Sunday, December 1, 2019

Noblesse Oblige And the End of Public Education

Maybe you don't usually get around to reading David Dawkins, the Forbes staff member whose beat is billionaires. But back in October he ran an interview that should send a familiar chill through those of us who follow the great education disruption debates.

Dawkins talked to Josef Stadler, the head of Ultra High Net Worst at UBS (the big Swiss bank, about why folks don't trust billionaires these days, and why they probably shouldn't. It's a conversation that echoes much of Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All, but Stadler offers one further observation about the future.

In “the future”—Stadler pauses—“it is likely that those who benefit most—the entrepreneurs—will substitute public institutions when it comes to the big questions of our lifetime. [Only] they have the money. The public side …” by that he means governments, “will no longer have the money” needed.

Stadler predicts a future where the needs of society are met by the generosity of the brightest, best and richest “entrepreneurs” and business “leaders” of the age—the likes of Buffett, Gates, Branson and Soros.

“We’re going to see the return of something that went away at the end of the 19th century,” he pauses, “the reemergence of a benevolent aristocracy, supporting the people because the public is running out of money.”

We have, of course, seen the beginnings of this in education, most notably with Bill Gates attempt to single-handedly fund a redesign of US education. We see it also in the choice movement-- hand public education over to entrepreneurs and under the magical sway of market forces, they will deliver a better version of education with better quality, better choices, and better educated graduates. The trade-off, of course, is that the entrepreneurs and philanthropists get to decide what better looks like. Meanwhile, as Stadler predicts, public education is drained of the money and resources needed to do the job. The end-stage of school choice looks like a city in which there are no public options, and families must depend on the kindness of rich strangers, the noblesse oblige of the wealthy class, to find an education for their children.

They will get the choice that the wealthy class want them to have. Google "cradle to career" and look at the many companies lined up to use a child's data file to match her up with her proper career. "We see you'd like to enroll your child in our private academy? Well, let's take a look at her file and see what would be the best fit." And if your child has special needs? Well, good luck to you.

When the funds of public education have been emptied, there will be nothing left but the choice and charter programs, unregulated and unaccountable, the public forced to accept whatever the monied class wants to offer them.

Charters are the least likely disruption in this oligarchy, because as currently conceived, they still depend on money that flows through government hands. Keep an eye on instruments like tax credit scholarships (like the one proposed by Betsy DeVos as education [sic] freedom [sic] scholarships [sic]), in which the wealthy get to skip paying taxes by contributing to their favorite privately-run education voucher program instead. Or education savings accounts, in which the government has no role except as a pass through, an office that issues an education allowance to each family and says, "Okay, you go spend that on something educationy. Seeya, bye." Or watch for social impact bonds, a method giving private companies big piles of money as a reward for taking over government programs (and cutting corners off them like crazy).

When we talk about privatization, focus often goes to the way that private companies and individuals make money. But privatization is also about putting the control, the decision-making in the hands of private individuals. The aristocracy grabbing the power to decide what they'll let the little people have. This is rigging the system to make yourself a winner and then blowing some philanthropic smoke to keep people from noticing that you're the one keeping them poor, that you're the one who commandeered their school system (and health care and social safety net etc).

This is not an attractive future (unless you're part of the aristocracy). Whatever we can do to avoid it, we should do.

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