By Leon Galis
Recently, somebody asked on social media, where everything important happens, how the national political climate is impacting the way things are playing out in the Clarke-County School District right now. I thought to myself, “Let me count the ways.”
One of the ways is that our superintendency (a new word I’ve learned) got drawn into the national struggle between public school advocates and the school privatization movement, in our case the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. If you haven’t been unconscious for the last several months, you know when the Broad camel got its nose under the CCSD tent, so I won’t rehash that. But hostilities really exploded when social media mavens began circulating an article by “advocacy journalist” Jeff Bryant detailing how several graduates of the Broad Superintendents Academy ravaged the school districts they managed. The figures in the rogue’s gallery Bryant exposed were so unsavory that I couldn’t help wondering why the Broads wanted to even be identified with them. (In fact, according to a Forbes Magazine profile, Eli Broad retired from the Foundation two years ago.) Maybe I haven’t been reading the right stuff, but nothing I’ve read explained why Eli and Edythe Broad would sink any of their billions into the scuzzy operations that their detractors have been exposing regularly. I get why crass mercenary careerists of all persuasions would be salivating over the more than $600 billion a year the nation spends on public elementary and secondary schools. But I don’t get what’s in it for the Broads personally.
I’ve never met Eli and Edythe. They’re not friends of mine. So I’m not privy to their innermost thoughts about education. But Diane Ravitch gave the best public account I know of in her now classic study of the privatization movement, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, first published in 2010 and reissued in an expanded edition in 2016. As Ravitch makes clear, the Broads ventured into education to implement a theory.
They believe that Eli Broad’s managerial prowess as a spectacularly successful entrepreneur in homebuilding and insurance can be replicated at scale in large urban public-school districts serving predominantly minority populations. The key to raising achievement levels among those kids to the level of their white counterparts has little to do with the traditional focus of teachers and principals on curriculum and the other things that go on during a typical school day. It has far more to do with system-wide governance, specifically jettisoning the cumbersome, wasteful, sluggish bureaucracy of traditional public schools in favor of the command and control model native to the corporate and military worlds. That approach, coupled with a laser focus on measurable outcomes, will, the Broads believe, rescue children of color from decades of educational malpractice.
Since maximizing “return on investment” is central to the corporate model, the Broads prioritize large urban public-school districts with either elected boards sympathetic to the Broad approach or boards appointed by sympathetic city mayors, as in New York City. The idea is to place Broad-trained superintendents in districts promising minimal resistance to the Broad “reforms.”
To see why the Broads or anybody else would be drawn to this project, it helps (me anyway) to know that leaving no child behind has been the Holy Grail in American education for over a hundred years. In 1900 Georgia’s state superintendent of instruction told the National Education Association, “Time was when the power of the teacher was measured by what he could do with a bright boy or a bright girl. From the beginning of this new century the power of the teacher will be measured by what he will be able to do with the dull boy, the defective child. More than ever before in the history of this world the real test of teaching power will be measured not by what can be done with the best, but by what can be done with the worst boy in school.” They didn’t mince words back then.
Since this was 1900, we can be pretty sure that the children the superintendent was talking about were all white. But that wasn’t true when Lyndon Johnson, in a major Great Society initiative, got Congress to enact the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. The theory then was that poor kids of all races would flourish if they didn’t have to go to school in dilapidated, poorly equipped and maintained school buildings. So ESEA funneled massive federal aid to poverty-stricken schools, Johnson fully expecting that raising them to the level of more affluent areas would raise the poor kids’ educational achievement as well. But as Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman showed in a massive study, funding levels didn’t have much impact on student achievement. The study so disheartened Johnson that he wanted to keep it from Congress.
Since Johnson’s Great Society, the story has been one of broken dreams, with the Holy Grail of a vanishing achievement gap in our diverse school population ever receding into the distance. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just reported that the dream is still broken in Atlanta where, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 16% of black fourth-graders were “proficient” in reading compared to 76% of white fourth-graders.)
While nobody should be surprised that the ranks of the privatizers harbor knaves and thieves, I don’t think the Broads mean to be nothing more than rape and pillage enablers. Their ambitions are loftier than that. What they’re after is cracking the code to abolishing the achievement gap, an accomplishment that would go down in history as the educational equivalent of a moon shot or a cancer cure. If there were a Nobel Prize for education, the Broads’ ambition would be to win it.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the anti-Broad media coverage (I have another life, which is uncomfortably limited), but, if the Jeff Bryant piece is typical, the brief against the Broad Foundation’s activities in education is that it’s the home office of a “cartel” dedicated to milking and bilking public schools of funds that should be used on other things. These accounts are laced with nods to the anti-democratic nature of the corporate command and control model, but that seems to be treated as just one among several nasty aspects of Broadismo.
