Monday, October 22, 2012

Ingram uses charity as a weapon, and the casualties are likely to be children

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce is now threatening the Metro Nashville Public Schools for denying a charter school. While in my opinion charter schools are usually about class warfare (or at least about class "police action"), the latest Chamber behavior seems to me to ratchet the clash to a visceral level of "shock and awe". Why? Because the gilded blueblood who penned a letter to MNPS on behalf of the Chamber threw down his own personal philanthropic weight:

Ingram elite
The chamber, a key partner with Metro schools that had previously stayed out of the feud, characterized the board’s “mishandling” of its fiduciary responsibility as “especially galling” for those in the business community who have advocated for tax increases to “fully fund” the district's budget.

“...ultimately the accountability for the school system resides with the Metropolitan Board of Education,” reads the letter, penned by businessman Orrin Ingram, who chairs the chamber’s Education 2020 program.

“Accordingly, the school board is responsible for the restoration of the $3.4 million to MNPS from the state in a way that does not waste further effort and taxpayer money.”

Ingram, an affluent philanthropist and CEO of Ingram Industries Inc., concludes with a pointed handwritten note to school board chair Cheryl Mayes: “Until this issue is resolved and the $3.4 million is reinstated, my time, money and support will stay on the sideline!”

The words “time,” “money,” and “support” are each underlined for emphasis.

We live in a climate where schools have been systematically stripped of public revenues (which increasingly go to subsidize business start-ups and relocations, as well as to underwrite lobby groups like the Nashville Chamber of Commerce) and wealthy philanthropists and private enterprises are asked to take up the slack with voluntary donations under the auspices of "public-private partnerships". The Chamber's volley across the public school bow shows the real risk of these partnerships: delivery of underfunded public education to Nashville's children is threatened by the withholding of private donations that those children have come to depend on.

Crossing the line: let the kids eat cake
Given that Nashville public schools are disproportionately working- and lower-class compared to the private schools that Mr. Ingram is now more comfortable supporting, it seems to me that the philanthropist is ramping up class war with his money and power. Whether he cares or not, the public school kids are going to be the casualties of the shots fired. This tirade also exposes the distinct possibility that his charity is a cynical tool for currying influence and leveraging the political ends that he deems beneficial to him and his class.

Such philanthropy belies commitment to Nashville's children; instead, it smacks of venture philanthropy, which is intended to configure the political landscape in one direction and consolidate power in the hands of a few. Ignoring the class dimensions of this threat is to approach it from a sense of denial. MNPS's conflict with the state has spiraled out of control and upset patricians are trying to rein in a popularly-elected, spit-the-bit board, even if kids fall.

Charter schools cinch permanent underclasses who receive something akin to vocational education. "Creaming" (or skimming the best performers off the top of traditional schools for charter schools) along with Nashville's Chamber-influenced founding of "Academies" provide the assist.

Then, the kicker: middle-class charter schools like Great Hearts calcify class stratification and provide one more barrier between the elite, concentrated power of Nashville's wealthy and the unwashed masses. That is essentially what aristocrats like Orrin Ingram defend by threatening to withdraw charity from Nashville public schools. Most pathetically, the gentry are willing to use public school children as pawns, essentially re-victimizing them to get what they want.

The state victimized the kids once by withdrawing $3.4 million. Nashville's elite follows by flexing its muscles, and it victimizes them again by withholding private donations until MNPS backs off its defiance of the state. It is merely the dark side of the public-private partnership: a sinister expression of the union we want to believe is benign, benevolent, and beneficial. We should rethink our assumptions.


  1. We agree that when you take someone's money, you owe them.

    I don't know how much time, money, and support Orrin Ingram has given MNPS, but he has every right - nay, every obligation - to see that the stewardship of his donations (money and otherwise) is acting in a manner consistent with his expectations.

    One may disagree with Orrin Ingram and the Chamber of Commerce on their view of how MNPS should be operated. One shouldn't castigate them for following-through on trying to see that their vision is implemented.

    Withholding charity is not sinister. Those who receive (this particular kind of) charity have no right to it.

    That said, I wouldn't be unhappy if the school board shot up the middle finger at Chamber of Commerce.

    There's an editorial by Will Pinkston that suggests MNPS can just suck up the deficit, noting that it is only $45 per student. Which of course, raises the question - if you can do without $3 million when under pressure, why can't you hold the line on spending during regular times.

    1. Totally agree with you Anon! Well said!

  2. I would rather not have the charity if it is going to come the strings attached. No one who has ever walked the hall of a public school has ever said, "nope - schools are getting too much money."

