Saturday, July 30, 2011

Meet the Billionaires Attempting to Takeover Public Educations

By Zaid Jilani on May 21st, 2011 at 4:30 pm
Two weeks ago, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) marked “a new era for education in Indiana” when he signed into law one of the most expansive school voucher laws in the country, opening up a huge fund of tax dollars for private schools. A few days later, the Wisconsin state Assembly vastly expanded school vouchers,freeing up tax dollars even for private religious schools. GOP legislators in the Pennsylvania Senate say they have the votes to pass a sweeping voucher bill of their own. And on Capitol Hill, House Republicans successfully revived Washington, D.C.’s voucher system after it was killed off two years ago.
This rapid expansion of voucher programs — which undermine and undercut public education by funnelling taxpayer money to private schools — is remarkable. After all, vouchers have been unpopular with the American public. Between 1966 and 2000, vouchers were put up for a vote in states 25 times, and voters rejected the program 24 of those times.
Yet if one looks behind the curtain — at the foundations, non-profits, Political Action Committees (PAC) — into the workings of the voucher movement, it’s apparent why it has gained strength in recent years. A tight-knit group of right-wing millionaires and billionaires, bankers, industrialists, lobby shops, and hardcore ideologues has been plotting this war on public education, quietly setting up front group after front group to promote the idea that the only way to save public education is to destroy it — disguising their movement with the innocent-sounding moniker of “school choice.”
ThinkProgress has prepared this report to expose this network and give Americans the knowledge they need to fight back against this assault on the nation’s public schools. Here are some of the top millionaires and their organizations waging war on our education system:
– Dick DeVos: The DeVos family has been active on education issues since the 1990′s. The son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, Sr., DeVos unsuccessfully ran for governor of the state of Michigan, spending $40 million, the most ever spent in a gubernatorial race in the state. In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term “public schools” and instead call them “government schools.” He has poured millions of dollars into right-wing causes, including providing hundreds of thousands of dollars into seed money for numerous “school choice” groups, including Utah’s Parents for Choice in Education, which used its PAC money to elect pro-voucher politicians.
– Betsy DeVos: The wife of Dick DeVos, she also coincidentally happens to be the sister of Erik Prince, the leader of Xe, the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater and is a former chair of the Republican Party of Michigan. Mrs. DeVos has been much more aggressive than her husband, pouring her millions into numerous voucher front groups across the country. She launched the pro-voucher group All Children Matter in 2003, which spent $7.6 million in its first year alone to impact state races related vouchers, winning 121 out of 181 races in which it intervened. All Children Matter was found breaking campaign finance laws in 2008, yet has still not paid its $5.2 million fine. She has founded and/or funded a vast network of voucher front groups, including Children First America, the Alliance for School Choice, Kids Hope USA, and the American Federation for Children.
- American Federation for Children (AFC): AFC made headlines recently when it brought together Govs. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Tom Corbett (R-PA) and former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee at a major school choice event in Washington, D.C. AFC is perhaps the most prominent of all the current voucher groups, having been founded in January 2010 by Betsy DeVos. Working together with its PAC of the same name and the 501c(3) organization also lead by DeVos, the Alliance for School Choice, it has served as a launching pad for school choice legislation across the country. AFC made its mark in Wisconsin by pouring thousands of dollars into the state legislative races, donating $40,000 in the service of successfully electing voucher advocate Rep. Kathy Bernier (R) and donating similar amounts to elect Reps. Andre Jacque (R), John Klenke (R), Tom Larson (R), Howard Marklein (R), Erik Severson (R), and Travis Tranel (R). DeVos front group All Children Matter also donated thousands to many of these same voucher advocates. Altogether, AFC spent $820,000 in Wisconsin during the last election, making it the 7th-largest single PAC spender during the election (behind several other mostly right-wing groups with similar agendas).
