July 10, 2020

The preposterous and predominant proposition of private school progressives


There is an intimate, truthful moment in Davis Guggenhiem’s “Waiting for Superman” when he admits guilt for driving his child past by three inner city schools on their way to a more privileged school. It motivated him to create a documentary to expose public education dysfunction, but also connect a wide audience to solutions.

He says

I passed three public schools, and I live in a good neighborhood. And my parents sent me to a private school because the schools were broken. It’s been 40 years. So I said, “What if I make a more personal approach, in that I betrayed the ideals I lived by?” The key line is “I betrayed the ideals I thought I lived by—my kids are okay, but I’m a part of this big problem.

Guilt may be a good thing. It drove him to find solutions, and when he found them they were byproducts of school reform; better teachers, charter schools, and whole community programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone. Putting those solutions in a slick feature length movie was indeed a betrayal of the white progressive world frame. Good for him.

I appreciate an honest progressive. It’s good when one understands his privilege and his conceits. I only wish there were more like him.

My experience with progressives, especially those who are private school parents, or their cousins who attend deceivingly exclusive “public” schools, is that they often are the preachiest of all.

Whether it’s MSNBC host Melissa Perry-Harris trading boilerplate anti-school reform  bullet points while her child attends the second most expensive private school in New Orleans; or author and television commentator David Sirota who sings from the teacher unionist hymenal even though he attended America’s oldest charter school (which is now private); or actor Matt Damon – the beloved son of a teacher – who gave public school teachers a big Hollywood kiss in pro-union rally speeches, then without hint of irony selected a private school for his children; the volume of progressives with private school ties is equal to the number who are coldly inimical to school reform.

The above list should include people who locate “public” schools in privileged residential enclaves so exclusive they should admit their schools are publicly funded, but private.

Yesterday the issue came into sharp focus again. I saw a blog post by a private school parent, Diane Ravitch, who reblogged a post by a private school worker, Seton Hall professor Daniel Katz, which was reblogged by a private school parent, Washington Post liaison to the anti-reform movement, Valerie Strauss.

The topic?

Ironically, Katz’ post is about how school reform groups funded by private interests are not grassroots enough, and how they push a billionaire’s agenda of testing, chartering schools, and privatizing education.

Ravitch says…

The key is, as always, follow the money. If the group is funded by the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the John Arnold Foundation, or the Helmsley Foundation (among others), you can bet there are no grassroots. If they not only have said funding but an expensive location and grow rapidly, and if they advocate for charter schools and test-based evaluation of teachers, there are no grassroots, only faux reform roots that are part of the movement to privatize public education. The “reform” movement likes to pretend that it has a broad base so it funds numerous “front” groups. We have not seen so many front groups since the 1930s. Today, as then, they represent no community, no one but the funders and the elites and those with a hidden but anti-democratic agenda.

Katz argues that groups like Educators 4 Excellence, Education Post, and Students for Education Reform (SFER) have all the looks of grassroots outfits, but they are more grass than roots. As evidence he offers the fact that major foundations like Walton, Gates, and Broad fund these groups to expand faster than non-funded community groups ever could.

One problem with today’s education reform environment is that a number of groups exist that call themselves “grassroots” organizations, but which have expanded rapidly because of large infusions of cash from corporations and foundations invested in pushing charter schools, mass high stakes testing, data mining students and the Common Core standards.  These groups do not exist to represent the organically derived priorities and shared interests of students, teachers and parents; they exist to put a more credible face on the priorities and shared interests of a very narrow but astonishingly influential set of repeating characters.

I take Katz’ analysis personally for three reasons.

The first is easy: he names me in the post.

That’s pretty damn personal. Of course, he doesn’t know me or my story or the fact that my voice comes from experience and struggles.

Such is life.

Second, I know many of the people he criticizes. Almost none resemble the mindless money drones he paints them to be.  Just last week I met with many of them and I participated in thoughtful conversations about improving school reforms. I heard reflections about where reform has fallen short. People are wrestling honestly with critical questions in education.

The majority of reformers I’ve met are technical people, education geeks, often apolitical, and often motivated by a story in life this is far more interesting than Katz’ use of intellectual shortcuts and logical fallacies to explain them.

Finally, it’s concerning that professors like Katz and Ravitch argue so poorly. It would be possible for the entire education reform movement to be run by banking magnates and also present sound arguments worthy of consideration.

Who funds you?

Katz has a job. He is paid. Shall we give his employer the same combing he gives reformers?

One could make the argument that as an assistant professor for Seton Hall University, he is an education privatizer. His employer has more than insignificant connections to America’s kings of commerce. Seton proudly lists over 40 corporate funders that include UBS Wealth Management, American Express, JP Morgan Chase, PNC Bank, Bank of America, and Chubb Group. Additionally, there are 29 family and corporate foundation funders too.

And, Seton’s board of trustees includes leaders from hedge fund and wealth management companies. Didn’t see that coming. I wonder what they expect of Katz for their money?

Should we discount his ideas about education because his employer takes money from Koch Foundation, a philanthropy that funds over 100 private schools with the express mission of assisting “resource-poor areas where Catholic schools are the only means of evangelization”?

And, what about the fact that in communities across the country the American Federation of Teachers, and Big Labor in general, are setting up astroturf, and afroturf organizations to push a predefined agenda against school accountability, testing, teacher evaluation, charter schools, Teach For America, and many of the innovations proposed to lift student achievement?

The preposterous and predominant proposition of private school progressives (and their “public school” cousins) is that they are qualified to assess who is grassroots enough to help us, and who is not.

That’s an utterly ridiculous belief.

Are Harris-Perry, Sirota, Ravitch, Strauss, Damon, Katz, and the other private school progressives really down with poor?


As they drink a steady diet of stupid from the blazing firehose of a progressive media that chews their intellectual food for them, and then serves them a dim sum of pro-union romance stories, the world of real children waits for justice.

That justice won’t be found in the locked cars of private school progressives who drive past schools they want open only for other people’s children.

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