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Education Profiteering: Wall Street's Next Big Thing?

Wall Street's involvement in the charter school movement is presented as an act of philanthropy, but it's really about greed.
 
 
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Editor's note: Jeff Faux's new book is The Servant Economy: Where America's Elite is Sending the Middle Class (Wiley, 2012).

The end of the Chicago teachers' strike was but a temporary regional truce in the civil war that plagues the nation's public schools. There is no end in sight, in part because -- as often happens in wartime -- the conflict is increasingly being driven by profiteers.

The familiar media narrative tells us that this is a fight over how to improve our schools. On the one side are the self-styled reformers, who argue that the central problem with American K-12 education is low-quality teachers protected by their unions. Their solution is privatization, with its most common form being the privately run but publicly financed charter school. Because charter schools are mostly unregulated, nonunion and compete for students, their promoters claim they will, ipso facto, perform better than public schools.

On the other side are teachers and their unions who are cast as villains. The conventional plot line is that they resist change, blame poverty for their schools' failings and protect their jobs and turf.

It is well known, although rarely acknowledged in the press, that the reform movement has been financed and led by the corporate class. For over twenty years large business oriented foundations, such as Gates (Microsoft), Walton (Wal-Mart) and Broad (Sun Life) have poured billions into charter school start-ups, sympathetic academics and pundits, media campaigns (including Hollywood movies) and sophisticated nurturing of the careers of privatization promoters who now dominate the education policy debate from local school boards to the US Department of Education.

In recent years, hedge fund operators, leverage-buy-out artists and investment bankers have joined the crusade. They finance schools, sit on the boards of their associations and the management companies that run them, and -- most important -- have made support of charter schools one of the criteria for campaign giving in the post-Citizens United era. Since most Republicans are already on board for privatization, the political pressure has been mostly directed at Democrats.

Thus, for example, when Andrew Cuomo wanted to get the support of hedge fund managers for his run for governor of New York, he was told to talk to Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform, a group set up to lobby liberals on privatization. Cuomo is now a champion of charter schools. As Joanne Barkan noted in a Dissent Magazine report, privatizers are even targeting school board elections, in one case spending over $630,000 to elect two members in a local school board race last year in Colorado.

Wall Street's involvement in the charter school movement -- when the media acknowledges it -- is presented as an act of philanthropy. Perhaps, as critics claim, hedge funders are meddling in an area they know nothing about. But their motives are worthy. Indeed, since they send their own children to the best private schools, their concern for other people's children seems remarkably altruistic. "Wall Street has always put its money where its interests of beliefs lie," observed this New York Times article, "But it is far less common that so many financial heavyweights would adopt a social cause like charter schools and advance it with a laser like focus in the political realm."

Yet, with the wide variety of social causes and charitable needs -- poverty, health, housing, global warming, the arts, etc. -- why would so many Wall Streeters focus laser-like on this particular issue? The Times suggest two answers. One is that the money managers are hard-nosed, data-driven investors "drawn to the business-like way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results primarily measured by test scores."

 
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