A Brief Framework for Understanding the Anti-Public School Movement
Publication Date: 2005-05-30
Three cheers for this Minnesota group of teachers. Visit their website.
Although they are powerful, the small number of neo-cons makes it almost impossible for them to win elections on their own. This is where the religious right becomes useful. Legions of citizens from organizations like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and the Christian Coalition are convinced that America has been betrayed by liberal leaders who have undermined core values and set the nation adrift in a sea of secular humanism and decadence. By pushing "hot button" issues like moral relativism, homosexuality, secularism, multiculturalism, sexual freedom, liberal courts, and a general deterioration of the Christian ethnocentric order, charismatic figures like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Gary Bauer can rally large numbers of voters. Karl Rove estimates that over 15 million voters from the religious right turned out for Bush in 2000.
Money and influence from the neo-conservative secular right combined with grassroots power from the religious right has resulted in a dramatic reshaping of the American political landscape. One important point of intersection between the two is the movement to dismantle public education.
What do they want?
Simply stated, one mission of this coalition is to privatize education. This means implementing a universal voucher plan, enacting school tax credits (stealth vouchers), and/or dotting the educational landscape with charter schools that have private or non-profit authorizing bodies (a de facto voucher system). Vouchers are synonymous with privatization.
Milton Friedman, economist and senior fellow at the neo-conservative Hoover Institute, is the originator and long-time advocate of a universal school voucher plan. Viewed by fellow ideologues as the master architect, Friedman asserts that the "school establishment" in general and the teacher unions in particular have "changed the goal (of schools) from teaching children to keeping teachers satisfied." Friedman argues that "the only way in which you're going to bring schooling into the twenty-first century is to have a private enterprise for-profit industry that will have the incentive and the initiative to serve its customers, that will experiment with various ways of doing it, and that will do it in such a way that their customers are satisfied." Indeed, to shift schooling and education tax dollars to private sources (religious groups, for-profit education companies, and home schooling) is an important part of the neo-conservative vision to end governmental involvement in social entitlements.
After voters soundly rejected several state battles to implement voucher plans, Friedman's devotees realized that they would have to step back and reshape public opinion by hammering home the school failure message. Eventually, they reason, the public will get the message, school support will erode, and they can move incrementally toward greater levels of privatization. The idea of taking smaller steps toward the promised land is reflected in the following statement by the Heartland Institute president, Joesph L. Bast: "Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors."
Their incremental game plan to convert or close government schools rests on five key objectives:
1. They want to build a new educational system that follows a business model. One of the founding documents of the movement is Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America's Public Schools by Lou Gerstner, former chairman of IBM. Gerstner redefines school children as commodities, teachers as marketplace sellers, and the school system as an ineffective monopoly of government schools. Today, a writer who wants to inspire disgust in his conservative readers only has to refer to the system as "government schools," a negative epithet of the highest order. Gerstner summarily dismisses the public system when he concludes that "the schools have failed, they can't compete in the global economy." His remedy is to retool the schools so they operate in a milieu of market pressures.
2. They want to open up public education for venture capital and investor return. The possibility of a vast new market is very tempting indeed; $375 to $600 billion dollars are spent each year on k12 education. Already numerous well-known venture capitalists are jumping on the privatization bandwagon. Investors like Michael Milken, John Walton, Chris Whittle, David Brennan, and William Bennett have pumped millions into education related endeavors.
3. They want to "clean up" what is taught in the schools with acceptable "America first" standards. They believe that the schools, from primary grades to colleges and universities, are polluted with leftist propagandists (some may still be commies) who are undermining America. On her web site The Eagle Forum, right wing die-hard Phyllis Schafly warns her readers that public school history classes are debased with "the current fad of teaching multiculturalism, the code word for the false dogma that all other cultures are superior to Western Civilization." To the neo-conservatives the failure of the schools is not about class size, child poverty, dysfunctional families, inadequate school funding, crumbling communities, or the constant bombardment of teacher morale; rather it is the result of liberal brainwashing.
