Map compiled by Steve Suitts, Southern Spaces

Nick Hanauer, a wealthy venture capitalist who’s poured millions into the “school choice” movement has had an awakening and gotten a lot of attention for an article he wrote in the Atlantic that said, “Better schools won’t fix America.”

He said fixing inequality must come first. The Washington Post writes here about the reaction, including a light bulb moment for President Barack Obama, whose education leaders were charter school and high-stakes-testing acolytes. Blaming  teachers was also popular. Commented Obama.

 

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No kidding.

The Post article writes about Hanauer’s past philanthropy:

This was part of a larger trend in philanthropy in which the country’s wealthiest citizens for a few decades poured billions of dollars into efforts to change public education. Their reasons varied — some believed the public system was inefficient; some thought that it would lift generations of people out of poverty; others didn’t believe in the public sector. But they all managed to drive the public education agenda toward their pet projects.

 

Critics argued such philanthropy is fundamentally undemocratic, because it allows wealthy private individuals, who have not been elected and who are not accountable to anybody but themselves, to set a public agenda. And, in the case of school reform, they have noted that much of the money has been wasted.

The research is pretty clear, particularly as the “school choice” crowd begins to run from measuring success by test scores. Why do they run? As a whole, charter schools and vouchers and all the rest of the billionaires’ strategies show little by way of broad, positive results against conventional public schools. They are good at segregating some districts. They do allow people to flee economic and racial groups they fear. But by removing a broad mix of students from conventional schools, they make it even harder for schools with concentrated populations of impoverished kids.

Demographics are destiny. Show me a middle-income student population and I’ll show you a successful school. Show me a school on the bottom end of that economic scale, particularly one also burdened by the lingering effects of centuries of racial discrimination, and I’ll show you, absent occasional outliers, what the school choicers like to call “failing” schools.

When families have failed to prepare children for school, the schools have a hard time catching up. Says Hanauer:

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“I’ve run a ton of businesses, and I can tell you from experience that if smart, hard-working people work on something for a long time and make no progress, it is wise to question the strategy,” he said in an email. “And so, with reluctance I began to question mine.”

After years of spending a lot of money on school reform, he concluded that while improving schools is important, it isn’t what the country needs most.

“There were zero charter schools when I began ‘helping’ our education system. Today, there are over 7,000,” he said. “But our country has never been more unequal, polarized and angry.”