Can or Con

It must be all the spring rain – new corporate-style reform groups are popping up like weeds. The latest one just appeared in Pittsburgh on Tuesday with an Op Ed piece in the Post-Gazette promoting teacher evaluation. [Post-Gazette, 5-21-13] Called PennCAN, this group is an off-shoot of the Connecticut based ConnCAN, which has started a national effort known as 50CAN. So who are these “cans” and what are they saying?

ConnCAN was founded by investment manager Jonathan Sackler, who is also on the board of an oil and gas production company, a real estate investment company, and several pharmaceutical companies. He is also a trustee for Achievement First, which operates charter schools in four cities, as well as on the board of New Schools Venture Fund, which raises money to “invest” in “education entrepreneurs,” with a long history of funding charter schools and charter management organizations (CMOs).

Ten of the eleven members of ConnCAN’s board are hedge fund managers. In other words, these are not educators thinking about what is best for students: these are financiers who know about making money for their portfolios. Not surprisingly, ConnCAN promotes charter schools, vouchers (“money that follows the student”), teacher evaluation systems that eliminate union protections, and school turnaround (shorthand for firing teachers and principals, or even closing “under achieving” schools). ConnCAN makes bold claims about its work, though Rutgers School of Education scholar Dr. Bruce Baker recently shredded their assertion that their reforms are working in Connecticut. [School Finance 101, 3-7-13.]

Last fall, Mr. Sackler wrote a check for $50,000 to a superPAC (it’s largest donation) that is trying to eliminate the local, democratically elected school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut and replace it with a politically appointed board under the supervision of a corporate-reform mayor. Sackler’s ConnCAN has spawned a national effort, 50CAN, which is working to do the same thing in other states: for instance, in Minnesota, they supported the campaign of a pro-charter, Teach for America alumnus. (Unfortunately, Teach for America seems to be in the corporate-reform camp: a topic for a future blog post, but for starters, see educator and TFA alumnus Gary Rubinstein’s analysis of TFA’s biggest claims.) The chairman of 50CAN’s board is Mathew Kramer, the President of Teach for America, which also put money into that Minnesota race. [DianeRavitch 2-2-13] Other 50CAN board members include the presidents of two charter school chain operators and a representative from DFER (Democrats for Education Reform).

Jonathan Pelto, a former Connecticut state legislator, writes about ConnCAN and related groups explaining, “The charter school industry is spending record amounts to lobby government officials and buy local boards of education.” And he warns, “Backing up their lobbying effort is a broader strategy to change the rules and change the players as a way of ensuring they can build their charter schools and further privatize America’s public education system.” [Guest post on DianeRavitch 2-2-13; also see his alarming 12-2-12 analysis of the group’s teacher evaluation and explicitly anti-union work in Connecticut.]

So is this what we’re seeing here in Pittsburgh with the arrival of ConnCAN’s sister, PennCAN? The group actually started working last year and is just now moving into our part of the state (they’ve been advertising for a public affairs manager who lives in or has connections to Pittsburgh), but their agenda is clear. They want to expand charter schools and advocate for “systems that authorize schools,” which I take to mean a state-authorizer bill that would eliminate local control. (We already defeated this once last fall: see “Where are the Real Republicans?”) They also promote vouchers, which they call “scholarships to attend high-performing schools of [the student’s] choice, whether they be district, charter, private or parochial.” And, of course, PennCAN wants a “statewide evaluation system that incorporates student achievement” – in other words, using high-stakes-testing to evaluate our teachers. The only point of agreement it appears our grassroots movement has with this group is that we ought to preserve funding for early childhood education. [PennCAN 2012 Policy Agenda]

PennCAN’s opening salvo here in Pittsburgh focused on teacher evaluation, an issue that already has some traction given the district’s $40 million Gates Foundation grant for just that. And we’ve seen other local Gates-funded organizations promoting teacher evaluation, including A+Schools and Shepherding the Next Generation, giving the idea additional legs. [See “Big $” and “Astroturf”] Now guess who is funding the national 50CAN? You guessed it: the Gates Foundation. And the Waltons. And Google and Jonathan Sackler, to name a few.

