The O Word

Today on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, I heard Bill Moyers use “the O word:” oligarchy. He attributed it to Simon Johnson, professor of economics at MIT, and former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund.

Moyers (and Johnson) were talking about Wall Street and Big Banking and Big Finance, of course. But this brings together two uncomfortable feelings I have had for some time about the ulterior motives of education Reformists. I have come to suspect the intentions of the big foundations which bankroll Reform initiatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, all the way down to our own J. A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. They all seem to be pushing not just Reform, but a single, consistent brand of reform with an ideological consistency that suggests a small, cohesive class with a coherent body of shared assumptions. Diane Ravitch, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, refers to this “oligarchy” as the “Billionaire Boys’ Club.”

It seems to me that their agendas are to reconfigure American public schools in such a way as to ultimately reconfigure American society in a way that will benefit the oligarchs. I strongly believe that our American society, our national character, for worse, or mostly for better, has been shaped in no small part by the institution of the public schools, and that the “oligarchs” find this odious and are unwilling to tolerate it further. When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, a few weeks back, that Katrina was the best thing that happened to education in New Orleans because it destroyed so many schools, I found it a tasteless remark, but now I find it frightening.

Their agendas also have a mercenary aspect. In “The Big Enchilada,” (Harper’s, August 2007, 7-9),  Jonathan Kozol asserts that “Privatizing advocates tend to employ a familiar set of strategies to replace public education… with a market system in which public dollars no longer go to the public schools…” He goes on to cite a Montgomery Securities stock market prospectus:

“The education industry,” according to these analysts, “represents in our opinion the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control” that “have either voluntarily opened” or they note… have “been forced” to open up to private enterprise….they note that college education …offers some “attractive investment returns…” but then come back to what they see as the much greater profits to be gained by moving into public elementary and secondary schools… From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, “the k-12 market is the Big Enchilada.” (8)

Some of this came back to me during the recent legislative session, discussions of campaign contributions by corporations and foundations, and doing a little research on who financed Waiting for Superman.

Beware the largesse of big corporations. Beware big foundations bearing gifts. Beware the Billionaire Boys’ Club. Beware the Oligarchs.

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