Tuesday, May 21, 2013
As Big Money continues to shape public education, it can be hard to keep all the players straight — from wealthy individuals, to foundations, to corporations. Here's your guide.
The way some of them throw around the green stuff, you'd think corporate style education reformers were made of money. Oh, wait. Some of them are. As Big Money plays a bigger and bigger role in shaping public education, it can be hard to keep all the players straight— from wealthy individuals, to foundations, superPACs, astroturf groups and corporations. Here's a handy reference guide:
Some of the wealthiest people on the planet are pouring their money into corporate-style education reform. Some are doing this through foundations (see below) and others are happy to invest their millions in politics to shape policy, or directly into charter schools as money-making investments. Some have a profit motive and others seem more ideologically driven (to privatize public goods, oppose union rights, etc.). One thing all of these folks have in common? Not one is an educator or education researcher. And none of their ideas is based on evidence of what actually works for kids.
• Start here in Pennsylvania with charter school operators like Van Gureghian, Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donor. He makes so much money that he and his wife bought beach front property in Florida worth $28.9million, while he’s been fighting for years to keep his salary a secret. [See “Soaking the Public”]
• Recall that 4 of the top contributors to all political races last fall in our state had ties to charter school operators. Wealth advisors are on record recommending that people add charter schools to their investment portfolios, especially in places like Pennsylvania. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”] Cyber charter schools are particularly lucrative investments, as the public taxpayers are currently over-paying them by $1million every single day. [See “One Million Per Day”]
• How about folks like Philip Anschutz? He’s the oil billionaire with ultra-right politics who owns Walden Media, which made the anti-public school films, “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” He funds groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights, environmental regulations, and union rights. [See “We Won’t Back Down Either”]
• Then there’s New York Mayor Bloomberg, who likes the idea of privatizing schools so much that he put $1million into the Los Angeles school board races last month to try to maintain a corporate-reform minded majority there. Too bad his horse didn’t win. [See “School Boards Matter”]
The “big three” foundation are Gates, Broad, and Walton. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls them the “billionaire boys club,” though each has a slightly different emphasis. And there are others.
• The Gates Foundation is currently funding teacher evaluation systems throughout the country. As I have argued before, not only does this focus on the wrong thing, by avoiding the issue of poverty (or even early childhood education where many agree we might most effectively concentrate our resources), it starts with the faulty assumption that we have a plague of bad teachers. Though the foundation itself has warned that teacher evaluation should not be based solely on high-stakes-testing, this is exactly what is happening all over the country (or in many places, student testing is being used for a large portion of teacher evaluation). The Gates Foundation is so large and distributes so much money that it can essentially set policy through its grant making. And combined with the Great Recession, school districts and other beneficiaries have not been able to say no to the money nor been willing to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes (i.e. that his “reforms” don’t work). Gates has also launched a clever campaign to shift public opinion, by strategically targeting grants to community organizations (for example, over a half-million to A+Schools this year) and astroturf groups (see below) in communities where they are working.
• The Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with “road”)Foundation runs a non-accredited superintendents training program premised on the idea that business executives with no education experience will improve urban school districts. Both the current and former Pittsburgh superintendents are Broad Academy graduates (though Dr. Linda Lane is an educator). The Foundation promotes teacher effectiveness and competition (i.e. charter schools), and drafted President Obama’s current reform strategy. They also literallywrote the book on how to close schools, using Pittsburgh as an example. Eli Broad also continues to spend his personal millions on corporate-reform, putting a half-million into the LA school board races this spring alone. [Los Angeles Times, 4-24-13]
• The Walton Family Foundation derives its money from Wal-Mart and gave $158 million in K-12 education grants last year to promote charter schools and voucher programs. Its current top grantees include Teach for America, which has come under increased scrutiny for its method of placing young college graduates with only a few weeks of training in urban schools with the neediest students, where they stay only two years. (Teach for America, by the way, is looking to set up shop in Pittsburgh and has been making inquiries about hiring a local executive director. Stay tuned.) Here in our state the Walton Family Foundation is also funding the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. And they fund Bellwether Education Partners, the group hired by Pittsburgh Public Schools (through subcontract with FSG) to craft its education plan. [Walton Family Foundation 2012 Grant Report]
• Let’s not overlook the role that other foundations play in education reform. Remember a decade ago when thePittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, andGrable Foundation (the big three education philanthropies in Pittsburgh) yanked their funding from the school district, forcing them to introduce new reforms? [Post-Gazette, 7-10-02] The history books have yet to finish writing that episode – and there were no doubt both positive and negative long-term outcomes – but it illustrates the power that foundations can wield over a school district.
