The man who runs Netflix once headed California’s School Board. The pandemic shows we were wrong to drive him out

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Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, delivers a keynote address at the 2016 CES trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 6, 2016. Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters.

A decade and-a-half ago, a relatively obscure tech entrepreneur with a passion for education reform was rejected for a second term as head of the California School Board over his support for charter schools and other positions. That person was Reed Hastings, who has gone on to revolutionize the entertainment world as the leader of Netflix. Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews was among those who dismissed Hastings as a billionaire interloper whose ideas would not serve all students. But after a year of being forced to manage his three boys’ online education, Mathews regrets taking that view, and he says the state should as well.

Read Mathews’ column below:

After long days assisting my children with distance learning’s miseries, I watch Netflix. And I often think about a 2005 State Senate hearing and its enduring impact on California education.

The hearing’s subject was the reappointment of Reed Hastings as president of the State Board of Education. Hastings, an entrepreneur and Democratic donor from Santa Cruz, had organized a successful ballot measure to make it easier to pass school bonds, launching a wave of school construction. He’d supported the state’s accountability system for schools, and backed public charter schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Hastings also had bipartisan support — appointed four years earlier by Democrat Gray Davis, he was nominated for re-appointment by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the hearing went sideways. Some didn’t like his blunt advocacy. Bilingual educators complained that he had pushed too much English instruction time for English-language learners. The committee deadlocked, 2-2, blocking his reappointment.  

This unexpected result briefly made headlines. But Hastings didn’t fight back. After all, he still had his day job running a DVD subscription service — Netflix.

Now, with school systems in crisis and Netflix an entertainment giant, it’s worth pondering what would have happened if this Battle of Hastings had gone differently.

In retrospect, the 2005 rejection of a leading Democratic school reformer looks like the beginning of a retrenchment in California’s educational ambitions. 

Over the past 15 years, state leaders turned hard against educational reforms. They obsessively opposed public charter schools and specialized programs, stymied technological alternatives to classrooms, and replaced the testing-based accountability system with a confounding color-coded system of measures that obscure our students’ academic stagnation. 

Even while creating a new funding formula for poor schools, Gov. Jerry Brown said that ending the achievement gap in student performance was impossible. The state boosted school funding during the 2010s, but the new money was gobbled up more by retirement benefits than students. 

Today enrollment is down, and schools are closing. 

Since 2005, Hastings remained involved in education. He supported Rocketship schools, charters which tried to grow fast and integrate technology, as well as the online Khan Academy and DreamBox Learning, which develops online math lessons. 

His efforts drew criticism. So did his public statements arguing that elected school boards, and the politics and turnover they bring, prevent schools from achieving stable management and educational improvement. He argued that streaming technologies and data collection could personalize education for kids. In California, he also kept funding progressive causes (including criminal justice reform) and Democratic candidates who fought for school reform (and usually lost to union-backed opponents).

For his trouble, he was often dismissed, by unions and media (including your columnist), as another billionaire pursuing tech-friendly educational reforms that wouldn’t serve all students. 

Then the pandemic hit. And Hastings’ future-oriented vision made more sense.

When California schools shut down, they didn’t have their own online platforms. The only things that worked were tech systems like the ones that Hastings had funded. (My own kids did their math on DreamBox.) School districts lost track of their neediest students, in part because California never built the extensive data systems that education reformers had advocated. Parents, feeling abandoned by closed neighborhood schools, searched desperately for alternative educational arrangements — of the kind Hastings had supported. 

Without a real system of accountability like the one California had junked, we can only guess how much learning children have lost. And, recently, San Francisco began a relentless campaign to prove, all by itself, that Hastings had been right to dismiss local school boards as pointless.

Silicon Valley hasn’t invented a time machine, so we’ll never know what would have happened if we returned to 2005 and reversed that decision to cast off Hastings and what he represented. But we do know that the school must transform themselves now. 

Recovery from pandemic learning loss requires transformation. The system needs reliable technological alternatives, and more choices to fit students. And school campuses must be made safer, so they can remain open no matter what new disasters the 21st-century throws at us.

To achieve such transformations, California needs its most creative, ambitious reformers back inside the educational system.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Joe Mathews