Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A few thoughts on the VA-07 and Cantor's primary defeat

I meant to cross-post this here when I published it several weeks ago on my education blog and at Blue Virginia. Ooops. Well, for the readers of my much less popular blog, here were my thoughts on the VA-07 and Eric Cantors' primary defeat.

Yesterday, David Brat defeated Eric Cantor in the Republican primary election for the congressional seat in Virginia's 7th district. I live in the 7th district. I happen to also be married to a Randolph-Macon college professor--that is where Dave Brat is a college professor and also where Jack Trammell--the Democratic candidate.

Because I have statistics homework to finish, I don't have time to put my thoughts together in any sort of cohesive manner. So here they are in all of their in-cohesive glory:

  • First of all, a bit of an I told you so. Many of our national pundits keep saying that "No one saw this coming." While this is certainly unexpected, I wouldn't say "no one say it coming." Instead I would say that the national media, like Eric Cantor's campaign, did not see it coming. Many locals did see it coming. Even I wrote a post two years ago that summarized Cantor's vulnerability (though I published the post several months later.) And a month ago  local bloggers were still emphasizing Cantor's unpopularity. And so was I:

  • Second, while certainly, Brat's victory is somewhat about immigration (and let's face it, bigotry)--a component of Brat's campaign platform is anti-immigrant, that was not the beginning or the end of why Brat won.
  • As I said here, Eric Cantor is notoriously unpopular in his district. He's not accessible to his constituents and he doesn't much care about them. He takes them for granted, treating them like a rich uncle you have to have dinner with occasionally if you want to keep receiving the checks, only in this case it's votes. He's a Republican in a very conservative district which up until now had no challengers. That's all.
  • Say what you will about his political and economic views, and I think we all know that I don't agree with the vast majority of them, but Dave Brat is accessible and he hit the pavement during this campaign. He is happy to sit and explain his views to you, no matter who you are, in great detail. He will talk to anyone who will listen--whether at Estes, the Randolph Macon dining hall, at lunch time or on a campaign stop. He met with any group that asked and entertained any question that was asked. And remember, he is a teacher; it's his job to explain.
  • Furthermore, driving around the area of the 7th district where I live in recent months, I have seen clusters of Brat supporters waving signs and chanting--I've seen them in Hanover where I live, in the city of Richmond, and in Chesterfield. All of the kids on my sons' soccer team know who David Brat is because they have driven past these clusters and asked their parents, "Who is Dave Brat and why does he want to fire Cantor?" I know I have had this conversation several times with my own children. At this point, they probably know more about this primary than the national media did.
  • While Dave Brat actually talked to the constituents he was courting, Eric Cantor's campaign was sending out glossy mailers and putting up posters and lawn signs. That's it: mailers and lawn signs. Otherwise, he kept his distance from the little people. When you actually talk to and listen the people you are hoping to represent, it makes a difference. As political science professor and Associate Dean Lauren Bell said, "to borrow from Roll Call's assessment of Oklahoma Democrat Mike Synar's 1994 loss in the primary, Eric Cantor's loss tonight demonstrates that 'there's a limit to the number of times you can tell your constituents to go screw themselves' "
  • The national media seems to be conducting themselves a lot like, well, the Cantor campaign. They don't do any research or talk to people who actually write about or live or vote in the places their covering. This is a problem that applies not just to this topic but to so many others (ahem, education reform).
  • Eric Cantor vastly outspent David Brat. Organizations such as like the Bold Progressives are right to see this as a sign that Big Money is not necessarily destined to win. Leftist and populist progressive Democrats did very well in recent primaries.
  • While David Brat is more accessible, and is anti-elitist, anti-NSA, and anti-Wall Street corruption, he is also anti-government. In other words, he is no Elizabeth Warren. At the root, he is a true believer in the magic of the free market. He was especially against Cantor because Cantor is a crony capitalist and crony capitalism impedes a truly free market.
  • Progressives, rather than getting stuck on complaining about how awful the Tea Party is and how depressing it is a candidate to the right of Cantor won, support and give money to the progressive candidate in this election, Jack Trammel.
  • How great is it that the race in the VA-07 is between two liberal arts college professors, teachers, who read and write books. Think about that for a minute.
  • ONE MORE THOUGHT (added later): I don't have numbers on this but Virginia has open primaries and I know a few Democrats and Independents who voted for Brat simply in protest of Cantor. As I said, no one in the 7th likes Cantor.

