When Oprah Winfrey delivered an emotional, inspirational speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday, many viewed it as an introductory address for a possible presidential run.
So what would a President Winfrey look like when it comes to education? As with most policy issues, she hasn’t taken a firm stand — but her background, personal giving, and guests on her show, which aired from 1986 until 2011, all offer clues. Here’s what we know.
She understands racism and poverty in America — and how schools can make a difference.
Growing up impoverished in the South and then Milwaukee, Winfrey endured many of the challenges that disproportionately affect poor children in America, including family instability, teen pregnancy, and frequent school changes. (She was also sexually abused by family members.) She credits a fourth-grade teacher with giving her the intellectual energy to persevere.
“I always, because of you, felt I could take on the world,” Winfrey said in a 1989 special where she honored her favorite teachers. “You did exactly what teachers are supposed to do. They create a spark for learning that lives with you from then on.”
As a teenager, Winfrey did so well at her Milwaukee high school that a teacher decided to help her become one of 16 black students to integrate a high school in an affluent suburb. (She later left that school when her mother decided to send her to Nashville, where she also attended a newly integrated high school.) “It was culture shock for me. It was the first time I realized I was poor,” she said during the 1989 show. “But it made a major difference in my life.”
Those experiences left Winfrey believing in the power of schools to change lives, she has said. “I value nothing more in the world than education,” Winfrey said in 2010. “It is the reason why I can stand here today. It is an open door to freedom.”
She has given to education initiatives that cross partisan divides.
As one of the world’s wealthiest women, with a net worth of nearly $3 billion, Winfrey has directed her giving to a wide array of causes, including education. She has donated to charter schools across the country, participated in a collective to reduce high school dropouts, and funded scholarships for students at historically black colleges.
She even launched a school of her own in South Africa that has sent poor girls to elite universities. For a megastar, Winfrey took an unusually personal role in the school’s development: She handpicked the school’s first class; overhauled the leadership when a sex abuse scandal occurred early on; gave students her personal cell phone number; and took the first graduates shopping for dorm-room decor.
The experience gave Winfrey insights into what kinds of efforts might alter the track of poor students’ lives. “I had worked with other organizations, I had written lots of checks, I had started my own big sister program, where I was taking girls on skiing trips and spending time with them and reading. It doesn’t work,” she said in 2017.
“What works is being able to change the trajectory of somebody’s life where you are literally brainwashing them for the good,” Winfrey added, as she reflected on her school’s first decade. “Because what poverty does is brainwashes you to believe that you are not enough.”
She’s also aligned herself with heavyweights of the ‘education reform’ movement.
Many people treated Winfrey’s enormously popular show as an ideal platform to reach Americans of all races and classes — something that can be especially pressing for education influencers, who are often criticized for imposing their ideas on poor communities.
Toward the end of the show’s run, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg chose it to announce a $100 million gift to overhaul schools in Newark, New Jersey. Also on that episode: then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now U.S. senator. The trio, Winfrey said, “are putting politics aside to help turn around the failing public schools in Newark.”
One of the most education policy-heavy episodes of Winfrey’s show aired in 2010, when Winfrey promoted the documentary “Waiting for Superman” with a special about “the shocking state of our schools.”
The film galvanized support for charter schools, and teachers unions treated it as an attack. Winfrey gave air time to the director, Davis Guggenheim, as well as to philanthropist Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, then the Washington D.C. schools chief who was attracting attention for trying to fire low-performing teachers.
Winfrey called Rhee “a warrior woman” and appeared sympathetic to Rhee’s agenda, at one point asking her, “Why can’t you just fire bad teachers?” But Winfrey also hit some more positive notes.
“Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you — great ones — in this country,” Winfrey said on the show. “So we’re not talking about you if you are a good teacher.”
As part of the episode, Winfrey capped off a round of giving from her Angel Network philanthropy with $1 million awards to six networks of charter schools, which she suggested were making almost superhuman efforts to help their students.
“Imagine this,” Winfrey said. “A school where high school freshmen, reading at a fourth-grade level, can jump ahead five grades in a single school year. Or a school where teachers stay until 11 at night to help children with their homework, and where children say school is like a second family to them.”
Winfrey’s proclivity to promote heroes sometimes resulted in unstable education initiatives getting a boost: One New Orleans charter school that the Oprah Winfrey Network profiled as a promising turnaround effort closed a year later as one of the lowest-performing schools in Louisiana. And Zuckerberg’s Newark donation, which spurred a controversial package of policy changes for Newark schools, had mixed results: Growth in student achievement dropped for three years, but bounced back in years four and five.
Have her views shifted as many in the Democratic party have shifted their education outlook? We don’t know.
Booker’s personal evolution on education issues reflects a broader one within the Democratic party. Early in his career, Booker became known for championing charter schools and sat on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that set out to counter the influence of teachers unions in local elections. But as uneven results and pushback from local communities have racked up, Booker puts less emphasis on the most divisive parts of that agenda. Now, he is more likely to promote pre-kindergarten and criticize Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, than to propose particular policies to improve schools.
That mirrors a broader shift in the education world. Gates, for example, has turned away from funding individual schools and policy initiatives in favor of supporting locally led efforts to improve education.
It’s unclear whether Winfrey is attuned to this shift: Since her show went off the air, Winfrey hasn’t often commented publicly on major matters of public debate, including education issues — although she did endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and expressed disbelief that Donald Trump, like her an entertainer, had been elected instead. (Trump’s nomination, she said at the time, made her feel for the first time “really qualified” to run for office.)
Her speech at the Golden Globes — which focused on empowering women — suggests that Winfrey is ready to be a public influence.
One clue to her general approach could come from the 2010 “Waiting for Superman” special, when Winfrey also underscored that education is a communal challenge, not an individual one.
“Just because your kids are in a good school, because your kids are graduated from school, doesn’t mean that it is not our country’s problem,” Winfrey said. “Our country will suffer if we continue to look the other way.”