- Alliance for School Choice (ASC): The Alliance for School Choice is another DeVos front group founded to promote vouchers and serves as the education armof AFC. In 2008, the last date available for its financial disclosures, its total assets amounted to $5,467,064. DeVos used the organization not only for direct spending into propaganda campaigns, but to give grants to organizations with benign-sounding names so that they could push the radical school choice agenda. For example, in 2008 the organization gave $530,000 grant to the “Black Alliance for Educational Options” in Washington, D.C. and a $433,736 grant to the “Florida School Choice Fund.” This allowed DeVos to promote her causes without necessarily revealing her role. But it isn’t just the DeVos family that’s siphoning money into the Alliance for School Choice and its many front group patrons. Among its other wealthy funders include the Jaquelin Hume Foundation (which gave $75,000in 2008 and $100,000 in 2006), the brainchild of one of an ultra-wealthy California businessman who brought Ronald Reagan to power, the powerful Wal Mart Foundation (which gave $100,000 in 2005, the Chase Foundation of Virginia (which gave $9,000 in 2007, 2008, and the same amount in 2009), which funds over “supports fifty nonprofit libertarian/conservative public policy research organizations,” and hosts investment banker Derwood Chase, Jr. as a trustee, the infamous oil billionaire-driven Charles Koch Foundation ($10,000 in 2005), and the powerful Wal Mart family’s Walton Family Foundation (more than $3 million over2004-2005).
- Bill and Susan Oberndorf: This Oberndorfs use their fortune, gained from Bill’s position as the managing director of the investment firm SPO Partners, to funnel money to a wide variety of school choice and corporate education reform groups. In 2009, their Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation gave $376,793 to AFC, $5,000 to the Center for Education Reform, and $50,000 to the Brighter Choice Foundation. Additionally, Bill Oberndorf gave half a million dollars to the school choice front group All Children Matter between 2005 and 2007. At a recent education panel, Bill Oberndorf was credited with giving “tens of millions” of dollars of his personal wealth to the school choice movement, and said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the “gold standard” for what should be done across America.
- The Walton Family Foundation (WFF):The Wal Mart-backed WFF is one of the most powerful foundations in the country, having made investments in 2009 totaling over $378 million. In addition to financing a number of privately-managed charter schools itself, the foundation showered ASC with millions of dollars in 2009. It also gave over a million dollars to the New York-based Brighter Choice Foundation, half a million dollars to the Florida School Choice Fund, $105,000 to the Foundation for Educational Choice, $774,512 to the Friends of Educational Choice, $400,000 to School Choice Ohio, and gave $50,000 to the Piton Foundation to promote a media campaign around the Colorado School Choice website — all in 2009 alone. WFF’s push for expanding private school education and undermining traditional public schools was best summed up by John Walton’s words in an interview in 2000. An interviewer asked him, “Do you think there’s money to be made in education?” Walton replied, “Absolutely. I think it will offer a reasonable return for investors.” (He also did vigorously argue in the same interview that he does not want to abolish public education).
The wealthy families and powerful corporate-backed foundations presented here are just a sampling of some of the forces currently taking aim at public education. By demonizing traditional public schools and the teachers that staff them, this corporate education movement is undermining a very basic aspect of our democracy: a public commons that provides true opportunity for all, no matter what their background or socioeconomic status.
While the goals of the figures in this movement are varied, their assault on our public education system is one and the same. Joseph Bast, the president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, explained his own thinking about vouchers once, saying, “The complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now, and would put us on the path to further privatization.” It’s up to Americans to protect their schools, teachers, kids, and communities from that fate.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Deposition on the 2004 Presidential Election