Friday, January 13, 2012

January 13, 1982

January 13, 1982

Blizzard snow

dances down

in droves.

The girl putters                       about

outside, aimless,

studying the blanketed landscape
of sidewalks, trees, shrubbery, houses, power lines.

The remnants of ambition: a 1950’s storybook snowman

are abandoned, unrecognizable,

the figure quarter-finished.

Subsequent snow angels are strewn about

on slates, left unpunctured

by dive-bombing
twigs and footsteps.

Perhaps she’ll amble half a block down

to the flat white expanse of the schoolyard

where a mass production could take place.

Cold starts to burn

red on her cheeks.

Wet iciness seeps
into her cheap boots and jacket

that look

but aren’t waterproof.

The grayness is shading darker.

The promise of outside projects fade

to dreary malaise and tedium.

There is busy work homework to do.

Her neighbor waddles over

and breaks the silence:
An Air Florida crash.

The plane slid off
the 14th Street Bridge,
right into the river.

But, some survived right? 

Only five

Couldn’t they just swim
to the bridge?

The water was freezing.
A man jumped in
to save people.
A stewardess survived.

Couldn’t the plane have landed on the bridge?

What about those seat cushions that turn into “flotation devices,” or the slide that comes down from the rows of seats with the red-lettered EXIT sign? Didn’t they just slide off and swim to shore?

Guilt for the indulgence
of boredom creeps in.

Snowman and angels fade away.

She turns around and heads inside,
unable to get the image out of her head
of people drowning, trapped in a sky

bus banging on the windows,

converted to stone.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I Stand with Wisconsin Workers

Since Madison, Wisconsin is burning as I blog, I must to take a moment to support teachers unions and unions in general. And I want to explain that support. Despite my own teaching and union/non-union experiences, I don't think I understood and appreciated the role of unions until just recently. These two pieces, one by award-winning Maryland social studies teacher blogger Kenneth Bernstein and the other by California English teacher blogger David Cohen, helped me to understand the importance of unions.

My parents and their parents before them, were not wealthy, but nor were they workers, unionized or otherwise (although my maternal grandfather's father was very active in the railroad telegraphers union in Illinois). My father's parents were the children of Eastern European immigrants and owned a stationary store in Brooklyn, New York. My maternal grandfather worked as a chemist for Montgomery Ward and then as a manager for an automotive parts company in Chicago, Illinois, and my maternal grandmother was a homemaker and worked as at the Hadley School for the Blind.

Besides being born white in America, my parents were lucky to have attended two of the best known public high schools in the country; my mother went to Glenbrook in Northbrook, Illinois, and my father to Stuyvesant in New York City. My mother had college-educated parents and the luck of her zipcode (though not if you ask her as she hated the suburbs) and my father had parents who, though relatively uneducated themselves, greatly valued education. My parents went on to attend outstanding public universities--my mother, the University of Wisconsin and my father, Brooklyn College. They met while they were in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

After finishing, they moved to Washington, DC, where my sister and I grew up and attended public schools, so that my father could take a job as a lawyer with the federal government, where he has spent most of his career--primarily as a civil rights lawyer at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and then as a litigator and energy efficiency regulation counsel at the Department of Energy. My mother had been a linguist but couldn't find a job in her field (her specialty was semitic languages--she was a generation early on that one).  After learning about my father's work at HEW and watching him in court, she went to law school and became a labor, civil rights and school finance lawyer. I imagine they could have gone to work for any white shoe law firm they wanted to, but they gladly chose civil and public service. While we weren't rich, we lived a comfortable middle class life.