Here in Pennsylvania, the operation is being funded by a Catholic group (the Catholic church in Philadelphia has been lobbying hard for vouchers and tax credits to help keep religious private schools afloat: See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”). PennCAN donors also include the William Penn Foundation, now being sued by our sister-grassroots organization in Philadelphia for illegal lobbying efforts aimed at promoting more charter schools in that district. [See “When Foundations Go Bad”] And don’t forget Janine and Jeff Yass – that would be the Jeff Yass who made Pennsylvania’s top campaign donor list in the fall. He and two other of the top political donors in our entire state – Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik – went to college together and then founded a Philadelphia hedge fund company. Then they founded the Students First superPAC to funnel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into the races of pro-voucher candidates. [See “Charters are Cash Cows”]

So that’s who we’re dealing with. Nice bunch of corporate-style reformers bent on privatization. We’ll look at their claims more closely in a future piece, but for now, we’re calling this can a con.

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.

It’s Raining – Money

It’s still raining in Pennsylvania – campaign money, that it. As the elections have heated up, candidates pushing school privatization efforts such as vouchers have received a windfall from some well-organized and extremely wealthy out-of-state pockets. While we’re mopping up and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, we better take a look at what else has blown into our state, and the consequences we could be dealing with for years to come.

Remember Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children (AFC)? The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and married to the heir of the Amway fortune, DeVos is the founder and board chair of the AFC, which works across the country to promote her “school choice” agenda. In the run-up to this spring’s primaries, the AFC funneled over $1million into Pennsylvania politics through the Students First PAC. (Last year AFC contributed $120,000 and in 2010 it paid $1.2 Million into Students First PAC.) [PA state campaign finance reports] In the past few weeks alone, the AFC has dumped another $400,000 into the superPAC. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12]

A few years ago, Ohio fined DeVos’s group a record $5.2 million for illegally shifting money into that state to support “school choice” candidates. [Associated Press, April 5, 2008] Wisconsin also fined her group for political misconduct. Following these incidents, DeVos simple rebranded her organization as the current American Federation for Children. The AFC also accepts donations from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the ultra-wealthy and ultra-conservative brothers who are well known for their anti-union politics. [The Nation, May 2011; for more on the AFC, see It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”]

Joel Greenberg, who just made the list of Pennsylvania’s top political campaign donors, is on the board of the AFC. He and two of his financial investment partners, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founded Students First PAC back in 2010 with $5.2 million they happened to have lying around. [Public Source, PA top political donors report] Now Students First PAC operates as the conduit for AFC campaign contributions. Since September 28th, the superPAC has spent $534,000 on Pennsylvania elections. Where is all that money going?

Far and away the top beneficiary these past few weeks has been Representative Jim Christiana, from right here in Southwest PA. The Republican from Beaver County received a deluge of $100,000 from Students First PAC – twice as much as any other single candidate. The superPAC gave a handful of candidates two donations, but Christiana received no less than five separate checks, totaling about a fifth of all their giving. Why?

It’s certainly not because Rep. Christiana faces any serious political challenge. His opponent hasn’t had a campaign event since August and has just 40 “likes” on his Facebook page. (Honestly, this is the best the Democratic Party could do in what should be an extremely important race? Even the word “Endorsements” is spelled wrong on his website.) [Elect Bob Williams site] So why shower Rep. Christiana with cash?

The answer is pretty obvious. Christiana has become the go-to guy for Governor Corbett’s school privatization legislation. Back in June, he introduced our shiny new Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, a voucher-in-disguise that will divert $200 million in public money to private and religious schools. (See “2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate?”) Christiana hails from Monaca in Beaver County, site of the proposed Dutch Royal Shell cracker plant, which Gov. Corbett intends to hand $1.675 BILLION to do business in Pennsylvania. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) Just a few weeks before Christiana brought the EITC bill forward, he received a nice fat check for $25,000 from “Fighting Chance PA,” another new superPAC started by – you guessed it – Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, founders of the Students First PAC.

