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The faces that dominate the education reform debate today—where "education reform" means increased reliance on standardized tests, the results of which are then used to determine the fates of teachers whose job security has been weakened—are people like former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Harlem Children's Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada. They are, or can be packaged as, dynamic and visionary, educators who are passionate about kids. But lots of teachers could fit that bill, so why is someone like Michelle Rhee, who has spent very little time in the classroom, so prominent while the average teacher faces cutbacks and scapegoating? The answer, as in so many things, involves money. Not just any money. Billionaire money. Hedge fund money. Goldman Sachs money. Bill Gates money and Walton money. Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada are prominent because they embody a set of ideas attractive to major philanthropists working to remake public education into their own vision of how the world works.

infographic showing nearly $6 million in Walton Family Foundation donations to StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, and Education Reform Now
The Walton Family Foundation is just one of the "philanthropies" advancing a highly politicized vision
for public education through big donations. (Education Week)

When Bill Gates, or the Walmart Waltons, or former SunAmerica CEO Eli Broad, pour millions of tax-deductible dollars through their charitable foundations into education, they don't suddenly cease to be people who inherited or made billions of dollars in the corporate world and magically become noble, pure-hearted philanthropists completely divorced from politics with only the non-politicized good of humanity in mind. They remain people who inherited or made billions of dollars in the corporate world. Their political beliefs, left or right, remain intact, and their philanthropic giving typically supports those beliefs.

Often, the political beliefs playing out through billionaire philanthropy aren't explicitly partisan—but they reflect the view that rich people are rich because they're better and smarter than the rest of us, that expertise within a specific field is no match for a motivated billionaire's genius, and that the rules under which they were successful in the private sector can and should be applied to the public sector. Never mind that government has different goals than business and that, as Elizabeth Warren so powerfully reminded us, none of them got rich on their own. They relied on public roads and police forces and publicly educated workers to build their wealth. Yet now, having succeeded as individuals on that basis, they act as if their success is not just independent of but an evolutionary step beyond all those facts, and seek to reshape the world to match that view.

In the case of education, that has translated into, first, millions and millions of dollars being poured into everything but what we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the most important factor in educational outcomes: socioeconomic class. Creating a more equal society is the way to improve educational outcomes across the board. It's not something the Waltons or Eli Broad or Rupert Murdoch are particularly interested in, though. So they focus their efforts inside schools rather than on changing society, and of course they turn their gaze to schools believing they know best. And since in their belief systems, in their experience of what works in the world, the private sector and the profit motive are the drivers of success, that's what they think will benefit education.

The push for corporate values and the entry of profit in education leads to an emphasis on standardized tests that just happen to mean big profits for testing companies. It means the same companies that make the tests and the test-prep materials make money licensing teachers. It means privatized, nutritionally poor school lunches.

These are things happening in traditional public schools, but the corporate education agenda also means building a whole other educational system, draining resources from traditional public schools on an increasing basis despite a failure to show actual educational benefits. So we see the growth of charter management companies raking in big bucks on rents and other fees they charge the schools they're supposed to serve. We see, despite demonstrated poor results for online learning, philanthropist Bill Gates giving money to online learning advocacy while Microsoft looks into entering the online learning business.

As damaging as these individual initiatives are to our public education system, more damaging still is the growth of policy-by-billionaires. We need a robust system of government, including education, and not a tattered, underfunded government leaving a void for billionaires to step in and steer not just charity but public policy based on the implicit view that because they're rich they must know best.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Sun May 20, 2012 at 05:55 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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