Among other topics they discussed at the dinner table, I definitely recall my parents grumbling about corruption and obstructionism in unions, but they always believed in their importance. When I went to work for DCPS, I was ambivalent about joining the Washington Teachers' Union--I really didn't know much about unions. Despite some of her negative associations, my mother informed me I should join, that it was the right thing to do. Even then, I never developed union pride; for one, I certainly didn't enjoy funding WTU President Barbara Bullock's collection of fur coats and silver candlesticks.

I found my experiences with "management" much more pleasant and reasonable when I taught in public schools in Albemarle County, Virgina, a right-to-work state, but I don't think that had anything to do with not being unionized or not having collective bargaining power. And I did join the Albemarle Education Association chapter of the Virgina Education Association. I can't say they ever did anything directly for me, but nor did I have the need to ask them to. Many other teachers I've spoken to have described the organization as both toothless. I imagine they feel that way since teachers' salaries in Virginia are approximately five thousand dollars below market, being especially low where I live and have taught in Central Virginia. But at the very least, the VEA serves as a good resource for educators and lobbies to improve the working and learning conditions for teachers and students.

I always took for granted my middle class upbringing, which is becoming less and less possible, as middle class wages decrease and expenses increase. With all that's going on in Wisconsin, I have come to appreciate that my parents and I have been able to live a comfortable middle class life because of what labor unions fought for in the first place: fair compensation, safe working conditions, and a decent standard of living in exchange for a job done. Their fight increased wages and other forms of compensation, such as benefits and pensions, and improved working conditions for all of us.

That's why I attended the Rally to Preserve the American Dream in Richmond, Virginia, this past Saturday (pics thanks to Virginia Organizing  here) and that's why I will continue to fight for the working and middle classes and for the poor to get out of poverty. Does that mean I think that unions are uniformly or inherently "good"? No. Does that mean that I think that people who don't do their jobs should be able to keep them? No. But I don't have blind faith in the free market, either. Unions serve as a check on unfettered capitalism, and capitalism has certainly been recently unfettered. Unions are the only bulwark right now between fascist capitalism and regulated capitalism. Without the unions, we will have no middle or working class at all, only a few powerful rich and many, many poor.

The more progressive Democrats can't don't this alone, however. Traditionally more conservative members of the working and middle classes must stop voting against their own economic self-interest. Instead of asking "why should others get decent wages and healthcare insurance when we don't?" they need to fight for such basic themselves, like yes, Obamacare, and stop allowing themselves to be the lackeys of tax-dodging, overseas-job creating corporate interests who are doing nothing to advance working peoples' quality of life. Furthermore, while I have been heartened to see neo-liberals such as ObamaDuncan, and some DFER types speak out in support of the right to collective bargaining, they are in part culpable for the attacks on America's middle and working classes and their unions. Neo-liberals and centrist Democrats, their rich patrons, and their mouthpieces in the media have been busy embracing disastrous and crude education reform policies such as those of Michelle Rhee and thoughtlessly bashing teachers and their unions in the process. In doing so, they have weakened the Democratic party and middle and working classes as a whole, emboldening Republican leaders such as Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Scott and their oligarch overlords, with their ruthless free market ideology, to make a well-orchestrated and dangerous grab for power.

It's time for neo-liberals to do what's best for children and their families by changing course on their wrong-headed education policies. To do this, they must end their collaboration with corporate-sponsored union busters. You can't do what's best for our nation's children if you're crushing their parents and teachers in the process. If neo-liberals really want our children's futures to be bright, then they must fight for a quality of work and home life that will make that possible. Unions, for all of their imperfections, do that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Virgina Legislature Joins in the GOP's War on Women

The Republicans (plus two democrats) in the Virginia Senate have decided to join in the National GOP's war on women. Tomorrow, the VA Senate will vote on SB924, which just passed the House 67-32. The bill would effectively eliminate access for Virginia's women to clinics that perform first trimester abortions by forcing such clinics to adhere to the same regulations as hospitals do. This, of course, is not necessary as such clinics are already sufficiently regulated.

