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.

Astroturf

They’re heeeeeere! Yes, we’ve been watching the astroturf groups set up shop in Pennsylvania, and now they are here in Pittsburgh. 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. (For a great example, see this explanation of Parent Revolution, an astroturf group in California funded by venture capitalists interested in charterizing public schools through parent trigger laws.)

The first astroturf group popped up here like a weed last month just as the weather started to warm. Called “Shepherding the Next Generation,” this Washington D.C. based group received money from the Gates Foundation to start working in Pittsburgh. They’re not hiding that fact – it’s right there in small print at the bottom of the flyer they are passing out to local churches in an effort to recruit them (though it’s not on their web site). They call themselves an “alliance of Pittsburgh religious leaders who strongly support community efforts to make sure our children have the best chance at succeeding in school and later in life.” So far, sounds good, right?

Well, first of all, there is no alliance. The group just hired an organizer who has been approaching churches – especially those in our African American communities – to try to encourage them to join. Want a real alliance of religious leaders who have been actively working on public education for the past three years? Try PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, with over 50 area congregational members (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, and everything in between).

What Shepherding the Next Generation is really up to is promoting the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation: “We work to educate our clergy members about the critical elements for improving our schools, focusing on teaching effectiveness and helping kids to succeed. The clergy then, in turn, help educate their congregations and the public. … while also encouraging  Pittsburgh Schools to adopt the most effective ways to hire, retain and train good teachers.” [SNG flyer]

shepherding the next generation p1 shepherding the next generation p2

As we know, the Gates Foundation has been pouring its money into teacher evaluation programs around the country, including $40 million to the Pittsburgh Public School district for teacher evaluation. [See “The VAM Sham”] The problem with this is twofold. First, it focuses on the wrong thing. Gates and the corporate-style reformers who promote teacher evaluation will always say that teachers are the most important “in school” factor affecting learning — but really, this comes out to about 15-20% at most of measurable factors. By far the biggest influence on student learning is out-of-school factors.

And this is where poverty is the real story. So while Gates and others are pumping money into teacher evaluation and trying get “better” teachers, they refuse to acknowledge (or at least downplay) the very real role of poverty and its impact on our kids and learning. A favorite line of the corporate-reformers is that “poverty is no excuse” for student performance. But this is a huge equity issue. What if those organizations put all that money into real poverty programs? It pains me to think about our clergy here in Pittsburgh being urged to talk about fixing education by making teachers better, while ignoring poverty — the issue that should be near and dear to the hearts of all our faith leaders.

Second, even among in-school factors, we have to ask why the corporate-reformers are so focused on teachers. This starts with the assumption that we have a plague of bad teaching. And this is just not what I am seeing. Of course we want good teachers in front of every child. And of course we need to make sure that poor teachers are shown the door. (Though remember the definition of “bad” is a moving target – a “bad” teacher this year might have been great last year, and may be good next year – and much of what we really value in teaching, such as inspiring kids, cannot be measured on a high-stakes-test.) What I am seeing are teachers struggling with massive budget cuts, years of inequitable resource distribution, a drastic narrowing of the curriculum due to high-stakes-testing, and teachers battling a tidal wave of de-professionalization and vilification.

What if Shepherding the Next Generation put its time and resources into fighting for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for our schools? Or lobbied Harrisburg for charter reform that would save our districts millions of desperately needed dollars? What if it helped us have a conversation about the impact of mass school closure on communities of color? What if it worked to help us build local schools into community centers, filled with vibrant resources for the entire neighborhood? Or helped us find creative business partners to fill unused school space?

Even those who are still fans of Gates and his agenda ought to be wary of this astroturf phenomenon. 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.

Now how about this group: the “Center for Public Justice” is another Washington D.C. based organization that just waltzed into town. In a Facebook invite that went up last week, the Center says it “has embarked on a new pilot program in the city of Pittsburgh called Christians Investing in Public Education.” What that investment will be is not clear. What is clear, however, is the Center’s evangelical religious mission. The group calls homosexuality “abnormal and immoral” and an “unhealthy form of human relationship.” [CPJ website] They oppose gay marriage and don’t believe in reproductive rights.