• What about when a venerable old foundation starts behaving badly? Our big sister grassroots group in Philadelphia, Parents United, recently filed a legal complaint against the William Penn Foundation “based on the fact that they had solicited millions of dollars in donations for an exclusive contract” with a consulting group, with an agreed “set of ‘deliverables’ such as identifying 60 schools for closure, mass charter expansion, and unprecedented input into labor and contract negotiations – without the School District of Philadelphia being a party to the contract.” After a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center that concluded the foundation was essentially engaging in illegal lobbying and funneling private donations for the purpose, Parents United joined the Philadelphia Home & School Council, and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in bringing the complaint. [Parents United, 2-14-13]
The Citizens United ruling opened the door to massive spending by corporations in politics and ushered in the era of superPACS. Without spending limits, now we are seeing just how much influence money can buy in politics (where education policy is set).
• Students First PA PAC (not to be confused with Michelle Rhee’s national organization, see below), started in 2010 by three Philadelphia investment brokers to funnel millions into the state races of pro-voucher candidates. Co-founder Joel Greenberg is on the board of the American Federation for Children, a national group run by Betsy DeVos with mega-wealthy (and ultra-right) backers including the Koch brothers, who have used the super PAC to channel their out of state dollars into Pennsylvania politics. [See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”] And Gov. Corbett tapped Joe Watkins, the chairman of Students First PA, to be the Chief Recovery Officer for the struggling Chester Uplands school district last year – a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, since he now has the power to hand those public schools over to charter operators. [See “Taking the Public out of Public Education”]
• Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” last spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC was entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders who started the Students First PA PAC, because apparently one super PAC on your resume is just not enough. And their largest contribution? To Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from Beaver County (site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant) who introduced last year’s voucher-in-disguise EITC tax credit bill. Rep. Christiana also received money from the Walmart PAC. [See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”]
4. Astroturf groups
Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass.
• Operating at the national level are groups such as Michelle Rhee’s Students First. Rhee is best known as the former Chancellor of the D.C. school district where she publicly fired a principal on film as part of her massive school closure effort there. She became well known for supposedly increasing student test scores, but there are now serious questions of large-scale cheating (by adults). Students First promotes her privatization agenda of charters and vouchers as well as merit pay and teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes-testing. The Walton Family Foundation just gave the organization $8 million. [Washington Post, 5-1-13] At the same time, Rhee has been caught inflating the number of members in her organization to make it appear that it has a much broader base of support by using deceptive petitions (for un-objectionable issues such as anti-bullying) on the progressive change.org site to capture the names of unsuspecting new “members.” [DianeRavitch, 8-3-12]
• Parent Revolution practically wrote the book on how to create an astroturf organization. Founded in California by a charter school operator – with major backing from Gates, Broad, and Walton – the group got a “parent trigger law” passed and then hired agents to convince two towns to turn their schools over to the them. But many parents later said they had been purposefully misled and filed lawsuits to try to stop the conversion of their schools to charters. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]
• Closer to home, we learned just last week that the Gates Foundation is backing a new astroturf group here in Pittsburgh. Called Shepherding the Next Generation, the Washington D.C. based organization has been trying to recruit churches – especially in our African American communities – to preach the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation. [See “Astroturf”] Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy. This is not about promoting an authentic community dialogue, but about promoting a specific ideology of school reform.
