,” she says. “When tech industry leaders like Reed Hastings call for an elimination of school boards or for more privatization of public schools, they block low-income people from using the one instrument that the powerful can’t ignore – their vote.”

After recounting several examples of charter school failures and several studies that underscore the limitations of technology when it comes to solving the kinds of problems students bring with them to school, Mr. Warner concludes with this:

Undeterred (by these evident shortcomings), Hastings and other school reform-minded tech billionaires want to inject the start-up mentality into the country’s schools, using high-tech solutions to replace human labor and disrupting longtime management and oversight approaches in the name of efficiency.But to Brett Bymaster in San Jose, that’s not the right approach. After all, roughly half of all start-ups fail. What happens to the children who get caught in those failures, like the students left without a school when California Charter Academy folded?

“I have been through several successful Silicon Valley start-ups. I am as techy as they come,” says Bymaster. “But ultimately the problems in our schools are people problems. Technology doesn’t solve people problems. People solve people problems.”

And that phrase… people solve people problems… captures the limitations of technology when it comes to addressing the inequities in our society and restoring public schools to their rightful place as a means of overcoming adversity. Increasing the screen times of children raised in poverty to match that of children raised in affluence will NOT address inequity. Public schools will improve only when they are given the means of addressing “people problems”.

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