Bill and Melinda Gates.  Eli and Edythe Broad.  Sam and Helen Walton.  Billionaires who made their money through investments or their own businesses, but definitely not through working in the field of public education.  Yet all three of these couples have foundations in their name (Sam & Helen Walton died in 1992 and 2007, respectively) that pump billions of dollars into American education annually.  They grant money to Teach for America & Michelle Rhee, organizations promoting school choice at the expense of public schools, and even individuals looking to start charter schools based on structured criteria determined by the educational philosophy of the foundation.

In short, there are strings attached.

You may not see these names very often (exception being Gates), but these are the Educational Reformers in our country.  These foundations are shaping the public debate surrounding education in our country through their selective funding of initiatives that they deem acceptable.

In 2011 alone, the Walton Family Foundation gave over $130 Million in funding to charter school & school choice organizations across the U.S. under the category “2011 Education Reform Grants.”

The Broad Foundation also supports national charter school organizations such as Green Dot and KIPP with major financial support, while promoting the controversial charter school movie Waiting for Superman, the film that Michelle Rhee brought to Ohio as part of a nationwide tour last year.

The Gates Foundation has the largest pocketbook and regularly pays out to charter schools and “education research” institutes that produce reports that Gates himself is then able to use his considerable financial influence to peddle his wares all the way to the highest levels of education — U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who referred to a Gates funded report as “The Bible” on school turnaround and has subsequently appointed no fewer than five people who used to work for Gates Foundation or Gates-funded organizations.  (The Gates Foundation was also in the news for giving ALEC $376,635 in funding in 2011.)

More on Arne Duncan from the Broad Foundation’s annual report where he was on the Board of Directors in 2008:

Prior to becoming U.S. secretary of education, Arne Duncan was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he hosted 23 Broad Residents. Duncan now has five Broad Residents and alumni working with him in the U.S. Department of Education.

At the National Education Association’s annual conference (I attended it this week), the topic of these education reformers (including the much-despised Duncan) inevitably comes up in conversation — conversations that usually goes in one direction: they need to keep their privately controlled funding out of the public education arena because they are unqualified to provide the right direction.

And I typically agree with most of that sentiment, except that I’m all in favor of them getting involved and I think we should all be supportive of their independent choices as philanthropists to direct funds to education.  Furthermore, instead of being less involved with their work, we need to somehow become MORE involved with America’s Education Reformers.

Think about it this way — the problem isn’t that they are in the top 1%, nor that they are using their wealth-driven power to impact educational decisions.  No, the problem lies in their lack of practical experience in the classroom, dearth of comprehension of school operations, and apparent disinterest in collaborating with professional educators in public schools who can’t afford to purchase a seat in their exclusive social club.  They simply don’t know enough about education to make the best decisions.

Is it naive to think they would listen our advice?  Probably, but no more naive than believing our protests will cause them to halt their current work.

In Ohio, this translates to our work with elected legislators.  We may not have access to the national reform movement directly, but we can talk to our local politicians.  In Ohio, the Education Reformers are Republicans on the House and Senate Education Committees, and Democrats from the Cleveland Area who sponsored the “reformist” Cleveland Plan.  We also have a less-accessible Governor and education director whose policies mirror the national direction influenced by the wealthy foundations.

When I provided testimony to the House Education Committee last March about Senate Bill 5, I was truly convinced that some of the items included in the legislation existed because no one understood that they were irrelevant and/or unnecessary.  Essentially, I just figured they were ignorant about some education-related issues and I was going to inform them so that they could correct the bill.  And I was right — they were ignorant.  But sadly, the fact that I was a union teacher prevented them from being able to legitimately consider the validity of the information I was sharing with them.  They aren’t educators, nor did they know me, and that gap was too wide to close in such a short time frame.

Had I/we been in closer contact with these individuals over time, could I have convinced them that what I said was true?  Maybe, maybe not.  But the continuing gap between educators and education reformers seems to be growing ever wider as the power is consolidated on one side.  Educators need to bridge that gap and talk to our reformers by doing what we do best — teach.

We need to appreciate the fact the education is a hot topic of discussion in our world today as it gives us a ready platform on which to share our experiences with our communities.  As educators, we want our schools and children to be more successful every single day.  And while being under a microscope is exceedingly stressful, the truth that we know what we are doing and have outstanding ideas for how we could improve our environment needs to be laid bare for all to consider, not hidden for fear of reprisal.

I am not a believer of conspiracy theories and I don’t believe that any of these reformers or elected officials have some grand plan to dismantle an entire school system — most are too self-centered for something that large-scale.  Ohio’s legislator’s simply don’t know what to do and are following the recommendations of their friends (and funding sources).  They are fearful of being exposed as not knowing enough details about something so vital to the future of our communities.  They are also afraid of teachers because they don’t understand how someone would seek out such a confusing and unpredictable career without the lure of financial incentive — “normal” people don’t act that way, you know.

We invite them to bring the money along with thoughtful reform ideas, but empower the teachers, schools, & districts to implement changes that are practical and meaningful for the particular areas of improvement that are needed.

In other words, cut the strings.

We need to find these reformers and bring them close to us.  We need to teach them about who we are, what we do, and what the world of education truly looks like.  We need to be honest about our flaws and brag about our strengths (it won’t kill you).  We need to be thoughtful about the “reforms” that we might support and describe them with clarity, and we need to clearly articulate the “reforms” that are dragging education down and why.  While we may typically think of this as targeting Republicans as we often have Democrat support (except Cleveland), we must extend our reach to all so that our supporters may become better-informed and stronger advocates for public education.

Above all, you need to find that calm, indoor voice that you use during parent conferences. And in that even tone, you must speak up.

Speak up as a supporter of public education.

Speak up to your local representative and senator.

Speak up as a public school teacher.

Speak up and be proud of YOU.