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Free Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy

Susan Notes: Kevin Welner provides an overview of how the market, with some help from the media, is driving education policy.

by Kevin Welner

"For about two years now, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been co-opting much of the GOP playbook on education. They support charter schools. They endorse merit pay. They decry teacher tenure and seniority. On alternating Thursdays, they bracingly challenge the teachers' unions." So begins a December 2010 article in National Review Online, authored by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute. Later in the article, Duncan receives praise from these conservative pundits for embracing spending limitations on American schools and welcoming--in place of those resources-- "productivity" increases.

The Duncan-Obama approach should sound familiar, even to those who do not follow education policy discussions. Defund, deregulate, de-unionize, and shift to the private sector. Reallocate policy-making authority from democratic institutions to a wealthy oligarchy. Corporate-endowed think tanks like AEI have been successfully promoting this road map for everything else, so why not education?

But education is different in one disquieting way: many self-identified progressives have climbed on board the bandwagon. Some, in fact, are driving. Although the economic analyses offered by groups like the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress generally explore how to soften the sharp edges of market capitalism, their respective education divisions are busily promoting free-market policies in our children's schools. Arianna Huffington warns against deregulation of the financial sector, but she's all for it in the educational sector. Nicholas Kristof worries about a "hedge fund
republic," but joins in the hedge-fund managers' campaign to criticize teacher-union contracts. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek sees dangers in unregulated markets yet pushes for more markets in education. As anyone who has watched Waiting for Superman can attest, Alter is particularly hostile toward teachers' unions. Director Davis Guggenheim is another example: a hero of the Left for An Inconvenient Truth, but a hero of the Right for Superman. Media stars such as John Legend and Oprah Winfrey have also joined in, as have (to some extent) venerable civil rights organizations such as the United Negro College Fund and the National Council of La Raza.

The most engaged in this neoliberal education campaign are organizations focused on school choice: Democrats for Education Reform (and their 501(c)(4), Education Reform Now Advocacy), Education Sector, and the Progressive Policy Institute; as well as service-oriented groups like New Leaders for New Schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Green Dot charter networks, Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, Stand for Children, the New Schools Venture Fund, and even the leadership of the Harlem Children's Zone.

These groups, it should be stressed, are very careful to avoid being characterized as politically on the Right or affiliated with Republican political efforts. Their collaborators, however, do not show any such reluctance. Right-wing, free-market think tanks
have joined with neoliberal education groups in pushing for choice and privatization policies. These right-wing think tanks and similar organizations are active in every state, and many more are pursuing a national agenda. Together, these groups have launched a potent attack on the progressive foundations of American schooling, and they are framing this attack as a "civil rights struggle."

After years of hammering home the theme of "failing public schools," the campaign is now increasingly focused on teachers' unions and the existing system of teacher education, preparation, and certification. Deregulation is consistently put forward as the best way to address unmet needs. Additional attacks are leveled at legal and political efforts toward an equitable distribution of educational resources and at democratically elected school boards and neighborhood schooling. Offered in their place are school choice, mayoral control, and free-market entrepreneurialism. Under the new model, accountability and sound policy making are found not in traditional democratic structures but in a fundamentalist view of the power of the market as exerted through parental choice. Efficiency and quality are to be achieved through choice combined with publicized test scores.

By any measure, the free-market campaign in education has shown extraordinary results. Conservative education policy is now pervasive and deeply ingrained among a growing faction of powerful and wealthy Democrats. As suggested by the opening quotation from Hess and Petrilli, education has emerged as a key potential area of accord between the White House and the Republican-led House. Only minimal compromise will be necessary because the two sets of positions are already so well-aligned.

Of course, most people and organizations on the Left are justifiably disgusted by the lack of progress the nation has made toward providing equitable educational opportunities for children of color and those living in poverty. And when confronted with repeated disappointments, it is not surprising that many people are willing to grab onto attractive-sounding alternatives. Small wonder that some progressives find themselves drawn to an organization such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options. BAEO was started in 2000 with funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation--two philanthropies that have offered enormous support for school choice as well as support for a broad portfolio of anti-union, deregulation, and privatization endeavors. What BAEO and similar organizations do is help to make the public face of school choice more attractive to progressives than the movement of decades ago, which was dominated by transparently anti-public-school activists.

This points to what should be the fundamental
progressive response--the critique that
many progressives seem hesitant to seize: that
educational opportunities should be among
the most precious public goods. While public
education does provide an important private
benefit to children and their families, it also
lies at the center of our societal well-being.
Educational opportunities should therefore
never be distributed by market forces, because
markets exist to create inequalitiesâ€"they
thrive by creating "winners" and "losers."
These forces are already at play in the housing
market, and school reform should attenuate
the resulting inequities, not exacerbate them,
as we see happening with unconstrained
school choice.