They do believe in our public taxpayer dollars being used to fund private religious schools, despite the fact that it’s against our state constitution. (See discussion of the Blaine Amendment, under “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”.) The Center believes that “public funding should be offered without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools parents choose.” To this end, the group explicitly promotes vouchers and religious charter schools.

The Center also wants to de-regulate what is taught in school. They argue, “Schools receiving public support, whether via vouchers or directly, should be free to hire staff and to design curricula that reflect their distinctive educational, philosophical, and religious missions.” What this really means, of course, is that teachers ought to be able to teach creationism in science class. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that this violates the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution (the separation of church and state). There is even a 2005 federal decision that came out of a Pennsylvania court case ruling that “intelligent design” and creationism are the same thing and may not be taught in public schools.

This is a hot topic right now, as a Post-Gazette report this past weekend revealed. Almost 20% of science teachers believe in creationism. And a Penn State survey found that despite the law, between 17-21% of teachers bring the concept into their classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 4-28-13] Have you seen the 4th grade “science” quiz making the rounds on Facebook this past month? It shows the astonishing way in which “young earth” creationists (who take the Bible literally and believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) are teaching school children that people and dinosaurs lived together on the planet.

Unfortunately, this Center for Public Justice group planned to host three sessions this week – using Pittsburgh Public School space – to meet with parents, teachers, and school administrators. The Education Law Center verified that the school district has a facility use policy allowing all groups to request space. This is obviously a good thing as far as free speech is concerned. But it also means that our own public schools might be forced to host bigoted groups like this one bent on privatizing them right out of existence. So we have to stay vigilant about organizations that pop into town and ask lots of questions.

Fortunately, after we started doing just that last week, the Center announced that it is “postponing” its sessions. Who knows if their decision is related or if they will be back? But we better be on the lookout, because these groups with clear privatization agendas and astroturf organizations have found the road to Pittsburgh. They might be surprised to learn that Yinzer Nation is no fan of the fake stuff – even Heinz Field has real green grass for our beloved Steelers. And PNC Park sports the real stuff for our Pirates, too. Astroturf us? Git’aht!

Won’t Be Silent

The new film, “Won’t Back Down,” is a thinly-veiled propaganda piece produced by ultra-right ideologues bent on privatizing one of our most cherished public goods. It’s a blatant attempt to inject “parent trigger laws” into the national conversation on education, laws pretending to give parents and teachers control over struggling schools that in reality strip away local control and hand schools over to private corporations. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from the panel discussion after a private screening of the movie held Wednesday night.

Hosted by A+Schools along with the Pittsburgh Public School district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the film screening played to a packed theater of parents, teachers, and community members. Perhaps sensing the mood of the audience, we were told not to boo during opening remarks by Randy Testa (Vice President of Education at Walden Media which produced the film) who was inexplicably invited to this event. Despite essentially having a two-hour infomercial to tell his story, complete with Hollywood stars and a tear-jerking soundtrack, Testa was also infuriatingly given the majority of microphone time.

We were also told not to boo during the movie or panel discussion: presumably sniffling during the correct dramatic moments or cheering would have been acceptable. But this audience was not cheering. And at several points when characters spouted particularly egregious misinformation, there was loud groaning and a few shouts of “liars!” when folks could not contain their anger any longer. Yet our voices were silenced again when the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) moderated the panel “discussion” by selecting only a few written questions solicited from the audience.

And so we did not get to talk about who made this movie and why. We did not hear about the private corporate interests behind parent trigger laws or how they have been used to trick parents into signing over their schools, only to have all control taken away from them. While one question did ask about the film in the context of our recent devastating state budget cuts, none of the panelists took the opportunity to connect the consequences of those cuts – and years of inequitable and chronic under-funding of public schools – to the real problems facing our District. And so we did not hear about how struggling schools like the one portrayed in the film actually get to be that way in the first place.