Introduction by Denis Smith, former Executive Director of the National Middle School Association

Some of you may think the story below is old news, but it is not that way for me.  The 2004 election was the first electoral contest that I worked as a precinct volunteer.  As a result of being there and witnessing how this election was conducted, I saw hundreds of people leave the voting lines because of long delays.  When I arrived at inner-city Precinct 19-B in Columbus at 7:15am to work on Election Day (I had voted in my home (suburban) precinct at 6:30am with no wait and plenty of voting machines), I quickly discovered that there were only three voting machines to handle the huge turnout. (In the March primary, which was of no consequence, there were seven machines that were delivered to that same precinct 19-B!)  You can imagine the result - people waiting for hours in the rain who had to leave to go to work, be with their children as they returned from school, or care for a shut-in.  I should also tell you that my suburban precinct, almost all white and nearly all Republican, got 8 voting machines on election day, while the inner-city precinct, nearly all Democrat, got just 3.) After the election, I filed an affidavit of what I saw.  I was also interviewed off-camera by the British TV network ITN to get my views on what was happening.  The result was that Bush "won" Ohio by 100,000 votes, but there are those, like me, who witnessed this travesty and who believe the election was rigged, a la Florida in 2000.  If you look up the final electoral result, if John Kerry had won Ohio in 2004, he would have become president -- even though he would have had about 1 million less popular votes than George Dubya Bush.  What a turnaround that would have been to the 2000 result, when Gore won the popular vote by 500,00, but lost when the Supremes selected Dubya as president.  I hope you enjoy this article by Bob Fritakis, a political science professor at Columbus State College.

PS - If you follow this somewhat technical article, you might come to believe that we were robbed - twice in a row.  So much for democracy and our so-called democratic system.

Recently Released Deposition on the 2004 Presidential Election

A new filing in the King Lincoln Bronzeville v. Blackwell case includes a copy of the Ohio Secretary of State election production system configuration that was in use in Ohio's 2004 presidential election when there was a sudden and unexpected shift in votes for George W. Bush.

The filing also includes the revealing deposition of the late Michael Connell. Connell served as the IT guru for the Bush family and Karl Rove. Connell ran the private IT firm GovTech that created the controversial system that transferred Ohio's vote count late on election night 2004 to a partisan Republican server site in Chattanooga, Tennessee owned by SmarTech. That is when the vote shift happened, not predicted by the exit polls, that led to Bush's unexpected victory. Connell died a month and a half after giving this deposition in a suspicious small plane crash.

Additionally, the filing contains the contract signed between then-Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell and Connell's company, GovTech Solutions. Also included that contract a graphic architectural map of the Secretary of State's election night server layout system.

Cliff Arnebeck, lead attorney in the King Lincoln case, exchanged emails with IT security expert Stephen Spoonamore. Arnebeck asked Spoonamore whether or not SmarTech had the capability to "input data" and thus alter the results of Ohio's 2004 election. Spoonamore responded: "Yes. They would have had data input capacities. The system might have been set up to log which source generated the data but probably did not."

Spoonamore explained that "they [SmarTech] have full access and could change things when and if they want."

Arnebeck specifically asked "Could this be done using whatever bypass techniques Connell developed for the web hosting function." Spoonamore replied "Yes."

Spoonamore concluded from the architectural maps of the Ohio 2004 election reporting system that, "SmarTech was a man in the middle. In my opinion they were not designed as a mirror, they were designed specifically to be a man in the middle."

A "man in the middle" is a deliberate computer hacking setup, which allows a third party to sit in between computer transmissions and illegally alter the data. A mirror site, by contrast, is designed as a backup site in case the main computer configuration fails.

Spoonamore claims that he confronted then-Secretary of State Blackwell at a secretary of state IT conference in Boston where he was giving a seminar in data security. "Blackwell freaked and refused to speak to me when I confronted him about it long before I met you," he wrote to Arnebeck.

On December 14, 2007, then-Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, who replaced Blackwell, released her evaluation and validation of election-related equipment, standards and testing (Everest study) which found that touchscreen voting machines were vulnerable to hacking with relative ease.

Until now, the architectural maps and contracts from the Ohio 2004 election were never made public, which may indicate that the entire system was designed for fraud. In a previous sworn affidavit to the court, Spoonamore declared: "The SmarTech system was set up precisely as a King Pin computer used in criminal acts against banking or credit card processes and had the needed level of access to both county tabulators and Secretary of State computers to allow whoever was running SmarTech computers to decide the output of the county tabulators under its control."

