Big $

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.

1.  Individuals
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”]

2.  Foundations
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 literally wrote 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 the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and Grable 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]

3.  SuperPACS
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.

5.  Corporations
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. [SeeThere’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.

School Boards Matter

Pittsburgh’s school board is about to get a major shake up. Five of its nine spots are open this year, and there are multiple candidates running in some districts. Because of the nature of city politics, many of these seats are likely to be decided in the May primary, so we just have a couple months to get to know those who are running.

Making this election cycle more confusing, the city has just re-drawn school board lines, moving entire neighborhoods into new districts. [See Post-Gazette, 11-12-12 for list of changes.] And the new map does not align with other political boundaries such as those for city council, state representatives, or even school catchment areas. But these are extremely important races and it’s worth taking a minute to make sure you know which district you are in.

New board members will be making crucial decisions about school closings. (And we know for sure Pittsburgh will see more devastating loss of neighborhood schools in the next couple years.) Board members also sign-off on accepting grant money from foundations and approve contracts with consulting firms. [Remember “PPS: Planning a Privatization Scheme?”] And they approve new charter schools, which are frequently opened to replace the public schools that just closed.

In fact, charter schools and the use of high-stakes-testing for teacher evaluation are two of the hottest school board issues across the country right now. In Los Angeles, mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to take over the school board in 2006 as several other large cities have done (called “mayoral control,” this has been a key strategy to remove power from democratically elected school boards, allowing for swift imposition of the corporate-reform agenda, especially school closure). When his attempt failed, Mayor Villaraigosa switched to backing school board members who support corporate-style reforms. He solicited donations from New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave a whopping $1 million, and from Michelle Rhee, whose StudentsFirst group gave another $250,000. [New York Times, 3-4-12]

We need to seriously question why these wealthy individuals and astro-turf groups are dumping millions into the Los Angeles school board races. The good news this morning is that it appears all those dollars did not work: with returns now in, it looks like school board member Steve Zimmer, a moderate who dared to question privatization, has retained his seat against an opponent who was backed by the mayor, Bloomberg, and Rhee, as well as the Los Angeles Times editorial board and billionaires Eli Broad (of the Broad Foundation that trains school superintendents) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. [DianeRavitch, LA Upset] That’s a major victory for public education advocates in California – and a lesson for us in Pennsylvania.

School board elections matter. They matter a lot. And one of the benefits of being in Pittsburgh, say, and not Los Angeles, is that – at least so far – we don’t have ultra-wealthy outsiders tromping in with their dollars and agendas, trying to trounce on our democratic process. So please do your part and get to know your local candidates. Here’s the perfect chance to ask questions and learn where your future school board members stand on privatization, school closures, charter reform, high-stakes-testing, and sticking up for adequate state funding: on Monday, March 11, 2013, PIIN will host a town hall meeting from 6:30-9PM with all the school board candidates at University Prep 6-12 at Milliones, in the Hill District (3117 Centre Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219).

In advance of this town hall, Yinzercation has been working with a coalition of education partners to develop a vision statement for Pittsburgh public schools, including a pledge for school board members. Members of the coalition include PIIN, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Action United, OnePittsburgh, and A+Schools. We want school board members who are more than just fiscal watchdogs in these challenging financial times. With the district scheduled to run out of money in 2015, it will be too easy to let budgets drive decision-making.

In other words, we need school board members with vision, who are:

  1. Careful policy makers and objective evaluators of data and research-based reforms
  2. Wise stewards of public school resources
  3. Promoters of public education as a public good
  4. Fearless advocates for restoring adequate State funding for our schools
  5. Advocates for enhanced revenues and fair executors of the school board taxing authority to ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
  6. Committed to achieving equity by supporting teachers, parents, students and community members in developing school specific plans to implement the District’s Equity Plan.
  7. Real partners with all stakeholders to set the highest professional standards and nurture collaboration across our school system
  8. Leaders who engage parents, educators, administrators, and community members in authentic, ongoing dialogue that improves our school and enriches our democracy
  9. Committed to implementing community driven solutions that come from real engagement and collaboration between parents, students, educators, administrators and community not outside consulting firms.

