Monday, June 09, 2014

Venture Philanthropy

During the last couple weeks retail giant Walmart and the heirs to the Walmart fortune, the Walton family, have received some well-deserved bad publicity. Walmart itself, a company that turns a profit of some $16 billion a year, is being forced to answer questions about how it treats its starvation wage employees, and especially mothers. In fact, they pay their employees so little that taxpayers, via social services and public assistance, are required to pick up the slack, meaning that our government is subsidizing the world's largest retailer's payroll to the tune of billions a year, and this is without considering the sweetheart real estate, infrastructure, and tax deals Walmart squeezes from municipalities across the country in exchange for the empty promise of those crappy jobs.

As Walmart, the welfare queen corporation, is busy creating a permanent underclass of working poor and sticking taxpayers with the bill, the Walton family, folks who have amassed a combined fortune of some $140 billion, have a reputation for "giving back" as philanthropists, largely based upon the work done by their namesake foundation, the Walton Family Foundation. A new report, however, finds that family members have given virtually nothing to the foundation. In fact, the combined lifetime contributions for Walton family members to their own foundation represents .04 percent of their net worth, a meager amount that gives the lie to their reputation for philanthropy. In other words, the people are as miserly as the corporation that bears their name.

As this news came out last week, many attempted to put it in perspective by comparing that .04 percent to the 36.2 percent given by Bill Gates, presumedly through his own namesake foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here's the thing, I've not dug into the details of everything into which the world's largest "philanthropic" foundation puts its substantial resources, but I do know about how they're doing it with one of their key initiatives, education, and I would hardly call it philanthropy, at least not in the traditional sense of "charitable giving."

What Gates is doing in education is what I like to call "venture philanthropy."

As one of the leaders in corporate-style education "reform," driven by Shock Doctrine tactics and a sweat shop ethic, the Gates Foundation has almost single-handedly paid for the creation and promotion of the controversial Common Core State Standards, spending as much as $2.3 billion. CCSS, for those who don't know, is the hammer that is now being used to compel school districts around the country to comply with Bill Gates' Dickensian vision for education, a vision from which his corporation, Microsoft, stands to profit quite handsomely.

You see, Microsoft has recently entered into a business partnership with Pearson Education, the company that holds a virtual monopoly on high stakes academic testing in the US:

In February, Microsoft joined up with education publisher and technology firm Pearson on a joint Common Core venture. According to a Pearson press release, the project aims "to create a new applications and advance a digital education model" -- with the collaboration's first initiative combining "Pearson's Common Core System of Courses with the groundbreaking capabilities of the Windows 8 touchscreen environment."

That's right, the implementation of Common Core, funded and promoted by Bill Gates under the guise of philanthropy, will now become a major source of income and growth for Microsoft, hence "venture philanthropy." This is just another play to save Microsoft, the slowing rotting carcass of a corporation desperately in need of new profit streams.  If all goes according to plan, that $2.3 billion "philanthropic" investment will return tens of billions in profits to Microsoft, profits that come, like Walmart's subsidies, directly from taxpayers.

It goes wider and deeper, of course. For instance, journalists Nathaniel Mott and David Sirota this week revealed that the Gates Foundation is funding PBS programming designed to "sell" Common Core:

(P)erhaps the most important aspect of Teaching Channel is the "Teaching Channel Presents" series it produces for PBS. The series, currently in its third season, offers hour-long guides to everything from lesson planning to exploring "the many ways Common Core is being integrated into classrooms." The series visits real classrooms to demonstrate the challenges -- and eventual solutions -- teachers will face as they keep pace with the changing standards. It's a bit like the "DIY Channel" for educators, except that it also includes an ideological message promoting a set of standards that have divided teachers and lawmakers around the country. Indeed, as if aiming for a self-fulfilling prophecy, it presents that standards as the presupposed normal rather than controversial policy still being debated.

Walmart and the Walton family receive, deservedly, the disdain of those of us who believe that those who have amassed amazing wealth in our country owe at least a little back, no strings attached. But today's venture philanthropists (or as Mott and Sirota prefer "philanthrocapitalists"), those that we praise, are all about using the pose of "good corporate citizen" to trick us into allowing them to redistribute public funds into their own pockets with absolutely no evidence that their hot house ideas will do anything to improve public education. In fact, if anything, the evidence to date shows that the corporate reform agenda with its standardized tests, standardized curricula, privatization, and union busting, is making our schools worse.

But that's beside the point for these venture philanthropists in their "reformer" disguises. They are not interested in education: they are interested, as they always are, in profit. They seek primarily to "unleash powerful market forces" on our children and schools, the kind of market forces that make billionaires wealthier while leaving employees to survive on food stamps. It's a pretty sick model for our schools.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Doesn't look like education is the most significant area for the foundation when you scan the numbers on this link: