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© Frank

interviews

Philanthropy X Local News

by Andrea Gabor
June 27, 2021

This interview with Andrea Gabor, author of After the Education Wars and Bloomberg Chair journalism, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Andrea | My background is as a business journalist. I worked at Business Week for several years, then US News and World Report. I wrote a couple of books, two of which were entirely about management. I segwayed into writing about education, because education had become such a big focus for business.

I specifically became interested in this at the start of the Bloomberg Administration in New York City, in which there was this great effort to bring business thinking to education. When Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric who had earned the nickname "Neutron Jack" because he had a tendency to fire executives and kill businesses that weren't "number one or two" in their business, got involved in education reform in New York City, I came away thinking, “what on earth can educators learn from the no-holds-barred, dog-eat-dog approach that Jack Welch is known for?” That is really what piqued my interest. Of course, from then on, we have seen a very heavy influence of business people, often via their philanthropies, in the education reform movement.

frank | How do you summarize the difference in mindset between those who are pursuing marketplace thinking in education, and the thought of traditional educators? 

The first thing that struck me is that the culture of business and the culture of educators couldn't be more different. Business people are very bottom-line oriented: they believe in market solutions. In the United States, after the competitiveness crisis of the 1980s, it is the kind of thinking that has dominated the mainstream business culture. By contrast, educators — and I prefer to talk about educators rather than education, which is often confused with big-city education bureaucracies — are driven, for the most part, by social justice ideas. You become a teacher not because you think you're going to make the big bucks, but because you care about kids. You become a teacher because job stability is more important to you than climbing a corporate ladder. There's a whole lot of cultural issues that educators prize that is antithetical to mainstream business thinking.

Bloomberg recognized the cadre of really good educators in New York City, but he could never get out of that top-down, command-and-control mindset. In my book, After the Education Wars, I write about how, even though he promoted many of the city’s leading educators to key positions, he also ended up alienating a lot of them because of the way he went about things.

How so? 

Let me give you one example. Bloomberg starts something called the Leadership Academy for principals. The idea was to recruit young people to be principals, give them intensive training, and place them into schools. He hired a woman named Sandra Stein to develop the curriculum for this program. She is one of the most respected educators in New York City, having run the Aspiring Leaders Program at Baruch College, which worked closely with District 2 in Manhattan, but she was made number two to Robert E. Knowling, a former telecommunications executive, whose company went bankrupt. He ended up lasting only two years, and only then was Stein promoted. The way that was handled is just typical.

Why do you think that is? 

That's the way they see the world.

Business people--even mediocre business people--get more respect than the top educators.

Another example, which brings us to big philanthropy, is the idea of "merit pay", which was hugely popular in the education-reform movement. This is not about raising pay across the board, this is about trying to identify the "best teachers" by looking at test scores and incentivizing them with a few thousand extra bucks a year.

Sounds great, right? But there's been a lot of research, much of which has come out of Vanderbilt University, that has debunked the notion that individualized incentive pay works in a school setting. Well, the Gates foundation spent an enormous amount of money in Florida and elsewhere doing experiments with incentive pay — without showing any success.

There's a long history of philanthropy being involved in education. Do you see specific decisions being made to incentivize more philanthropic funding? Or does this come from individual interest? 

During the Bloomberg years, Mayor Bloomberg brought philanthropy to New York City to help fund traditional public schools. That's one model.  But, he also is a big advocate and backer of charter schools. He and other philanthropists have become very engaged in financing alternatives to public schools all over the country. 

This is where we have to segway to the big philanthropies; the big players there are The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in two things. One is expanding charter schools, the private-sector alternative to public schools. 

Foundations have long funded K-12 education. In the old days, however, organizations like the Annenberg and Carnegie foundations were, for the most part, funding programs within the traditional public-education sector. What changes is that you have these new foundations, Gates, Broad, and Walton, who start funding, what Jal Mehta at Harvard calls, jurisdictional challenges. In other words, these organizations are challenging traditional public schools. By 2010, the nation's top 15 foundations spent about $844 million on K-12 education. They were pooling their money to manage schools like stocks in a Wall Street portfolio. In fact, this model of education is called the “portfolio model,” and the crux of the idea is that you are going to measure schools by test scores. Test scores effectively become a proxy for profits: the higher the test score, the more money you get. The model reached its apotheosis in New Orleans, which became the first all-charter city in the country. 