These guys have also taken notice of a more tightly contested race in our neck of the woods, funding Republican senate candidate Raja who is running against Democrat Matt Smith, currently a representative in the state house. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 10-29-12] Fortunately for public education advocates in the South Hills area, Rep. Smith offers the clear choice: he has met with Yinzercation parents and stands solidly behind adequate and equitable public funding for our public goods.

But we better be asking ourselves just what Philadelphia hedge fund operators are doing, dumping their spare cash in political races over here on the other side of the state. And we have to pay attention to the millions flooding into Pennsylvania from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children. It’s still raining campaign money, and there will be a lot of storm damage if public-education advocates don’t get out to the polls next week – come hell or high water.

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Charters are Cash Cows

Charter schools are cash cows feeding at the public trough. Oh, there are a few good ones here and there, to be sure. But if there was ever any doubt that charter schools have become Big Business, take a look at the list of the largest campaign contributors in Pennsylvania. Three of the top ten on a new “Power Players” report are throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into state politics to gain favorable legislation for charter schools and we need to be asking why. [Public Source, Power Players report]

Weighing in at #5 is Van Gureghian, who founded Charter School Management Inc. back in 1999 to run a school in Chester, PA, a struggling former industrial town near Philadelphia. Today Gureghian’s company operates 150 charter schools in nine states, and that first school now has half of the district’s student enrollment and is the state’s largest charter school. Gureghian was Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor and served on his education transition team. This is the same guy who is fighting the state’s Right to Know laws to keep from disclosing his salary – which is public knowledge for other public school administrators – while he recently bought two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million. He and his wife, another Charter School Management Inc. employee, plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [Palm Beach Daily News, 2011-11-18; Also see “Soaking the Public”]

At #8 and #10 on the list are Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik. Public Source, which put together the report, notes that these two “act as one when making political contributions,” and that if we “consider them as a contributing team, you must include Jeff Yass,” who would be #11 on this list. Greenberg, Dantchik, and Yass went to college together and are founding partners of Susquehanna International Group, a financial broker-dealer in Philadelphia.

Greenberg is on the board of American Federation for Children, a national group with mega-billionaire backers supporting state vouchers for private school students. Dantchik is on the board of the Institute for Justice, a law firm that promotes school choice and Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute, a think tank dedicated to limited government and free markets. [Public Source, Power Players report] In 2010, these three men started Students First PAC to channel millions of their dollars, plus those from out of state donors, into races of pro-voucher candidates. (For more on the American Federation for Children and the Students First PAC, see “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money”.)

For those of you keeping track, that makes four of Pennsylvania’s biggest campaign donors so far this year with school privatization at the top of their to-do lists. Why? Lest you think these men are dabbling in education for the sake of students, take a closer look at the Big Business of charter schools. Back in August, CNBC interviewed the CEO of a major investment company who clearly explained why charter schools are such a great moneymaker. David Brain heads Entertainment Properties Trust, which owns movie theaters, destination recreation sites, and charter schools in 34 states.

When the interviewer asked why people should add charter schools to their investment portfolios, he replied:

“Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer … if you do business with states with solid treasuries, then it’s a very solid business.”

The anchor also asked if he could buy one type of real estate asset right now, what would it be, and Brain answered:

“Well, probably the charter school business. We said it’s our highest growth and most appealing sector right now of the portfolio. It’s the most high in demand, it’s the most recession-resistant. And a great opportunity set with 500 schools starting every year. It’s a two and a half billion dollar opportunity set in rough measure annually.” [CNBC, 8-15-12]

Brain also told a nice whopper when the anchor asked him if there was any investment risk due to some public backlash against using taxpayer money to pay for charter schools. He claimed, “Most of the studies have charter schools at even or better than district public education.” Actually, most of the studies have shown the opposite: charter schools consistently rank at even or worse – sometimes much worse – than traditional public schools. For example, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that students in every single Pennsylvania cyber charter school performed “significantly worse” in reading and math than their peers in conventional public schools. [Stanford/CREDO report summary, 2011] That’s a 100% failure rate. (See “Dueling Rallies” for complete details on charter school performance research.)