4. They want to shake public confidence in public education. The shakedown begins with the narrowly defined standards and corresponding high stakes tests required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The cost of implementing these massive tests, along with tutoring responsibilities for those who fail, will force schools to drop or drastically reduce programs. In the time frame allotted by NCLB many schools will not meet the high levels of proficiency. As a result mandatory school "report cards" will be overloaded with reports of schools that are failing or judged to be mediocre. The privatizers will be waiting at the gate shouting again and again, "Look, public schools can't cut it and they can't correct themselves, it's time to apply corporate know-how to fix the schools and save America's future." This loaded school failure message will reshape public opinion and a call will go out to free up tax dollars for vouchers, tax credits, and/or charter schools.
5. They want to weaken or eliminate resistance groups like teacher unions, school associations, and college education departments. Writing for the influential neo-conservative Hoover Institute, Senior Fellow Terry M. Moe writes a typical denunciation when he flatly claims that teacher unions "use their power to resist true reform." Their interests "have nothing to do with what is best for children, schools, or the public interest." If the newly privatized schools are to make a profit they will have to cut teacher pay and benefits, they will want to reduce the overall number of teachers by using more paraprofessionals and computer learning, and they will dramatically loosen the requirements to be a teacher in order to open a broader (and cheaper) teacher pool. This means that teacher unions, teacher safeguards, teacher defined-benefit pension plans, and current teacher requirement standards will have to go.
How are they organized and funded?
To discredit and incrementally privatize public education takes an unshakeable and uncompromising ideology, a network of organized activists, and tons of money. A study by the National Education Association concludes that there is a rigid "conservative network that is disciplined, organized, and extremely well funded. It has a national reach and management with a local presence." The NEA study goes on to say that this conservative coalition is working tirelessly to "methodically accomplish its agenda on a state-by-state basis."
Selling a privatization scheme begins with money, big money. For the anti-public school warriors the cash flows from three basic sources: private individuals and corporations, far right religious groups, and conservative foundations. The lion's share of the dough comes from twelve large and powerful philanthropic foundations:
The largest of the twelve the John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley, Sarah Scaife, and the Smith Richardson Foundation- are collectively known as the "four sisters" because they contribute so much to the same collection of organizations and causes. These "four sisters" plus the Walton Family Foundation are also the biggest contributors to the assault on public education, giving millions of dollars each year to advance privatization. Research by Media Transparency reports that the Bradley Foundation gave 45 million in 2000, including 2.4 million to support the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute to push for school vouchers; the Scaife Foundation gave 26 million in 2001; and the Olin Foundation gave 21 million in 2001.
In order to assure that conservative grant giving remains focused on targeted objectives the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation established the Philanthropy Roundtable. The Roundtable operates as a clearinghouse and strategy center for conservative money sources. In a sense, it is command central. It supports its 600 associate members by designing and distributing philanthropic guidelines for achieving pro-market causes like school privatization. The Roundtable not only exists to provide a funding infrastructure for its members, it also attempts to move the nation's mainstream philanthropic organizations toward a more conservative point-of-view.
State Policy Network
Foundation money supports a puzzle-like web of interrelated far right state-based think tanks, research/policy groups, and associate national organizations. This web of activist organizations is unified with a centralized strategic body called the State Policy Network (SPN). On its web site the SPN states that it is "dedicated solely to improving the practical effectiveness of independent, non-profit, market-oriented, state-based think tanks. State Policy Network's programs enable these organizations to better educate local citizens, policy makers, and opinion leaders about market-oriented alternatives to state and local policy challenges."
Founded in 1992, the SPN advances an anti-worker free market policy to deregulate business and privatize government services. Near the top of its list is public education. The SPN meets regularly to plan strategies to help its state-based members lobby effectively, set agendas, manipulate the media, implement activities, publicize policy, market ideology, groom spokespeople, swell membership, and control state and national issues and debate. Today there are 49 SPN members in 42 states as well as many national associate research/marketing groups. They have been recklessly successful shaping public opinion.
The four horsemen of school privatization
Because of their prolific outpouring of "research," four organizations are key combatants in the battle to win school privatization: The Hoover Institute at Standford, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard. The funding for these four groups comes from similar conservative sources, their neo-conservative agendas are carbon copies, and they work from a closed research framework where they support their own premises with information, critiques, and reviews from one another. The four groups have joined forces to publish Education Next, a rancorous periodical whose mission statement begins "In the stormy seas of school reform, this journal will steer a steady course...." Indeed, a steady course to privatization.
