Feature: From the School House

Digital Bootstraps for Analog Problems

Author: Cynthia Liu
Published: December 14, 2011 at 7:06 am

A truly clueless if well-intentioned column by Gene Marks titled “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” in Forbes magazine is getting righteously ripped from journalists all around the web. They’re correctly pointing out how bereft Marks’ column is of history, research, practical awareness, racial sensitivity, or the sheer realities of hunger or even homelessness that low-income children face. Marks seems to suggest that kids from impoverished backgrounds – all too many of whom are African American – can simply access computers and lift themselves up by their digital bootstraps to use free websites to enter elite prep schools or colleges. Maybe a handful of motivated kids will manage a heroic feat like that despite all the odds, but is this going to work for the majority of poor kids?

And here’s exactly what’s wrong with Marks’ perspective and why it’s indicative of a 1% mentality among billionaire education philanthropists (Silicon Valley included) that results in failure to truly invest in public schools, despite those same businesses relying on a highly skilled and educated workforce: solutions lie in privatization — individuals hands on individual (digital) bootstraps.

But also privatization of another kind: web-assisted businesses that hollow out the public school system and see it as nothing but a lucrative market. Marks’ list of ed-tech resources is lengthy and a roll call of ideas, good and bad, to bring education into the computer age. But as recent article after article has pointed out, online education companies hawking virtual schooling are providing low quality schooling to at-risk kids with no accountability, and at the same time siphoning off public money intended for neighborhood schools on the corner. Billionaire philanthropists thwart democratic decision-making about taxpayer priorities by using string-laden foundation donations as a form of education policy, instead of those same businesses or their owners paying taxes to fund public education. For example, in Seattle, titans of Microsoft corporation donated to groups that swatted down a 2010 ballot initiative to tax millionaire incomes that would’ve funded public schools in Washington state.

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Article Author: Cynthia Liu

Cynthia Liu writes on education and social justice at K12NewsNetwork.com. She has a PhD in literature and an MA in Creative Writing from UC Berkeley, graduated from Cornell University, and taught at the college level for six years before leaving academia. …

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