With such dismal results, investors really ought to be asking why Gov. Corbett’s administration keeps approving new charter school applications. Cyber charters in particular are charging taxpayers far more per student than it actually costs to educate them – to the tune of one million dollars per day sucked from our public coffers into the pockets of charter school operators. (See “One Million Per Day”) Pennsylvania already has 16 cyber charter schools – including four approved just this past summer – giving us one of the highest concentrations in the country. Yet the Department of Education just scheduled hearings on eight new cyber charter school applications. [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter schools, told the Post-Gazette, “Pennsylvania, as far as I know, has the most lucrative funding for virtual schools. It’s very favorable. It doesn’t surprise me more companies and entities want to come there for virtual schooling.” [Post-Gazette, 10-22-12]

Indeed. This is not about doing what is best for students. Charter schools have become investment opportunities for the wealthy and their portfolio managers, businesses that must be protected with favorable legislation bought by strategic campaign contributions. As these charter school operators feed at the public trough, they strip our public schools of desperately needed resources. It’s time to fight back. Public education is a public good, not a cash cow.

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

Taking the Public out of Public Education

Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just picked Joe Watkins to be the Chief Recovery Officer (CRO) for the struggling school district in Chester Uplands. Under new laws passed with the budget this summer, the state can now appoint a CRO to develop a “financial recovery plan” for districts like Chester Upland over in Eastern PA and Duquesne, right here in the heart of Yinzer Nation.

The CRO has enormous power to close schools and convert them to charters, to cancel contracts with vendors, and to renegotiate teachers’ contracts. He can even force local school boards to raise property taxes. And if school board members don’t go along with the plan, the state actually now has the ability to prevent individuals from resigning their posts! In an op-ed piece today, state representative Marc Gergely, a local Democrat from White Oak, points out that this is a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and calls it “utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.” (See Gergely’s excellent piece, reprinted below, about why local taxpayers should care.)

Handing Joe Watkins this kind of power was just what Governor Corbett had in mind when he pushed these educational “reform” bills through the state legislature at the last minute back in June. Watkins has been the chairman of the super PAC, Students First PA, backed by the fortunes of mega-billionaire “school choice” activist, Betsy DeVos, and her national organization, the American Federation for Children (AFC). (See “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for more on DeVos, the AFC and her Pennsylvania super PAC.) Over the past three years, DeVos and her colleagues, who include the ultra-right-wing Koch brothers, have funneled $2.5 million into Pennsylvania politics through this PAC alone.

Their investment has paid off big time. Governor Corbett appointed Joel Greenberg, an AFC board member and hedge fund trader from Philadelphia, to be on his education transition team. Greenberg is also one of the principle donors to the Students First PA super PAC, which spent this past spring handing out huge contributions to pro-voucher candidates. And now Corbett’s education secretary has tapped the PAC’s chairman to raid, er, watch the henhouse.

Watkins will oversee a school district where almost half the students already attend charter schools. In fact, Chester Uplands is home to the state’s largest charter school, Chester Community Charter, run by Vahan Gureghian’s management company. Remember him? Gureghian is Gov. Corbett’s single largest campaign donor – and another member of his education transition team – who has collected over $60 million in public taxpayer dollars through his charter management company, but has been fighting a right-to-know lawsuit for the past six years to prevent the public from learning his actual salary. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Gureghian recently purchased two Florida beachfront lots for $28.9 million where they plan to build a 20,000 square foot “French-inspired Monte Carlo estate.” [See “Soaking the Public”.]

