Billionaire Boys' Club

"The most important men in town would come to fawn on me! They would ask me to advise them.... And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong. When you're rich, they think you really know!"
Tevye, in "If I Were a Rich Man" from
Fiddler on the Roof

     I hate to look a gift hundred million dollars in the mouth. Nonetheless, I am concerned about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's lavish gift to the Newark, New Jersey's schools.
     Zuckerberg thus becomes the newest member of what Diane Ravitch identified as "The Billionaire Boys' Club." (Ravitch herself made headlines with the publication of her bombshell, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.)
     "The Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations came to exercise vast influence over American education," Ravitch reported, "because of their strategic investment in school reform.... These foundations set the policy agenda not only for school districts, but also for states and even the U.S. Department of Education."
     Indeed, as one Associated Press news analysis quipped, "The real secretary of education, the joke goes, is Bill Gates."
     What is Gates' and his compatriot billionaires' agenda? Competition, choice, deregulation and other market-based approaches. After all, they enabled the billionaires to amass their fortunes. Therefore, they can't help but raise the "fortunes" of public education as well. There's no need to ask fundamental questions--such as What are the real and difficult challenges facing public schools?--before so blithely touting such easy panaceas.
      These men are billionaires. They know.
      It matters not that none of them are educators; that none of them have worked in a segregated, dilapidated, poorly staffed inner-city school teaching immigrants struggling to learn English (Maids don't count.); that none of their pet proposals--such as charters, high stakes testing and merit pay--are supported by any comprehensive peer-reviewed research. On the contrary, emerging data indicates these policies are harming public education.
     Undeterred by such trivialities, the Billionaire Boys' Club has molded the Obama Administration's educational policy according to its ideology, not the facts, much like what The Club did during the prior Bush Administration.
     The Club has been elected by no one, appointed by no one, and remains accountable to no one. (The press remains ever so kind since editors know very well who butters their bread.) No, like Napoleon, the billionaires have placed the mantel of educational power upon themselves.
     It's really not all that surprising. If one billionaire can attempt to buy California's governorship, what's to stop a cabal of billionaires from buying America's educational system?
     Now a 26-year-old computer geek has decided that he will buy, um, I mean save Newark, New Jersey's schools. (A decision certainly not motivated by nor timed to coincide with the opening of The Social Network, a film portraying Zuckerberg in a rather unflattering light.) He'll team up with New Jersey's governor and Newark's mayor to decide what's best for the school district's 39,000 students.
     Newark suffers from nearly a 50% high-school dropout rate, so any change at all will seem an improvement. Who can blame Newark and other public school districts for accepting The Club's money, despite all its strings? We're all desperate for funds and reform.
     I fear, though, that the Billionaires' apparently benevolent strings may strangle public education to death.

Published October 13th, 2010, in The Argus (Bay Area News Group)

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