Instead, the audience was left with shallow platitudes – “we can all agree that kids come first.” Yeah, we love kids. I think we can all agree. And “we need to put students before grownups,” which makes my head explode every time I hear it, since it’s actually a pat little phrase used to silence teachers and parents trying to speak up for students. Worse, the audience was told we simply need parents and teachers to “work together” and all our problems will go away. As if we don’t have incredible parents and teachers working together right now, doing amazing things. (I point you to the Manchester Miracle library project, if you need a quick example of what this grassroots movement is doing this very minute: “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books.”)

After the event, organizers even handed out a slick little “pocket guide for doing what’s best for kids in school” produced by Walden Media and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its 17 pages are full of photos from the movie along with suggestions for how to hold better parent-teacher conferences. Give me a break. Obviously, parent-teacher communication is important – and for some families, that’s a starting point to meaningful engagement with their schools – but that’s not what this is about. Oh wait: there it is on page 16 under “Know Your Rights”: Walden Media and Harvard helpfully remind us that “Parent Trigger laws have been enacted or considered in 20 states and are endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. These laws allow parents to reconfigure or shut down a school in which 51 percent or more of the families agree and are dissatisfied with the school’s performance.”

We have hundreds of new blog subscribers following our Manchester library work that went viral, so let’s quickly recap what this movie and these “parent tricker” laws are really about. The film was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox (we are well aware of their conservative credentials) and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making huge contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools, promote hatred and fight against gay rights, oppose environmental regulations, and work to eliminate unions. [Parents Across America alert, 8-12] Anschutz also funds ALEC, which is behind much of the blatantly corporate legislation being introduced in our state legislatures, including trigger laws. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

Parent trigger laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator. Walden Media’s snazzy little pocket guide lists Parent Revolution as one of their recommended “Resources” for parents (along with edreform.com, a blatantly radical-corporate-reform site promoting school privatization, vouchers, etc.).

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets. Closing down public schools and handing them over to private charter companies destroys a public good, forever (while enriching those corporations at tax-payer expense).

The law is not even about real parent engagement: all parents are doing is signing a petition, and then real control is taken away from them. Yet parents have real control over their schools right now. Most fundamentally, we elect school board members to represent us. We can also speak up at school board meetings. We can work with our school districts. We can work with our principals and teachers.

We need to be having a real conversation about who is behind parent trigger laws and other privatization schemes. We need to be talking about Pennsylvania’s massive budget cuts and legislation that Gov. Corbett is trying to ram through at this very moment to benefit his wealthy charter-school-owning friends that will drain more resources from our public schools and eliminate local control by democratically elected school boards. (See “Real Charter Reform.”) These are the critical issues of funding, equity, and public education as a public good that we must all be speaking about. And, no, we won’t be silent.

We Won’t Back Down, Either

Have you heard the buzz around “Won’t Back Down,” a major new Hollywood movie opening here in three weeks? It’s time for that buzz to start sounding like a swarm of angry bees coming from anyone who cares about our public schools. Here’s why.

The film, which was shot here in Pittsburgh and also set in our fair city, claims to be “inspired by real events.” Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, it tells a stirring tale of parents fighting for their kids against downright cruel teachers and uncaring school administrators while also vilifying teachers’ unions. But there is absolutely no evidence that anything like the events depicted in the movie ever occurred in Pittsburgh. In fact, “Won’t Back Down” is very clearly an attempt to promote school privatization and ALEC-backed parent trigger laws, which have not even been on the radar screen here in Southwest Pennsylvania. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

The movie was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights. Parents Across America, a grassroots organization like ours fighting for public education on the national level, notes that, “Anschutz has also donated to Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes environmental regulations and union rights, and to the political career of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.” [Parents Across America alert, 8-12]

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (whom I had the honor of marching with when she was in town for Monday’s Labor Day Parade), points out that, “Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media … as way for him to promote their values.” In a piece last week in the Washington Post, Weingarten explains those values are “crystal clear”: Anschutz funds ALEC and a host of organizations that “operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests, and all of them actively oppose collective bargaining rights and other benefits for workers. Anschutz has also invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations such as the Promise Keepers, whose founder declared that ‘homosexuality is an abomination against almighty God,’ and organizations affiliated with Focus on the Family.” [Washington Post, 8-28-12]

These guys didn’t just go into filmmaking for the fun of it. They have a clear agenda. And this time they are pushing parent-trigger laws. These laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator.

