In an article in Salon, Gary Sasso asks why the billionaires are so intent on funding privately-managed alternatives to public schools. Sasso is the Dean of the College of Education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. After all, if they want to improve education, the vast majority of students in this nation attend public schools. Why aren’t they helping public schools? The reality is that charter schools drain funding from public schools, and they usually don’t get better results (if one considers only test scores). Many of them have a stern disciplinary regime that may raise test scores but does not improve education or the spirit of learning.

 

Sasso says that the huge disparities in income today and the erosion of the middle class explain more about educational outcomes than anything that happens in schools. Why are the 1% focused solely on the schools?

 

Sasso speculates:

 

Charter schools will never be the answer to improving education for all. It is simply not scaleable. And yet titans of industry such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family, and billionaires such as John Paulson who earlier this year gave $8.5 million to New York’s Success Academy charter school system, are pouring their millions into support for charter schools—millions that will not, incidentally, be invested in improving the schools that the vast majority of U.S. students attend: traditional public schools.

 

Can it be a coincidence that those who have benefited most from the last 50 years of steadily increasing income inequality—the top 10 percent–support an education solution that hinges on denigrating public school teachers, dismantling unions and denying that income inequality is the underlying condition at the root of the problem?

 

The most generous explanation for this phenomenon says that the wealthiest among us are motivated to support charter schools purely out of ideology. They are operating under deeply held beliefs that a school system run by the government smothers innovation and that teachers unions inhibit a free market system that, if allowed to operate, would result in better teachers and child outcomes. In addition, these philanthropists believe that public education has become so hidebound that meaningful change within the system is no longer possible, and that fresh ideas and programs not beholden to a system that resists change will provide programs and ideas that are more effective.

 

Another explanation that has been posited is that good, old-fashioned greed is at the root. After all, the wealthy did not achieve their wealth through an indifference to achieving a return on their investments—and our public school system is a $621 billion per year endeavor. For example, a recent investigation by the Arizona Republic found that the state’s charter schools purchased a variety of goods and services from the companies of its own board members or administrators. In fact, the paper found at least 17 such contracts or arrangements totaling more than $70 million over five years.

 

In addition, there are specific tax loopholes that make it especially attractive to donate to charter schools. Banks and equity and hedge funds that invest in charter schools in underserved areas can take advantage of a tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to analysts, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.

 

However, applying the principle of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanation is usually the best), the super-rich may support charter schools to weaken unions. That strategy increases inequality of wealth and income, especially for the poorest kids whom the charter promoters claim to be “saving.”

 

Sasso suggests that the best path forward for the 1% would be to focus on rebuilding the middle class, which is currently being squashed.

 

Rebuilding the middle class—not expanding charter schools—is the most effective path to increasing access to quality education and to giving more students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.