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.

We Have $200 Million?

Problem solved! Apparently, Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from our neck of the woods over in Beaver County, believes we have an extra $200 million lying around for schools. That’s perfect, since the Post-Gazette is reporting today that the governor’s office and Republican leaders in the Senate and House have negotiated their different budgets down to just about that figure: “the two sides appear to be about $233 million apart in how much money they believe the state should have left over at the end of next fiscal year.” [Post-Gazette, 6-12-12]

Ah, but wait – Rep. Christiana wants to give those public tax-dollars to private schools under a new scheme that he may introduce today in the House. Seriously? We can’t find enough money for the block grant program that lets school districts all across Pennsylvania fund Kindergarten, but he wants to talk about taking more money out of our state coffers for private and parochial schools?

We already have this ill-advised program in place with the poorly named Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC. (See why we say “EITC: No Credit to PA” when we let $75 million walk out the front door every year.) Now Rep. Christiana and his colleagues propose adding a similar program, so that we give away an additional $100 million next year, rising to $200 million by its third year. [You can read the full text of his co-sponsorship memo at the Morning Call, 6-11-12.]

If we have $200 million available to hand out to businesses, why aren’t we spending that money up front on critical educational needs, rather than cutting Kindergarten, librarians, and tutoring? Pennsylvania school districts were forced to lay off over 14,000 teachers last year with many more furloughs coming this year. [“No More Teachers, No More Books”] These aren’t just good jobs – these are the people in the classrooms with our children every day, shaping our very future.

Kudos to House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, a representative from northern Allegheny County, whose office warned “the details of this latest try for a voucher program must be reviewed carefully.” He summed it up nicely: “The core problem in Pennsylvania schools is inadequate funding made worse by Gov. Corbett’s historic and tragic education cuts. No taxpayer-funded voucher experiment will help that, even one like this that’s limited to only a few schools. It will just make things worse for the great majority of students who get no help.” [Morning Call, 6-11-12]

We can’t allow the Governor and his allies to continue labeling our entire public education system as a failure, and then decimate it by cutting over $1 BILLION in funding to make sure that it really does fail so we can take our public dollars and send them to private institutions. Make no mistake, this is exactly the strategy now in play. As we reported last week, the ultra-conservative Koch brother funded superPAC FreedomWorks has rolled back into Pennsylvania using the language of “failure” in nasty radio ads aimed at pressuring the governor to get a voucher bill passed in the next three weeks. (See “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”)

That superPAC has two out-of-state lobbyists, Ana Puig and Anastasia Przbylski, sitting in Harrisburg right now turning up the heat on our legislators. About Rep. Christiana’s proposed voucher bill, Puig said, “It’s a start. We have to do something before this [budget] cycle is over to give opportunities to kids in the failing schools.” She made it clear that they are looking to expand vouchers well beyond these EITC type programs, and said, “We have a small window of opportunity.” [Morning Call, 6-11-12]

That might be the best news we get: these billionaire backers of school privatization see the next couple of weeks as their window of opportunity to ram more vouchers through the Pennsylvania legislature. We need to keep that window shut tight. Take a minute to call Rep. Christiana’s office and tell him that we need public funding for public schools:
(724) 728-7655 or (717) 260-6144
And if you know anyone in his district, please ask them to do the same. Christiana represents the following areas of Beaver County, which has lost over $13.5 MILLION in education cuts to its schools these past two years:
Beaver
Brighton Township
Center Township
Greene Township
Georgetown
Hookstown
Hopewell Township
Independence Township
Monaca
Patterson Heights
Patterson Township
Potter Township
Raccoon Township
Vanport Township
Shippingport
South Heights

If Rep. Christiana really thinks Pennsylvania taxpayers can afford an extra $200 million for this plan, let’s insist that we use those public dollars to address the real funding crisis in our schools caused by Governor Corbett’s historic education cuts. Then we can open real windows of opportunity for all our children.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It’s like an old spaghetti Western movie in Harrisburg these days. Lots of targets, lots of shooting, just not as many horses. So here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in our state budget negotiations.

The Good.
Top Republicans met with Governor Corbett Tuesday evening in a closed door session and word is they talked about “restoring” the $100 million in block grants. [Post-Gazette, 6-6-12] That’s the money that most school districts use for Kindergarten programs and that the governor had proposed eliminating in his February budget. However, calling it a “restoration” of those funds is a bit unfair – it’s more like blocking Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts – especially since districts are still reeling from the $1 billion he succeeded in slashing last year. But saving that $100 million from the chopping block would indeed be a good thing. A great thing!

The Bad.
However, the current proposal to rescue the $100 million did not ride in on a white horse. This one arrived in an amendment from Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, a Republican from Delaware County, and passed with a mostly party-line vote. [Post-Gazette, 6-6-12] The problem? The plan shifts money from basic education to cover the block grants. Representative Mike Gerber said it was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and called it a “shell game,” urging his colleagues not to support the proposal. [Rep. Gerber House testimony, 6-5-12]

The Ugly.
And while our legislators ride around shooting at each other, the biggest bad guy of all just snuck into town. Funded by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the PAC FreedomWorks is launching an ad campaign designed to get a new voucher bill passed this month. [Philly.com, news blog, 6-6-12] The radio spots actually take aim at Governor Corbett, accusing him of not moving swiftly enough to reintroduce his voucher legislation, which passed in the Senate but failed in the House late last year.

Residents in six key PA House districts will hear the ads that repeat the national conservative narrative of “failing public schools” from which families must be rescued by “school choice.” The spot claims that Gov. Corbett promised “to reform the failing education system in Pennsylvania,” and that, “Despite spending over $13,000 per student per year, Pennsylvania’s schools continue to fail.” The ad continues, “Children across the state remain trapped in failing schools,” and warns that this is a “growing problem” and that “time is running out.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-6-12]

This is truly an ugly attempt to portray all our schools as failures and our students as captive victims. (See “What I Told the White House.”) The reality is that most of our public schools are doing a good job educating students. Where there are problems, we should obviously fix them; but this gripping tale of supposed failure has captured the popular imagination contrary to the actual evidence. For example, Pennsylvania’s reading and math scores have both been going up and rank among the nation’s best (see comparative state school data on Save Pennsylvania’s Schools):

  • Our students rank 5th (out of 50 states) in fourth grade reading and 8th in eighth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • Our students rank 4th in fourth grade math and 12th in eighth grade math on the NAEP.
  • Pennsylvania has among the best Advanced Placement (AP) scores in the nation, ranking 15th in the percentage of public high school students who score high enough on AP exams to qualify for college credit.
  • Pennsylvania is a national leader in “AP Honor Roll” school districts, with 28 districts receiving this distinguished designation.

Right now, this movie needs Clint Eastwood to shoot a few holes in the flawed logic of “public school failure,” touted by the deep pockets of conservative super-PACS. Meanwhile, our legislators have the chance to be real heroes: they can save public education without playing political shell games, and then ride off into the sunset while the credits roll.