This is some of the language we have been working on. What do you think? Please come to the town hall on Monday and get this crucial conversation going. Keep the grassroots in our elections so there’s no room for the billionaire corporate-reformers to play with Pittsburgh’s school board.

When Foundations Go Bad

Money talks. And sometimes money buys contracts with companies that have an agenda to privatize our public schools. That appears to be the case with Philadelphia’s prominent William Penn Foundation: last week parents in that city accused the venerable foundation of contracting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a plan to close dozens of public schools while opening many more charter schools. They charge the foundation and consulting company with essentially acting as lobbyists to influence policy decisions in the School District of Philadelphia. Here’s why we should care in the rest of Pennsylvania when good foundations go bad.

Parents United for Public Education – a fantastic group of Philadelphia public education advocates that organized back in 2006 (Yinzercation’s big sister) – filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting a formal investigation of BCG’s behavior. Joining Parents United in the complaint was the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. The groups had requested a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia before making their decision to file the charges, saying, “Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

It turns out that the William Penn Foundation signed a contract with BCG explicitly stating that the group would recommend expanding charter schools, target 60 public schools for closure, and influence labor negotiations. [The Notebook, 7-9-12] Philadelphia has a state-imposed “School Reform Commission” (SRC) and could be the poster-child for what a state-privatization plan does to a city. [For details, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”] Parents United discovered that the Boston Consulting Group’s contract actually specified that it would influence the SRC before an important vote it made back in May. That’s when the commission decided that, despite the District’s severe financial crisis, it would approve adding 5,416 new seats in charter schools across the city (expanding charters from 25% to 40% of the entire District) at an eye-popping cost of $139 million over the next five years. [The Notebook, 7-19-12]

The William Penn Foundation clearly got what it paid for with the Boston Consulting Group. With unprecedented access to key decision-makers as well as data from the District, the BCG has been acting as a lobbyist on behalf of the privatization agenda, able to push their plans behind closed doors. As Parents United points out, “No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

And it gets worse. The foundation solicited private donors to help fund the BCG contract and then kept their identities a secret by funneling the dollars through a separate agency. Those donors include individuals and groups affiliated with charter organizations. [The Notebook, 6-6-12] As Parents United explains, this lack of transparency matters, “because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors. From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different….” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

What’s more, this kind of thing is going on all over the country, with big-money foundations investing their philanthropic resources in corporate-style education reform. These include the Broad Foundation (which has trained a large number of urban school superintendents, including Pittsburgh’s own current and immediate past leader, in corporate-style management practices) as well as the Gates Foundation (which has given Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million for teacher evaluation efforts). I agree with Parents United that, “what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Philadelphia grassroots movement for public education is making a real difference. Just one week after Parents United sent its letter of intent to file an ethics complaint, the William Penn Foundation board met; one week later, the foundation’s president, Jeremy Nowak, publicly announced his resignation. Nowak had been widely regarded as the guiding force behind the foundation’s turn towards school privatization. Parents United co-founder Helen Gym, noted that, “William Penn, under [Nowak's] stewardship, went from being this beloved Philadelphia foundation to being a controversial and very conservative promoter of a very special kind of reform agenda.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-30-12]

The lessons for us here on the other side of the state? We must pay attention to the role of large foundations, which are increasingly entering the “education reform” business with little more than an ill-formed notion that school privatization will cure what ails us. Southwest Pennsylvania is also home to many venerable foundations with a proud history of supporting children, families, and education. It’s time for these foundations to partner with our community – in full transparency and with parent participation – to tackle the serious equity, policy, and resource issues confronting our schools. Foundations can absolutely be a force for public education and for the public good. How about it Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Grable and others – are you ready to be vocal advocates for our public schools?

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