Watkins, in his new role as Chester Uplands CRO, will have plenty of opportunity to charterize more of the district’s public schools and there will be little the local school board can do to stop him. State Sen. Daylin Leach, a member of the Senate’s education committee, called Watkins an ideologue and the wrong choice to rebuild a strong public school system, saying, “It would have been hard to come up with a nominee who is more publicly associated with the effort to undermine public education.” [Newsworks.org 8-20-12]

I’ll point out again that not all charter schools are necessarily bad – especially those run by nonprofits, with locally controlled boards accountable to the public, and who hire accredited teachers and pay them fair wages. But student achievement at charter schools has been a mixed bag, despite years of promises that they would revolutionize education. In Chester Upland, some charter schools performed better and some performed worse than their traditional school peers, though Vahan Gureghian’s Chester Community Charter is on the state’s short list under investigation for possible cheating on the PSSAs.

As Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in Haverford Township in Delaware County, aptly explains: “After 20 years there is no clear evidence demonstrating that charters or vouchers are systematically more effective than traditional public schools in improving student performance for students in high-poverty schools. What is clear is that charters can be extremely lucrative for owners and management companies.” [Keystone State Education Coalition, 8-21-12]

Watkins is now in a powerful position to force public funding into private hands. And other districts across the state – including Duquesne, York, and Harrisburg – will soon be getting their own CROs. Those of us who care about our public schools are going to have to fight hard to keep the public in public education.

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Failing grade for Corbett / A new law stomps on the rights of the Duquesne school district and others

State Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak [Post-Gazette Op-Ed, 8-22-12]

The financial crisis in the Duquesne City School District should have been a wake-up call to state government that comprehensive education reform is needed immediately. Instead, Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a new law written by legislative Republicans that stomps on the local rights of financially distressed school districts, like Duquesne and possibly Clairton and Jeannette in the future.

Property taxpayers in neighboring school districts should be worried, too. You could be on the hook for thousands of dollars for every student transferring into your district.

The bill passed with the state budget, which locked in last year’s unprecedented $1 billion in cuts to public schools and provided $49 million for the state’s 16 distressed school districts. But the extra money came with a huge catch. It’s now much easier for the state to take over a school district.

The bill narrowly passed the House despite strong opposition from some legislators, including me, in communities that will be harmed.

This school year, the state Education Department, will spend $6 million to appoint a chief recovery officer to replace boards of control in Duquesne, Chester-Upland, Harrisburg and York. Eventually the state could take control of up to nine school districts at one time.

Each CRO will have enormous power to develop and implement a financial recovery plan. Regardless of what’s in the best educational interests of students, the CRO can close schools or convert traditional public schools into nonprofit or for-profit charter schools. For Duquesne, that’s a huge obstacle. It’s so underfunded that charter schools avoid coming here. There’s no profit to earn.

However, changes are coming for Duquesne students before a CRO is named. After months of refusing to discuss Duquesne’s future, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis in early July told the West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts to expect seventh and eighth graders from Duquesne.

Taxpayers in those districts will feel it, too. West Mifflin Area says it gets only about $11,000 to educate each Duquesne student, but the real cost is closer to $14,000. West Mifflin Area’s property taxpayers will pick up the difference.

First, property owners had to endure tax hikes because of massive state funding cuts, now they could be paying to educate students from other school districts.

In the name of saving money, a CRO has even more power, such as cancelling agreements with vendors and renegotiating teachers’ contracts. Most striking of all, the law can force a locally elected school board to vote to raise school property taxes. If it refuses, the state will go to court to appoint a receiver who will force through a tax hike.

The CRO even has the authority to prevent a school board member from resigning, which violates the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s utterly ridiculous and a dangerous abuse of state power.

Schools like Duquesne are struggling financially because communities lack the tax base to support them. Raising taxes makes the situation worse and delays the inevitable and more difficult decisions for a few more years.

That could eventually force other struggling districts like Clairton and Jeannette to send students to Elizabeth Forward, West Jefferson Hills, Penn-Trafford, Hempfield Area or Norwin.

