June 26, Rethinking Schools editor Wayne Au spoke at a Seattle rally protesting the role of the Gates Foundation in public education: “Educating the Gates Foundation.” The rally was sponsored by Washington BATS (Bad-Ass Teachers) and Washington Save Our Schools. This is the speech he delivered at the rally.
Educating the Gates Foundation Rally Remarks
by Wayne Au
Good evening. I’m here tonight because I am deeply concerned. I’m concerned that public education is rapidly becoming privatized. I’m concerned that we are all part of a grand experiment, one that is hurting kids and communities. I’m concerned that we are losing democratic, public accountability in public education. I’m concerned with the state of public education reform and the role of Bill Gates and his foundation.
You see, right now Gates and his foundation are pushing an entire set of public education reforms like charter schools and vouchers, high-stakes, standardized testing, and using tests for teacher evaluation. We are getting this set of reforms purely because he and his foundation have leveraged vast financial resources to influence and negotiate politics. They are doing this despite all countervailing evidence, and they are doing this with no democratic accountability.
And that is just the thing. While Gates and his foundation tinker around with charter schools, high-stakes testing, the Common Core, and the junk science of using tests to evaluate teachers, they avoid the central and most important issue that impacts educational achievement: poverty.
But Gates and the Gates Foundation aren’t hearing that. As far as I can see, they are not about actual educational equality and equity. Instead they seem to be about opening up public education to the marketplace.
In fact, Gates has said as much. Back in 2009 in the run up to the Common Core, Gates said the following:
When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.
I find this ironic. It seems to me that Gates wants to fix inequality in public education by relying on the same market forces responsible for the crisis in housing, the crisis in medical care, the climate crisis, the massive wealth gap, and the increase in the schools-to-prisons pipeline for youth of color, amongst other national travesties.
And all of this has me concerned because in many ways you and I and our children are unwillingly part of a grand experiment in education reform. Back in September of 2013, Gates himself said, “It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade.” These folks pushing these reforms do not know if they will work, but they are willing to experiment on an entire generation of children.
And this raises another issue that we must contend with: institutionalized racism. We know that the system of public education does not serve low-income black and brown kids like it should. Unfortunately, here in Seattle we are a great example of this given the low achievement and disproportionate discipline rates for students of color. But the question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Have these corporate styled reforms like charter schools and high-stakes testing actually improved the conditions of education for the least served?”
On the whole the answer is “no.” Low-income students of color have had their curriculum gutted because of the tests. They are far more likely to experience scripted instruction and rote learning purely to prepare for the tests. They are far more likely to have art, recess, music, physical education, and even science and social studies cut in preparation for the tests.
And despite their never ending promises, the charter school sector has continued to find ways to keep out English Language Learners and students with disabilities, expel or counsel away low performing kids of color, maintain intense racial segregation, and NOT, I repeat, NOT out perform regular public schools in terms of overall achievement.
Given that both failure on high-stakes tests as well as expulsion and suspension from school greatly increase the chances of students to get caught up in the criminal justice system, I would argue that these reforms contribute directly to the racism of the schools-to-prisons pipeline.
In this way low-income black and brown students of color are the ultimate guinea pigs for the Gates experiment in public education reform, and I think it is ethically, morally, and politically reprehensible that wealthy elites feel so free to experiment on our kids.
This is especially true given that Gates’ own children have not had to face any of his own reforms. In fact, I want all of our children in public schools to have what Gates’ children have had.
Take Lakeside Schools, where his kids have attended. They had small class sizes, a large, well endowed library, top notch facilities, and a rich curriculum. These things seem to work for children of the elite. Don’t the rest of our children deserve them as well?
Lakeside students also don’t have to take 5, 6, 7, or 8 high-stakes, standardized tests a year. As my dear friend and education activist Jesse Hagopian says, we could say the boycott of high-stakes testing in Seattle really started at schools like Lakeside because the rich have rejected having their children take these tests for years: They just sent them to elite private schools.
I also want all of our kids to have some other things those Lakeside students have, like food security, a stable home to live in, jobs for their parents that pay livable wages, access to free or affordable healthcare…You know, all the basic human rights that the rich can afford and, increasingly, the poor cannot.
If Gates and the Gates Foundation really want to start increasing the achievement of low income and students of color, and if they are unwilling to have the real conversation about growing race and class inequality in this country, then I’ve got a suggestion: Fund a nationwide campaign for the implementation of Ethnic Studies. We’ve got research that shows that Ethnic Studies, like the program that was banned by conservatives in Tucson, Arizona, contributed greatly to positive educational outcomes and college attainment of students of color there. In that program students learned about their cultural histories and identities, and they learned about institutional racism in this country.
But I doubt we’ll see any Gates-funded campaign for Ethnic Studies because it doesn’t have the right kind of politics.
Speaking of politics, as the Seattle Times reported, Bill Gates recently said that, “These are not political things,” and that he’s merely supporting research about making education more effective. I’d like to close my speech tonight by pointing out how this statement rings hollow in so many ways.
For instance, we have ample research on the critical impact of smaller class sizes, the importance of culturally relevant practices, the fallacy of using test scores to evaluate teachers, the increased inequity produced by charter schools, the harmful effects of high-stakes, standardized testing, and the central role poverty plays in educational achievement. But Gates and his foundation don’t care to listen to any of this. They have their own agenda for public education, and they are wielding their mighty resources to advance this agenda with disregard of sound critiques or public deliberation.
Gates’ statement also rings hollow because these are all political things. Poverty is a political thing. Institutionalized racism is a political thing. High-stakes testing is a political thing. Charter school policy is a political thing. Private school vouchers is a political thing. All curriculum, especially the Common Core, is a political thing. Teachers’ rights to due process and protections provided by union contracts are political things.
When you attack public education and try to reshape it along the lines of private industry, and you do it with no democratic accountability to the public, THAT is a political thing. Every aspect of education policy is a political thing, and it is ignorant of Gates to think or say otherwise.
But that is why I am standing here tonight. That is why you are here as well. We all know better. We all know that public education is a political thing, and we all know that public education is a political thing worth fighting for. We can win this fight. Together we can remake our schools in ways that actually meet the social, cultural, and academic needs of ALL of our children. We can resist the privatizers like Gates. We can put the Public back into public education.