If this effort seems like it's coming out of nowhere, that's because it is. The amendment was slipped in. According to NARAL Pro-choice Virginia:
This bill would require the Board of Health to issue regulations for hospitals, nursing homes, and certified nursing facilities. As originally written, the bill has nothing to do with abortion. Unfortunately, anti-choice Delegate Kathy Byron (R-Campbell County) offered an amendment changing the definition of hospitals to include “facilities in which five or more first trimester abortions per month are performed.” 

If you think the bill is being sent from the GOP-dominated House to the Dem-dominated Senate to die, think again. As reported in the Virginia Politics blog:
Two conservative Democrats who oppose abortion -- Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) and Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) -- said Tuesday they plan to support the measure, in a chamber where Democrats hold a 22 to 18 majority. Their votes would raise the possibility of a 20 to 20 tie. A tie would be broken by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who supports regulations.

And then Governor McDonnell will be ready and waiting to sign it into law. Because he and other anti-choicers want to "ensure that all outpatient surgical centers are treated the same, in order to ensure the health and safety of our citizens." I see, they want all outpatient surgical centers to get equal treatment. Or, maybe it's because Virginia Republicans are such big fans of excess regulations. No, no, it's because they want to keep women who get abortions safe. Yes, that's it.

Puh-lease. The Virginia GOP (plus two Democrats) wants to shut down these clinics because they provide first trimester abortions, and probably because they provide contraception, too. Only, they don't have have the balls to admit it.

I am squarely pro-choice, but I can understand why people are against abortion. I would guess that the vast majority of women who choose to have abortions hate abortion. But I agree with Hilary Clinton when she says that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Ruth Marcus's piece in response to House Republicans' assault on family planning  applies here: When those clinics are shut down, many Virginia women will not only lose access to the contraception that prevent abortions in the first place, but to general reproductive health care. Furthermore, without access to contraception, rates of pregnancies will increase and so will unsafe abortions. I would have so much more respect for anti-abortion crusaders if they actually worked to prevent abortions from having to happen in the first place, but they don't; they work to promote ineffective sex education programs, to limit access to contraception, to decimate women's healthcare services, and to keep abortion unsafe, frequent, and illegal.

As my uncle always says about American politics, "You have two choices. You can have the Democrats in your wallet or the Republicans in your bedroom. I'd rather have the Democrats in my wallet." So would I, Uncle Roger. So would I. Since Republicans are already raiding our middle and working class wallets to fund tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, I say to Virginia Senators:

Get the hell out of my bedroom and while you're at it, stay away from my uterus.

Contact your senator now and tell them to oppose SB924.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Publish or Perish

I got an essay accepted at truthout. Yay! I wrote about the Obamas' decisions regarding the education of their children and President Obama's statements about that decision in the context of his administration's education policies. (A recent excellent and comprehensive review of Obama's promises on education in contrast to his actual policies can be found here.)

"Mr. President, We Want Your Children's Education, Too" went through many, many drafts and I was very pleased when it was accepted by the first place I sent it. (An aside about the writing/publishing process: Almost all of my publications had been submitted to targeted publications I know well.) I submitted the piece back in November 2010, but the editor I corresponded with warned me it would be probably a while. It happened to come out on January 9, 2010. At first, I was ashamed of its publication date, given it was the day after the shootings in Arizona; it didn't seem to be an appropriate time to be so critical of the Obama administration.

But then I found out that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was butting (yet, again) into D.C. Mayor Gray's DCPS Chancellor selection decision, urging him to permanently appoint Rhee right-hand woman and Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, of whom he's "huge fan," and in the process by-pass a 2007 DC law which requires a rigorous review process including consulting a panel of teachers, parents, and students. Duncan also dangled the possibility of taking back Race to the Top money the District was awarded if his wish were not granted.

