My local public school district is in turmoil. The board of education recently placed the superintendent on administrative leave and appointed an interim superintendent. One of several things that sealed the superintendent’s fate was his having cozied up to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, one of the more aggressive players in the movement to privatize public schools. That inspired intense debate on social media, where everything important happens, about the Broad Foundation’s spotty record at educational “reform.”

Eli and Edythe Broad founders of the Broad Foundation
Eli and Edythe Broad founders of the Broad Foundation

Hostilities really exploded when social media mavens circulated an article by “advocacy journalist” Jeff Bryant detailing how several graduates of the Broad Superintendents Academy ripped off and otherwise abused the school districts they managed. The figures in the rogue’s gallery Bryant exposed were so unsavory that I couldn’t help wondering why the Broads wanted to even be identified with them. (In fact, according to a Forbes Magazine profile, Eli Broad retired from the Foundation two years ago.) Maybe I haven’t been reading the right stuff, but nothing I’ve read explains why Eli and Edythe Broad would sink any of their billions into the sketchy operations that their detractors have been exposing regularly. I get why crass mercenary careerists of all persuasions would be salivating over the more than $600 billion a year the nation spends on public elementary and secondary education. But I don’t get what’s in it for the Broads personally.

I’ve never met Eli and Edythe. They’re not friends of mine. So I’m not privy to their innermost thoughts about education. But Diane Ravitch gave the best public account I know of in her now classic study of the privatization movement, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, first published in 2010 and reissued in an expanded edition in 2016. As Ravitch makes clear, the Broads ventured into education to implement a theory.

They believe that Eli Broad’s managerial prowess as a spectacularly successful entrepreneur in homebuilding and insurance can be replicated at scale in large urban public-school districts serving predominantly minority populations. The key to raising achievement levels among those kids to the level of their white counterparts has little to do with the traditional concerns of teachers and principals with curriculum and the other things that go on during a typical school day. It has far more to do with system-wide governance, specifically jettisoning the cumbersome, wasteful, sluggish bureaucracy of traditional public schools in favor of the command and control model native to the corporate and military worlds. That approach, coupled with a laser focus on measurable outcomes, will, the Broads believe, rescue children of color from decades of educational malpractice.

Since maximizing “return on investment” is central to the corporate model, the Broads prioritize large urban public school districts with either elected boards sympathetic to the Broad approach or boards appointed by sympathetic city mayors, as in New York City. The idea is to place Broad-trained superintendents in districts promising minimal resistance to the Broad agenda.

To see why the Broads or anybody else would be drawn to this project, it helps to know that leaving no child behind has been the holy grail in American education for over a hundred years. In 1900 Georgia’s state superintendent of instruction told the National Education Association,

“Time was when the power of the teacher was measured by what he could do with a bright boy or a bright girl. From the beginning of this new century the power of the teacher will be measured by what he will be able to do with the dull boy, the defective child. More than ever before in the history of this world the real test of teaching power will be measured not by what can be done with the best, but by what can be done with the worst boy in school.”

They didn’t mince words back then.

Since this was 1900, we can be pretty sure that the children the superintendent was talking about were all white. But that wasn’t true when Lyndon Johnson, in a major 1965 Great Society initiative, got Congress to enact the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The theory then was that poor kids of all races would flourish if they didn’t have to go to school in dilapidated, poorly equipped and maintained school buildings. So ESEA funneled massive federal aid to poverty-stricken schools, Johnson fully expecting that raising them to the level of more affluent areas would raise the poor kids’ educational achievement as well. But as Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman showed in a massive study, funding levels didn’t have much impact on student achievement. The study so disheartened Johnson that he wanted to keep it from Congress. Since Johnson’s Great Society, the story has been one of broken dreams, with the holy grail of a vanishing achievement gap in our diverse school population ever receding into the distance.

