Here is a “mea culpa” from Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who made his fortune in technology companies. Hanauer gave much money to transform schools so that they could become engines of equity erasing economic and social inequalities (and poverty as well) that bedevil American society.
Long ago, I was captivated by a seductively intuitive idea, one many of my wealthy friends still subscribe to: that both poverty and rising inequality are largely consequences of America’s failing education system. Fix that, I believed, and we could cure much of what ails America.
This belief system, which I have come to think of as “educationism,” is grounded in a familiar story about cause and effect: Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America’s public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.
Taken with this story line, I embraced education as both a philanthropic cause and a civic mission. I co-founded the League of Education Voters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education. I joined Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Paul Allen in giving more than $1 million each to an effort to pass a ballot measure that established Washington State’s first charter schools. All told, I have devoted countless hours and millions of dollars to the simple idea that if we improved our schools—if we modernized iour curricula and our teaching methods, substantially increased school funding, rooted out bad teachers, and opened enough charter schools—American children, especially those in low-income and working-class communities, would start learning again. Graduation rates and wages would increase, poverty and inequality would decrease, and public commitment to democracy would be restored.
But after decades of organizing and giving, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I was wrong. And I hate being wrong….
To be clear: We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system can’t compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans. Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income.
For all the genuine flaws of the American education system, the nation still has many high-achieving public-school districts. Nearly all of them are united by a thriving community of economically secure middle-class families with sufficient political power to demand great schools, the time and resources to participate in those schools, and the tax money to amply fund them. In short, great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around. Pay people enough to afford dignified middle-class lives, and high-quality public schools will follow. But allow economic inequality to grow, and educational inequality will inevitably grow with it.
Hanauer’s open apology for misconstruing cause and effect between the larger society and public schools–a basic proposition that educators and non-entrepreneurs and venture capitalists over the age of 25 learn–appears sincere but, for me, unconvincing. Why? Because Hanauer is only the most recent of well-intentioned philanthropists who underestimate the complexity of public schools in a market-driven democracy and see schools driving societal change. They donate large sums of money to transform schools.
Foundation officials often consult with smart people before giving away money to schools and districts but they seldom ask people who do the daily work or experienced practitioners who know the system from the inside (see for example the history of the Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s and Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to Newark (NJ). Or consider the Melinda and Bill Gates foundation.
The Gates Foundation gave over a billion dollars to make high schools smaller beginning in 2000. They stopped funding small high schools in 2008. In 2009, they began funding Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching in multiple districts across the country. No more funding after 2016 (see here, here, and here). My initial reaction was, hey, these foundation officers had not thought through carefully the complexity of schooling or the familiar perverse consequences that accrue to “innovations” that do belly-flops.
Critics of current donors often point to how philanthropists have supported centralizing school governance (e.g., mayoral control, state takeovers of districts and schools, No Child Left Behind). They note that the inevitable companion of consolidated authority is increased top-down regulation of schooling in cities and states. And that regulation, they claim, has seen the growth of explicit federal and state accountability mechanisms. The critics are correct.
Yet as venture philanthropists have advocated market-friendly ventures in public schools and approved of centralized local, state, and federal policymaking, donors themselves have escaped responsibility for errors they committed in grant-making. Like the Ebola virus, donors dread federal and state regulation of their publicly subsidized foundation activities. The fact is, however, that they have no accountability for their own “oops!” or dumb mistakes.
When foundation grants fail to achieve the objectives officials sought, philanthropists turn their backs, shrug, and walk away. They have no responsibility to districts, individual schools, teachers, students and parents for hopes raised and dashed. They shrug when anticipated consequences of their “gifts” harm districts, schools, teachers, and students. But donors are beyond the reach of being fired or voted out of office. Yet as anyone knows from personal experience, admitting error is crucial to insights into a problem and, ultimately inventing better ways to solve it.
At least, venture capitalist Nick Hanuaer owned up to his mistake in thinking that transforming public schools will erase societal inequities. I do not know of other donors who have the guts to admit that they erred in their thinking and gift-giving when it involved public schools.