Billionaires Are Dismantling Black Public Schools
“These heavy-handed tactics require a suspension of democracy that would not be tolerated in a white suburb.”
The biggest racists in the US aren’t running around with white hoods and burning crosses. They’re running Fortune 500 companies and burning public school systems across the country in favor of privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools.
While none of the famous billionaires on this list are dues-paying members of racist groups, they’re engaging in actions that prey on the linchpins of the black community — public K-12 schools. Education reform by itself isn’t overtly racist, but when looking at the actions of these billionaires with a wider lens, it becomes apparent that the effort to privatize public education is primarily taking place in minority communities.
The charter school movement is particularly insidious, as it’s essentially a form of institutionalized racism veiled in altruism. In reference to the charter takeover of the New Orleans, Louisiana school district, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch put it this way:
“These heavy-handed tactics require a suspension of democracy that would not be tolerated in a white suburb, but can be done to powerless urban districts where the children are black and Hispanic,” Ravitch told In These Times. “That model requires firing all the teachers, no matter their performance, allowing them to reapply for a job, and replacing many of them with inexperienced TFA recruits. That model requires wiping out public schools and replacing them with privately managed schools that set their own standards for admission, discipline, expulsion, and are financially opaque.”
While charter schools have lately been able to brag on themselves as reports tout their higher test scores in math and reading compared to public schools, these studies leave out the fact that many charters refuse to help struggling children and instead dump them into public schools, in order to boost their own statistics. According to NY Chalkbeat, charter schools in New York City suspended 11 percent of students during the 2011-2012 school year, while public schools suspended just 4.2 percent. In fact, 11 NYC charter schools suspended as many as 30 percent of students that year. The charter suspension rate is likely higher, as charters don’t have to report in-school suspension rates.
The push for more charter schools isn’t based on a desire to better educate kids, but for the more mundane purpose of higher corporate profit. As the Washington Post pointed out, charter schools, on average, don’t do any better or worse when compared side-by-side with their public counterparts. In fact, if one were to replace the erroneous invisible “composite” public school student that Stanford University used in their report comparing charter and public school test scores with actual public school students, the results would likely be in favor of public schools.
So why the push for privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools?
The model of education reform is threefold — first, corporate education “reformers” push for “Common Core” standards by which to evaluate all students nationwide, while ignoring factors like geographic location, ethnic background, and economic well-being of different student bodies.
Next, harsh standardized testing that evaluates student performance based on these flawed standards and practically guarantees high failure rates is pushed onto schools — many of which depend on funding from property taxes, meaning that schools in affluent white suburbs are in a better position to succeed based on these standards than inner-city schools in neighborhoods with low property value.
Finally, schools are labeled as “failing” due to the lopsided evaluation process, and privately-run charters are forced onto inner-city populations, paving the way for the privatization of public education in predominantly black and latino communities.
Here are 5 white billionaires who are speeding along that process.
1. Mark Zuckerberg
Not many people are aware of the Facebook billionaire’s foray into education reform. Nonetheless, Zuckerberg did, in fact, spend $100 million in an attempt to establish charter schools in Newark, New Jersey in a joint effort with Governor Chris Christie and Newark mayor Cory Booker. After Zuckerberg’s donation, Booker used the $100 million to start a foundation, though seats on the foundation only went to donors who gave $5 million or more, effectively creating a panel of super-rich, out-of-town, corporate education reformers intent on dismantling public schools. Washington Post education reporter Dale Russakoff described the nature of the reforms the three planned on implementing:
“It was dramatically expanding charter schools, getting rid of teachers whose evaluations found them to be weak, judging other teachers by their test scores and rewarding them and streamlining the management of the school district so that it ran more like a business,” Russakoff told NPR. “There were a lot of people, including some very skilled, experienced teachers, who deeply understood the needs of the children in Newark who would have been eager to be part of that conversation. And not only were they insulted that they were left out, there was an agenda that was crafted that didn’t have the benefit of their really important insights into what was needed in Newark.”
“Basically, the board decided to spend the money the way the wealthy donors wanted it spent,” Russakoff continued. “And the priorities were not about getting money to the classroom or to the children. The priorities were to have to this kind of business model, top-down reform that had become very popular in the reform movement.”
In her book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, Russakoff further outlined how that foundation established to help Newark schools then went on to spend $20 million on consultants, who were paid upwards of $1,000 a day.
“I don’t think you could find any way that consultant money helped children,” Russakoff said.
2. The Walton Family
Walmart is a store that made its billions by forcing its way into communities, pricing out all of their locally-owned competitors until they closed their doors, and forming a monopoly that’s almost impossible to undo. The Waltons took their business experience and are applying it to schools.
