Above Photo: A Zapatista mural in the town of San Pedro Polhó illustrates ideas about education. Photo by Dario Ribelo on Flickr.
“In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs” (Roy, 2004)
Those ruling society have long utilized non-profits and similar outfits as a means to further their interests, ameliorate their public image, and disseminate their ideologies. Whether we call them Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), or Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC), the era of neoliberalism has seen the role of these private organizations further entrench itself in spaces that used to be that of the public commons. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is in the realm of education policy, where the activities of huge foundations, coupled with the actions of NPIC funded by those foundations, have insidiously begun to displace, replace, and even set the stage for the possible elimination of public education altogether.
Education historian Diane Ravitch opens the chapter entitled “The Billionaire Boys’ Club” in her seminal book (Ravitch 195) with a discussion of the Ford Foundation’s intervention in the so-called “community control” movement as early as 1967. Considered one of the more socially liberal foundations, Ford’s ostensibly good intentioned social engineering ended up exacerbating the problems that undergirded the struggles at the time. Whatever one makes of Ford’s intentions, the fact that they have a long history of being instrumental to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in terms of surveilling social movements is revealing (Incite! Women of Color Against Violence 88). Compared to Ford, modern foundations are far more overt in their political goals – especially their neoliberal agenda, and far more powerful in terms of their influence.
Taking neoliberalism as the modern term describing the “Washington Consensus” policies of deregulation, austerity, and privatization, we can best describe the current assault on public education as “neoliberal corporate education reform.” While a number of arch-reactionary foundations like The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Milken Family Foundation fund neoliberal aims in education, the most influential foundations in terms of advancing school privatization are those that author Joanne Barkan (Barkan, 2011) came to call the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate. An exhaustive survey of what these three mega-foundations have done to undermine public education nationwide (e.g. The Gates Foundation’s machinations behind the malignant Common Core State Standards) exceeds the scope of this essay. Instead, we will focus on a single city. Perhaps because of its size, or its proximity to The Broad Foundation’s headquarters, Los Angeles has been one of the central fronts on which the neoliberal ideologues have waged their war on public education. Evidenced by the staggering amounts the ruling class spends on school board and related elections, the number of well funded NPICs working as a neoliberal axis, and the collusion of the corporate media, those in power see Los Angeles as a high value target. In a word, it is a microcosm of what is happening to education everywhere.
The Neoliberal Emperor of Los Angeles
In the aforementioned Ravitch chapter, she outlines the “venture philanthropists” most responsible for the manifest neoliberal offensive against education. Discussing track-home real estate mogul, toxic credit default swap purveyor, and Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout recipient Eli Broad (rhymes with toad), Ravitch mentions “He created training programs for urban superintendents, high-level managers, principals, and school board members, so as to change the culture and personnel in the nation’s urban districts” (Ravitch 212). The training programs she alludes to are known as The Broad Superintendents Academy and The Broad Residency. Perhaps the most comprehensive resource discussing these programs, their “alumni,” and their corrosive corollary on school systems is “The Broad Report”thebroadreport.blogspot.com. A brief description of these unaccredited and unaccountable programs is that they are facilities to train – for the most part – non-educators in the most callous aspects of neoliberal policy. The foundation then pays districts to let these trainees inflict those policies on communities.
Broad unleashed some of his favorite disciples in his adopted back yard. Matt Hill, John Deasy, and Marshall Tuck, “graduates” of Broad programs, are household names in Los Angeles. Hill is one of many Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) administrators who were appointed to, rather than hired by, the district. Under a Broad program that leverages foundation funds to pay for his operatives to work at districts, Hill and many others are surreptitiously placed in key position of power and policy making (Blume, 2009). Hill oversaw a program that gave brand new public school facilities away to private concerns. That program is currently suspended. John Deasy, like Hill, was placed in LAUSD prior to inheriting the Superintendent’s mantle. Deasy was ignominiously forced to resign in the Fall of 2014 for his role in the LAUSD iPad scandal which is currently being investigated by Federal agencies (KPCC, 2014), but not before waging a scorched earth campaign on LAUSD that saw him attacking (and killing several) community programs from Early Education Centers to Adult Education (Skeels, 2012). Broad’s Marshall Tuck was assigned a different track. First he was placed with the Green Dot chain of corporate charter schools, then he went on to manage the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Tuck’s legacy as an agent of neoliberalism is of note. At both organizations Tuck managed to produce entire classes of graduates that saw up to 100% failure on the California State University proficiency exams. Moreover, he was “known for killing Ethnic Studies, Heritage Language programs, and Dual Language programs” (Skeels, May 2014). There are many more corps members at LAUSD and nationwide; Barkan says “Broad casts a long shadow over LA Unified” (Barkan, 2011).
Broad’s oppressive influence on education finds expression in ways outside of his own foundation and training programs. His strategic “investing” (Ravitch 199) of both his and other foundations’ funds in other NPIC allows him to amplify his sway over schools. Perhaps his closest aly in this regard is the United Way of Greater Los Angeles (UWGLA). Broad is a member of UWGLA’s The Tocqueville Society Million Dollar Roundtable.
