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Plutocracy with a Philanthropic Face

Research & Commentary
September 10, 2011

by Sam Pizzigati

Not all plutocrats scheme in the shadows like the rabidly right-wing Koch brothers. We need to learn how to recognize plutocracy’s more subtle putches. The best primer? The battle over education’s future.

“Plutocracy” first burst big-time into our national political consciousness in the late 19th century, and the concept still conjures up today, well over a century later, much the same images as way back then.

We envision, at any mention of “plutocrat,” some Wall Street banker, his pockets overflowing with greenbacks, or a robber baron industrialist, muttering the “public be damned” while bribing pols with one hand and busting unions with the other.

Some of our present-day plutocrats — the billionaire Koch brothers, for instance — fit this image quite nicely. Koch-like plutocrats slide in and out of the shadows, bankrolling our society’s most reactionary and repulsive politicos, all the while railing against unions and taxes and government regulation.

But plutocrats today don’t all spout crude libertarian bromides or even play footsie, as the Kochs have, with sloganeering from our segregationist past.[pullquote]Many of our mega rich today bear no outward resemblance whatsoever to the brothers Koch.[/pullquote]

Indeed, many of our mega rich bear little resemblance to the brothers Koch. These more enlightened plutocrats seem to obsess over philanthropy, not profits. They do their sliding in and out of foundation board rooms, pledging their support, at one high-minded symposium after another, for initiatives sure to bring “efficiency” and “innovation” to our society’s most pressing problems.

This may be plutocracy’s future face, what plutocracy, in the 21st century, really “looks like.” What will this plutocracy really do, for — and to — us? We have one clue from the ongoing high-stakes battle over reforming America’s public schools.

“The hottest cause among Wall Street hedge-fund managers these days is not financial reform,” as the Toronto Globe and Mail’s chief U.S. political writer, Konrad Yakabuski, noted earlier this month. “It’s education reform.”

Billionaires, of course, have every right as citizens to advocate whatever public policy stance and vision they choose. But, in a deeply unequal America, these billionaires don’t just have rights. Their immense fortunes give them enormous power, more than enough to dominate, not just advocate.

“A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed,” notes education analyst Joanne Barkan, “to define the national debate on education.”[pullquote]The Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations don’t agree on every single educational policy twist. But they do all follow the same basic script.[/pullquote]

Three billionaire foundations set the pace for this defining, one funded out of the Microsoft fortune, one out of Wal-Mart, and one out of the AIG insurance empire. The Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations don’t agree on every single educational policy twist. But they do all follow the same basic script.

America’s public schools are failing poor kids, this script’s storyline posits, because too many ineffective teachers are staffing our classrooms. We need to test kids to identify — and replace — these ineffective teachers. We need to hire good teachers, pay them extra if they perform well, and keep subjecting students to standardized tests to make sure these good teachers keep performing.

Teacher unions, the storyline continues, will fight these reforms. But real reformers can beat back the unions — by shutting down “failing” schools, for instance, and replacing them with publicly funded, privately managed “charter schools.” Such charter schools will succeed because they don’t have to worry about due process, seniority, or any other teacher union contract niceties.

This entire approach to school “reform” rests on two seldom defended assumptions. The first: that poor kids would learn just fine if only they only had better teachers. The second: that student scores on standardized tests give us all we need to identify better teachers.

But independent education researchers have repeatedly exposed the emptiness of both these assumptions. The research consensus, one recent survey relates, has concluded that teaching likely “accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes.”

Out-of-school factors — poverty dynamics that range from homelessness and hunger to home and neighborhood instability — make four times more impact.

And high-stakes standardized tests can be gamed, add researchers like Harvard’s Dan Koretz, by drilling students in “test-taking strategies that pollute testers’ ability to see what the students actually know.”[pullquote]The billionaire approach to education reform has essentially become official U.S. Department of Education policy.[/pullquote]

If drilling fails, the high stakes in high-stakes testing — “pay for performance” bonuses and promotions — create systemic incentives for cheating. Massive testing scandals have already surfaced in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., three cities where billionaire foundations have wielded massive influence.

These scandals haven’t much slowed the billionaire education “reform” push. Nor has the distinct lack of positive results from districts like New York City and Chicago, where billionaire reformers reign supreme.

Instead, despite the dismal billionaire track record, the billionaire approach to education reform has essentially become official U.S. Department of Education policy, and states, to qualify for new pools of federal aid, are having to rewrite their laws and regs along the lines the mega rich have been promoting.

What will all this mean for schools in the future? Even some conservative analysts, like the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederich Hess, are predicting a “train wreck” ahead.

Progressive analyst Joanne Barkan, for her part, has spelled out what that wreck could bring: “an extreme degree of ‘teaching to the test,’ demoralized teachers, rampant corruption by private management companies, thousands of failed charter schools, and more low-income kids without a good education.”

Why can’t more people see the wreck coming? The billionaires and their foundations, Barkan notes, have polluted the political process. They’ve undermined, with their largesse, the independence of institutions that ought to be protecting the public interest.

The billionaire foundations, Barkan explains, lavish grants on research groups and think tanks to study the programs they fund. They ladle still more millions “to TV networks for programming and to news organizations for reporting.”

And plenty of major corporations have a vested financial industry in keeping the billionaire educational reform vision on course. The standardized testing regimes the billionaires demand have become a gold mine. One top education industry giant, Pearson, is collecting $500 million from one state alone, Texas, for the contract to create and administer five years worth of standardized tests.

Sign up for To MuchBut billionaires, the Nation magazine’s Dana Goldstein suggests, may have a deeper reason for pushing their education vision, for insisting that putting “better” teachers into America’s classrooms can “completely overcome poverty.”

“If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone,” Goldstein observes, “then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality — about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the super rich and prevent us from expanding access to child care and food stamps.”

“Taxpayers still fund more than 99 percent of the cost of K–12 education,” adds Joanne Barkan. “Private foundations should not be setting public policy for them.”

That’s not democracy. That’s plutocracy.

Sam Pizzigati, the co-editor of Inequality.Org, also edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up here to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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