Opinion
October 05, 2014

Schools Need Donor Support to Counter the ‘Corporatization’ of Public Education

With another school year under way, the "public" in public education remains under siege, and that’s in part because big companies and foundations are driving the conversation instead of teachers, students, and parents.

It’s vital that all of us in the nonprofit world who care about the future start thinking harder about supporting the advocates who are fighting against the corporatization of public education.

We need to provide our resources, advice, and power to push back against the billions of dollars that business and philanthropy have spent promoting a market-based approach to education nationally, and especially in large urban areas.
Progressive donors and foundations must move quickly to increase their investments in grass-roots groups that are focused on helping parents, teachers, and students fix what is so clearly broken.

In city after city, the language of business transactions and commerce is often used to describe the way schools should work, and to tout new funds and initiatives for education reform.

Teachers are driven to become more "efficient" in the classroom; students must be ready to "compete" in the global economy; and families need more "choices" for where they can send their children to learn.

Consider the role of the Walton family.
Its members make up the wealthiest family in America and are the driving force behind Walmart. Their family foundation has spent more than a billion dollars around the country, and millions in New York City and elsewhere, to advance a separate and unequal system in which privately-run charter schools are well funded while traditional district public schools are resource-starved.

Most families and communities don’t want schools run like rigid companies, with principals operating as CEOs and teachers functioning as low-level employees who cannot ever deviate from the script of high-stakes exam preparation. Nor do they want schools to cherry pick only the best students while ignoring the highest-needs students, who are often low-income, young people of color, and recent immigrants.

The privatization approach to public education has meant that students from the most vulnerable and marginalized groups are losing the chance to pursue learning as a source of opportunity and advancement.

In New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other cities, students and their parents have been shut out of policy and governance decisions. They are not given the skills to challenge existing institutions and make their lives better. They are not intellectually engaged in a deep or fulfilling way.

When schools operate this way, they are weakened as the building blocks of healthy, stable, democratic communities. They become shallow vehicles for private gain and individual profit, disconnected from collective participation in improving economic and social conditions and the advancement of new ideas.

New York City offers a great case study of the results that foundations can achieve by helping to pay for advocacy efforts. In the city, advocacy groups have joined with parents, teachers, and others to fight what they call the "Walmartization" of public education.

During the tenure of the former mayor Michael Bloomberg, too few schools nurtured critical thinkers, doers, artists, activists, and innovators. And in the process, families who were affected the most by this failure were shut out of decision-making.

When Mr. Bloomberg left office last year, only 12 percent of New York City’s black and Latino students were graduating ready for college or careers. This is unacceptable and wrong, and we must do better.

For public-school students in New York City, the winds of change at City Hall have been blowing. The de Blasio administration has already taken major steps to adopt a progressive education agenda.

By pushing for all children to have access to preschool and a free lunch in middle schools, and by getting parents more engaged in decisions about learning, the new mayor has sought to set a new national standard for innovative policymaking in education. He has moved quickly to undo the worst damage of the corporate approach and adopt a more inclusive agenda for schools that will empower parents, teachers, and students where they live, work, and learn.

Ultimately, public education means giving a much bigger seat at the table to voices that are often excluded and overlooked.

It means respecting teachers as sources of deep insight into what it takes to cultivate the best habits of mind in the most disadvantaged students. It means listening to parents who recognize that preparation for standardized testing should never replace actual learning. And it means, as one Brooklyn parent recently put it, that people who run our schools "should be required to take the time to know, respect, and love our kids."

To make this democratic vision a reality, advocacy organizations need the resources to reconnect classrooms to communities, and to put in place a real alternative to the privatization approach to education funded so aggressively by the Walton family and other conservative foundations.

That’s why it’s so important to elevate the efforts of local advocates on the front lines.

Leaders in groups like the Coalition for Educational Justice and Urban Youth Collaborative, supported by the Education Justice Fund in New York City, fight daily to ensure that public schools address the social and economic conditions in which many students struggle to live and to learn.

In Los Angeles, they are joined by colleagues in organizations like Dignity in Schools–L.A. and the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition who are successfully reforming school disciplinary practices to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

And in Chicago, a range of groups has formed a Grassroots Education Movement to support the Chicago Teachers Union in its disputes with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has pushed privatization approaches that fly in the face of schools as foundational elements of thriving, healthy communities.

Greater investment in their work will not only improve education, it will also put the next generation on a clearer path toward embracing the values and principles necessary to build a better society for all.

Hugh Hogan is executive director of the North Star Fund in New York City.