Los Angeles Schools Under Siege by the NPIC
Dr. Cynthia Liu, founder of K-12 News Network, once offered the following on the Broad – UWGLA relationship (Skeels, April 2014):
“The United Way of LA is chief enforcer of Eli Broad’s corporate takeover of public Ed agenda. He’s the reason why I created the term “weaponized philanthropy” to describe how lefty-liberal groups in this city are under his sway. There’s NO good reason on earth the ACLU or LGBT Youth groups would support John Deasy except for the fact that they get money from UWGLA and much of that money comes from Broad.”
The article in which that quote is cited discusses an incident that part and parcel summarizes UWGLA’s role as tax deductible lobbying and public relations firm on behalf of the mega-foundations’ policy advocacy. Unpopular with the community, former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy would face annual calls for his firing. Invariably those calls would be met by an outpouring of support from the corporate media, UWGLA, and the smaller NPICs either funded by, or in close association with UWGLA. In early April 2014 the press was awash with descriptions and depictions of the street in front of LAUSD headquarters blocked by hundreds of desks, supposedly set up by “student demonstrators” in support of Deasy and in protest of the drop out rate. The Los Angeles Times ran photos of the alleged students, who were immediately identified by social justice activists as UWGLA executive staffers Ryan Smith and Jason Mandell (Skeels, April 2014). Student protest exposed as NPIC publicity stunt.
UWGLA doesn’t limit their overt policy advocacy to fraudulent protests. In 2011 they openly lobbied the school board to eliminate one of the very few democratic mechanisms that stood in the way of giving all newly constructed schools to privately managed charter corporations. Professor Ralph E. Shaffer argued vigorously against UWGLA’s acting as an agent for the lucrative charter schools industry in an Op-Ed (Shaffer, 2011). In addition to their own direct political lobbying, UWGLA both funds smaller NPIC to do the same, and forms coalitions with other NPICs who have embraced the fund-to-advocate paradigm in which foundations provide grants in return for specific performance of neoliberal policy advocacy. UWGLA formed the dubious “Don’t Hold Us Back” campaign to attack the teaching profession, and later formed the Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) coalition. CLASS counts among its members other NPIC like Educators for Excellence, Families In Schools, Los Angeles Urban League, TeachPlus, Inner City Struggle and Community Coalition – the latter two funded by UWGLA, the remainders funded by others, including The Gates Foundation and The Annenberg Foundation. All of them support the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deprofessionalizing of teaching, use of discredited teacher evaluation systems, and more.
UWGLA’s political involvement seemingly knows no bounds. In 2011 they funded a “research” (read policy) paper by the less-than-credible fellow neoliberal NPIC – National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) (Skeels, 2011). Their most recent tactic has been to host candidate forums for LAUSD elections, in which the mediators, rules, questions, and format are all carefully crafted to favor the candidates that support the same neoliberal agenda as UWGLA and its funders. Other groups, like the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate funded Parent Revolution, have used this controlled forum tactic to their advantage. In 2010 former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Parent Revolution Director Ben Austin (moonlighting from his City Attorney job), held forums to push for a series of anti-democratic corporate education reforms that boosted the bottom line of several corporate charter chains (Skeels, 2010).
Those associated with these same foundations and NPIC have raised obscene sums of money for school board candidates supporting the neoliberal corporate education reform agenda. The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission ethics.lacity.org makes most of those records public, and time spent reading 460 Forms and Independent Expenditure listings will dampen the convictions of anyone who claims we live under a democracy. However, despite the neoliberal advocates spending huge sums on their board candidates, they have lost many of those elections in the last decade, leading to what Professor Noam Chomsky says the ruling class considers a “crisis of democracy” (Chomsky 21). In other words, things are starting to look too much like actual democracy for their comfort. In response they are doubling down on the sums they spend on these local elections, and the neoliberal operatives have cynically placed two City Charter Amendments on the March 3, 2015 ballot that would move Los Angeles nonpartisan elections to the same dates as the partisan ones, which would all but eliminate any possibility of community candidates winning against those backed by outside interests.
Charter Schools Are NPIC
Frequently forgotten in discussions of NPIC is the fact that, in California at least, privately managed charter schools are NPIC too. They are run by unelected boards of directors, are typically exempt from large portions of the education code, discriminate against Students with Disabilities (SWD) (Office of the Independent Monitor, 2009), and have myriad other issues. One of the worst issues is the re-segregation of schools, a preexisting problem, but one exacerbated by privatization through charter schools and “choice” ideologies. Professor Antonia Darder addresses this better than anyone (Darder, 2014):
“The rhetoric of choice effectively capitalized upon discourses of “high-risk” students, “achievement gap” anxieties and victim-blaming notions of deficit – all of which have served well to legitimate racialized inequalities and exclusions. Hence, the charter school movement, driven by the logic of the “free market,” became an extension of former mainstream efforts to ensure class imperatives and the continuing segregation of US schools. The slippery use of language here effectively captured the imagination of conservative voters and detracted focus away from the increasing wealth gap. Yet, the rub here is that charter schools encourage the merging of public and private enterprise, distorting or blurring any separation or distinction between the public and private spheres and the moral responsibility of the state to provide for the educational formation of all its children. In the process, the glorification of the free market simultaneously legitimizes the covertly racialized ethos of the capitalist economy and its persistent reproduction and perpetuation of educational inequalities, in the first place. Devoid of institutional critiques of racism, current educational discourses posit a false portrayal for the persistence of school segregation and school failure.”