Like a broken record, their research pounds away at a few simple messages: the schools have failed; money doesn't matter; class size makes little difference; child poverty is not a legitimate factor for poor student performance; the curricula is skewed to the left, the schools can't correct themselves--the system is "ossified;" and teachers and teacher unions are misguided, selfish, and/or ignorant. These damning generalizations are presented as unassailable fact. Consider the following example concerning teacher motivation from Chester E. Finn, President of the Fordham Foundation. It is not only ignorantly generalized, it is laden with irony when one remembers that Finn is a founding partner of the Edison Project, a private corporation to profit from education tax dollars: "Self-interest is the key. It's the one constant in nearly every action of the N.E.A. and most of the actions of its rival/partner, the American Federation of Teachers (A.F.T.) Adult self-interest, to be accurate. Teacher self-interest, to be yet more precise. The educational well being of children may be invoked. But it's usually a decoy, a bit of spin meant to garb the adult self-interest in something less naked."
The partners of Education Next and their like-minded counterparts repeatedly ballyhoo charter schools and voucher plans without sufficient data for verification, they hype high stakes testing without referencing the body of research that examines the negative factors of testing, and they support state standards without addressing the one-dimensional learning theory inherent in them. They arrogantly expect the public to embrace their vision of education without a fair and balanced study of all the available research. Ignoring professional standards and research practices, these ideologues, disguised as education experts, are cheerleaders for the neo-conservative school privatization game plan.
What strategies do they use?
A simplified outline of the movement's battle strategy may be summarized as a six-point attack: 1. Set up the public schools for failure using a battery of standards and corresponding high stakes tests, 2. When schools can't meet impossible test proficiency timelines, proclaim "scientific" proof that the schools are broken, 3. Use the severe NCLB sanctions to bully failing schools by firing teachers, transferring students to other schools, and even closing school doors permanently, 4. Pressure state legislators into redistributing tax dollars with vouchers, tax credits, and/or charter schools that have private or non-profit authorizing bodies, 5. Rush in with private enterprise, 6. Tap into the billions in education funds and celebrate the victory over the dreaded government schools.
The success of this strategy depends on how skillfully the privatizers can turn the public against its community schools. Thus far they have routinely employed four basic tactics to do this, each bolstered by an unwillingness to compromise and each implemented with unyielding belief in the correctness of their cause.
1. Extend the problems of troubled schools to include all schools. When spokespeople like Chester E. Finn, Milton Friedman, Joseph Bast, and William Bennett say that the schools have failed they rarely, if ever, qualify the generalization. Chester Finn provides a noteworthy example when he makes the brazen and unsubstantiated generalization that schools have failed because they "function largely for the benefit of its employees and interest groups rather than that of children and taxpayers." Despite the fact that vast numbers of students and parents consistently report that their schools are successful, enough repetition of the failure message may eventually move the public to reject their initial discomfort with school attacks and begin to doubt their own positive experiences.
2. Hammer away at "hot button" issues, even if they aren't relevant to the bulk of the public schools. The anti-public education crowd obsessively cries that educators (presumably the majority of educators) are promoting reprehensible ideas like multiculturalism, homosexual agendas, moral relativism, hate-America first pessimism, etc. Tom Krannawitter, vice president of the neo-conservative Claremont Institute presents a typical example of playing to hot button emotions when he irresponsibly exaggerates: "Multiculturalism represents nothing less than the political suicide of the West, and in particular the crown jewel of the West, the United States of America. Multiculturalism attempts to undermine the good principles upon which America is built, and it is corrosive of the patriotic spirit that fills the hearts of free men and women. Though it operates much more subtly, multiculturalism is no less a threat to our free institutions than the terrorists who attack our cities with airplanes." Evidently, saying it is stridently enough makes it true.
3. Market the notion that there is no need to spend money to help public schools by using the "good money after bad" argument. Pondering the cost and value of adding teachers, Nina Rees, a Heritage Foundation fellow and a high ranking official in the Department of Education, offered the following bit of tortured reasoning: "Hiring more teachers might be good for teachers unions, which would love to see their membership rolls expand at taxpayer expense. But it will do little to help school children get a better education." Keeping the public schools chronically underfunded slows or prevents the schools from enacting effective improvements. Additionally, voucher advocates rarely mention that privatization will be extremely costly. Former U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley estimated that if a national voucher system were put in place, taxpayers would spend $15 billion to subsidize students already in private schools.
