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Billionaires Are the Biggest Threat to Public Schools

For education "disruptors" like Bill Gates and Betsy DeVos, COVID-19 isn’t a crisis—it’s an opportunity.

Given Gates’s track record of expensive failures in the realm of education reform, this partnership is understandably drawing criticism from teachers and parents, as well as allegations from progressives that it is disaster capitalism at work. (Photo: Michael Cohen/Getty Images/The New York Times)

Given Gates’s track record of expensive failures in the realm of education reform, this partnership is understandably drawing criticism from teachers and parents, as well as allegations from progressives that it is disaster capitalism at work. (Photo: Michael Cohen/Getty Images/The New York Times)

The COVID-19 crisis is shaping up to be a golden opportunity for those eager to shake up public education.

The coronavirus pandemic is presenting both DeVos and Gates with new ways to divert public dollars to privately managed schools.

In recent months, as schools closed to limit the spread of COVID-19, millions of students, teachers, and administrators have been forced to flip a switch and embrace distance learning. Many states have hinted that this situation could continue well into the next school year.

Now, panic is spreading among public school advocates as key proponents of “disruptive” education models scramble to capitalize on the chaos. 

First came the news, in late April, that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has long been a political and financial supporter of school choice schemes, has been authorized by Congress to hand out $307 million in grant money to state departments of education—provided they use the funds to “reimagine” (read: privatize) K-12 schooling.

Then, in early May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would be working alongside billionaire education reform advocate Bill Gates to construct new ways of delivering instruction in the COVID-19 era.

Gates, of course, has a long history of tinkering with public schools from a philanthropic distance, using his billions to fund everything from small high school programs to the spread of charter schools in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

Much of Gates’s work has been controversial and short-lived, such as his efforts to have teachers evaluated according to student test scores—something Gates and his wife Melinda admitted was a costly failure.

As for DeVos and her husband Dick, they have for years thrown their considerable weight behind alternative education models, including charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition, all of them funded by public tax dollars.

The DeVoses have used their home state of Michigan as a sort of Petri dish for neo-liberal education reform. With their extensive cash reserves and political connections, the DeVos family has fostered the growth of a mostly unregulated charter school industry in Michigan.

This has amounted to a “race to the bottom” for the state, according to local observers.

Betsy DeVos has continued her devotion to undermining public schools and the unionized teachers who staff them. Earlier this year, she nabbed a front row seat as the Supreme Court wrestled over whether or not public education dollars can be used to pay for tuition at private religious schools—a cause she has supported for many years.

Now, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is presenting both DeVos and Gates with new ways to divert public dollars to privately managed schools, or perhaps to untested, profit-driven ventures.

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While the federal CARES Act includes billions in additional funding for public K-12 schools and colleges across the United States, that money is intended to help school districts and higher education outfits respond adequately to the challenges brought by COVID-19—such as buying new technology to adapt to online learning. 

DeVos, however, was able to, as one reporter noted, carve out a niche for her “pet policy ideas.” Through a competitive grant process, state departments of education can vie for an additional $307 million in relief funds, provided they use the money to promote homeschooling and other alternative education models.

The U.S. Department of Education is poised to allow private schools to gain a larger share of the CARES Act funds than public schools.

These funds amount to a voucher program where grant money can be directed toward a whole slew of services, including private schools that offer online learning programs.

What’s more, the U.S. Department of Education is poised to allow private schools to gain a larger share of the CARES Act funds than public schools that serve primarily low-income students.

That’s because DeVos’s office has proposed a “creative interpretation” of the relief package, according to news reports, that requires school districts to set aside a higher-than-usual percentage of federal dollars for local students who attend private schools.

In response, public education advocates are asking DeVos to walk back her decision. They say it “could significantly harm the vulnerable students who were intended to benefit the most from the critical federal COVID-19 education relief funds Congress has provided.”

Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo’s decision to partner with Bill Gates and other tech entrepreneurs is raising red flags among public school advocates, especially since Cuomo rolled out the announcement by questioning why brick and mortar schools still exist.

The coronavirus pandemic is nothing short of a “rare opportunity” for Cuomo and his allies to remake public education by perhaps replacing teachers with computers, as a New York Times article recently suggested.

Billionaire opportunists are, it would seem, enjoying direct access to Cuomo. The Gates Foundation has been asked to “revolutionize” public education in New York, beginning as early as this fall, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has also been tapped to lend a hand.

Given Gates’s track record of expensive failures in the realm of education reform, this partnership is understandably drawing criticism from teachers and parents, as well as allegations from progressives that it is disaster capitalism at work.

DeVos’s preferred approach to education reform has also proven to be disastrous in Michigan, where many students struggle to get a basic education, thanks to the state’s highly destabilized public school system.

Given the emerging economic crisis and the devastating impact it will likely have on state education budgets, Gates, DeVos, and other well-heeled proponents of disruptive education plans should not be granted unchecked access to taxpayer money and the students, teachers, and communities who depend on public schools.

Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

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