We can get into why that is a problem. On the one hand, measuring everything by test scores ends up really kind of distorting the educational mission. On the other hand, it works to the detriment of the most underserved kids because those kids are least likely to be able to score well.

We seem to ask everyone this but why do you think they are so interested in education?

One part of the answer is that politicians drive interest. You have George W. Bush, who claimed to be the first “education governor” in Texas. He claimed to have completely transformed Texas education, which was actually not the case. There was all kinds of test-score manipulation in Texas that made the state look a lot better, at the time, than it was, and then he became “education president”, and thus began ed reform on a national level. 

At the same time, there was an effort, going back at least to the Reagan era, of conservatives trying to privatize government services — public education was a big part of that, in part as a way of  getting rid of the teachers’ unions. A key example is the work of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation; they underwrote the 1990 school-voucher law in Milwaukee. This is the beginning of the idea of “government schools”, as Republicans will sometimes derisively refer to public schools.

Right. 

The other thing to focus on is the media, which, as you know, is greatly damaged and is in desperate need of funding. So, philanthropies have been funding news media companies, often, specifically, the education coverage of news media companies.. So on one hand, you have the philanthropic sector trying to dismantle public education and, on the other, they are funding news organizations reporting on public education and the education-reform movement. 

What does that look like?

The Gates Foundation, for example, devoted about a billion dollars between 2000 and 2010 to what they call “policy and advocacy.” This includes training programs for journalists, funding things that produce media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces, and conferences where they pay for experts to go and hear about all these great, Gates-funded programs, so the experts can go off and do more opinion pieces.

They also fund newspapers directly. The Gates Foundation in 2013 gave the Seattle Times, its hometown newspaper, a $530,000 grant to launch something called the Educational Lab

They are directly funding education coverage at the Seattle paper. They say it's for a “partnership” between the Seattle Times and The Solutions Journalism Network. Now the Solutions Journalism Network is very important; it also has partnerships with the New York Times and other organizations. The Solutions Journalism Network is looking to “write about promising programs and innovations inside K-12 schools and colleges that are addressing some of the biggest challenges facing public education.” That is a direct quote. 

There is nothing wrong with writing about things that work, but, to a great extent, things that work are in the eye of the beholder. Almost by definition, that is the antithesis of doing investigative work. It gives very much a positive spin on whatever is going on in education reform and can, in the process, undermine public education. A similar thing is going on in Los Angeles, by the way. In 2015, philanthropists donated $800,000 to fund something called Education Matters at the Los Angeles Times. That money came from the Broad Foundation as well as several other foundations. 

This is at around the same time that the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board is writing very favorably about charter school expansion, which is a pet project of Eli Broad. 

In the same year, 2015, Eli Broad formed a $149 million plan called Great Public Schools Now. The aim of which was to double the number of charter schools in Los Angeles. I mean, this is huge. At the time he did this, in terms of the total number of kids in charter schools, Los Angeles had more than any other city, and they were trying to double that number. 

Wow. 

Part of the Great Public Schools Now initiative was investing in advocacy. They earmarked $21.4 million over six years for “organizing and advocacy.”

Broad, and other big philanthropies, also are very involved with funding education-specific publications. Broad is a big funder of a publication called the LA Schools Report. And he, along with Walton and Gates, also founded a publication called The 74, which is essentially the house organ of the ed reformers. 

What is the solution?

There's obviously been a lot written about charter schools and, clearly, I have a particular view on charter schools. There are charter schools that are excellent, I'm not going to dispute that. My argument is that, going back to the founding of this country, public education has been seen as crucial to American democracy.

The idea that you have a system aimed at preparing young people for citizenship has become really conflicted and confused over time. It has been replaced with the idea that the goal of education is creating young people who can serve as willing workers in a capitalist system.

And I would argue that actually the goal should be both. On one hand, you have to have young people who are thoughtful citizens who have the critical thinking skills need in a democracy and, when need be, to determine what is true and what is not when you have a demagogue in power. On the other hand, you also need young people who have the skills, especially in a quickly changing technological world, to fill those jobs. It is not an either/or. But, the problem that we have seen in many charter schools is that dual mission becomes confused when it is privatized.

I would say there is a compelling national interest to maintain public education as a public good. I can critique different kinds of charter schools or traditional public schools ad nauseum, but I am making a different argument, which is that we have a national interest in maintaining public schools in the public sphere. It does not mean that we don't try to pursue all sorts of efforts to improve public schools, but I would argue that in a democracy, undermining public education is dangerous business.