4. Flood the media with "research" that is anti-school. The goal is to control the issues and, subsequently, the national dialogue on education. Think tanks and neo-conservative policy groups have invested heavily in marketing their message to the media. Media watchdog Joanna Mareth notes that every Heritage Foundation study, for example, "comes with a synopsis; every synopsis is turned into an Op-Ed piece, distributed by the foundation's own syndicating service. Heritage's 'pre-digested' public policy is well suited to the realities of contemporary journalism, which consumes short, punchy newsbites to feed its 24-hour newscycle. Heritage even runs a seminar called 'Thinking and Talking in Soundbites.'" In her investigation of conservative philanthropy, journalist Karen Rothmeyer concludes:
"Layer upon layer of [conservative sponsored] seminars, studies, conferences, articles, and interviews [can] do much to push along if not create, the issues, which then become the national agenda of debate.... By multiplying the authorities to whom the media are prepared to give a friendly hearing, [conservative donations] have helped to create an illusion of diversity where none exists. The result could be an increasing number of one-sided debates in which the challengers are far outnumbered, if indeed they are heard from at all."
What they are saying about teachers?
The attacks on the public schools revolve around the following themes:
What do they mean by expert?
The seemingly inexhaustible roster of neo-conservative and religious groups attacking education gives the impression that the battle to conquer "government schools" is being waged by an army of diverse and authoritative educational experts. This perception that many experts have independently reached the incontrovertible conclusion that public schools have failed offers the privatizers a momentum to seize the national debate on education. But it is really sleight of hand--it is an illusion of expertise. Below are five tactics that the privatizers use to give the impression that their movement is a broad-based ground swell of knowledgeable experts:
1. Bastardize the U.S. Department of Education. On its home page the Department states that it will use its $54.4 billion budget to disseminate research and focus educational issues. Following a game plan popularized by former Secretary of Education William Bennett, the Department disseminates unbalanced information and focuses issues on highly politicized privatization objectives. This should come as no surprise when one considers the top leadership in the Department.
The Secretary of Education Rod Paige is a long-time Republican activist and former superintendent of the Houston schools. As superintendent Paige worked numerous angles to privatize the schools and instituted punitive accountability policies.
Perhaps Paige characterized his leadership style when he announced that "shame is the greatest weapon for school improvement."
Eugene Hickok, the Deputy Secretary of Education, honed his ideology as a scholar at the granddaddy of conservative policy groups, the Heritage Foundation. Before moving into the Department he was the president of the Education Leaders Council (ELC), a network of privatization advocates who aggressively support vouchers (Note: Since Hickok's appointment as Deputy Secretary, ELC has received $3.5 million in grants from the Education Department, and Congress recently appropriated another $10 million through the department.)
Nina Rees, the Under Secretary of Innovation and Improvement, is a hard line neo-conservative ideologue from the Heritage Foundation who relentlessly and mercilessly bashes public schools. She serves as an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.
It is understandable that the Department's perspective is narrowly politicized when one considers that both policy and money flow through these top leaders. It is incongruous that educational leaders who have a history of public school disservice are in a position to direct positive public school reform.
2. Cross-pollinate a network of think tanks. As one explores the Internet from one neo-conservative think tank to another, the same names keep appearing over and over again. The names listed on think tank staffs, boards, and advisory councils looks like a fraternity roster. For example, the four most visible education research groups-Fordham, Hoover, Manhattan, and PEPG-share the same key players:
Go to URL above for chart.
In addition to a cross-pollinated leadership, the groups share the same writers, they reference the same studies, they review each other's work, and they appoint each other to the same projects and task forces. The comedian Foxworthy once quipped that "you know you are a red neck when your family tree has no branches." In the neo-conservative world of think tanks, expertise is incestuous.
3. Manufacture credentials of expertise. The posted bios for many think tank experts frequently look impressive. Take for example the bio listed on the Fordham site for its president Chester E. Finn. It is loaded with important sounding projects, foundations, and fellowships: Senior Fellow at Hoover Institute; Koret Task Force, Chairman; Edison Project, Founding Partner; Center for Education Reform, Board; Foundation for Teaching Economics, Board; National Association of Scholars, Board; Center for the Am. Experiment, Board; Hudson Institute, Senior Fellow; Senior Editor, Education Next.
