I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, July 1, 2013

Define "Charity"

This time of year affords me the luxury of taking a few days to just read, write, and think. And it's at times like this that I can pull a few threads together to make a larger tapestry (yeah, the summer seems to be straining my metaphors a bit...).

Yesterday, I detailed the rapper Pitbull's foray into the wacky world of for-profit charter schooling. One thing that struck me, as I watched him make his little pre-scripted appearances in the media, is how badly the corporatized media wants us to believe that the rich and famous are doing good through their "charitable" works. Katie Couric, for instance, gushed over "Mr. 305" for "giving back to the community" by opening a charter school.

Well, how exactly is he "giving back"? His charter school, SLAM, will receive taxpayers funds for its operation. A hefty portion of those funds will go to a company called Academica, which has a documented history of enriching itself at the public trough by controlling charter school real estate, which is exempt from property taxes, while collecting rental fees from the charters it manages.

Maybe Pitbull is actually donating some money for the start-up or operations; I wouldn't know, because it appears no one in the press has bothered to ask - that includes "journalists" like Katie Couric. But if SLAM follows the pattern of other Academica schools, someone is going to make money off of this thing.

Does this sound like "charity" to you?

Today, Pitbull gave a speech at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference, extolling the virtues of "choice" in education. At the same conference, the Walton Family Foundation is scheduled to be inducted into the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame:

Walton Family Foundation

The Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation has provided an unprecedented level of financial support to schools and education organizations across the country over the past decade. Founded and run by the family of billionaire businessman Sam Walton, the foundation supports a wide range of causes but education organizations are its top funding priority and received over $158 million in grants in 2012 alone.
The foundation’s core strategy is “to infuse competitive pressure into America’s K-12 education system by increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents, especially in low-income communities.” To do so, it spreads its education funding across three distinct initiatives: shaping public policy, creating quality schools, and improving existing schools. Charter schools have especially benefitted from the second initiative: to date, the Walton Family Foundation has invested over $300 million in start-up schools and is now the largest single funder of new charters. Additionally, the foundation has funded state charter organizations, local charter networks, national advocacy groups, teacher training programs, and research initiatives.[emphasis mine]
OK, look: maybe you're for charter schools, and maybe you aren't. Personally, I'd feel a lot better about their proliferation if the charter cheerleaders were at least somewhat honest about how they get their "successes." Regardless, I've always felt that there could be a place for charters if they are tightly regulated and if the communities they serve agree to have them.

But that's my opinion. You can agree or disagree, and that's fine; let's have the debate. But when did we decide that spreading the Walton family's opinion about charters was a "charitable" act? 

If the Waltons want to fund credentialed scholars to engage in high-quality, peer-reviewed research in public policy, I can see that as charitable giving. But giving money to think tanks and advocacy groups - like NAPCS - isn't funding policy development; it's promoting an agenda. It's really no different from giving money to a political candidate because he or she will vote the way you want on issues - and, yes, that includes issues that may not affect you directly. It really doesn't matter much why the Waltons want more charters; it's enough that they do, and that they are willing to spend gobs of money to get them.

Does this sound like "charity" to you?

Bill Gates has been pouring millions of dollars into educational "research." One of the groups he funds is the National Council on Teacher Quality, which, amazingly, put out a report recently that shores up his belief that something is very wrong with the way we train teachers. It doesn't much matter that just about every prominent education policy scholar has ripped this piece of hack-junk to shreds, including:
I could go on, but I can already hear the objection that all of these people have a vested interest in keeping the "status quo" in college-based teacher preparation programs. Well, that's a really stupid point, but if you want to make it, OK. But how in the world does spending millions of dollars to prop up an organization that produces universally poorly-received "research" like this qualify as "philanthropy"?

Does this sound like "charity" to you?

So here's why I bring this up: Lauryn Hill, the singer, apparently didn't pay her taxes and is going to jail. She also recently put out music some find homophobic, which stirred up a bit of controversy. In the wake of all this, she went on to Tumblr (huh, I guess people do use it...) and posted a long essay about racism and her sentencing.

