Education Foundations

THINKING FOR OURSELVES
Education Foundations
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Aug 22, 2010

In all the debates over the fate of public education one reality emerges incontrovertibly. Our children and the schools crisis have become a means for a few individuals and corporations to make a lot of money. The Obama administration is pouring billions into efforts to transform our schools, encouraging experimentation and change. The current level of funding, $3.5 billion is about 28 times as much as what was spent in 2007.

As a result, the New York Times reported, people are lining up to get a piece of the education pie. In a recent article the Times reported on a husband and wife team offering new curriculum, corporations with records of failure refashioning themselves, and text book and technology companies marketing whole reform packages.

Jack Jennings, the president of the non-profit Center on Education Policy, said, “Many of these companies just smell the money.” Rudy Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor who has formed his own consulting company, said he was astonished to see so many untested groups peddling strategies to improve schools, “This is like the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans.”

In no other area of public responsibility would we, the people, allow such uncontrolled, unthoughtful and untested experimentation to be performed on our communities, let alone our children.. It is unimaginable that the disparities in health care, for example, would be addressed by simply putting billions of dollars up for grabs to anyone who claimed they knew how to provide better services. Yet our communities have been reeling from a series of experimentations in education foisted on us and our children.

One reason why education has been thrown into such turmoil is the extraordinary amount of money offered by powerful foundations who push the often-uninformed visions of private individuals into the public world.

It is almost impossible to understand how these foundations, who demand accountability from the first grader sitting in an urban classroom, have no publicly shared system to evaluate, control, assess or weed out the crackpots in their list of approved school consultants and “transformation” experts. Nor are we aware of any accountability system used by federal, state or local governments.

Diane Ravitch, the New York University education historian and former intellectual architect of No Child Left Behind, places much of the blame for this on large foundations such as Gates, Walton and Broad. She argues that the track record of mega foundations in education has not been good. In her recent best seller The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How testing and Choice are Undermining Education, she points out that Ford Foundation efforts to push community schools in New York City created more turmoil than learning. The Annenberg Foundation’s $500 million reform effort that began in 1993 created a lot of excitement but few results, and the nearly decade-long $2 billion effort of the Gates Foundation to push small high schools produced disappointing results.

She comments that, while foundations are very concerned about teacher accountability, they themselves are accountable to neither voters nor stockholders. Moreover, because they weld so much economic power, few people are willing to criticize them.

Ravitch says, “There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.”

These same mega-foundations are messing with Detroit Public Schools, as are our own middleweight and minor ones, from Kresge to Skillman. For more than 30 years, their various schemes have undermined the stability, innovation and experimentation at the grass roots level that have been the most successful means of creating education for active citizenship.

Place-based education, service learning, small class size, community engagement, Freedom Schooling and expanding the creative talents of our youth to foster social change are all efforts that have grown out of the work of community activists, teachers, youth and students. These efforts, based on vision and compassion, are the real source for transforming our schools and our country. They are the foundation of a new education and a new country.

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