    I take issue with non elected people throwing their weight around. I did not vote for Orrin Ingram, Mark Hill or anyone else on the Chamber of Commerce. I have not voted for anyone on the state school board. One can not even send them a comment or thought about his or her action. I have did not vote for Mr. Huffman, but will be voting on the one person who appointed him when the next Governor term comes around. I did vote on the school board that represents me locally. I believe in that power. I do not believe that anyone appointed person should have the right to supersede the elected position. This is about money and power, not children. The caliber of people who have become involved in this argument are way too powerful and have way too much money for it NOT to be about money. They have paid for their children to get a private school education, this is not about education.

    1. You are driving at a point I intended to make with this post: that the public-private partnership is not unadulterated good or rose-colored benevolence.

      The partnership can be good, but is not pure or ethically neutral good. In today's deregulated, outsourced world it also functions as a "shadow government" that is not accountable to constituents and taxpayers. In the absence of elected accountability the partnerships represent a way for the people with the most money like Orrin Ingram to control the political process and remove obligations to voters from the equation.

      Wealthy philanthropists become plutarchs and oligarchs who donate money with strings, sit on decision-making boards, finance campaigns, and throw their larger influence around. The gray, ethically ambiguous side of public-private partnerships goes unacknoweldged by people predisposed to see evil only in government power, but rarely in corporate money.

      Anonymous #1 above all but concedes that his larger donations ought to lead to the greatest political clout Mr. Ingram can achieve. S/he insists that it is the "obligation" of wealthy individuals to make demands that are backed up by their money. No mention is made of questions of legislation or representation or of the need for checks and balances. If this were only about private charity, then I would not beg to differ. However, public-private partnerships are not merely private charity.

      Hence, the more money a donor has, the more influence over school policy. That is a complete contradiction of democratic process. In such a world school board, education "advocates", city councils and state representatives are more open to the influence of the elite than they are to the priorities of ordinary citzens who pay most of the taxes, utilize most of the urban services, and assume most of the quantifiable risks of public education.

    2. Hi - Anon 1 here -

      With regards to:

      "S/he insists that it is the "obligation" of wealthy individuals to make demands that are backed up by their money"

      If you look at what I wrote, it is different. Anyone who donates/provides money has an obligation to see that the money is used wisely or according to the donor's wishes. There is no obligation to make a "demand," (your word - I wrote "stewardship," "vision" and "expectionas").

      My note that I wouldn't be unhappy if the school board disregarded the Chamber's wishes was meant recognize the issues of representation and legislation. I thought it was clear, but if not: MNPS and our elected officials need to do what is right and what best for those they represent. Sometimes that might mean acceding to the Chamber's wishes; sometimes it might mean going another way. The scale tips heavily on the side of "bad move" when one loses $3.4 million over a technical, debatable issue. Responsible people work things out before it comes to that.


  3. I would like to point out that I attend a prestigious high school and I fully support Orrin Ingram's wish to resign his financial help for the time being. He has a right to see where his money is going and if it is being used appropriately. Secondly, I would like to add that including a picture of Orrin Ingram playing polo/fox hunting is extremely irrelevant to the topic and is only included to express a certain lifestyle he lives. The addition of these photos represent the immaturity of the writer and extremely hurts the argument. Orrin Ingram is donating money and putting time into a cause that he has no need to even think about considering his children do not attend public schools. Why can't we just come to terms and understand that we need to thank people for their donations and not criticize them?

    Lastly, I would like to add that I am a sixteen year old girl who finds this article to contain a poor argument and I hope people can read between the junk that is written and see that Orrin Ingram has not crossed any lines in any way.

  4. Dear 16-year old girl:

    I commend you for being able to read. Also, for your interest in the subject.

    However, don't be so sure of yourself. Consider that other people come by their views honestly.

    Regarding your thoughts:

    Your prestigious high school means nothing here, not even for context. All you have here are the 200+ words you wrote; nothing else matters.

    Ingram does have a right to see where his money is going. We agree.

    The polo picture is fine. It conveys elitism. Are you suggesting the subject of the article is not part of the elite? This is a blog, not a phd dissertation. I don't think "immaturity" is the appropriate word you needed.

    You miss the point of the post: Money *with strings attached* is what is being criticized.

    You also miss a point of life: No one is above genuine criticism, no matter what station in life they come from, whether it be the polo fields, a prestigious high school (ahem!), or a married guy raising a family and trying to make ends meet. Money does not give you license to go about your business without scrutiny.

    Regarding your summation: With such an amorphorous standard as "cross(ing) any lines," how can you be sure what's been crossed and what's not been crossed? There's no definition to that. Reasonable people can disagree.

    Anyway, better for you to read this than texting selfies with your friends.

    What's your relationship to the Ingram family, anyway?