The fix is in folks. We need a war against the ultra wealthy who believe they have a right control everything our government does in education and elsewhere.
At the Cambridge Forum lecture that I gave in Harvard Square at the First Parish (Unitarian Universalist) on March 8, 2015 I discussed the role of wealthy in education reform and the privatization of education (See the post Julian Vasquez Heilig @CamForum to Discuss The Health of Democracy and Privatizing Education). The Director of the Cambridge Forum let me know that the radio program which will be syndicated on NPR across the nation will go to stations via satellite on April 17. Here in Sacramento, KQED airs the Cambridge Forum at 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. Thus it is likely the lecture will air either Sunday April 19 or the next Sunday.
The Cambridge Forum Lecture:
First, I want to thank you for inviting me here today for the Cambridge Forum. If you haven’t had a chance yet, you should go to YouTube and check out the archive of past lectures on the Cambridge Forum feed. As I was preparing for this talk, I watched several previous lectures on YouTube and was inspired by Professor Lessig, Garrison Keillor, the Onion, several MacArthur Genius award winners and many others who have given this lecture in the past.
Thank you again for having me.
Also, I am glad to be here in Boston. I spent a summer here in Massachusetts in the 1990s when I was a fellow at the Education Development Center. I fell in love with the New England summer. So much so that I did end up applying to Harvard for my masters and doctorate. Even though I was admitted, I decided not to come to Cambridge for three reasons: a) it was about 70 degrees colder than Stanford California b) My plane coming into Logan took enemy RPG fire and c) because Boston was a war zone at the time. Now to be honest, only one of those three was a reason I never ended up at Harvard, but it seems these days that public speakers have been exaggerating a little— so I went with it.
If you are here in the audience or listening at home or elsewhere I hope that you will Tweet from today’s conversation to @ProfessorJVH. My Twitter profile is Professor then my three initials J-V-H. I would like to write a post for my popular education blog Cloaking Inequity by integrating your Tweets and audience thoughts at a future date. I’d also like to publicly thank the hundreds of thousands Cloaking Inequity readers who hail from 181 countries around the world.
I’ll begin with a story about the US Constitution
As young children, Americans are inculcated with an admiration of democracy— a “manifest destiny” to see democratic systems spread throughout the world. However, in preparation for this lecture, I pondered the anti-democratic direction of education reform today. I began to ponder the aristocratic forces seeking to invade and pervade public policy when I read an editorial published in a Michigan newspaper that argued that the power to elect U.S. Senators should given back to politicians in state legislatures— as originally stipulated in the Constitution.
As you are probably well aware, the U.S. has not always directly elected Senators. Let me share a bit of history from the U.S. Senate Website.
The framers of the Constitution did not intend senators to be directly elected, and included in Article I, section 3, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.”
However, the election of US Senators by politicians in the state legislatures got out of hand. Again, from the US Senate Website:
Intimidation and bribery marked some of the states’ selection of senators. Nine bribery cases were brought before the Senate between 1866 and 1906. In addition, forty-five deadlocks occurred in twenty states between 1891 and 1905, resulting in numerous delays in seating senators. In 1899, problems in electing a senator in Delaware were so acute that the state legislature did not send a senator to Washington for four years.
Muckraker journalist, the bloggers of the early 20th century, (I actually just recently changed the tag line of Cloaking Inequity to “Muckraking since 2012”) Muckraker journalist pushed for direct democracy for the election of U.S. Senators in late 19th century. Again from the US Senate:
After the turn of the century, momentum for reform grew rapidly. William Randolph Hearst hired a veteran reporter, David Graham Phillips, who wrote scathing pieces on senators, portraying them as pawns of industrialists and financiers. As the pressure built from muckrakers and the public, the Senate and then the House advanced the 17th Amendment. The states ratified and the 17th Amendment for direct election of U.S. Senators was added to the Constitution in 1913.
What is the moral of this constitutional story? Outside of the direct purview of direct democracy, policy and governance has the tendency to become ineffective, tainted and corrupt.
I’d now like to turn to aristocratic reform and the current context of education policy.
So what does all this have to do with education and democracy you may ask? Are industrialists and financiers of our day big players in our conversation about education policy? Are their approaches consistent with a vibrant democracy and democratic control of schools?
I’d like to start this portion of conversation by introducing an idea— aristocratic school reform. I argue that aristocratic school reform has four main components:
- Controlled by the elites
- Top down
- Opportunity for profit and privatization
- Elegant, but false, narrative of nobility wrapped in civil rights, economic efficiency etc.
Those are the components of what I call aristocratic reform.
Whose policy approaches require that we classify them aristocratic school reformers?
You are probably familiar with most of their names… Michelle Rhee, Mayor Bloomberg, Mayor Emmanuel… the Democrats for Education Reform… Where is the dark money coming from that underwrites aristocratic reform? When Professor Lessig was here giving the Cambridge Lecture he sourced Wall Street and other corporate entities as being responsible for the problematic functioning and coalescing of Congress around the issues of the elites. He relayed that average income for top ten hedge fund managers was 2.6 billion. That’s with a b. Which means there is some spare change for the aristocratic reformers.
For example, the Democrats for Education Reform is a political action committee supported largely by hedge fund managers and favors charter schools, high-stakes testing, school choice (including vouchers and tuition tax credits in some cases), mayoral control, and alternative teacher preparation programs (i.e. Teach For America).
Diane Ravitch has taken to calling the billionaires funding aristocratic reformers as the “billionaires boys club”
There are many examples of aristocratic education reform that could be discussed here today, but I will focus on just a few of the hot topics that are being discussed in March of 2015. But, there are clearly many other examples that we can probably broach during our forthcoming discussion period.
