Dismantling Public Education, One “Philanthropist” at a Time

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?”

Andrew Cuomo, May 2020

Back in May, as coronavirus infection rates and death tolls soared, and as the ongoing state budget crisis deepened, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his ambitions to “revolutionize” and “reimagine” public education through collaborating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Months later, as some schools have begun to reopen and a spike in cases among students and their families loom, the details of this “reimagining” remain vague. There are rumors that the plan has hit bureaucratic snags, but the current status or timing of this particular initiative is less important than the larger trend of privatization of education which it represents.

The privatization of public education in the US has followed a clear trend in recent years. As education budgets dwindle across the country, students are faced with dilapidated facilities, increasingly limited curricula, and brutal police violence, while state governments attempt to hide the truth about funding disparities from their constituents. Rather than increasing spending on education to improve conditions for students, politicians like Andrew Cuomo have outsourced education to private charter schools. Charters are marketed as a means of producing better outcomes for students in the form of higher test scores. However, these institutions are corrupt by their very nature. They undermine the organizing of teachers’ unions, exclude students with “high-cost” disabilities in order to reduce spending, and are ultimately accountable to their investors instead of parents or students.

The history of the Gates Foundation’s interventions in US education is tethered to the rise of charter schools. The Foundation’s initiatives display in microcosm many of the general aspects of the broad trend of privatization of education. In order to “increase the performance outcomes” of public schools (a euphemism for raising test scores), it has implemented low-quality common core curricula, imposed restrictive teacher evaluations, and employed privacy-violating data collection software to monitor students and teachers. In addition to being a staunch supporter of new charter schools, the Gates Foundation funded an initiative known as portfolio school reform, a plan to manage schools as though they were stock portfolios. This scheme led to the closure of 50 public schools in predominantly Black working-class neighborhoods in Chicago. Each of these initiatives have been backed by large sums of desperately needed money in the form of grants, paid by the Gates Foundation either to the state education system or directly to charter schools.

The Gates Foundation is only one of many such “philanthropist” organizations which are allowed to manipulate public services through donations and “reform” initiatives. Jeff Bezos, for example, has a similar foundation which has also pursued privatization schemes, including supporting the expansion of charter schools here in New York. It is deeply ironic that Cuomo has referred to the public education system as a “monopoly” that he wants to break up. In fact, it is monopoly capitalists like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and their political servants like Andrew Cuomo that have overseen efforts to privatize public education through a ruthless application of capitalist logic. The capitalists seek to run education the way they run their businesses—by cutting teachers’ wages, undermining their unions, and robbing students of quality education in order to cut costs.

Cuomo’s “reimagination” of education is nothing more than an attempt to sell this same old privatization as something new and progressive. The stated objectives of the initiative are commendable: utilizing technology to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the quality of public education, providing new resources for students with disabilities, and increasing access to technology for low-income students. At face value, these are admirable goals. Any education system meant to serve the people should seek to accommodate students with disabilities and provide equal and universal access to technology. But we should know better than to take anything the political servants of the bourgeoisie say at face value—these “reforms” are being used to obscure the state’s real intentions. The history of the Gates Foundation’s educational initiatives reveals a series of financial transactions in which the state gets to slash funding for education while Gates gets to increase his direct influence over schools. Everybody wins—except students and teachers, who are forced to accept more corruption and the continued deterioration of the public-school system. 

Education is a fundamental right that should be shared by all members of society, but under the control of the capitalists it is treated as a commodity. Access to quality education is restricted to those who can afford it, forming a barrier that reproduces the division between manual and mental labor which is characteristic of all class societies:

The university has a role in the division of labor: the arrangement of the members of society among different activities in the production process. The division between manual labor and intellectual labor gives rise to relations of domination and subordination, which are necessary for capitalism to function. The manual/intellectual labor divide forms the basis for continuous reproduction of capitalism’s fundamental production relation: the separation of workers from the means of production.

From the program of the MDSO

The inequality fundamental to our society is necessarily reflected and reproduced in our schools. Thus, the struggle against privatization goes beyond the question of funding—increasing school budgets won’t eliminate educational inequality any more than decreasing police budgets will abolish the police. As we wrote last week, under capitalism the educational system will always be a tool of domination by the capitalist class. As long as the bourgeoisie rules society, the quality and content of education will be determined by its interests rather than the needs of the people, and vultures like Gates and Cuomo will be free to use students as guinea pigs for experiments in “reimagining” education for their own gain. Students must struggle for immediate reforms against the trend of privatization that has decimated our educational system. However, if we want these reforms to be lasting, we must also struggle for schools that serve the people—and this is only possible in a society where the power of the capitalists has been broken.