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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Our Benevolent Corporate Benefactors

Or: Margaret Atwood is from the future.

December 7, 2017
 
 

 

 

We may need to start coming to grips with the possibility that Canadian literary treasure Margaret Atwood has been sent from the future.

The links between Trump Administration policies regarding women’s reproductive health and Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale have already been thoroughly bandied about the culture. 

But it was another Atwood novel I thought of last week when reading news of a $43 million “public”[1] high school on the Oracle campus in Redwood Shores, California. 

Published in 2003, Oryx and Crake is the first of what would become the “MaddAddam Trilogy” and is set in a world whose environment has been destroyed by catastrophic climate change brought about by unchecked corporate power, which has simultaneously led to intractable social inequality.

In Oryx and Crake, the only places of shelter are corporation-controlled compounds, which exist as extreme versions of gated communities where loyalty and dedication to the corporation – including a willingness to be subjected to genetic experimentation - is required for continuing protection.

(In Oryx and Crake the compounds are properly referred to in the past tense since even these have been wiped out by a runaway plague.)

At first glance, the Design Tech High School at Oracle’s campus seems like an unalloyed good. Bright, shiny, high tech, and modeled after Silicon Valley corporate architecture rather than the drab institutional style of traditional schools, being located on a corporate campus allows students hand-on experience and mentorship in “skills like business plan development and user-experience design.” Students were involved in the initial design of the Oracle campus, and students will maintain intellectual property rights to anything designed by students.

The school has an independent board and Oracle says they play no role in hiring or curriculum. Ken Montgomery, co-founder and executive director of Design Tech H.S. acknowledged concerns of corporate influence to the New York Times, stressing the school’s autonomy and declaring “We are not just training kids to be Oracle employees or just using Oracle products.”

Let us imagine that Design Tech High School is every bit as wondrous as it seems and Oracle is every bit as benevolent in its intentions of treating the school as “pure philanthropy,” is it possible we should still have some cause for worry?

I think so. I think there is a potential cost to housing ostensibly public institutions inside of corporate campuses. I don’t know that the consequences are Oryx and Crake level, but I also know there is no mechanism which requires Oracle to continue to view Design Tech as pure philanthropy. I know there is no mechanism which couldn’t prevent a shift in policy from students maintaining the intellectual property rights to their ideas to those ideas being partially or wholly owned by Oracle. When the school is dependent on Oracle’s pure philanthropy to exist, they won’t have much choice if that pure philanthropy becomes impure.

As public charter schools rise, they will supplant traditional public schools. This goal has been made explicit by people in the public charter sector, such as Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy schools, which encompasses 46 schools serving over 15,000 students, making it significantly larger than many stand alone school districts. 

David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute (described as the home of “New Democrats” during the Clinton years) and author of Reinventing America’s Schools views public charters as the public schools of the future, his vision described by Elizabeth Green in The Atlantic as, “the spread of charter schools as the shedding of an antiquated bureaucratic skin.” This movement believes they are improving on public schools and acting for the benefit of students.

I take them as sincere, but  this makes me worry even more.

These public charters are significantly bolstered by private largesse, Oracle’s “pure philanthropy” in the case of Design Tech, and people who are described by Green as “nice billionaires” in the case of Success Academies.

We should be considering what might be lost in this transition. Success Academies boasts of its significantly higher standardized test scores, but those scores are achieved through explicitly authoritarian policies that from my view look to be a nightmare when considering aspects of childhood development that go beyond doing well on standardized tests. Consider this kicker to Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile of Moskowitz and Success Academies. 

 

And in the case of Oracle and Design Tech, imagine a system where the only schools one can find with sufficient resources comes yoked to a corporation. What about the children who do not live near these benevolent corporations? What happens to them as funds are drained from the public system?

Remember Google’s original motto, “Don’t be evil”? They dropped it in 2015, not because they suddenly wanted to do evil but to change their message to “Do the right thing.” Success Academies justifies their authoritarian practices as the right thing because they help raise test scores. They also wash out high numbers of students in the name of doing the right thing by the students they retain. Is this the right thing? Eva Moskowitz thinks so, and she's pushing for a system where she's largely unaccountable to anyone who may differ in that calculation.

The Google motto is bullshit in either formulation, as Google and the people who it consists of have always been capable of evil. Certainly Google products are quite easily utilized by people intent on doing evil with what often seems to be minimal concern from Google.

When power and money is concentrated and those of us without sufficient quantities of either are forced to find shelter from those who do, the very core of democracy is threatened. We do not need to read future dystopias to experience this reality because we are living it in the form of a historically unpopular tax bill pushed through to explicitly placate the Republican donor class at the expense of just about everyone else. 

It’s not fun to be a Negative Ned, but sometimes I worry we’re just not paying sufficient attention.

 

 

 

 

[1] I have put public in quotes because the Design Tech High School is a charter school, not a version of the neighborhood public school. My personally preferred nominclature for this category would be “taxpayer supported” school. 

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