I'm sympathetic to some of her thoughts; less so to others (I guess I'm old-fahsioned, but it seems to me that everybody's got to pay their taxes). But this part of Hill's post really struck me:
The prosecutor, who was a woman, made a statement during sentencing about me not doing any charity work for a number of years during my ‘exile.’ A) Charity work is not a requirement, but something done because someone wants to. I was clearly doing charitable works way before other people were even thinking about it. And B) Even the judge had to comment that she, meaning I, was both having and raising children during this period. As if that was not challenging enough to do. She sounded like the echo of the grotesque slave master, who expected women to give birth while in the field, scoop the Baby up, and then continue to work. Disgusting.
Yeah, OK, that last part's a bit over the top for me - your mileage may vary. But I think Hill's got a serious point here: since when did "charity" work become a "Get Out of Jail Free" card (either actual or metaphorical) for the rich and famous?

We see this all the time: athletes, pop stars, actors, business titans - all happily smiling in front of the camera as they go about their "charitable" works. Except we rarely, if ever, get a true look at what exactly those "works" are. Yes, we get some nice press releases and photo-ops that, as Hill points out, can be quite valuable when the star is in trouble with the law or building his brand. But is what they are doing properly defined as "charity"?

When Mark Zuckerberg fell victim to an embarrassing movie, he rushed on to Oprah Winfrey's show and declared that his new "charity" would be education "reform" in Newark.

It turns out his COO at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, was intimately involved in managing the optics of the giving - most likely because she knew an IPO was in Facebook's future, and she wanted lots of happy-happy press about Zuckerberg before the offering. But what happened to the money? Turns out a good deal of it was used to settle a contract with Newark's teachers that introduced merit pay for the first time into this high-performing state with strong teacher unions.

Maybe you think merit pay is a good idea; I certainly don't, but that's because I read. Whatever: no matter how you come down on the issue, how can anyone seriously suggest that pushing teachers into this direction was an act of "charity"? That Zuckerberg should be lauded for putting up the dough for the deal - especially when there's no reason to believe he will do so again in the future - strikes me as more than a little bizarre.

I understand that there's a continuum here, and that many celebrities and magnates have done good work with their fame and fortune. I'm sure one of you will send me something to burst my bubble, but I always thought Paul Newman was a good guy and doing the right thing (and I like the salad dressing). And there's nothing wrong with these people advocating for their causes: I freely admit Ted Nugent has the right to advocate for whatever crazy idea pops into his head. It's a free country, he earned his money, and he can say whatever he wants. God Bless America.

But let's not pretend that a lot of what the wealthy try to sell to us as "charity" is just that. Pitbull, the Waltons, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and many others are pushing their points of view on to the public stage, gaming the political system to create policies that match their ideological proclivities, and setting up non-profits that are little more than shells that funnel public money to for-profit corporations.

Does this sound like "charity" to you?


* This is actually a critique of a 2012 report on teacher preparation put out by NCTQ. I regret the error.


giuseppe said...

What a coincidence, Walmart, the biggest private employer in the US, is also rabidly anti-union, forces its employees to watch anti-union movies and to be subjected to all sorts of anti-union propaganda. In many states, its employees are so poorly paid that they have to go on food stamps, Medicaid, or welfare. Walmart is all about part time low wage jobs without security, benefits or pensions. Microsoft also plays the temp worker game and Gates is always begging for more H1b (lower wage) workers because there are supposedly not enough American tech workers. That's baloney, there are hordes of smart, US tech workers with the education, training and experience looking for work but not willing to work for indentured servant wages.

Deb said...

Not charity. Just as the choices they offer are really often not the choices they tout them to be. Money and influence guides their decisions or they might actually talk with, listen to, and respect educators and the public schools at the core of our democracy ( not the core of our capitalism).

You are absolutely right. Not charity.