Besides registering my disgust with Duncan's confirmation that Race to the Top is nothing but a bribery scheme, with his interference in local affairs, and with his spitting in the face of transparent and democratic governance, I'll repeat one of the same questions I asked in the essay: If Duncan and his boss are such "big fans" of the reforms and "progress" in D.C.P.S., why do they not send their own children to them?

To those who tell me to mind my own business: Point taken. I'd be happy to. Just as soon as Obama/Duncan change course on the policies that are undermining the quality of my children's education and just as soon as, of course, they mind their own business.

UPDATE 1/20/11: A reader was puzzled about this sentence from the truthout piece:
My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell, different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye. 
Reading it out of the context of the rest of the piece, I can see that the sentence is confusing and needs a re-write. Given the stance that I took, most readers probably knew what I meant, but I hardly want to assume that readers "probably know what I mean." Rather, I want them to know what I mean because my writing is clear. I can't go back and fix it in truthout (and there was never an interaction with an editor about clarity or wording where this might have come up) but just to be clear, what I meant was that:
My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell. Had I gone to a place like Sidwell I think I would have been different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye.
Readers, if you ever see something that gives you pause or puzzles you or that you think may be factually incorrect, even if it's a simple typo, by all means, let me know. I value your feedback and pushback.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vaccines & Science Revisited: Watch the Pharmaceutical Companies

A little over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about vaccines and science. In honor of the Wakefield studies officially being found fraudulent (there's a decent post at the blog Modern School--with links!--about the study's history), I am reposting them, but with a few updates.

Since my original posting of those, I have grown more skeptical of medical studies, particularly as they are increasingly being funded by pharmaceutical companies and reviewed by outside, for-profit review boards. Given the severe conflicts of interests inherent in such arrangements, I hardly have confidence in the truths of the outcomes of these studies. Secondly, the findings of Dr. John Ioannidis (fyi: the task related to this post that took me the longest was spelling this guy's name correctly), which I highly recommend checking out, have also increased my skepticism. Ioannidis is not so much critical of the scientific process as he is critical of what happens to the scientific process in the contexts of medical treatments, academia, and our own (too high) expectations of what science can tell us.

That being said, it is the corrupting forces of money, fame, and politics on the scientific process that has caused my skepticism; my faith in science has not diminished, not because I think it's some kind of magic, but because it's the best process we've got for uncovering a few truths about the world around us. After all, Ioannidis is a true scientist in the sense that he wants to make the process more pure, truthful, and skeptical. How very scientific of him.

UPDATE I: I was cleaning up my delicious bookmarks this morning and came across this article, also by Carl Elliot, from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the phenomenon of medical industry "thought leaders," who are medical doctors paid by pharmaceutical companies to talk to other doctors about "research" findings. I meant to include it yesterday, but had forgotten about it.Take a look.
UPDATE II: Just out for a run, I realized I forgot about another article pertinent to this. (That's what I get for hitting "PUBLISH POST" so impetuously). Here's an article in Vanity Fair about drug trials and how they're increasingly being done in unregulated zones, not to mention on poor people, overseas.

(photo by flickr user jmaklary)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's All About the Corporate Benjamins, Baby: Education, a.k.a., My 2010 Year in Review Post

(This has been cross-posted at All Things Education.)

During 2010, thanks to the work of Lawrence Lessig and Chris Hedges, I became much more aware of the unhealthy corporate influence in American democratic institutions. I put aside my creative writing to launch a series of posts on my more general blog on the topic. I wrote about corporate money in politics and government, after which I took a break to write about the VA-07 congressional electionwriting, and journalism, and to start a blog dedicated to education. I've intended to regularly update my food blog, as well, but the best laid plans. . .