While nobody should be surprised that the ranks of the privatizers harbor pirates, I don’t think the Broads mean to do no more than enable rape and pillage. Their ambitions are loftier than that. What they’re after is cracking the code to abolishing the achievement gap, an accomplishment that would go down in history as the educational equivalent of a moon shot or a cancer cure. If there were a Nobel Prize for education, the Broads’ ambition would be to win it.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the anti-Broad media coverage but, if the Jeff Bryant piece is typical, the indictment of the Broad Foundation in education is that it’s the home office of a “cartel” dedicated to milking and bilking public schools of funds that should be used on other things. These accounts are laced with nods to the anti-democratic nature of the corporate command and control model, but that seems to be treated as just one among several nasty aspects of Broadismo.

I think that’s a terrible mistake. What makes the Broad approach a dire threat to public education isn’t a couple of leeches on a district’s payroll. Even if every single person to emerge from the Broad Superintendents Academy were a model of probity, what they learn there, if they take it seriously, is a stake right in the heart of what’s distinctively public about public schools.

Public school advocates haven’t done as well as they could or should at explaining what’s public about public schools. It’s not just that they’re tax-supported. With the proliferation of various voucher schemes, more public funds are flowing to private schools too. But that doesn’t convert them into public schools. Nor are public schools the sole purveyors of course content that purports to educate their charges for citizenship, like a ninth-grade problems of democracy course taught in the off season by the football coach. Nothing prevents private schools from doing that as well. And nothing prevents them from serving a diverse population, which public schools don’t always do all that well depending on the zip codes they draw from.

What’s public about public schools is that they’re fundamental in a way that private schools can’t be to representative self-government itself. For most people, their involvement with their public schools is their deepest immersion in the institutions and processes of representative self-government.

Public schools have occupied that critical role in our political culture at least since Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia. To his mind, the neighborhood school along with other local government institutions are incubators of small-r republicanism. To preserve that foundation, he even went so far as proposing that each of Virginia’s counties be subdivided into “wards” averaging six miles each, each, he said, to be a “small republic within itself.”

Local public school communities are still “small republics“ where reasonably attentive people can understand the issues, debating and deciding them among others who include their friends, neighbors and other face-to-face acquaintances.

So Broadismo doesn’t just inflict knaves and thieves on schools, as Bryant and other privatization critics charge. The command and control model at its core is a mortal threat to public schools’ essential place in the representative self-government project our political culture rests on. It runs roughshod over the fact that public schools have constituents, not customers and clients as private schools do.

Nor are the Broads alone in their hostility to the institutions and processes of representative self-government. In his 1955 brief for school vouchers, libertarian economist Milton Friedman expressed similar contempt when he defended vouchers as a way of freeing families from having to resort to “cumbersome political channels” regarding their children’s schooling.

So are school communities like mine condemned to an endless twilight struggle against Broadies’ assaults on democracy at ground level? Maybe not. One glimmer of hope is a development reported recently in a New York Times column.

Although everything important happens on social media, when I posted the column on Facebook, it diverted the inmates for about three seconds, its staggering implications utterly escaping them. The writer reported that by changing the way reading is taught there, Mississippi (let me say that again—Mississippi) has significantly raised reading scores among its public-school kids. According to the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress,

“Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.” (New York Times)

Did I mention that this happened in Mississippi?

This could turn out to be just another mirage, but if it proves to be real and scalable, one transformative result will be to cut the ground out from under “reforms” that prescribe destabilizing upheavals in the way public schools are administered. If closing at least the reading achievement gap depends on getting the science of reading right instead of commanding and controlling and applying other such nostrums, then that will expose the privatizers’ campaign to destroy public schools by “saving” them as the “dead end” that U. S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos famously said public schools are.

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Photo Credit: the feature cartoon showing the dismantling of public education was created by © David Fitzsimmons and licensed at PoliticalCartoons.com with the contributions of generous dew contributors like you; the photo of Eli and Edythe Broad is from the Broad Foundation site (fair use).

Leon Galis

I'm an Athens, GA, native and have been living in Athens since 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008 I've written approximately 80 columns for the Athens Banner Herald and a handful for Flagpole Magazine in Athens.