On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.
Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.
“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”
Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education. (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)
We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model. To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.
Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction. The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:
Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools. As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth. It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc. Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.
The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system. Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching. Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).
Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students. It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.
When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system. They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.
The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.
People over Experts
At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science. They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates. They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.
We also learned that they are vulnerable. When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.
Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck
So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?
Small Schools Initiative: The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”. Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch. (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)
Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project: The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured. They were wrong. According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”. (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).
Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy. This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.
In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program: “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”
Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite. He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another
Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation. According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:
They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.
They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart
They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.
WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US. (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)
The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.
However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities. The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them. (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).
Next Target, Higher Education
Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.
The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”
One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.
According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities. Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation. If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society. The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).
Automation and Education in the Era of Robots
The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation. As Gates, Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots. As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.
If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools. Since charter schools make the education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process. Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers. Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.
The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom; they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers. This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least. But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers. Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to replace them with robots.
Bill Gates Might Just Blow Us All to Hell
Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.
However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.
You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).
Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration. So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.
The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity. The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.
The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway. They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win. They can afford to take risks and lose a few.
However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky. Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris. His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.