Right before the Christmas holiday, I completed a piece about Teach For America, which I am hoping will be published somewhere bigger (not likely, I know). In the meantime, I was going to use winter break and the grandparental child care that comes with it to write, blog, publish, write, blog, publish. However, as I tried to organize my thinking about the present and future of journalism, of writing as a profession, of teaching as a profession, of public education, and of efforts to reform education, the topics all swirled together to form a toxic sludge of anxiety that, helped along by my kids' germs, rendered me existentially and then physically ill. As miserable as it was, being sick forced me to take a step back and ignore all of it for a number of days. From this pause grew a less fevered end-of-year collection of thoughts about the confluence of corporate influence and public education.

I am vulnerable to conspiracy theorizing about what's currently happening in the name of education reform, and I understand why others are, too--I think, in fact, that democracy benefits from this type of push back. Are the reforms of wealthy and politically connected individuals harmful to the institution of public education? I have said on my education blog and continue to say: yes, that in many cases they are. But are those folks sitting around together and villainously hatching some grand scheme to bring down public education? No, that's way too simplistic of an explanation for what's going on. Furthermore, I'm doubtful that describing problems with their efforts in terms of a conspiracy is productive. The problem with talking like a conspiracy theorist, even if there's at least some truth to what's being said, is that you're likely to be dismissed by the very people you need to be taken seriously by. In that vein, it is equally hysterical and irresponsible to cast teachers and teachers unions as the villainous "deep-pocketed" (ha!) root of all of our nation's problems or even as the root of our education system's problems, or as sitting around conspiring to ruin children's lives because they only care about the "adults." Unfortunately, these seem to be prevailing narratives these days.

Teachers' unions may defend some people who don't deserve defending and they may make mistakes, and yes, there are educators out there who aren't doing their jobs and yes, teachers need fair and rigorous evaluations, but as a group, teachers and their unions are not responsible for how our society has failed us over the past year. Did teachers unions cause twenty-seven plus percent of America's children to live in poverty? No. Have teachers and their unions driven up heath care costs? Do they deny coverage and care to our the most vulnerable among us? Nope. Did teachers and their unions cause our economic system to melt down? No, that was another group of professionals. Did teachers and their unions go start costly and futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did teachers and their unions create a criminal justice system that disproportionately and often unjustly imprisons poor people and minorities? No, they aren't behind such travesties. Did teachers and their unions fail to recognize the impending dangers of climate change and then sabotage legislation meant to lessen the havoc it's going to reap? No. It's not been teachers or their unions that have done all of these things, but our political leaders, policies, and system. And who is now clearly behind those? Not a bunch of middle class educators, but business, financial, industrial, and corporate interests.

While I don't believe that there is some evil master plan being hatched by the likes of DFER (Democrats for Education Reform), Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons, their influence is unhealthy, undemocratic, and dangerous. Teachers unions and organizations like the National Education Association at least are accountable to the systems and large numbers of people they represent, systems and people whose work and studies will be most affected by the reforms being brought. Whom do DFER, Gates, Broad, and the Waltons represent? To whom are they accountable? Were they elected? Since when should a handful of unelected, extraordinarily wealthy people be entrusted to represent the interests of millions of poor, working, and middle class people?

Two of the most egregious examples of corporate influence in education are in higher education. As there is less public funding of public universities, wealthy patrons such as the Koch brothers are stepping in to establish "institutes" that put out research and teachings that serve not the interests of citizens, but the interests of the industries they own. In medical schools and schools of public health, much research on drugs and treatments traditionally funded by public monies is now funded and supervised by the very pharmaceutical companies who stand to reap profits from their successful trials.

In K-12 education, there are not as many cases of such overt conflicts of interest, but I'm afraid we're moving in that direction.  Gates, Broad, and the Waltons support market-based reforms that would include mayoral takeovers, vast expansion of charter schools (which are public schools that can be run in some instances as private institutions), the de-professionalization of teaching, and CEO-like leadership of schools and school systems, and they are pouring money into the system to see such reforms actualized. Influential organizations with deceptively neutral-sounding names such as right-wing ideologue Jeanne Allen's Center for Education Reform directly promote privatizing our public education system. As they already have in New York City Public Schools, test prep companies such as Kaplan (which is owned by the pro-corporate education reform Washington Post) stand to make millions from the new education reformers' policies which rely heavily on standardized tests.

