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.
This is worth a read: a thought-provoking reminder that education reform isn’t a cure-all. As a supporter of education reform, I agree that fixing educational inequality requires doing more to address the broader, systemic sources of economic inequality. https://t.co/96B7fkBM4u
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 18, 2019
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:
“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.”
The dissolution of the middle class, he said, “overwhelmed anything we did in schools,” even as the wealthiest Americans saw their fortunes balloon. “I realized that the idea that education reform is going to make this society more equal isn’t going to work,” he said.
Hanauer has now put his philanthropic efforts behind the initiative for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, saying that putting more money in the hands of the poor is what will drive improvement in schools and across society. For one thing, he said, it would increase what Americans can pay in local taxes to improve their schools, because schools are funded largely by local and state taxes.
There’s more. But it will be a while before the message reaches Arkansas, in thrall to the Walton Family Foundation-financed course to more charter schools, more school vouchers and more laws that encourage whites to flee districts with unacceptable populations of minority children. Just this week, a lobbyist whose organization is funded by the Waltons and other Arkansas megarich was touting a plan that would allow students in the whitest middle school in Little Rock to continue high school at a high school in an adjacent district that is almost 30 percentage points whiter than the “whitest” Little Rock high school. Choice uber Alles!
The millionaires have made “school choice” very fashionable. Tim Griffin, angling for the millionaires’ money to run for governor in 2022, utters the phrase in virtually every public appearance.
Here’s a thoughtful article in the journal Southern Spaces on the modern school choice movement, a spruced-up version of “freedom of choice” as advocated by the segs of the George Wallace era. Among others, the article by Steve Suitts notes over-representation of whites in private schools.
The political movement for “school choice” is employing the icons and language of civil rights and social justice to advance private school vouchers that fifty years ago were primary tools for segregationists to preserve unequal education for African American and Hispanic children. President Trump’s call for a national program of “school choice” echoes the language of George Wallace and others who demanded the federal government and US courts permit Alabama and the South to administer “freedom of choice” for elementary and secondary schools.
These apparent contradictions emerge from the unexamined legacy of segregationists who designed and developed effective, lasting strategies that frustrated and blocked K–12 school desegregation. It is a legacy that turns the icons and language of civil rights inside-out while thwarting the national goal of an effective, equitable system of education for all children.
Do you doubt the voucher movement won’t increase segregation?
Arkansas has taken steps as a matter of law to avoid counting how school transfers affect racial populations of schools. Interdistrict transfers are heavily related to racial movement. Charter schools are, for the most part, segregated. (Black families, too, seek like surroundings.) The Arkansas voucher program has been expanded in the name of the “disabled,” but qualifications for vouchers are broad and unaccountable. The program also has been opened to existing private school students now, a boon to many church schools.
And steadily, on the sidelines, Walton-financed lobbyists chant “failing schools.” There are poor schools and good schools; poor teachers and good teachers. But raw materials count. A single letter grade that compares a thoroughly impoverished all-black elementary school in the Delta with a majority white elementary in walking distance of a country club is absurd. But that’s how Arkansas rolls.
If our system and unequal economy produce ever more “failing” families, the school results will be predictable. At some point, somebody might wake up and decide everything wasn’t the teachers’ fault.