Chicago is a hot topic right now because of the mayoral runoff. Rahm Emmanuel, famously a bundler of Wall Street and other big money, brought aristocratic school reform to Chicago. The mayorally appointed school board in Chicago has been keen on closing schools, especially those in minority communities, and then sending those same students to low-performing schools after closing their community schools. Notably, The head of UNO charters, Juan Rangel, was co-chair of Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign in 2011. Of note, Illinois had to cut off money due to “conflicts of interest” for the $98 million charter school construction contracts.
Across the nation, legislators are simultaneously filing bills to create new so called “achievement districts.” Is this a purely coincidence? Wholly Spontaneous? ALEC, a lobbying conglomeration of corporations, has spread model legislation across the nation seeking to take chartering of schools out of the hands of local officials and place it in the hands of a politically appointed charter boards. You have a similar and parallel approach in the Recovery School District in New Orleans and Achievement School District in Tennessee.
In Texas, a group of wealthy businessman— including John Arnold, a billionaire former Enron trader— bankrolled an attempted hostile takeover of the entire Dallas school district under an obscure Texas charter law from the 1990s called Home Rule (See Panning A Charter Takeover of ALL Public Schools). Fortunately, the community pushed back and the takeover recently fell through (for now). Regardless, the “achievement district” approach has failed to close the achievement and opportunity gaps wherever they have been tried (See Tennessee and New Orleans).
Why would hedge fund managers and other aristocratic reformers like to see chartering taken out of the hands of democratically elected governmental officials and local communities and instead handed over to a politically appointed board? Or see entire districts taken over, chartered, and run by politically appointed boards?
Aristocratic reformers are focused on a few elites being in control of districts and schools rather than democratically controlled education policy. Disingenuously, they simultaneously promote elegant, but false, narratives of Civil Rights and economic efficiencies as benefits of their top down approaches. However, what the anti-democratic policies really offer is the opportunity for the elites to profit handsomely from the education system by privately controlling the capital associated with our public school systems.
As observed in Chicago and elsewhere, charters schools offer new opportunities to profit from sweetheart construction, land and lease deals. They also typically offer double and triple the rate of returns on bonds compared to traditional public schools. For profit charters are also able to skim dollars from the education of every child. Some charters have even become lucrative vehicles for creating income based on loopholes in immigration laws.
Across the spectrum, aristocratic policies are constructed such that a few elites control education policy rather than communities. For example if the Home Rule takeover of the entire district in Dallas had succeeded, a politically appointed board would have then had control of a $1 billion budget— likely without direct democratic public oversight or accountability.
In fact, did you know that the New Orleans Recovery School District has been sued by various members of the public to release its data, and only now, after ten years has been forced to do so? My mother always says: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
Another notable common denominator is that Rahm, Rhee, Koch brothers, and many others are anti-union (See also Who’s right on unions?: #CesarChavez or @Campbell_Brown and @MichelleRhee). For the Democrats, this has been a confusing journey. In the past, it was left up to Republicans to brand unions as “terrorist” organizations. Now the aristocratic wing of the Democratic party has taken to criticizing unions too.
However, I believe that the teacher organizations are a key constituency for defeating Wall Street and the rest of the aristocratic school reformers. I don’t think anyone can explain this position or say it better than Martin Luther King Jr. Who said:
The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.
Which brings me to the ongoing Reauthorization of ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind. There are competing proposals for the revision of NCLB on the table. The teachers organizations have placed a variety of community-based, democratically-controlled ideas on the table, include a local accountability dashboard— which I will talk about in a moment…But what the revision of NCLB still has in common with its former and still current self is that the primary policy mechanisms leave control in the hands of a select few politicians and elites— not the communities in which schools reside. For Republicans who espouse local control and Democrats who support community empowerment, a revision solely by erasure of the most egregious while leaving the base system in place is a disconnect. However, with the aforementioned context of dark money controlling politicians, it is readily apparent why the education policies of then, and now, continue to have a top-down aristocratic reform agenda. To be consistent with their political ideology it would make more sense for Republicans and Democrats to consider empirically based democratically controlled education reforms for reauthorization of ESEA.
So what is the alternative to the aristocratic school reforms? I posit: Democratically controlled community based education reform. Here are a few examples.
- Community Based Accountability vs High Stakes Testing and Accountability
- Pearsons High Stakes Exams vs. Teacher Assessment
- Value Added Models vs. PAR
- Community-Based charters vs. Choice (Charters and Vouchers)
In conclusion, Lawrence Lessig argued in his Cambridge Forum lecture that we need a war against “fat cats” to save democracy. I believe this also true to ensure the democratic control of schools in my generation and beyond.
However, we know this is problematic for politicians because our political system that was already flooded with money from industrialists and financiers and captains of industry became even more corrupted when the US Supreme Court empowered corporations and Dark Money to have unlimited speech.
Heck, Stephanie Simon reported in Politico that a California billionaire paid the salaries for Teach For America representatives to be the education staffers for both Republicans and Democrats on the Education committees on Capitol Hill.
The fix is in folks.
Lessig characterized this problem as quote: “conflicting dependency within the system… The government does what the well-to-do desire, and it is wholly unrelated to what the people want.”
Lessig also argued we need “A war against people who believe we have a right control everything our government does.”
We need a war against people who believe they have a right to control our education policy and everything our schools do.
In Lessigs’ Cambridge Forum lecture, he told the story of a brave soul spoke up at a White House garden party that the President should reprioritize limiting the increasing influence of elites and dark money in American democracy. He called him a skunk at the garden party.
I’ll be a skunk at the garden party. Will you stink it up with me?
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p.s. Also see The Nation’s recent article by George Joseph 9 Billionaires Are About to Remake New York’s Public Schools