Monday, September 30, 2013

One School Board At A Time


I don't dislike people because they're wealthy, but I am always more suspicious of a wealthy man than one of more meager means.

In my life, I've had ongoing dealings with four individuals who are wealthy by anyone's standards: two from the world of business, one from the world of entertainment, and one whose wealth was derived from some sort of ancient hereditary source that I'm sure I could determine by reading the right European history books. I didn't know any of these people with any level of intimacy, but I was enough a part of their lives that they knew my name and were at moments unguarded enough in their dealings with me that I feel I gained at least some insight into their personalities. None of them were any happier than me. Of that I'm certain. And at least one of them was far, far less contented than I, a paranoid victim of his wealth. They were all smarter than me about some things, but not about others. And while they all had a lot of stuff and a lot of people around them pretty much all the time, I can honestly say that while I might have sometimes wished their money for myself, I would have never traded their lives for mine.

It's a cliche to say that money can't buy you love or happiness or friends. I would assert that great wealth can, in fact, make those things much more difficult to attain: one must always wonder if people are attracted by you or your money. One thing that money does apparently buy is a sense of entitlement. Research consistently shows that it makes people less generous, more rude, and, in fact, more likely to believe that rules and laws don't apply to them. But most interestingly is that being wealthy, even if the source of that wealth is entirely arbitrary, tends to make people believe that their wealth is due to their innate qualities, even when that is manifestly untrue.

No where is this "money equals universal competence" phenomenon more evident than in the corporate education "reform" movement, which is lead by wealthy dilettantes. These people seem to believe that because they have managed to somehow attract money to themselves, they are now qualified general purpose experts. In this case, people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates have decided that their wealth means they know best and what is best is that schools be run like a business. You know, like Lehman Brothers or Enron or one of the 90 percent of start-up businesses that fail within their first five years. Or maybe like Bill Gates' other company, Corbis, which he founded in 1989 and has yet to turn a profit (it makes one wonder whether Microsoft's success was based on skill or luck).

There is an election coming up for a vacant seat on the Seattle School Board, one that pits a highly competent, well-qualified candidate named Sue Peters against an unqualified, yet well-connected, wealthy woman named Suzanne Estey. Up until a few years ago, our school board was dysfunctional, reeling from financial scandals, a superintendent and who was pushing inferior curricula from which she personally profited, and a chief financial officer who was forced to resign. The new superintendent, supported by the wealthy folks, doubled down on the "reform" agenda, bringing in more high stakes testing, school closures, and heavy-handed control over teachers and principals, but things began to change. From terrific Cliff Mass' blog (from which I normally get my local weather):

Two independent, energetic individuals . . . ran for school board against the stay-the-course incumbents . . . both of whom were supported by the rich folks and the Seattle Times. To the dismay of the establishment, the citizens of Seattle had a different view from theirs: (Sharon) Peaslee and (Marty) McLaren won, and a new activist, inquiring majority was formed . . . Things started to change. Have you noticed there are few new financial scandals? That better decisions are being made in important areas such as adding new schools and transportation? That schools are being given the opportunity to use the best books for their students rather than being forced to use the district choice? A problematic, ideological superintendent Susan Enfield resigned when she saw the independent, questioning new board. And a competent, non-ideological, quiet administrator, Jose Banda, was selected to run the district. Scores have begun to rise and there has been a surge of new students to the district.

This turn-around is a direct result of voters giving independent voices a 4-3 majority on the school board.

Once again, the usual cabal of wealthy people are lining up behind their champion, dropping huge amounts of money by local school board standards in support of their candidate who, as Cliff writes, "has a very thin educational background, apparently limited to tutoring in her son's classroom this year." Oh, and she is a successful business owner (a PR/lobbying/consulting firm apparently) which in the world of wealthy people means she is, by extension, an expert on all things. These wealthy people have produced attack ads, established PACs to allow them to get around legal spending limits, and generally engaged in the kind of nasty, bare-knuckled tactics rarely seen in school board elections.

Sue Peters

In contrast, Sue Peters, "has an extraordinary background for the Seattle School Board. She is one of the founders of the popular Seattle Education Blog, which has been analyzing district policy for years. She is a co-founder of the Seattle Math Coalition and a founding member of Parents Across America, a national education policy organization. She was a member of the district's Superintendent Search Community Focus Group and the Strategic Plan Stakeholder Task force, and has extensively volunteered in the Seattle Schools over the past decade." And she is supported by Diane Ravitch.

If you're a local voter, please click through and read Cliff's entire piece. This is an important moment in the history of our public schools. We finally have things going in the right direction, but wealthy people are threatening to simply purchase our school board out from under us. And please consider donating to Sue Peters' campaign: she is, of course, way behind in fundraising.

Money can't buy love, but it can buy elections if voters don't stay vigilant. This exact thing is happening in your town or city, if it hasn't already. People ask me all the time, how they can effectively push back.  This is one of those ways. We can turn the tide one school board at a time.

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Unknown said...

Interesting. This is the first preschool in Washington like this that I've heard of, but it sounds like a great program that's got it's priorities in exactly the right place. Keep at it, Tom.

Anonymous said...

I ran for election as an underdog this spring and though I didn't win, I met some amazing people and gained a brand new appreciation for my community (which I obviously thought was pretty cool to start with). I can't donate or volunteer (I'm pretty sure donations from Canadians would be frowned upon in your local school board elections, and I live too far away to come down to help out with door-knocking) but if you can pass on my best wishes to Sue, that would be great. And to all those reading this - volunteering to help an independent-minded well-qualified election candidate is one of the best things you can do to make life better in your community. Go for it!