If there's a single article of faith among billionaires, it's that the public schools are the root of all evil. The reason (billionaires say) we have stagnant wages, persistent poverty, shortages of skilled labor, and income inequality is that our public school system is obsolete.
The billionaires' solution, of course, is to replace our obsolete public schools with charter schools. They've put their money where their mouths are. Since 2006, billionaires have given nearly half a billion dollars to drive public schools out of business.
Charter schools, however, have been a catastrophic failure. While charters successfully leach funds away from public schools and cherry-pick the students most likely to succeed, charter schools don't measurably improve education quality, and frequently fail outright.
Nevertheless, support for charters remains strong among billionaires ... but with one notable exception: venture capitalist Nick Hanauer. In an eye-opening op-ed in The Atlantic, Hanauer encapsulates conventional wisdom:
Once upon a time, America created a public-education system that was the envy of the modern world. No nation produced more or better-educated high-school and college graduates, and thus the great American middle class was built. But then, sometime around the 1970s, America lost its way. We allowed our schools to crumble, and our test scores and graduation rates to fall. School systems that once churned out well-paid factory workers failed to keep pace with the rising educational demands of the new knowledge economy. As America's public-school systems foundered, so did the earning power of the American middle class. And as inequality increased, so did political polarization, cynicism, and anger, threatening to undermine American democracy itself.
Sound familiar? It ought to, because it's a tune that's been drummed through the media for the past 50 years.
Hanauer was once a true believer in that narrative but now knows it's a load of hooey, because extensive scientific research shows that high-quality schools do not create a middle class--it's the other way around. Hanauer explains:
People who see education as a cure-all have largely ignored the metric most predictive of a child's educational success: household income. The scientific literature on this subject is robust, and the consensus overwhelming. The lower your parents' income, the lower your likely level of educational attainment. Period.
That higher income creates better schools (rather than the other way around) is difficult for billionaires to accept because beating up on public school teachers costs them nothing. Quite the contrary, many billionaires (like current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos) make money by raiding public school coffers.
Hanauer believes that while "educationalism" (the notion that education creates wealth) sounds logical, the only practical way to restore the middle class is through public policy that increases worker income, specifically:
- Increase the minimum wage.
- Pay workers for overtime labor.
- Restore labor's bargaining power.
- Increase taxes on the rich and their estates.
Those are difficult pills for billionaires to swallow, but the alternative is grim, according to Hanauer. If billionaires and their political lackeys continue to demonize public schools rather than change public policy to favor workers, an accelerating collapse of the middle class will create even more cynicism and anger, and, eventually, a revolution.