It is important to use the phrase “privately managed charters” because the deep pocketed charter advocacy NPICs continually bombard the public with the mendacious phrase “public charter schools.” By definition if a charter is run by a non-profit, then it is not public. The United States Census Bureau frames this issue best: “A few “public charter schools” are run by public universities and municipalities. However, most charter schools are run by private nonprofit organizations and are therefore classified as private.” (US Census Bureau vi). The more of our schools that are handed over to these private sector organizations, the less agency our communities have, and the more control those espousing neoliberalism have over our lives. Our rulers don’t just want exclusive control over the governance and finances of our schools, they want to control both what is taught and by whom.
Beyond the NPIC
Professor Lois Weiner wrote the following about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is applicable to all forms of neoliberal corporate education reform:
“What we need most immediately is for those who see the harm done by NCLB to recognize its political origins in the neoliberal project – and combat the project in its entirety. That requires the determination to reject the will of both political parties who advocate a system of education that leaves children and democracy behind capitalism’s race for greater profits at any cost.” (Weiner 173)
Faced with the unmatched funding and resources the mega-foundations and their attendent NPIC bring to bear, it is somewhat easy to feel overwhelmed. However, oppression breeds resistance. Nationally we have seen groups like United Opt Out and FairTest set the tone against high-stakes standardized testing. Various groups have begun opposing The Gates Foundation’s Common Core State Standards (CCSS), although some of the right-wing opposition is unprincipled and suspect. We discussed above how Los Angeles voters have frequently rejected neoliberal corporate reform candidates, as did the entire California electorate when Broad alumnus Tuck ran for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction seat (hearteningly, Tuck’s Ethnic Studies program shuttering counterparts in Arizona, Tom Horne and John Huppenthal, lost in 2014 as well).
However, there is an affirmative form of resistance led by Association of Raza Educators (ARE) members and their allies that points to a better form of struggle against neoliberalism. The Honorable Jose Lara, Vice President of El Rancho Unified School District Board of Education, worked with his community to pass the very first Ethnic Studies graduation requirement in the State of California. That victory was quickly followed by passage of Ethnic Studies graduation requirements in LAUSD, The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), and The Montebello Unified School District. The LAUSD efforts gave birth to the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition www.ethnicstudiesnow.com, which has become a nexus for community organizing, student-led conferences, and a rallying point for the efforts to enshrine the Ethnic Studies graduation requirement as California State law.
The Ethnic Studies struggles are significant for several reasons. The first of which is that little or no assistance came from NPIC, proving that effective, community based organizing does not require foundation money, or “professionalized, businesslike” (Incite! 95) organizers. Moreover, Ethnic Studies are the antithesis of the neoliberal ideals, particularly the subtle white supremacism underlying CCSS, which was crafted from E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s “core knowledge” concepts. Lastly Ethnic Studies opens the door for exposure to Critical Pedagogy, Critical Race Studies, and other scholarship that will provide students with the tools to directly confront neoliberalism, the socio-economic structures that coined it, and the rulers of our class society that have imposed it. Paulo Freire called on us to reject neoliberalism:
“We need to say no to the neoliberal fatalism that we are witnessing at the end of this century, informed by the ethics of the market, an ethics in which a minority makes most profits against the lives of the majority. In other words, those who cannot compete, die. This is a perverse ethics that, in fact, lacks ethics. I insist on saying that I continue to be human…I would then remain the last educator in the world to say no: I do not accept…history as determinism. I embrace history as possibility [where] we can demystify the evil in the perverse fatalism that characterizes the neoliberal discourse in the end of this century.” (Freire 25)
Educating ourselves in critical theory, and joining organizations that allow us to collectively resist both neoliberalism and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, are powerful ways that we can refuse to accept history as determinism.
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Blume, Howard. “Key L.A. Unied sta positions are funded privately” Los Angeles Times. 16 Dec. 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2015
Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002. Print.
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KPCC Sta. LAUSD iPads: Federal grand jury probes after FBI seizes documents. Pasadana, CA: 89.3
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Skeels, Robert D. “NCTQ’s LAUSD report’s highly questionable veracity shows Bill Gates’ pervasiveness and perniciousness” Schools Matter., 12 Jun. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Skeels, Robert D. “On Adult Education’s Critical Role in Social Justice” The National Coalition for Literacy., 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Skeels, Robert D. “United Way’s Corporate NPIC Astroturf was thick in front of LAUSD last Tuesday” K-12 News Network., 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.
Skeels, Robert D. “Why School Choice Plan Is a Bad Idea for the District” Los Angeles Daily News. 26 Mar. 2010. Print.
US Census Bureau. (2011). Public Education Finances: 2009 (GO9-ASPEF). Washington, DC: US Government Printing Oce. Print.
Weiner, Lois. The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012. Print.