Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”
“Education Reform” is a rising star: once Ms. Reform was all but ignored, featured in arcane reports presented in monotone at heavily acronymed academic conferences; now, she struts down the red carpet in Dolce & Gabbanna at awards shows, billionaire tech entrepreneur sidled on her arm, waving at the cameras with a poised grace.
Ms. Reform made her big-screen debut in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting For Superman, where Oprah – and thus the entire corporate media – deemed her a rising starlet; then she made her first feature length appearance alongside Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake in the comedy Bad Teacher, which showed her lighter side; the next year, to deepen her range, she appeared with Academy Award winner Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhall in the drama Won’t Back Down. All along the way, she’s made countless appearances in corporate and even public television, promoted by our countries’ most influential, wealthy and powerful, from soul singer John Legend, to billionaire Bill Gates, and onto our President, Barack Obama.[i]
Ms. Reform is the Marilyn Monroe of domestic policy. The corporate media – and the President himself – can’t get enough of her.
It’s no surprise she’s become famous. Ms. Reform is sexy and seductive, especially to the powerful: she looks like a philanthropist – kind and nurturing, committed to helping the poor, forgotten black and brown children in the inner-cities. Who in their right mind could be against her plans to help our children – especially our most vulnerable and least privileged – have a fair shot in life? But inside – a side she never shows the camera, and when she does, it’s Photoshopped – Ms.Reform is a cutthroat businesswoman: she’s read Ronald Reagan’s economic advisor Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom from cover to cover, she has complete faith in “free enterprise,” she’s never heard of John Dewey nor deigned to teach a day in her life, and boy, does she friggin’ hate unions. In short, Ms. Reform appeals not just to the bleeding heart social justice Obamaites, but also, to venture capitalists that think Obama is fomenting a socialist take-over of America. The only surprise is that she didn’t become famous sooner.
Now, Ms. Reform is starring once again, this time, along (another) Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey in the NetFlix original series House of Cards, which explores the sordid underbelly of Washington politics. The protagonist Congressman Frank Underwood – who has no allegiance but to his own power – takes on the education reform bill for the new President, one which looks strikingly similar to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top: the bill increases charter schools, and ties test scores to teacher evaluation, echoing the corporate style, free enterprise reforms both bills have implemented. And of course, as is always the case, Ms. Reform is cast as heroine – and the unions, at best obstructionist and only interested in the needs of the teachers, and not the children (To be fair, though, it’s clear that the real villain in the show is not the unions, but Underwood himself – and as Underwood is supporting the bill, it might cast a negative light on the policies to some viewers).
While many have written eloquently about Ms. Reform’s role in House of Cards, it appears as if few reporters (if any) have looked behind the scenes. NetFlix CEO Reed Hastings is the current billionaire techie courting Ms. Reform, as Forbes reports:
Hastings puts prodigious action behind his education projections. In addition to his Netflix day job and presence on the boards of Microsoft and Facebook, the former President of the California State Board of Education is a lead investor in adaptive learning provider Dreambox. He also serves on the boards of the Kipp Charter School and the Rocketship Charter School networks, as well as the nonprofit Charter School Growth Fund, which invests in innovative charter school networks.[ii]
To be clear, Ms.Reform’s on-screen portrayal mirrors Hasting’s values and his hefty investments. Hastings – who objectifies and commodifies education by characterizing it as business “space,” devoid of humanity – is invested both in for-profit, non-profit, and lobbying efforts that push for the very reforms reflected in House of Cards.
Is this just a happy coincidence?
Perhaps. I can find no evidence at this point that shows a direct link between Hasting’s values, investments and Ms. Reform’s prominent role in House of Cards: he has no production nor writing credit. The playwright who developed the show, Beau Willimon, claimed that he “hinged the plot on education because it affects us all directly and indirectly, and because of the contention that often revolves around education reform.” (See Ed Week’s review for more details). Hastings did, however, bankroll the House of Cards at $100 million dollars – considered an enormous sum – which begs the question: did he ensure Ms. Reform got the part?
Even if Hastings didn’t explicitly use House of Cards to promote his education agenda and business interests, it’s clear that the huge investments made by him, and other Billionaire Boys, have transformed Ms. Reform into a household name: she is the zeitgeist, a part of our cultural subconscious, the background noise of popular culture and thus, popular thinking.
When will Ms. Reform’s star fall?
When will the Billionaire Boys’ House of Cards crumble?
[i] For much more, see my two-year study of corporate media coverage on education reform: Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
[ii] See my investigation into Rocketship, its billionaire backers, and uncritical media coverage: A Model T-Education: Public Schooling on the Assembly Line and A Retro-Rocketship to the Future.