Perhaps not surprising, corporations control some of the big money at stake in corporate-style education reform. Here are a few to keep your eye on.
• Testing companies have significantly benefitted from the dramatic expansion of testing under No Child Left Behind. Nationally, we are spending $1.7 BILLION a year testing our kids. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] And corporations like Pearson Education, Inc. and McGraw Hill spend millions lobbying state legislatures to keep their products in favor. [Republic Report, 5-4-12] The new national Common Core Standards are also creating a bonanza for companies that make textbooks and assessment materials.
• Pennsylvania has a contract with Data Recognition Corporation. Taxpayers in the Keystone state are footing the bill for average spending of $32.2 million a year on testing students. [Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, report Nov. 2012] That’s a lot of money that is not getting spent on actually educating children.
• Struggling school districts are increasingly turning to hybrid or “blended” learning models to deliver content at least partially on-line as a cost-savings measure. A major 2010 Department of Education review of the literature found that blended-learning does not offer better learning outcomes for students, but it will surely be good for corporate bottom lines. Pearson is promoting its Connections Learning as the solution to schools looking to close their achievement gap and reduce the cost of teachers.
• Finally, don’t forget about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council where corporate members write business-friendly laws and have them introduced word-for-word into state legislatures. In education reform, ALEC promotes the unregulated expansion of charters and vouchers, keeping both unaccountable to the public while taking away control from local democratically elected school board officials. In Pennsylvania, ALEC issued a guide helpfully pointing out how legislators could get around our troublesome constitution, which prevents public money from being spent on religious schools. The Gates Foundation granted $375,000 to ALEC from 2010-2013, before cutting all ties with the organization last spring after becoming the target of an online petition that gathered over 23,000 signatures in just a few hours. [See “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”]
Now that’s a lot of money coming from a lot of sources. It’s helpful to think about the “big tent” metaphor here: there are many Big Money players in this tent, with multiple motivations. Clearly some are driven by profit motive and stand to make a lot of money. Some share ultra-right interests in de-unionization and de-regulation and are happy to push those interests in the field of education. Many others are driven by an ideological agenda of corporate-style education reform. One thing is for sure: all that Big Money under one big tent is having an enormous impact on our public schools.
Paul L. Thomas is an associate professor of education at Furman University.
In the United States, the intersection of the criminal justice system and public schools has intensified in the wake of school shootings, prompting similar solutions from supposedly opposite ends of the political spectrum. As noted in a New York Times editorial, "The National Rifle Association and President Obama responded to the Newtown, Conn., shootings by recommending that more police officers be placed in the nation's schools."
As the editorial points out, however, research tends to show that police in the hallways creates schools-as-prisons and students-as-criminals, increasing, rather than eliminating, the problems. In another piece, Chloe Angyal highlights thedisturbing connection between incarceration and education:
Punishment rates in schools mirror the rates in the 'real world' - though what could be more real than entrenched discrimination in our schools? - and in fact, contribute to those real world figures. The Civil Rights Project report notes that the abuse and misuse of suspensions can turn them into "gateways to prison." Even if that were not the case, even absent a school-to-prison pipeline, the situation would be grim enough. What this report reveals is a disregard for the well-being of marginalized populations that, were it directed at other groups, would never be allowed to stand. If a quarter of white middle school boys were being suspended every school year, and if pretty white ladies were being frisked on the streets of Manhattan, there'd be an uproar.