We must do more than this misguided state takeover plan that’s not in the best interest of any school district. Ultimately, it fails to address the real issues, the true cost of educating diverse student populations and the fact that some communities lack the tax base to support quality schools.

We have an obligation to ensure every child in our community has access to a first-class education. Our decisions will affect each student’s education and ultimately the course of many lives. Instead of punishing communities with limited means by forcing a state takeover, we should work toward a fairer funding formula to allow all schools to be successful, regardless of their ZIP code.

2-4-6-8, Who Do We Appreciate?

HB 2468 has lots of cheerleaders. That’s the current House Bill under consideration that would expand Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, and add a new scholarship program, diverting $200 MILLION in public money to private and parochial schools. (See “One Million Per Day” for the details.)

The voucher-in-disguise bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican who hails from Monaca in Beaver County – site of the proposed Shell cracker plant. Just a few weeks before he brought the bill forward, Rep. Christiana received a nice fat check for $25,000 from the “Fighting Chance PA” PAC. That was the single largest contribution from this new political action committee (or PAC) that has already “doled out $225,000 to pro-voucher state lawmakers and other political committees in Harrisburg.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-26-12]

Fighting Chance PA PAC shares a name with a campaign launched by the “Pennsylvania Catholic Coalition” this spring, an effort associated with the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has been lobbying hard for voucher legislation to fund its struggling schools. The new PAC has been entirely financed by three wealthy Philadelphia hedge-fund founders and their “Students First PA” PAC. That name should ring a bell: they are the group funneling gobs of out-of-state money from the likes of mega-billionaire Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children into Pennsylvania politics to support school privatization efforts. (Please re-read “It’s All About the Money, Money, Money” for details of the money trail.)

Rep. Christiana received well over a third (38%) of his campaign contributions so far this year from three pro-voucher groups: $25,000 from the new Fighting Chance PA PAC; $25,000 from the Students First PAC; and $2,500 from Wal-Mart’s school-choice PAC. Christiana apparently “laughed” when a reporter asked if these donations influenced his new tax-credit bill. “I’ve been a strong supporter of parental choice since my first election in 2008,” he said, claiming that voucher groups are merely trying to counteract “the status quo” advocated by teachers’ unions. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-26-12

Ah, yes. By all means, let’s blame teachers’ unions for the massive defunding of our public schools. And while we’re at it, why don’t we blame them for creating the insidious national narrative that our public schools are failing in the first place.

What HB 2468 is really about is giving away mountains of public, taxpayer money to private corporations. A new analysis of the proposed bill, released yesterday by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, found that, “Individual taxpayers are footing the bill for $9 out of every $10 of corporate contributions for private and parochial school scholarships” made through the current EITC program. [PBPC, Analysis of HB 2468, 6-25-12]

What’s worse, companies get a “triple dip” tax reduction, since they can take both state and federal tax deductions for their “charitable” contributions, on top of the state tax credit. That means that a corporation donating at the current annual cap of $300,000 will pay only $20 a year out of pocket. Twenty bucks! And don’t forget, that buys them huge PR in the community. (For example, see how Exxon has done this in “EITC: No Credit to PA.”)

[Source: Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center]

Even more astonishing, a company that contributes to pre-K scholarships, which has an even larger tax credit, can actually receive tax benefits largerthan the total value of the “contribution.” Yes, you read that right. The EITC program can literally net companies income – a reverse flow of public dollars to private corporations. That’s adding insult to injury, as public schools are reeling from massive budget cuts and these tax credit programs channel desperately needed revenue away from our public goods.

You can bet Exxon and many other corporations are waving their pom-poms and chanting, “2-4-6-8, Who do we appreciate?” when they think about HB 2468. Maybe we need to send some real cheerleaders from Pennsylvania’s public schools to Harrisburg where they can explain to legislators the value of public education. They could end with a better chant: “2-4-6-8, Public schools are really great!”