As public schools are being told by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to do "more with less" and as school budgets are being reduced and reduced and stimulus money runs out, with no enthusiasm for alternative means of raising revenues, the private sector is stepping to fill in the gaps often with strings attached, shaping our education system to their liking, whether its largesse benefits its supposed recipients or not. What's about to happen in Los Angeles Unified School District is only the tip of the iceberg.

An example of private takeover of public schools already in progress is in DC. The DC Public Education Fund is privately run on private donations with no public oversight, and very little of the money that's raised goes directly into the D.C. Public Schools' budget or is dispersed by those appointed to run the schools; yet, the fund directly influences outcomes in public schools. For example, the organization funded IMPACT, DC's controversial new evaluation system, teacher bonuses, as well as the infamous new contracts with teachers. During the negotiations, then-Chancellor Rhee stated that if she wasn't going to be around later, a.k.a., if Adrian Fenty didn't get re-elected, that the money raised for the teacher contracts would go, too. That is a clear example of private interests using private money to influence public elections and public policy. When public money is used to fund public schools, such blackmail can't take place, at least not legally. Much more democratic would be for the wealthy individuals who are behind such efforts to be taxed appropriately with the tax revenues funding social and educational programs vetted by democratically elected and appointed officials.

The Gates Foundation and the DC Public Education Fund have their hands in many places, and surely, not all of them are harmful to public education, but when I read Gates's thoughts and ideas about education, for example in these interviews about teaching in Parade and Newsweek, I'm horrified. (I'm also horrified about what such coverage means about the state of education journalism, but that's another story.) Not only has Gates not been elected or appointed by an elected official, he speaks simplistically and ignorantly about education even just at the level of basic facts, and his ideas have not been shown to work or improve the systems they impact.

While Eli Broad is no right-wing ideologue, his private education foundation and school leadership training centers have profound impacts on the public systems they're meant to reform. This New Yorker article about Eli Broad's influence in the Los Angeles art world is very instructive on Broad's approach to philanthropy. Broad has good intentions and interesting ideas, enlarging the arts scene in LA and making art exhibitions more accessible, for example. But he doesn't simply give money directly to art institutions or entrust the experts with funding; rather, he has to own and control the institutions, even if that means promoting poor practices or destroying the institutions. I can only imagine that a similar dynamic occurs in the Broads' education philanthropies.

If Gates, Broad, the Waltons, and the hedge funders behind DFER weren't rich, would they be listened to? Why are they being listened to now? Why are such a small group of extraordinarily wealthy individuals allowed to wield so much power and control over education policy? This is at the expense of democracy. Obama has rightly stated grave concerns with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. Why is he not concerned with big money in our public education system? Why does he, in fact, welcome it? Is corporate influence any less problematic in the halls of our schools than it is in our halls of government?

One need not launch ad hominem attacks, speak of ethical dilemmas, or list the hypocrises of these education reformers. All Americans, regardless of political affiliation and educational ideology, can agree that our great nation was founded on the ideals of democracy. Corporate money and influence in our public democratic institutions, especially in our public schools, corrodes and corrupts our democracy. Anti-democratic forces are un-American. A healthy democracy requires a well and publicly financed, equitable public education system. Unfortunately, that's not what the Obama administration and the particular education reformers they throw their support behind are going to produce. Unchecked private and corporate influence in our public education system is as big a threat to our democracy as the unchecked corporate influence is in our political system. In fact, they are one in the same. Our public schools should no more belong to Gates, Broad, Bush, or any DFER member as they do to any taxpayer and any citizen; it is from them we must take our country, our democracy, and our schools back.

UPDATE 1/6/11: Too bad I didn't see this brilliant piece by writer Joanne Barkan before I posted this. I could have saved myself the trouble--it's a much better, more comprehensive piece on the problems with education philanthropy than anything I have ever written. Read it in Dissent Magazine or in truthout.