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets.

Ironically, I have to point out that these anti-public good school privatizers got public tax-payer dollars to make their film. Yes, that’s right: we here in Pennsylvania extend a nice fat tax-credit to film companies to induce them to make their films in places like Pittsburgh. [See Pittsburgh Film Office, tax credit information.] Those are tax dollars we don’t see in state revenue and can’t use to support our public schools. Perhaps we need (some) tax credit programs, but it’s all about priorities: maybe we shouldn’t be giving our money to film makers who turn around and tell blatant lies about Pittsburgh, our schools, and our teachers while undermining public confidence in a crucial public resource.

But that’s just what this film is doing. And the filmmakers have had plenty of help spreading their message. Three weeks ago, CBS aired a concert called Teachers Rock, funded by Walmart, as a promotion for “Won’t Back Down,” with stars including Carrie Underwood, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Morrison, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Usher, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. [Business Wire, 7-24-12] And as I lamented yesterday in my open letter to President Obama’s senior education policy advisor, the Democrats stepped right in line with Republicans, both showing the film at their national conventions these past two weeks. [See “Dear Mr. Rodriguez…”]

You can be sure we’ll be hearing lots more about parent-trigger laws here in Pennsylvania, too. Proponents have already popped up in Harrisburg: back in June during the budget debates, House Bill 2352 wound up defeated, but it would have created a parent trigger law. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 6-27-12] Remember, this is where grassroots activism will make the difference: this past spring, Florida parent groups fought back against proposed parent trigger legislation and won after an intense battle. [Miami Herald, 3-9-12]

When the film opens across the country on September 28th, we will have an opportunity to weigh in on the conversation and many eyes will be on Pittsburgh. Let’s be ready! We will need to write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and engage our social networks to expose the real agenda behind “Won’t Back Down.” We’ll need to attend showings and discussions (stay tuned for more on those). We’ll need to let the country know what authentic parent engagement looks like, why we are fighting for public schools as a public good, and that we won’t back down.

The Elephant at the White House

So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

Jessie Ramey of Yinzercation and Sherry Hazuda, President, Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the White House, 8-30-12

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White House policy advisors and USDE senior staff participants:

Kyle Lierman, White House Office of Public Engagement
Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy
David Bergeron, Acting Assistant Secretary, USDE
Miriam Calderon, Senior Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Lexi Barret, Senior Policy Advisor, White House Domestic Policy Council
Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach, USDE
Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, USDE
Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Office of the Secretary, Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, USDE
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, USDE
Steven Hicks, Special Assistant for Early Learning, USDE
Betsy Shelton, Director of Public Engagement, USDE

There Goes $11-million for Our Schools

Earlier this week, Governor Corbett asked where he was supposed to get the money to fund public education in Pennsylvania. Yesterday, he signed into law a new Voter ID bill, which does not appear to solve any actual problem in the state, will most certainly face expensive legal challenge, and worse, will cost taxpayers an estimated $11 MILLION to implement.

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center reports that other states have faced “substantial financial burdens” after passing similar laws: “Indiana, with about half as many registered voters as Pennsylvania, adopted a voter ID law in 2005 and spent $12.2 million over four years implementing it. Missouri has estimated voter ID legislation would cost $17.4 million over three years to inform its 4.1 million registered voters of the new requirements. Independent estimates for a proposed North Carolina law range from $18 million to $25 million over three years.” (May 2011 report)

Even taxpayers who are not outraged by the new law’s attempt to disenfranchise voters should be incensed that the Governor is signing new legislation expected to cost our state $11 MILLION. He says, “We are reducing the funding in education because we do not have the money — it’s that simple.” (See “The Old Divide and Conquer Tactic“) No. What’s simple is not passing unneeded laws that spend more money while proposing additional devastating cuts to our schools at the same time. $11 MILLION would pay for a whole lot of teachers.

Note to the Pennsylvania legislature: it’s time to focus on real problems in the state – like reversing the proposed budget cuts to public education – not imaginary ones that waste taxpayer money.