Not surprisingly, a close examination of the these credentials shows that they are all part of the neo-conservative establishment, they all have similar educational missions, they all involve the same players from the "fraternity," and they are all funded by the same conservative philanthropy foundations. In a very real sense they are basically one thing, but assigned different names. It is curricula vitae polished with humbuggery.
4. Clone think tanks. The neo-conservative establishment mutates at an alarming rate: One think tank breeds another and it in turn breeds yet another and so on. Consider the following mutation as just one example. Jeanne Allen's (former official with the Department of Education under Reagan) Center for Education Reform (which has both Finn and Bennett on its board) used money from the Olin, Bradley, and Scaife foundations plus 3.5 million tax dollars from the U.S. Department of Education to generate the Education Leader's Council (ELC). The ELC supported the formation of Standards Work, Inc, a DC consulting group that created school "results cards." Additionally, the ELC joined forces with Chester E. Finn's Fordham Foundation and the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ--Note that Finn sits on the board of the NCTQ) to form the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE). Not surprisingly the board of ABCTE is made up of a "whose who" of the think tank network: Lisa Keegan, President of the ELC; E.D. Hirsch, Education Next Editorial Board; Fredrick Hess from Harvard's PEPG and editor of Education Next; and Abigail Thernstrom, the Manhattan Institute.
Lenin once said that if he had 1% of the population that was thoroughly committed he could give the world a revolution. Indeed, the anti-school ideologues are committed. They are dedicated to an overthrow of American public education by repeatedly thrashing schools with cloned messages broadcast from a countless number of cloned think tanks.
5. Buy credibility. Despite the fact that the neo-conservatives frequently attack college professors as "hate America" propagandists, they nevertheless spend big money to purchase prestige for their movement with college and university connections. Wealthy conservative philanthropic foundations like Bradley, Olin, Sciafe, Smith Richardson and others funnel millions of dollars into conservative university programs, publications, chairs, and departments on prestigious campuses like Harvard and Stanford. The Center for Campus Organizing reports that conservative money on campus tops 30 million per year.
Certainly Ideologues are created, not born. More precisely, the ideologues of the anti-public school movement are often recruited, groomed, and bought. College recruitment groups like the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA) uses substantial foundation money to pinpoint and mobilize malleable Ph.D. candidates. Founded by former Treasury Secretary William Simon and neo-conservative ideologue Irving Kristol (later joined by William Bennett and Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind) the IEA provides selected candidates grants and fellowships and, if the right ideology takes hold, helps them find jobs with activist organizations, research projects, and right-leaning periodicals and think tanks.
Minnesota's Commissioner of Education Cheri Yecke dismissed a challenge to her proposed state history standards by thirty-two University of Minnesota history professors claiming "I don't believe in the hate America agenda." This commonly enacted response parrots William Bennett's charge that anti-Americanism is deeply rooted in public schools at all levels. Think tank ideologues are quick to play the patriotism card to trump almost any form of dissent. But turn the tables for a moment and ask...
How patriotic is it to attack a bedrock American institution like education that has broad public support and has contributed to make America one of the greatest nation's on earth?
Is it patriotic to debase America's schools with one-sided research, selected statistics, media manipulation, manufactured public apprehension, stacked experts, and questionable strategies to control the issues and debate?
How patriotic is it to topple public education without really having a well-developed system to put in its place other than an untested, generalized plan like "deregulated market place dynamics"?
Undoubtedly there are failing schools struggling in failing communities. To fix them requires a well-rounded look at educational research that is unfettered by ideological bias and expectations. It requires an open exchange of ideas free of political positioning and it requires the selfless work of experts and public volunteers who are not inextricably linked to narrowly defined religious groups, think tanks, or corporations. The reform process must be done with a healing spirit, not one that is tainted with a simplistic "government is bad" mentality, angry politics, profit motivation, worker condemnation, and moral and intellectual absolutism. Reformers must steadfastly see children as children, not as commodities in venture capital schemes or fodder for social engineering.
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