Locally Situated Networks: Contextualizing Place-Based Neoliberalism (Day 4)
Parental activism in education reform, while often portrayed as an exemplary manifestation of participatory democracy and grassroots action in response to entrenched corporate and bureaucratic interests, has in the neoliberal era actually been carefully cultivated and channeled through strategic networks of philanthropic funding and knowledge. Private philanthropic organizations in Hawai‘i have actively cultivated ‘astro-turf’ parental activism, masking private financial sponsorship of a strong ‘cheerleaders for educational reform’ message to give the appearance of it coming from disinterested, grassroots participants. Although it is difficult to get a clear sense of the ways in which philanthropic neoliberal reformers are connected and impact the larger political process, because neither their funding sources nor their activities are publicly detailed, it is clear that there are dense and important interconnections that shape the political process in Hawai‘i.
These nodes of interconnection are also often geographically specific, concentrating political action on a specific complex or district. Castle Foundation, for example, whose executive director Mitchell D’Olier also serves as the President of Kaneohe Ranch, is heavily invested in ‘restructuring’ the Castle complex of schools. With the assistance of the leadership of the Learning Coalition (the most important education non-profit, which will be discussed more fully below), the Castle Foundation created and funded the Castle Complex Community Council (C4), an astro-turf parent-community organization that helped intensify the school restructuring process on the Windward side of Oahu, which described itself as “one of the first to respond to the challenges of change by implementing transformation-effective methods in public education” (Piscolish). The C4 organization described the work of its members, who include “parents, students, community, teachers, non-teaching staff and administrators spanning the preschool to college/career continuum” as “changing the paradigm to provide regular opportunities for dialogue and decision making between all schools and major role groups that partner with a Complex Area Superintendent (CAS) to educate our children” (Ibid).
The C4 acts together to:
• help the CAS and Complex focus on the right work
• lead by motivating others to follow; recommends responsibly vetted and thoughtfully made decisions; and works with School Community Councils (SCCs), parent leaders, students and community partners
• assure access and a voice for everyone invested in and impacted by our schools
• promote positive education news and public understanding of issues 155
• operate transparently and shares accountability for results
• develop leaders and promotes partnerships between schools and the community
• monitor initiatives that shape the Complex
• serve as an Academic Review Team to monitor Complex progress (Ibid).
That which is left unstated is the larger purpose of this organization. Funded by venture philanthropists, these participants act in complicity or without full understanding to deconstruct the public school system, one complex at a time, by design of the originators. This design and vision is shared across the networks of neoliberal educational reformers. Organizations like C4 might describe themselves as “weaving diverse perspectives into a holistic understanding of issues and acting as “critical friends” and voices to the CAS...[with] members’ differences enriching the dialogue... and [t]heir shared commitment to children, schools and community binding them with common purpose,” but the fundamental purpose is to make the schools subservient to the business community and allow leaders of the business community and social and economic elite to come into schools throughout the complex, to “develop leaders and promote ‘partnerships’ between schools and the community, monitor initiatives that shape the Complex, and serve as an Academic Review Team to monitor Complex progress” (Ibid). In 2015, the C4 structure was used to force the principal of the complex high school, Castle High School, to quit, and all of its teachers, to toe the educational reform line. The teachers were threatened with dismissal and required reapplication for their positions, while a new principal whose leadership style and vision aligned with that of the C4, was finally hired. The school complex is no longer even semi- autonomous, existing to provide public education for the children in that complex, but rather is completely subsumed within the particular mission of the corporate elite of that area.