While the term "a nation at risk" tends to be associated with the 1983 report on US education from the Reagan administration, the early 1980s also spawned an era of mass incarceration, built on claims that the United States was also a nation at risk because of illegal drug sales and use, identified by author Michelle Alexander as The New Jim Crow:
In October 1982, President Reagan officially announced his administration's "War on Drugs. At the time he declared this new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the country. This fact was no deterrent to Reagan, for the drug war from the outset had little to do with public concern about drugs and much to do with public concern about race. By waging a war on drug users and drug dealers, Reagan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined "others" - the undeserving. (p. 49)
Within a year of each other, then, the Reagan administration launched a war on drugs and a crisis response to public education. Just as Alexander details the masked intent behind the war on drugs, John Holton exposed A Nation at Risk as less about education reform and more about political agendas.
We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom; encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools; support vouchers; leave the primary responsibility for education to parents; and please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don't ask to waste more federal money on education - "We have put in more only to wind up with less."
For three decades, the War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration, primarily impacting African American males, the racially defined "others," and the education reform movement based on high-stakes accountability has targeted "other people's children" in ways that suggest market-oriented education reform is a school-based component of the New Jim Crow grounded in the criminal justice system.
Mass incarceration and market-oriented education reform share more than their genesis in the 1980s, since both have been shown to cause far more harm than good and to further marginalize African American and impoverished youths and adults.
The Dark Reality of Market-Oriented Education Reform
The education accountability era begun in the early 1980s focused on implementing curriculum standards and high-stakes testing, first at the state level and then over the decade since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), increasingly at the national level.
The evolution of the education reform movement has included some central ideological commitments - focusing on in-school-only reform and relying on slogans such as "no excuses" and "poverty is not destiny," as expressed in a 2010 manifesto from several key figures in reform, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas and Joel Klein:
So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income - it is the quality of their teacher.
Yet, for too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of "last in, first out" (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.
At first, reform was driven by revolutionary promises and often unverified claims of public school failure, but over the past 30 years, ample evidence now suggests that political education reform has failed to fulfill its promises, and, in a mechanism similar to the negative consequences of the mass incarceration, has harmed the exact students those reforms were designed to help.
The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education has resisted market-oriented, in-school-only reform championed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Rhee, Vallas and Klein, calling instead for social and educational reform seeking equity of opportunity for all families and students. In Broader, Bolder's "Market-Oriented Education Reforms' Rhetoric Trumps Reality" (April 18, 2013), Elaine Weiss and Don Long examine test-based teacher evaluations, school closures and expanded charter schools in Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC, concluding: "The report finds that the reforms delivered few benefits and in some cases harmed the students they purport to help. It also identifies a set of largely neglected policies with real promise to weaken the poverty-education link, if they receive some of the attention and resources now targeted to the touted reforms." (p. 3)
Market-oriented education reform has depended on addressing inequity indirectly, trusting mechanisms such as choice and business models of managing teachers as well as schools to initiate social change. This reform has specifically targeted goals such as closing the achievement gap, better serving impoverished and minority students, and raising international indicators of educational quality.
As Weiss and Long show, however, test-based teacher evaluations, school closures and expanded charter schools haven't succeeded, even against their advocates' promises:
· Test scores increased less, and achievement gaps grew more, in "reform" cities than in other urban districts.
· Reported successes for targeted students evaporated upon closer examination.
· Test-based accountability prompted churn that thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily bad teachers.
· School closures did not send students to better schools or save school districts money.
· Charter schools further disrupted the districts while providing mixed benefits, particularly for the highest-needs students.
· Emphasis on the widely touted market-oriented reforms drew attention and resources from initiatives with greater promise.
· The reforms missed a critical factor driving achievement gaps: the influence of poverty on academic performance.
