Last week Warren Buffett gave 31 billion dollars to the Gates Foundation. As usual, the mainstream media missed the real story. Leaving aside the creation of an Ameristocracy for another day, parents, teachers, students, and citizens should be concerned about the immediate impact of the donation on public education.
According to an almost giddy Frederick Hess of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, the money will increase Gates' funding of education to nearly 1$ Billion a year.
Ultimately this is 1) bad for children, 2) bad for communities, and 3) bad for democracy.
1. Bad for children: As Gates gives billions to schools, more schools must remake themselves in Gates' image. No remaking in Gates image, no money. Call it quality control.
Gates is on the record demanding children improve their math and science scores; he claims America cannot survive if children do not become more competitive in the Global Marketplace. However, as researcher Gerald Bracey reminds us, there is not a single scientific study linking high performance in math and science to global competitiveness, nor happiness, nor democracy for that matter.
Data worship results in a myopic view of what the world could and should be. Children, we might remind corporate America, are more than math and science scores. While math and science play important roles in our lives, there are other scores we might help children increase: their creativity score, their empathy score, their resiliency score, their curiosity score, their integrity score, their thoughtfulness score, their take-initiative score, their innovation score, their critical thinking score, their passion score, their problem-solving score, their refusal to follow leaders who lie to them score, their democratic engagement score...and so forth.
The lie that our schools are failing to keep this country competitive has been kept alive since A Nation at Risk, written in 1983. We are told, repeatedly, that schools are failing so corporate America can step in and save them. Think Social Security here...
Despite their "failure," the U.S. remains the sole global superpower, houses twice as many nobel laureates as any other country, has the most productive workforce on the planet, and leads the globe in innovation. I'd also argue that the average U.S. citizen is a decent and humane person. None of this is possible without the infrastructure, and genius, developed and supported by public education.
I'd rather not turn education over to Gates, as I'd like to see children develop into countless possibilities beyond what Microsoft has to offer. We might, as a nation, vote on what schools will do to the future of this country. Should we ratchet up test scores at the expense of a critical and engaged citizenry? If Gates continues pouring money into schools, we'll be asking him that question, despite the fact that we did not vote him into a leadership position.
2. Bad for communities: Corporate encroachment into education harms communities as it strips parents of their ability to shape the public institution of schools. Some readers will want to say "but parents don't shape schools anyway."
That is the proper response. Parents, communities, teachers, and students should have far more influence over schooling than they do now. While lack of parental involvement and influence is a very real problem in public education, it is 1) rarely addressed in debates over school reform and 2) exacerbated by increased corporate control over public education.
Importantly, NCLB -- legislation written by and for corporate America -- ultimately strips parents, teachers, and students of the ability to participate in educational agenda setting, as 1) the agenda has been set (testing, testing, testing) and 2) the consequences have been determined. After 4 years of "failing," schools are turned over to other entities such as charter schools run by...wait for it...Gates money.
One out of four children who sit in a charter school does so with the help of either the Gates or the Waltons, despite the lack of compelling evidence that charter schools educate any better than traditional public schools. U.S. citizens might ask themselves if they would turn "failing" communities into charter communities, run by corporations.
3. Bad for democracy: Democracy is much more than one person one vote. It is a system of associated living where individuals participate in the institutions that shape their lives. Schools, according to philosophers such as John Dewey and Benjamin Barber, are the mechanisms by which democracies maintain and recreate themselves and must be tended by a mindful citizenry, not corporate leaders.
I have seen very little from corporate America over the past 20 years that indicates sweeping support for democracy. One might convincingly argue that many corporations have undermined democratic ideals. Given that fact, corporate involvement in community schools should trouble all Americans, whether they call themselves conservative, liberal, green, independent, libertarian, or progressive.
If U.S. democracy is under assault, and many scholars, activists, politicians, and citizens believe that it is, then turning more public schools over to Gates does not bode well for its future. Does Gates, for example, value free speech, free expression, and free thought? The answer must be no if math and science are gods all children must worship. Does he value innovation, creativity, and nuance? The answer must again be no if he continues to remake schools in his image.
Should Gates decide to put democracy first, that would be a different story, and I will be the first to come out in support of his efforts to reform public schools. However, until that happens, citizens must stand up against the hostile takeover of their public schools. To do anything less guarantees less democracy for our children.