I think that’s a terrible mistake. What makes the Broad approach a dire threat to public education isn’t a couple of leeches on a district’s payroll. Even if every single person to emerge from the Broad Superintendents Academy were a model of probity, what they learn there, if they take it seriously, is a stake right in the heart of what’s public about public schools.
Public school advocates haven’t done as well as they could or should at explaining what’s public about public schools. It’s not just that they’re tax-supported. It’s that public schools are fundamental to the whole representative self-government project. That involves far more than a Problems of Democracy course taught in the ninth grade by the football coach in the off season. It lies in the fact that for most people their interaction with their public schools is their deepest immersion in the institutions and processes of representative self-government.
Public schools have occupied that critical role in our political culture at least since Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia. To his mind, the neighborhood school along with other local government institutions are incubators of small-r republicanism. To preserve that foundation, he even went so far as proposing that each of Virginia’s counties be subdivided into “wards” averaging six miles each, each to be a “small republic within itself.” Local school communities can still be “small republics“ because it’s possible for reasonably attentive people to understand the issues that arise in them, and to debate and decide them with people who include their friends, neighbors and other face-to-face acquaintances.
The worst thing about Broadismo isn’t that it’s a breeding ground for knaves and thieves but that its defining feature, the command and control model of public school governance, casts aside what’s public about public schools. It runs roughshod over the fact that public schools have constituents, not customers and clients. Nor are the Broads alone in that view. In his 1955 defense of school vouchers, libertarian economist Milton Friedman expressed the same contempt for the representative self-government project when he defended vouchers as a way of freeing families from having to resort to “cumbersome political channels” regarding their children’s schooling.
This is a large topic for another time, but I think there’s a case to be made that the struggle between public school advocates and privatizers reflects a deeper division in our population at large between people who believe, on the one hand, that education is really a private benefit and people who believe, on the other, that it’s a public good.
So if I’ve got Broadismo sort of right, is CCSD really at risk of being captured by the command and control, outcomes-above-all model? I can’t imagine that happening here for two reasons. First, our political culture makes Clarke County about the most hostile environment on the planet for the Broad agenda. This isn’t a command and control sort of place. We’re all up in everybody’s public business all the time, and the odds of our electing a Board of Education pliant enough to let superintendents have their way with our schools are close to zero. Second, our district is too small to offer a fat enough “return on investment” to be worth the Broads’ trouble. Eli and Edythe aren’t going to win their place in history by futzing around with a district like ours. Jeff Bryant’s article leads off with the story about how a Broad acolyte in Kansas City checked out suddenly when he got a phone call from Eli saying, “I need you to go to Detroit.” I‘m not looking for anybody in a Kansas City-size district to ever get a phone call from a senior Broad person, let alone Eli himself, saying, “I need you to go to Athens, GA.”
But we can’t be too careful, right? Actually, I think we can if we’re so consumed by big, national conflicts only grazing us that we overlook promising initiatives in plain sight that could actually make a difference on the ground where the work has to get done. A recent example is a column that appeared in the New York Times. When a couple of people posted it on Facebook, it diverted the combatants for about three seconds before they returned to the flame wars. That surprised and disappointed me because I think the implications of this development are staggering.
The writer reported that by changing the way reading is taught there, Mississippi (let me say that again—Mississippi) has significantly raised reading scores among its public-school kids. According to the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.” Did I mention that this happened in Mississippi?
This could turn out to be just another mirage, but if it proves to be real and scalable, one transformative result will be to cut the ground out from under “reforms” that prescribe dramatic upheavals in the way public schools are administered. If closing at least the reading achievement gap depends on getting the science of reading right instead of commanding and controlling and applying other privatizing nostrums, then that will expose the privatizers’ campaign to destroy public schools by “saving” them as the “dead end” that U. S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos famously said public schools are. I don’t see how it could possibly be a bad thing for CCSD people who’ve forgotten more about all this than I’ll ever know to pull on this string to see if it can lead us to a better place than we’re at now.
Leon Galis is an Athens native who returned to town in 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008, he has written dozens of columns for the Athens Banner-Herald and Flagpole Magazine. He is also a frequent contributor at LikeTheDew.comikeTheDew.com and Medium.com.
Galis is a professor of philosophy emeritus, with broad interests in current events and cultural commentary. You may read additional works by Galis at https://medium.com/@leongalis