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Education reform Mafia? No, Vito, it's just some goodfellas

The thing is, you can make a good living in the education business, as long as you are in good stead with The Family. Even better, it helps to be blood kin. In this case we speak of la familia Bush.

by John Young

Watching The Godfather, I’m always struck by the pathos Francis Coppola evokes for characters who would put a slug in a proprietor’s brain for overpricing a cask of chianti.

The most endearing quality of the Corleones is their fondness for the children.

“Never dishonor the family,” says Don Vito.

Traditional family values? Hey, it’s their stock in trade. Sure, some rival might get splutted on the sidewalk, but that’s just business — family business.

In recent years, people whose profession is education have noticed that a business, a syndicate if you will, has grown up around what they do. A few parents of school children have noticed, and some taxpayers in general. But not enough of them.

I’m not sure why, but I tend to look suspiciously at noneducators who make education their business. But why should I? You want these people to go into teaching? With all the education required? And it doesn’t pay so well.

The thing is, you can make a good living in the education business, as long as you are in good stead with The Family. Even better, it helps to be blood kin. In this case we speak of la familia Bush.

It also helps to be from Texas where, reputedly, the vineyards of school reform bear the finest fruit.

Most of these people come touting standardized testing as the best thing since sliced focaccia. You’d expect it, since they’re selling it, even if overemphasis on standardized testing has become a cancer on public education.

If you criticize, expect the syndicate and its friends in high places to come down hard on you. You’ll be thumped in the chest and told you don’t support “high standards” or “accountability.” Forgive me, Godfather, for I am weak.

In the last six years, all the education reform geniuses seem to be from Texas. Did you ever notice that? They started out small and took the franchise national. Molto bello.

Are Texas schools the best in the land? Well, that’s in dispute based on measures like the SAT. But in few places is the education business better.

For one, Texas is absolutely enraptured with standardized tests, the power tools of the education business. And a lot of policymakers in Texas are just aching to hand public education over to the private sector, to people who can make a buck selling their wares.

One such person is being talked up by some interests to become the state’s next commissioner of education.

Sandy Kress is quite a story. Not a teacher, not an academician, he nonetheless became an “education reform expert.” Of course, it helps to be in with The Family.

Kress, an impeccably connected attorney, was in at the ground floor of Texas school reform in the 1980s in an advisory role. He also served on the Dallas school board.

President Bush summoned him to Washington as his chief education adviser and lobbyist for No Child Left Behind.

Not surprisingly, this has opened doors in the business of education. For one, Kress is a lobbyist for NCS Pearson. That’s one of the giants in selling stuff to schools, particularly tests.

Companies like Pearson, Harcourt, CTB/McGraw-Hill and Riverside Publishing are said to dominate the business of testing, much like the Corleones and Tattaglias dominated any number of respectable recreational pursuits.

That Gov. Rick Perry would consider for Texas’ chief education slot a lobbyist for a testing corporation has raised eyebrows in the education profession. Ah, what do educators know?

If you watch the Texas Legislature you realize that to the Austin bosses, education is all business. You got a problem with that?

Every session the assembled suits will convene under the dome and hear from vendors who want a cut of the state’s education business.

They want to divest some tax dollars into school vouchers. They want to sell software and computers for “virtual schools.” They want to enthrall lawmakers with curricula that guarantee higher test scores.

Hey, you gotta make a living.

Did we mention The Family? One member who opted out of that other family business — politics — has been making his living in the education business.

Neil Bush, once associated with a failed Colorado savings and loan, now has a company that goes from statehouse to statehouse selling a software that’s supposed to revolutionize learning.

Using the Arbusto Energy model of corporate growth — patronage from people who want to be in with The Family — Neil Bush raised $23 million from investors.

I know if I were going to get into the education business, I’d put my money into the operation.

For all I know, the man has a good product. And heaven knows the world needs software, and corporations that sell tests and curricula. And those corporations need lobbyists like Sandy Kress who are friends with the right kinds of people.

So don’t mess with them. And don’t go against The Family.

John Young’s column appears Thursday and Sunday. E-mail: jyoung@wacotrib.com.

— John Young
Waco Tribune-Herald


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