Philanthropy and Politics in Education

According to the Center for Public Education, there are several roles of every board of education.

  • School boards look out for students. Education is not a line item on the school board’s agenda—it is the only item.
  • When making decisions about school programs, school boards incorporate their community’s view of what students should know and be able to do.
  • School boards are accessible to the public and accountable for the performance of their schools.
  • School boards are the education watchdog for their communities, ensuring that students get the best education for the tax dollars spent.

The makeup of a school board can heavily influence student achievement. Boards that govern districts with high student achievement scores behave quite differently from boards that govern districts with low student achievement score. “The practices of effective boardsmanship, as detailed by the assessment, have a strong correlation with high student achievement(NSBA).

Much like Congress, if there is a balance, then there is some level of democracy, and decisions can be made fairly and with the best interest of the community – especially the students. In a perfect world, this would be the case, but we don’t live in a perfect world.

Last month in Los Angeles, charter supporters took control of the school board by voting in hand-selected and financially supported candidates. This action will lave long term implications to the nation’s second largest school district, as charter advocates can now advance their agenda of opening more unregulated (and for profit) charter schools, draining the public schools of millions of dollars.

According to the LA Times, this was the most expensive school board election in US history, with the charter advocates far outspending their rivals. Reed Hastings, Founder and CEO of Netflix donated $5 million to the campaign in support of charter advocates. Hastings is a strong proponent of charter schools.  He once serve as the California State Board of Education President- he served from 2001-2005. In a speech this week, Hastings said he “hopes to see the majority of children in the nation’s public schools enrolled in charter schools, something he said he is committed to supporting even if it takes decades to accomplish” (Ed Source).

Along with Hastings, other billionaire philanthropists gave a total of $17 million to the campaign. Eli Broad, another philanthropist and charter supporter donated heavily.

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This week one of the newly elected board members, Nick Melvoin, 31, former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school teacher said he is not about promoting more charters. Rather he wants to see what is working in public schools and promote those ideas, thus strengthening the public sector (EdSource). Melvoin said the election was more about best practices, not advancing charters. I wonder if Hastings and Broad would agree?

In New York City, the largest public school district in the country, Mayor de Blasio pleaded his case this month to keep control of the public schools with his office. Control of the schools has been with the mayor since 2002 when NY voted to remove the school board, and place responsibility for the schools with the mayor-then Michael Bloomberg. At the time of the decision, there was bipartisan agreement that the old system of the school board was rife with corruption.

The negotiating point for legislators last week was charter schools. Senate Majority Leader John Flannagan wanted approval of mayor control in exchange for more charters. According to WYNC,  Flannagan noted in a statement: “Denying charters the ability to grow and preventing parents’ ability to choose would shut the door on 20 years of proven gains in academic achievement.”  I sure would like to see data to support this claim.

Flannagan said 50,000 more kids are waiting to get in to charter schools and extending mayoral control should be linked to increasing the number of charter schools (WYNC). What he doesn’t say is that reverting to the old school board system will cost the city in excess of $1.5 billion over 10 years (WYNC).

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Late this week, the NY State Assembly passed an omnibus bill with a two-year deal for mayoral control ending the arm wrestle over control of the nation’s largest school system and its 1.1 million students. Assemblyman Charles Barron said, “That was a real victory for the Assembly” (NY Times).

Clearly the motivation in Los Angeles to replace board members with pro-charter advocates is to grow charters. The LA school board was bought by wealthy people who want to push their agenda. In New York there was a clear plan to increase the number of charters, but the Mayor was not on board. So, I guess if you don’t like the rules, change them. Or if you don’t like the school board, buy another one.

Set aside the philanthropy and politics for a moment. For the players in this game, charters are an investment. Is it for financial gain? Control? Is it to prove a point- maybe that unions really are the enemy? Is anyone really thinking about the children?

Diane Ravitch wrote about how corporate privatizers claim that turning public money over to operators of privately-managed contract schools is the “civil rights issue of our time.” I would agree this is a civil rights issue, but not in the way they do.

The NAACP also sees this as a civil rights issue. Last summer the NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools until important issues of accountability were addressed and corrected.

While we might agree on the need for better schools in urban areas, the answer is not unregulated schools with unlicensed teachers who support unethical admissions and discipline practices.  Charters are opening in low-income urban areas, not high-income suburban areas. When the players (philanthropists, politicians) start talking about turning wealthy white suburban schools into charters-staff them with inexperienced and unlicensed teachers, then this will be a very different conversation.

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There is so much transparency in these decisions. I only wrote about LA and NYC. This is happening to school boards all over the country. The privatization movement is gaining momentum, and with support in the White House and the Department of Education, the push is starting to snowball.

We need fair and balanced school board elections which yield fair and balanced decisions. We need billionaire philanthropists to stop monopolizing school boards, schools, teachers, students and parents. They have an agenda – and it is transparent.

These are my reflections for today.

7/1/17

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Author: Meg White

I am a lifelong educator and I hope to use this blog to reflect on what's happening in public education. These are my musings, opinions, and reflections. If you learn from them, good for us. Ignorance is no excuse. I have co-authored a book, "Questioning Assumptions and Challenging Perceptions: Becoming an Effective Teacher in Urban Environments" (available on amazon)

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