The Learning Coalition operated on both a regionally specific and broader statewide level. As a statewide organization, it provided the invisible support for HE’E, or “Hu’i for Excellence in Education,” an organization that depicts itself as “statewide coalition of diverse stakeholders committed to working collaboratively to identify opportunities to improve public education in Hawai‘i” and “seeks to be the focal point for community and parent engagement while serving as a public resource for educational policy” (HE’E). The origin story of HE‘E, as shared publicly, is fascinating, because the founders, Bill Reeves and Debbie Berger, locate the history of their organization in civil disobedience: the founders claim that HE’E was “formed in May 2010 by parents and community members who stood up and said ‘no’ to school furloughs and ‘yes’ to re-establishing education as a public priority” (HE’E). However, the founders of HE’E have an interesting background in the politics of public education in Hawai‘i. While they publicly date their involvement to the parent resistance against Furlough Fridays of spring 2010, specifically organizing ‘Hawai‘i Education Matters,’ their larger philanthropic organization has been involved with neoliberal educational reform since 2007 with the foundation of The Learning Coalition.
The work of the people involved in venture philanthropy is never far removed from the larger context of the neoliberal movement. Debbie Berger, the director of The Learning Coalition, spent much of her youth in Japan and worked for JP Morgan in New York, Tokyo and London running interest rate derivatives trading books in a broad variety of markets. She then moved to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development where she ran the Client Risk Management Group advising “developing Eastern European countries on how to best manage their financial risks as they moved toward a free market system” (INPEACE, italics added). William H. Reeves, Berger’s husband, is a director and co-founder of BlueCrest Capital Management based in London, which “manages investments for a predominantly institutional investor base across fifteen diverse funds” (Baker). Until April 2000, when he left J.P. Morgan to establish BlueCrest, Mr. Reeves was a Managing Director of the London office and head of macro strategy and trading within the proprietary trading group. The company he runs is predatory and thrives on economic uncertainty: “A multi-strategy fund that makes money betting mostly on currency and interest-rate movements, BlueCrest Capital International has thrived on market turmoil” (Baker).
When Reeves and Berger returned to Hawai‘i and co-founded The Learning Coalition in 2007, the stated goal of which is to “assist Hawai‘i’s public schools by building and strengthening a grassroots movement around their transformation into world class institutions of 21st century learning,” they began in 2008 with an initial grant to Teach for America for $25,000. By 2009, they were offering ‘technical support’ to the neoliberal education reformers within the DOE under the Lingle administration, primarily Kathryn Matayoshi and Ronn Nozoe, identifying and paying a neoliberal educational reform specialist $39,000 to help write the DOE RTTT grant application, as well as dedicating $100,000 (already in 2009) for the 21st Century Schools Project (“Investment”). In 2010, Bill Reeves dedicated more than $400,000 to the campaign nominally run by the ‘Hawai‘i Children First’ organization to remove the Hawai‘i Board of Education from democratic control by supporting a governor-appointed Board of Education (Toguchi).
This effort was intimately connected to the effort to deprofessionalize teaching and undermine the teachers’ union, in that Randy Baldemor, the president of Hawai‘i’s Children First, who solicited these funds from Reeves, was and is married to Jill Baldemor, the executive director of Teach For America in Hawai‘i, who also received hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in untrained young people to fill teaching positions in Hawai‘i from The Learning Coalition, which is run by Reeves’ wife, Debbie Berger. In 2010, the two neoliberal ‘power couples’ also became involved in the Castle complex of public schools in a serious way: between 2010 and 2012, The Learning Coalition ‘invested’ over $120,000.00 in initiatives supporting the Castle Complex Community Council (C4), Teach for America doubled their corps member numbers in Hawai‘i, primarily on the Windward and Leeward coasts, and Randy Baldemor was appointed to various positions within the Abercrombie administration, most recently as Deputy Director of Business Transformation. The ‘seed money’ provided by The Learning Corporation for Hawai‘i’s Children First and Teach for America cannot be considered ‘disinterested’ or ‘altruistic’ gifts: TLC, like all of the other major philanthropic foundations in Hawai‘i, uses these funds to finance projects that they perceive to be ‘levers’ of significant social change that will work in the interest of neoliberal stakeholders. For the stakeholders in these Hawai‘i foundations, the privatization of schools through demolition of the teachers’ union, creation of charter schools and voucher systems, possible when the Board of Education is firmly in the hands of the neoliberal elite, is much more exciting when it is connected to land (see next entry).