I wrote an article for the online version of the Chronicle of Philanthropy about how the big foundations paved the way for Betsy DeVos’ nihilistic campaign to privatize public education. I wanted it to be in a journal that foundations across the nation read. It is available only to subscribers.





Opinion: Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education
By Diane Ravitch
President-elect Donald Trump has promised to reallocate $20 billion in federal funds to promote charter schools and private-school vouchers. He has selected Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos — who has long devoted her philanthropic efforts to advocating for charters and vouchers — as the next secretary of education. After the election, her American Federation for Children boasted of spending nearly $5 million on candidates that support school choice, not public schools.
Currently, 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit corporations, due in no small part to Ms. DeVos and her husband, Amway heir Dick DeVos. These schools represent a $1 billion industry that produces results no better than do public schools, according to a yearlong Detroit Free Press investigation. The DeVoses recently made $1.45 million in campaign contributions to Michigan lawmakers who blocked measures to hold charters accountable for performance or financial stability.
With Ms. DeVos in charge of federal education policy, the very future of public education in the United States is at risk. How did we reach this sorry state? Why should a keystone democratic institution be in jeopardy?
I hold foundations responsible.
Extremist Attacks
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for “school choice,” which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.)
At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.
For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are “failing”; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better. It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.
To begin with, our public schools are not failing. Where test scores are low, there is high poverty and concentrated racial segregation. Test scores in affluent and middle-income communities are high. The U.S. rank on international standardized tests has been consistent (and consistently average) since those tests began being offered in the 1960s, but the countries with higher scores never surpassed us economically.
The big foundations refused to recognize the limitations of standardized testing and its correlation with family income. Look at SAT scores: Students whose families have high incomes do best; those from impoverished families have the lowest scores. The foundations choose to ignore the root causes of low test scores and instead blame the teachers at schools in high-poverty areas.
Follow the Money
Major foundations put their philanthropic millions into three strategies:
They funded independently run charter schools, which are a form of privatization.
Some, notably the Gates Foundation, invested in evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.
They gave many millions to Teach for America, which undermines the profession by leading young college graduates to think they can be good teachers with only five weeks of training.
Many of the philanthropists behind the foundations have also used their own money to underwrite political candidates and state referenda aimed at advancing charters and school choice. Bill Gates and his allies spent millions to pass a referendum in Washington State authorizing charter schools; it failed three times before winning in 2012 by 1 percent of the vote. After the state Supreme Court denied taxpayer funding to charters, on the grounds that they are not public schools because they are not overseen by elected school boards, three justices who joined the majority ruling faced electoral challengers bankrolled by Mr. Gates and his friends. (The incumbents easily won re-election.)
The Walton Family Foundation claims to have launched one-quarter of the charter schools in the District of Columbia. It has pledged to spend $200 million annually for at least the next five years on opening new charters. Individual family members have spent millions on pro-school choice candidates and ballot questions. This year they joined other out-of-state billionaires like Michael Bloomberg in contributing $26 million to support a Massachusetts referendum that would authorize a dozen new charters a year, indefinitely. It lost, 62 percent to 38 percent. Only 16 of the state’s 351 school districts voted “yes”; the “no vote” was strongest in districts that already had charters, which parents knew were draining resources from their public schools.
Advocates for charter schools insist they are public schools — except when charters are brought into court or before the National Labor Relations Board, in which case they claim to be private corporations, not state actors. They do share in public funding for education, a pie that has not gotten bigger for a decade. So every new charter school takes money away from traditional public schools, requiring them to increase class sizes, lay off teachers, and cut programs.
Charters have a mixed performance record. Those with the highest test scores are known for cherry-picking their students, excluding those with severe disabilities and English-language learners, and pushing out students who are difficult to teach or who have low test scores.
Many other charters have abysmal academic records. The worst are the virtual charters, which have high attrition rates, low test scores, and low graduation rates. As The New York Times recently reported, citing federal data, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow in Ohio has “more students drop out … or fail to finish high school within four years than at any other school in the country.”
Why do state leaders allow such “schools” to exist?

Follow the campaign contributions to key legislators.
Failing the Test
The Gates Foundation’s crusade to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students has been a colossal failure, one from which the organization has yet to back off. (Unlike its $2 billion campaign to encourage smaller high schools, which the foundation admitted in 2008 had not succeeded.)
This has had devastating consequences. President Obama’s Education Department, which had close ties to the Gates Foundation, required states to adopt this untested way of evaluating teachers to be eligible for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funding.

Since the standardized tests covered only mathematics and reading, some states, like Florida, began rating teachers based on the scores of students they didn’t teach in subjects they didn’t teach.
In New York State, a highly regarded fourth-grade teacher in an affluent suburb sued over her low rating and won a judgment that the state’s method, based on the Gates precept, was “arbitrary and capricious.” When newspapers in Los Angeles and New York City published invalid ratings of thousands of teachers, classroom morale plummeted and veteran educators resigned in protest. One in Los Angeles committed suicide.
The American Statistical Association issued a strong critique of the use of student scores to rate teachers, since scores vary depending on which students are assigned to teachers. The American Educational Research Association also spoke out against the Gates Foundation’s method, saying that those who teach English-language learners and students with disabilities would be unfairly penalized.
Still, big donors were so sure teachers were responsible for low test scores that they fell in love with Teach for America and showered hundreds of millions of dollars on it.
The nonprofit began as a good idea: Invite young college graduates to teach for two years where no teachers were readily available, sort of like the Peace Corps. But then the organization began making absurd claims that its young recruits could “transform” the lives of poor students and even close the achievement gap between children who are rich and poor, white and black. School districts, looking to save money, began replacing experienced teachers with Teach for America recruits, who became the hard-working, high-turnover staff at thousands of new charter schools.
Due in part to that supply of cheap labor, 93 percent of charters are nonunion, which the retail billionaires of the DeVos and Walton families no doubt see as a boon. Unfortunately, Teach for America undermines the teaching profession by asserting that five weeks of training is equivalent to a year or two of professional education. Would doctors or lawyers ever permit untrained recruits to become Heal for America or Litigate for America? It is only the low prestige of the teaching profession that enables it to be so easily infiltrated by amateurs, who mean well but are usually gone in two or three years.
Now that the Trump administration means to use the power and purse of the federal government to replace public schools with private alternatives, it is important to remember that universal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.
Let us remember that public schools were established to prepare young people to become responsible citizens. In addition to teaching knowledge and skills, they are expected to teach character and ethical behavior. Gates, Broad, and other big foundations have forgotten that public education is a public responsibility, not a consumer good. Their grant-making strategies have endangered public education.
This is a time to hope that they will recognize their errors, take a stand against privatization of our public services, and commit themselves to rebuilding public education and civil society.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of education and a research professor at New York University. She writes about education policy at Diane Ravitch’s Blog.