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Meet the Plutocrats Behind the Attacks on Public Education

Many billionaires are bankrolling "reforms" that threaten public education as we know it.

Not all plutocrats scheme in the shadows like the rabidly right-wing Koch brothers. We need to learn how to recognize plutocracy's more subtle putches. The best primer? The battle over education's future. 

“Plutocracy” first burst big-time into our national political consciousness in the late 19th century, and the concept still conjures up today, well over a century later, much the same images as way back then.

We envision, at any mention of “plutocrat,” some Wall Street banker, his pockets overflowing with greenbacks, or a robber baron industrialist, muttering the “public be damned” while bribing pols with one hand and busting unions with the other.

Some of our present-day plutocrats — the billionaire Koch brothers, for instance — fit this image  quite nicely. Koch-like plutocrats slide in and out of the shadows, bankrolling our society’s most reactionary and repulsive politicos, all the while railing against unions and taxes and government regulation.

But plutocrats today don’t all spout crude libertarian bromides or even play footsie, as the  Kochs have, with sloganeering from our segregationist past.

Indeed, many of our mega rich bear little resemblance to the brothers Koch. These more enlightened plutocrats seem to obsess over philanthropy, not profits. They do their sliding in and out of foundation board rooms, pledging their support, at one high-minded symposium after another, for initiatives sure to bring “efficiency” and “innovation” to our society’s most pressing problems.

This may be plutocracy's future face, what plutocracy, in the 21st century, really “looks like.” What will this plutocracy really do, for — and to — us? We have one clue from the ongoing high-stakes battle over reforming America's public schools.

“The hottest cause among Wall Street hedge-fund managers these days is not financial reform,” as the Toronto  Globe and Mail’s chief U.S. political writer, Konrad Yakabuski,  noted earlier this month. “It’s education reform.”

Billionaires, of course, have every right as citizens to advocate whatever public policy stance and vision they choose. But, in a deeply unequal America, these billionaires don’t just have rights. Their immense fortunes give them enormous power, more than enough to dominate, not just advocate.

“A few billion dollars in private foundation money, strategically invested every year for a decade, has sufficed,”  notes education analyst Joanne Barkan, “to define the national debate on education.”

Three billionaire foundations set the pace for this defining, one funded out of the Microsoft fortune, one out of Wal-Mart, and one out of the AIG insurance empire. The Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations don’t agree on every single educational policy twist. But they do all follow the same basic script.

America’s public schools are failing poor kids, this script’s storyline posits, because too many ineffective teachers are staffing our classrooms. We need to test kids to identify — and replace — these ineffective teachers. We need to hire good teachers, pay them extra if they perform well, and keep subjecting students to standardized tests to make sure these good teachers keep performing.

Teacher unions, the storyline continues, will fight these reforms. But real reformers can beat back the unions — by shutting down “failing” schools, for instance, and replacing them with publicly funded, privately managed “charter schools.” Such charter schools will succeed because they don't have to worry about due process, seniority, or any other teacher union contract niceties.

This entire approach to school “reform” rests on two seldom defended assumptions. The first: that poor kids would learn just fine if only they only had better teachers. The second: that student scores on standardized tests give us all we need to identify better teachers.

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