Reformers appeal to the urgency of
confronting "failing schools," but the logic of
their argument leads inevitably to students'
dependence upon parents who know how to
maneuver within the system to gain private
advantage. This is an abandonment of the goal
of a comprehensive public sector that provides
equitable, universal opportunities. Such
consequences are anathema to progressives
when free-market ideas are applied to health
care; there is no reason they should be
welcome when applied to the education of the
nation's children.

The shift to the current focus on deregulation
and free-market solutions was not a mere
happenstance. A great deal of time, money,
and effort orchestrated the shift in a very
purposeful, calculated way. As an example,
consider the case of Linda Darling-Hammond.
During his presidential campaign,
candidate Obama assembled what he called a
"team of rivals" (evoking Abraham Lincoln)
for his education advisers. The team was
primarily composed of neoliberals, but among
those leading the team was someone with a
progressive perspective--Stanford professor
Linda Darling-Hammond. She is widely
recognized as one of the most accomplished
and respected scholars in the field, and teacher
preparation and teacher quality are her
particular areas of expertise.

Immediately after the election, Obama
announced that Darling-Hammond would
head his transition team for education, and
speculation was strong that she was the frontrunner
to become secretary of education. What
followed in November and December of 2008
were repeated condemnations of Darling-
Hammond--in the Washington Post, the New
York Times, Newsweek,
and the New Republic,
among others--with the unremitting charge
that she was a defender of the status quo and
an enemy of reform. David Brooks's negative
assessment, he wrote, was preceded by "a
flurry of phone calls from reform leaders
nervous that Obama was about to side against
them" by choosing Darling-Hammond as
education secretary. Her primary crime, in
their view, was the publication of a research
article in 2005 titled Does Teacher
Preparation Matter
? which was skeptical of
dazzling claims made by and about Teach for
America. In the end, the media and political
campaign against Darling-Hammond was both
ferocious and successful.

In part, the success of the campaign reflects
the rise of private advocacy think tanks,
whose "research" has helped legitimate the
conservative educational agenda. I have
learned a lot since I helped to start the Think
Tank Review Project (thinktankreview.org)
five years ago. The project--now called Think
Twice--applies academic peer review standards
to reports from think tanks and then
publishes reviews on the project website.
Think tank reports have become widely influential
for policymakers and the media. Their
influence is due not to the superiority of their
research but rather to the think tanks̢۪ proficiency
at packaging and marketing their
publications--many of which are of very weak
quality. We have found that these advocacy
reports have often attained greater prominence
than the most rigorously reviewed articles
addressing the same issues published in the
most respected research journals. This should
be a matter of concern. If all documents
labeled "research" are indiscriminately
received and reported as of equal worth,
without review or critique by independent
experts, their value is obviously not
dependent on quality or rigor. These attributes
are beside the point. Value is instead tightly
linked to the ability of the researchers to gain
attention and influence policy. Private think
tanks, which produce their own in-house,
non-refereed research, accordingly become
sensible investments for individuals and
groups hoping to advance their agendas.

In January of each year, the Think Twice
project hands out its Bunkum Awards, highlighting
nonsensical, confusing, and disingenuous
education think tank reports from the
past year. Only those reports judged to have
most egregiously undermined informed
discussion and sound policymaking are recognized.
Past winners include the "Time
Machine Award" given to a report from the
Reason Foundation. In a truly breathtaking
innovation, the report attributed positive
reform outcomes to policy changes that had
not been made yet. Another winner was the
Manhattan Institute, which received the "Who
Reads Warning Labels? Award" for its report
arguing that teachers are better paid than most
white-collar professionals. The study used
hourly earnings data to support its
contentions. But, our reviewer noted, "This
approach is fundamentally flawed because the
[data set's] calculation of weeks and hours
worked is very different for teachers and other
professionals. In fact, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics--which publishes the [data set]--
has explicitly warned its users not to use
hourly rates of pay in this exact same context."

An attack on preschool policies by the
Hoover Institution won the "Misdirection"
Award for its courageous effort to keep policy
makers from noticing approaches that actually
work to help children. Rather than acknowledging
a mountain of empirical, peer reviewed,
and widely accepted evidence, the
Hoover author cherry-picks a few weak
studies to criticize proposals for universal
preschool. Our reviewer summed up this
work as "errors, exaggerations, misrepresentation,
and logical inconsistency." Among the
reviewer's catalog of fourteen major errors, he
notes that actual costs are exaggerated by a
factor of two while immediate and long-term
well-documented effects are under reported or
not reported accurately.

