Anyone who thinks that Bill and Melinda Gates or the Walton Family, the billionaire owners of Walmart, are philanthropists would do well to divest themselves of such foolish notions. When obscenely wealthy people like the Koch Brothers, corporate lobbyists, donate large sums of money to right-wing political candidates, they are not making a philanthropic contribution for the improvement of society; they are buying influence. So perverse are these contributions that American elections should be called what they really are: auctions in which the winners are prostituted to the highest bidder. What does one expect from an institution that granted personhood to corporations? Similarly, when wealthy titans are lobbying for and funding profit-making charter schools, this should raise a red flag to anyone possessing a capacity for critical thinking.
As envisioned by John Dewey and others, public schools were originally regarded as a portal to the economic, social and political empowerment of the masses. Education was equated with democracy; it was regarded as a right of citizenship, a great equalizer. But now this belief is being challenged by a cadre of self-serving billionaires led by Bill and Melinda Gates, the Koch Brothers, and the Walton family.
Diane Ravitch, education historian and assistant secretary of education under former President George H.W. Bush, explained: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people.” Ravitch’s warning, which can hardly be considered radical, should be taken seriously.
Just as they rigged the political system, billionaires and corporations have invested huge sums of money into privatizing schools, not for the benefit of society, but for their enormous profit-making potential. In Detroit, as part of a banker-imposed gentrification process, public schools have already been shuttered on a grand scale, and for-profit charter schools are opening in their wake. There are already more charter schools operating in Detroit than public schools. Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia are undergoing similar transformations, as are other school districts across the nation.
The World Socialist Web Site summarized the situation: “The implosion of public education is not exclusively happening in Philadelphia; rather, Philadelphia is part of a national trend to gut education for working class children.” School closures are the result of policy decisions that predominantly affect low income and black neighborhoods. It must be understood, however, that many charter schools are not for-profit institutions, so distinctions must be made.
In the wake of school closures, middle class families have the option to send their children to the charter schools of their choice. On the other hand, the children of low income families are often relegated to decrepit, under-funded and antiquated schools characterized by large class size and staffed by overworked and underpaid teachers. Poor families cannot afford to send their children to affluent neighborhoods in order to improve their prospects. Nor is it surprising that blacks are disproportionately affected, thereby creating circumstances that can only further broaden the existing inequality and gender gaps.
Unlike their wealthier counterparts, the destitute and outcast have few options. Many of them will choose between serving as cannon fodder for military recruiters or as inmates for the increasingly privatized prison system that is among America’s fastest growing and most lucrative industries. The shutting of public schools and opening of prisons, a scenario that is playing out in neighborhoods across the country, go hand in hand. This may be good for the gross domestic product, but it is neither good for students and their families nor beneficial for communities.
A coveted objective of wealthy investors, the privatization of schools paves the way for the commercial ownership of the entire public infrastructure. When this occurred with public utilities, monopolies quickly formed, service deteriorated, and consumer prices rose dramatically. Profit-driven schools provide a Trojan horse from which America’s wealthiest individuals can launch their assault on teachers, the National Education Association, and teacher unions. If successful, corporations concerned with their next quarter earnings will be in charge of the curricula, not the educators.
According to Lisa Graves who works for the Center for Economic Democracy, “Public education is a $600 billion business. When you take those tax dollars and put it into private hands, you reduce the amount of services and put those tax dollars into a steady stream of revenue for for-profit corporations to make money for the rest of the lives of those CEOs.”
Although flawed in some ways, the public school system was created to promote the collective welfare of the people, much like the network of public roads and highways, municipal water and sewage treatment facilities, public libraries, and Social Security. Each member of society shares the cost, and each derives benefits from these services in perpetuity. Conversely, school privatization transforms students into commodities to be exploited for profit. As with health care, those with wealth and privilege will get the best product money can buy and everyone else will be served leftovers or forced to do without.
The framers of the Constitution had the foresight to create and maintain the separation of church and state. Do today’s legislators have the sagacity to separate the competing interests of the commonwealth and corporate profits? Bill and Melinda Gates, the Waltons, the Koch Brothers, and Warren Buffett are already billionaires. Do we really want to subject our children to their brand of predacious capitalism and indoctrination?