· Real, sustained change requires strategies that are more realistic, patient and multipronged. (p. 3)
Further, additional evidence reveals (ostensibly) unintended consequences of market-oriented reform have included increased segregation by race and class in charter schools and a widening gap between the type of educational experiences affluent children receive compared with the authoritarian and test-prep-focused "no excuses" schools for minority and impoverished students, notably as detailed inSarah Carr's Hope Against Hope, exploring the post-Katrina rise of charter schools in New Orleans:
But inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive. . . . Many of the most powerful people in the country have a plan for the future of education in America, one focused on more charter schools, technocratic governance, weakened teachers' unions and the relentless use of data to measure student and teacher progress. (pp. 5, 6-7)
But Carr's narrative and analysis show that, as detailed in the Broader, Bolder report, market-oriented reform tends to replicate and even perpetuate inequity instead of eradicating it: Students in New Orleans sit in "no excuses" charter schools that are both authoritarian and segregated, while the post-Katrina Recovery District reduced the African American teacher workforce from 75 percent to 57 percent of the city's teachers.
Despite the slogans and the rhetoric, schools experiencing the array of market-oriented education reform policies have shown that home and community characteristics do predict educational opportunities, mirroring the historically greatest challenge facing traditional public schools. Ultimately, like the War on Drugs, current education reform exists as a key element in America's New Jim Crow era.
Education Reform and "Racially Sanitized Rhetoric"
Just as the education reform movement was spurred by a "manufactured crisis," as exposed by Gerald Bracey and Holton, the War on Drugs grew out of a racially divisive political agenda, a drug crisis that did not yet exist, but created "mass incarceration in the United States . . . as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow," as Alexander details. (p. 4)
Since market-oriented education reform is producing evidence highlighting the ineffectiveness and even negative outcomes associated with those policies, that the agendas remain robust suggests, again like mass incarceration, education reform fulfills many of the dynamics found in the New Jim Crow.
Just as mass incarceration from the war on drugs continues institutional racism once found in slavery and Jim Crow, education reform, especially the "no excuses" charter school movement, resurrects a separate but equal education system that is separate, but certainly isn't equal. The masked racism of mass incarceration and education reform share many parallels, including the following:
· Both depend on "racially sanitized rhetoric," according to Alexander, that thinly masks racism. "Getting tough on crime" justifies disproportional arrests, convictions and sentencing for African Americans; "no excuses" and "zero tolerance" justify highly authoritarian and punitive schools disproportionally serving high-poverty children of color.
· Both depend on claims of objective mechanisms - laws for the war on drugs and test scores for education reform - to deflect charges of racism. Alexander recognizes "this system is better designed to create [emphasis in original] crime and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals," (p. 236) just as test-based education reform creates and does not address the achievement gap.
· Both depend on racialized fears among poor and working-class whites, which Alexander identifies in the Reagan drug war agenda: "In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the 'excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse' and thus built on the success of the earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race" (p. 48). The charter school movement masks segregation within a progressive-friendly public school choice.
· Both depend on either current claims of post-racial America or the goal of a post-racial society: "This system of control depends far more on racialindifference [emphasis in original] . . . than racial hostility," Alexander notes. (p. 203)
· Both depend on a bipartisan and popular commitment to seemingly obvious goals of crime eradication and world-class schools.
· Both depend on the appearance of African American support. Alexander explains about the effectiveness of the war on drugs: "Conservatives could point to black support for highly punitive approaches to dealing with the problems of the urban poor as 'proof' that race had nothing to do with their 'law and order' agenda." (p. 42)
This last point - that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and "no excuses" charter schools - presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.
For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose "no excuses" charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools' administrators. But Alexander states, "Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people 'support' mass incarceration or 'get-tough' policies" because "if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be 'more prisons.' " (p. 210)
New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and "no excuses" charters - and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools - the predictable answer is "no excuses" charters.
Market-oriented education reform continues to produce evidence that it fails against its own goals and standards. But more disturbing is that current education reform also shares with the war on drugs evidence that the United States is committed to the New Jim Crow, to which Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." (p. 203)
The war on drugs and highly punitive, segregated charter schools are creating an underclass, significantly among African American males - facts that must be acknowledged before equity of opportunity can be secured. About this intersection of the criminal justice system and education reform, Angyal asks, "But the real question is, what will it take for us to fix this system that punishes students and citizens for no other reason but their membership in marginalized groups?"
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