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When Mike Bloomberg has an opinion, the country, often the world, takes notice, because that opinion is usually accompanied by massive sums of money. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal opened its pages so the billionaire could announce a $750 million gift to the charter school movement.

The announcement is not a big surprise, as he’s supported charter schools since his days as the mayor of New York City, as he pointed out in his op-ed. Bloomberg, who first made his money in Wall Street analytics and expanded it through his sprawling media company, is now one of the richest men in the world. Bloomberg Philanthropies supports many causes, including public health, climate and the environment, government innovation, arts and culture, and education. He’s also become known for making such huge commitments to his chosen causes.

What was a little surprising was the scorching assault Bloomberg unleashed on traditional public schools (charter schools receive public funding but are not overseen by public school districts). He started his WSJ piece by stating flatly that “American public education is broken.” He then went on to decry school closures and problems with remote learning during the pandemic, along with teachers unions and lagging test scores.

For Bloomberg, charter schools are the answer. He calls them a “proven alternative” to traditional public schools. His vision is ambitious: “We need a new, stronger model of public education that is based on evidence, centered on children, and built around achievement, excellence and accountability for all,” he wrote.

Charter champion

Under the new initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies will provide $750 million over five years, “to create seats for 150,000 more children in 20 metro areas across the country,” according to the press release. The initiative will include grants for top-performing charter schools, seed funding for new charter schools, resources to build and improve charter facilities, and support for charter school teachers and leaders of color. It will target schools “whose student populations have been deeply impacted by the pandemic and where, on average, more than 80% of students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and more than 90% are children of color.”

Bloomberg’s announcement sparked strong reactions from both sides of the charter school debate—a fierce battlefield where wealthy philanthropists have been acting as generals for many years, usually in favor. Charter leaders understandably celebrated the initiative, and Mike Petrilli, who heads the conservative Fordham Institute, called the effort “potentially transformative” in The 74.

But Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, disputed the claim that charter schools did a better job serving students during the pandemic, according to EducationWeek. And in a statement to the Washington Post, Burris said she is “shocked that [Bloomberg] would use the tragedy of COVID to further what has been his long-held agenda, which is to replace public schools with charter schools.”

In fact, charter schools, which had seen a drop in popularity in recent years, appear to have gained a boost during the pandemic. While traditional public schools lost enrollment, charters increased enrollment by 7% from 2019-20 to 2020-21, according to a report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Some of that jump in enrollment was for virtual charter schools, however, as the Washington Post reported. (Many charter advocates are critical of virtual charters, and the Bloomberg press release specifies that the new funds will not be awarded to “fully virtual charters.”)

It’s too early to say whether this bump in enthusiasm for charter schools will persist post-pandemic, since this approach has lost the backing of Democrats in recent years, and many Republicans have shifted their support to state school voucher initiatives, as IP has reported. For a while now, it has seemed as though the promise of charter schools as a tool to revolutionize public education was losing some of its luster. Bloomberg’s gift is sure to give the charter movement a welcome boost.

Billionaires and their money

Charter champion or not, Bloomberg’s wholesale attack on public schools for their performance during the pandemic seems unfair, and even a little mean. Few people saw the pandemic coming, and teachers, administrators, students and parents had to scramble toward remote learning virtually overnight. Everyone faced technical challenges, and, at least at first, many public schools and the families they serve lacked the resources to make remote learning work. It was a difficult, often chaotic transition, and countless teachers and school administrators made heroic efforts to serve their students as best they could.

“The pandemic was a once-in-a-century public health crisis,” Jack Schneider, an education historian and author of “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” told me. “Did public schools respond the way Mike Bloomberg thought they should? Maybe not in all cases. There are 100,000 schools out there, and I’m sure there are examples of individual school districts and individual schools that bungled it. But I don’t see him playing fair and citing examples of the incredible planning and resiliency that many public schools demonstrated. And I don’t see him bringing the same critical lens to the performance of private or charter schools.”

In other words, there are a lot of great charter, private and district schools out there, and they did their best in a tough situation. And some in all categories could have performed better. More broadly, research has found that many charter schools show impressive student outcomes, particularly urban charter schools serving a high number of students of color. But there is a huge range in charter school quality. The research about student outcomes is mixed, but overall, charter students seem to perform about the same as their peers in traditional public schools. But Bloomberg chose only to blame government and unions for education failures caused by an unprecedented pandemic.

Of course, it’s not the first or last time we’ll see a dubious opinion piece on education in the Wall Street Journal. But because of his enormous wealth, Mike Bloomberg’s opinion holds far more weight than those of the vast majority of Americans, and it carries with it massive implications for our schools.

In that sense, Bloomberg’s latest initiative underscores the larger problem of billionaires, their money and how they choose to disburse it. Bloomberg is worth $70 billion, and is No. 10 on Forbes list of the richest people in America in 2021. To be fair, the causes he generously supports are some of the biggest of our time—tough issues like climate, gun safety, the opioid crisis, and, more recently, generational poverty, through the Greenwood Initiative. But fortunes of that size and scale induce a sort of vertigo, and the combination of his outsized platform and game-changing grantmaking has a way of steering action on any number of critical issues in a direction Mike Bloomberg prefers. We’ve seen this tremendous influence unfold in many arenas, outlined in great detail in a 2020 New York Times investigation. To see his latest move to undermine traditional public education so aggressively is especially troubling.

Bloomberg is far from the only billionaire exercising such influence. His wealth is now overshadowed by a growing list of other apex donors like Jeff Bezos (No. 1 on the Forbes list with $202 billion) and Mark Zuckerberg (No. 3, with $134 billion). Should Mike Bloomberg, or any other billionaire for that matter, have the right to shape our education system, or any other sector of our society?

“As a nation, we decided to fund our schools with taxpayer dollars, because the schools serve all of us,” Schneider told me. “They belong to all of us. And we all benefit, even if we don’t have kids in school. We’re all in this together. And when you think about it that way, it seems weird that one person—just by virtue of the fact that he is a mega-billionaire—would get more of a vote than the rest of us. It’s framed as a gift, but it’s actually an incredible overreach.”

Which raises the question, once again, of why our system allows and even encourages this kind of overreach. Instead of permitting billionaires outsized influence because of their wealth, why not tax them at a fair and equitable rate so the rest of us, as citizens and taxpayers, can decide what kind of education system—and country—we want?

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