Recently, talk show host Oprah Winfrey focused on “America’s Education Crisis.” Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder, and his wife, Melinda, were guests. Stand Up is their national campaign to improve education for youth.
Does Oprah know that the $27 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also gave $4 million dollars to the Sacramento City Unified School District for “educational reform?”
For the context of this donation we turn to the district’s Sacramento High School. There, students, scores on standardized tests were low.
Officially, such exams are the best measure of what modern education can provide to the nation,s youth. Crucially, the SCUSD had taken state funds to improve SHS students, test scores. Subsequently, the scores lacked the desired improvement.
SHS risked becoming a “failed school.” Later to avoid state sanctions, the district decided to close SHS, located in the low-income, largely nonwhite neighborhood of Oak Park.
Against that backdrop, Starbucks Corp. and inflated home prices are sprouting in this gentrifying area.
Meet former NBA star Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns, a SHS grad, and a guest on Oprah’s recent show. Retired from pro hoops, he was tapped to improve the education of SHS students, heading up the St. Hope Development Corporation. SHS was re-opened by KJ’s corporation, which has run it as a charter school, praised on the Winfrey show.
Significantly, many SHS parents and labor union members opposed the school’s privatization. Parents formed the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education. Some SHS teachers did not want to work without a union contract for a corporation.
Legitimizing the drive to privatize SHS was The Sacramento Bee, the city,s one daily paper for over a decade. The McClatchy Co. publishes The Bee. The Sacramento-based publisher is also the pending buyer of Knight Ridder Inc., the 12 union papers of which are on the selling block.
KJ’s corporation, in the context of “seed money” taken by the SCUSD from the Gates Foundation, took over a public high school and weakened labor unions. In the language of the market, non-union labor is more “flexible,” making it is easier for bosses to fire workers. This flexibility also weakens the political power of teachers’ unions.
Oprah’s recent two-part “special report” on the crisis in U.S. public schools included this gem: “I’ve often said that I believe that education is freedom.” Presumably, this includes freedom for billionaires to shape school reform as they see fit. But freeing public education by turning it over to corporations is no freedom at all.
SETH SANDRONSKY is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org