THE BLOG
03/05/2013 01:48 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2013

The Billionaires' Threat to California's and America's Schools

Educators have grown increasingly concerned that the "Billionaires Boys Club's" plan for test-driven "reform" of schools is more than misguided. Basically, it advocates "disruptive innovation" to destroy the "status quo" and so that schools can overcome the legacies of poverty. So many of their theories are so silly that many teachers worry that their real plan is to privatize schools.

On one hand, I respect the careful scholarship of Sarah Reckhow, who has documented the edu-philanthropists' strategy of "convergence" or their coordination of funding. She worries about the consequences of that trend, as she expresses concerns that they join together to pursue policies that are not well-grounded in research. But, her "Philanthropy Critique Can Obscure Key Differences" suggests that some are exaggerating the dangers of billionaires banding together.

On the other hand, the outcomes of two California disputes could pose a threat to the democratic governance of public schools. Across the nation, those of us who have experienced the unintended damage produced by standardized test-driven "reform" have winced as the billionaires' money paid for what the Los Angeles Times calls "junk ads," and "serious exaggeration and distortion." If their money swings the Los Angeles election towards bubble-in "reformers," we can all expect them to step up pressure for weakening due process protections, and weakening unions.

Anthony Cody, in "Yes, Virginia, There Really IS a Billionaires Boys Club," wrote recently about the influx of cash being sent to Los Angeles by billionaires like Eli Broad and Mike Bloomberg. While it may be legal for billionaires "to, in effect, buy up local school board races," Cody argues, it is inconsistent with the spirit of our democracy's principles of public education.

Here is why I agree with Cody.

Under our imperfect democracy, there has never been a shortage of insiders seeking to enrich themselves. But, local school system elections were disputes over the ways of running districts. There was no mechanism that would allow any coordinated interest groups to label systems as irredeemable, and to destroy one after another.

Let's assume a worst case scenario where unions, local construction companies, and old-fashioned vendors were absolutely venal. Under the system that "reformers" deride as the "status quo," there was never a motive or capacity for "adult interests" to organize a campaign to kill all of the nation's gooses that laid their golden eggs.

Now, in a so-called effort to put "students first," national organizations can converge to destroy their common opponents. Even if the motives of "reformers" were absolutely pure, their call for the destruction of the "status quo" would still be dangerous. The "Billionaires Boys Club" has the power to promote "disruptive innovation" to kick barns down. But its members have demonstrated little talent for barn-building.

Secondly, what would our founding fathers have thought about Students Matter, a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization, which is attempting to use the courts to kick down laws that were duly created through the democratic process? These laws were designed to protect teachers, not to discriminate or damage others.

Students Matter, in Vergara v. California, is litigating because its organizers "believe every student has the right to an effective teacher." And, they believe that the combination of statutes causes damage to identifable groups of students. That's fine. The funders of that charitable organization have the right to believe that their beliefs are better for poor students of color students than the beliefs of California voters.

But, even if those beliefs were not lacking in evidence, why should they trump the democratic rights of others? We teachers could assemble a far more credible case that the combination of laws mandating high stakes testing and charters have damaged poor children of color living in extreme poverty. It should be up to the voters, rather than the courts, to decide whether our policies based on social science or the billionaires' hunches should be the law of the land.

Should we not worry when any organization that has the power to hire big-name attorneys, such as Theodore Boutrous and Ted Olson, can assemble a legal arsenal for a coordinated campaign, based on their strong beliefs, to wipe out an entire state's education laws? Why can't donors invest the big bucks necessary to hire Boutrous and Olson in peer reviewed research? If philanthropists studied solid evidence and still thought that teachers' contracts were the problem, they could use the findings to influence educational debates. If the research proves that, someday over the rainbow, they have discovered the way to scale up their theories, then they could demand a transformation in the way that our constitutional democracy operates its public school systems.

In fact, if "reformers" could provide real evidence that their beliefs would help poor children of color, they would win my vote. After all, the reason why I support our flawed institutions for protecting adults is that history has shown that they are the better way of helping children.

These two California battles clearly pose a threat to democracy. We do not know how these disputes will unfold, but do we want a democracy where billionaires can converge to impose their beliefs on local elections? And, when voters make decisions that the big boys don't like, should philanthropists use the legal system to mandate their beliefs? And, if the "Billionaires Boys Club" is wrong, who will rebuild the public school system that it kicked down?