The single largest private donor to the Teach for America (TFA) program is the Walton family. And Teach for America, like Walmart stores, effectively forces out respected, certified, unionized teachers who know the community and the kids they teach, with young, inexperienced educators given just a 5-week training course. Too often, those are the teachers that are deployed to low-income, high-minority school districts where corporate education reformers have busted teachers’ unions and are in need of young blood eager to get the first notch on their teaching belt, even if it means not getting paid what their predecessors made or having the same workers’ rights.
DC Prep, which operates multiple charter schools for some 1,200 inner-city students, does so with the help of donations exceeding $1 million from the Walton family, and one-third of its teachers are from TFA. Supporters of TFA in Los Angeles include not just the Waltons, but Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Boeing, and the State Farm foundation. These corporations aren’t donating to TFA because they want to help inner-city children, but because of the huge profit potential in the corporate education reform movement.
With the help of generous donations from the Walton family, TFA is taking over school districts nationwide, replacing teachers with Master’s degrees and double majors with poorly-trained educators willing to work for pennies. Meanwhile, the profits are raking in from the public sector — in Chicago, for example, TFA recently had its contract with Chicago Public Schools not only renewed, but more than doubled from $600,000 to $1,587,000.
3. Carl Icahn
Billionaire Carl Icahn, who has held controlling stakes in several Fortune 500 companies, is known as a “corporate raider” for his ruthless hostile takeovers of corporations. In the late eighties and early nineties, Icahn famously bought TWA airlines, loaded it down with debt, stripped it of its most valuable assets, then resigned from the company, demanding a $190 million payment as one of its top creditors. Icahn takes the same approach to education as he does with business.
Icahn operates 5 charter schools in high-minority communities in New York City, like the Bronx, and the schools are run less like a learning institution and more like a boot camp. They accept less than 5 percent of applicants, and the ones who are accepted are rigorously-tested, schooled on Saturdays, and strictly disciplined. Icahn superintendent Jeffrey Litt admitted that its strict system would leave a permanent mark on children were they to teach K-12.
“If we keep a kid in that environment through twelfth grade, the child now leaves us and heads to college and they don’t know any other world… they’re going to be shocked,” Litt told NY Chalkbeat.
“We are a public school, but it’s the closest thing to private school,” he told the New York Times, in reference to the school’s low admittance rate.
4. Bill Gates
No billionaire has had more of an impact on education than Bill Gates. Through his foundation, the billionaire tech magnate has spent at least $440 million pushing charter schools across the country. $200 million of that has gone into implementing Common Core in 45 states nationwide. As mentioned earlier, Common Core forces a strict set of evaluation standards on public schools, which tend to favor well-funded schools in white suburbs with high property value, and that simultaneously set up inner city schools to “fail” its standards, necessitating a corporate takeover.
Teachers have gone on record calling out Gates for pushing Common Core, as it depends on education and technology to meet standards — technology which is often provided by Silicon Valley companies like Microsoft.
“They are trying to turn public schools into a corporate money maker and push out the voice of teachers like we have no idea what we’re doing in education,” said Tom O’Kelley, a teacher at Oakland High School in Tacoma, Washington. “Bill Gates certainly doesn’t. He’s a college dropout. He’s a corporate money maker — that’s all he does.”
In his book, With the Best of Intentions, author Frederick Hess outlines how billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates are able to have so much of a say in public education.
“[A]cademics, activists, and the policy community live in a world where philanthropists are royalty—where philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood… The groups convened by foundations [to advise them] tend to include, naturally enough, their friends, allies, and grantees. Such groups are less likely than outsiders to offer a radically different take on strategy or thinking… Almost without exception, the evaluators are hired by funders or grantees….Most evaluators are selected, at least in part, because they are perceived as being sympathetic to the reform in question.”
5. Rupert Murdoch
To his credit, the CEO of Newscorp — the parent company of Fox News — is the most open about his desire to nakedly profit from public school contracts. The billionaire media mogul saw the potential to profit from classroom educational technology, and made a move to get his slice of the pie in New York City by purchasing Brooklyn-based Wireless Generation for $360 million.
“When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching,” Murdoch said in November of 2010.
Murdoch then made political maneuvers to gain favor with New York’s political establishment, and gain contracts with his new purchase. As Mother Jones reported, Murdoch hired former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein. Not long after, NYC schools entered into a $27 million contract with Wireless Generation to track student performance — one of the ways corporate-owned charter schools justify taking over school districts in predominantly black and brown communities.
“Decision making in education is so far removed from people who have anything to do with kids,” University of Arizona education professor Kenneth Goodman told Mother Jones.