This tactic--the selective use of earlier
research to bolster what appear to be predetermined
findings--is one we have seen
repeatedly. Other harmful patterns and practices
that are pervasive in the publications of
advocacy think tanks include methodological
weaknesses, such as failure to account for
selection bias or the confusion of correlation
and causation, failure to provide the data on
which the report's findings are based, overstated
conclusions, and unsupported recommendations
based on improbable inferential

Just this January, we published a review
by economist Jesse Rothstein of the University
of California, Berkeley, who examined a
December 2010 report from the Gates
Foundation. The report had been trumpeted in
newspapers and other media outlets across the
country as proof of the validity and usefulness
of value-added models, which are used to
estimate students' likely achievement in a
given year. The report used student test scores
to gauge teacher effectiveness--a confirmation
of a policy supported by the foundation. But
Rothstein found that the study's own data
"undermine rather than validate value-added
based approaches to teacher evaluation." As
presented in the Gates report, the study
purportedly showed that teachers whose
students show gains on the state test also
produce gains on a separate test of deeper
conceptual understanding, administered by
the researchers. Rothstein's review, however,
explained that these correlations are very
weak--that over 40 percent of those teachers
whose students' state exam scores place them
in the bottom quarter of effectiveness are in
the top half on the alternative assessment.

In report after report from market-oriented
organizations, privatization reforms in
particular have been offered as the preordained
solution for any number of educational
problems, from school funding to high
school dropout rates to the weaknesses of the
No Child Left Behind law. Indeed, a person
reading these reports could not fail to
conclude that the public nature of public
education is the root cause of all that ails
schools--everything else is a symptom.

Just a few decades ago, the Think Twice
project would have had much less work to do.
Public policy think tanks began fairly
modestly with the founding of such institutions
as the Brookings Institution (1927), the
American Enterprise Institute (1943), and the
Hoover Institution (1959). In the 1970s, a
number of influential think tanks such as the
Heritage Foundation (1973) and the Cato
Institute (1977) were founded, and since the
1970s the number of think tanks has increased
dramatically. The most active and powerful
tend to be free-market think tanks like those
mentioned above. To date, the Think Twice
project has published more than eighty
reviews, and they highlight a well-financed,
tightly interconnected group of policy actors
working within a growing alliance of freemarket

In addition to national organizations, a very
visible and influential network of state-level
free-market think tanks has been built, including
the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts,
the Mackinac Center in Michigan, the
Buckeye Institute in Ohio, and the Commonwealth
Foundation in Pennsylvania. They
have induced major shifts in the nature of policy
discussions. While university-based scholars
produce the most research, publications of
private think tanks are disproportionately represented
in the reporting of major national
newspapers. Market-oriented think tanks in
particular have proliferated, buoyed by very
large gifts from a relatively small number of
benefactors. For instance, between 1985 and
2000, three staunchly right-wing funders--the
Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the
Sarah Scaife Foundation (controlled by billionaire
newspaper publisher Richard Mellon
Scaife), and the John M. Olin Foundation--
awarded grants of more than $100 million to
just fifteen market-oriented think tanks. Further
funding was provided by these foundations
to other think tanks, and additional funders
have also supported the network.

With funding from right-wing donors,
market-oriented think tanks have been able to
engage in aggressive outreach to media and
policy makers to promote their favored ideas.
Conservative donors have demonstrated a
greater willingness than progressives to spend
their money on developing and supporting
institutions that adhere to their ideological
premises--and to fund activities that directly
engage with the political process. By contrast,
most non-conservative grantmakers tend to
support community-based projects that
address urgent needs and to shy away from
politics. Further, few progressive foundations
are willing to fund the operating expenses of
institutions with strong communication
strategies and clear public policy goals. It is
not surprising, then, that institutions funded
by conservatives produce a much greater level
of activity aimed directly at influencing policy,
such as the publication of research reports,
briefing documents, legislative analyses, and
commentaries, as well as networking and
briefings for policy makers and reporters.
The pattern, seen cumulatively over the
past several decades, is that the Right has
focused tremendous resources on marketing
its ideas and building networks of powerful
allies that will push those ideas; the Left has
not. As a result, the messages promoted by
conservative think tanks have influenced even
progressives who otherwise bring to bear a
healthy skepticism regarding market-based
proposals for solving problems of social

Changing this dynamic requires finding a
way to limit the sway of power and money
over school reform. Redressing the imbalance
between the influence of vulnerable communities
impacted by school reform and that of
billionaires convinced that they know what is
best for those communities demands learning
from the methods of the Scaifes, Olins, and
others. Just as there are no quick fixes to the
crisesâ€"educational and otherwiseâ€"facing
America's low-income communities of color,
there are no quick fixes to these participatory
and political inequalities. To bring voices from
vulnerable communities to the fore will
require new networks of progressive
educators, families, organizers, researchers,
advocates, and policy makers as well as benefactors
willing to invest heavily and for the
long term in research, implementation, and
communicationâ€"to engage with the politics
as well as the substance of education.

Kevin G. Welner is professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education. His
research examines the use of research in policymaking, the intersection between education rights litigation and educational
opportunity scholarship, and the school change
process associated with equity-focused reform efforts. His latest book, co-edited with William Mathis, is The Obama Education Blueprint: Researchers Examine the Evidence.

— Kevin G. Welner
Dissent Magazine


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