Spoonamore also swore that "...the architecture further confirms how this election was stolen. The computer system and SmarTech had the correct placement, connectivity, and computer experts necessary to change the election in any manner desired by the controllers of the SmarTech computers."
Project Censored named the outsourcing of Ohio's 2004 election votes to SmarTech in Chattanooga, Tennessee to a company owned by Republican partisans as one of the most censored stories in the world.

In the Connell deposition, plaintiffs' attorneys questioned Connell regarding gwb43, a website that was live on election night operating out of the White House and tied directly into SmarTech's server stacks in Chattanooga, Tennessee which contained Ohio's 2004 presidential election results.

The transfer of the vote count to SmarTech in Chattanooga, Tennessee remains a mystery. This would have only happened if there was a complete failure of the Ohio computer election system. Connell swore under oath that, "To the best of my knowledge, it was not a fail-over case scenario – or it was not a failover situation."

Bob Magnan, a state IT specialist for the secretary of state during the 2004 election, agreed that there was no failover scenario. Magnan said he was unexpectedly sent home at 9 p.m. on election night and private contractors ran the system for Blackwell.

The architectural maps, contracts, and Spoonamore emails, along with the history of Connell's partisan activities, shed new light on how easy it was to hack the 2004 Ohio presidential election.
Bob Fitrakis is co-counsel in the King Lincoln case.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Advocacy Individuals and Groups to Promote Privatization of Public Education

by Don Thomas, former Supt. of the Salt Lake City Schools

The powerful who attack public education (and work to starve it) (or privatize it) are active at the federal and state levels. They control many elections.  So that all may know, I have made a list of who they are:

Betsy DeVos
The Koch Brothers
Dick Armey
Teri Adams
Patrick Byrne
The Walton Family                            
Joel Greenberg
Jeffrey Yass
The Obendorf Family 

Fronts for these individuals have been formed across the country:
Children's Education Council
Believe in Louisiana
All Children Matter
Iowa Advocates for Chose in Education
Alliance for School Choice
Parents for School Choice
REACH Alliance Partners for Educational Freedom
BOAST Alliance
Texans for School Choice
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)  (added by Julie Underwood)
We should all remember the admonitions of a wise Italian sage (Venanzio
Luigi Manna)  "If one wishes to control the destiny of nations, one must first control the education of the young!"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Corporate Hijacking of Public Education

Friday 15 April 2011
by: Crystal Sylvia , Left Turn | Op-Ed
Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS), is the face of what needs to be called corporate education reform. The premises of corporate education reform are: the main impediments to improving public schools are teachers' unions because they rigidly defend bad teachers; schools need to be run like businesses to make them less bureaucratic and more dynamic; educational experience is not required to be a teacher, principal, or chancellor; the corporate education reform model is the only way public education can be transformed; and success can be measured through data-driven outcomes, with the most important data being student test scores.
Washington DC has been the testing ground for the entire corporate education reform movement, and Rhee's main accomplishment as DCPS Chancellor was to help brand this increasingly popular agenda. For this movement, success in DC would mean that federal and state money could be directed towards funding the corporate reform agenda nationally.
Breaking the Teachers Union
The starting point for Rhee's brand of education reform was to depict public schools as part of an entrenched failed system that serves as a jobs program for horrible teachers. Teachers were blamed for all that ailed DCPS—low graduation rates, poor test scores, and dwindling enrollment, with children fleeing to charter schools.
Rhee's most outrageous accusation was printed in Fast Company magazine, where she described why she laid off 266 DCPS teachers in October 2009: "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school." Her claim made it sound as if many of the teachers had committed these acts, when in fact only one of the 266 allegedly had sex with a student, and eight others were alleged to have either used corporal punishment or had excessive absences. But the shocking quote served her well, as a horrified audience praised her brave actions in taking on the Washington Teachers Union.
Rhee's brash style and "take-no-prisoners" approach resulted in her being described as a "rock star." Her celebratory status culminated when she was featured in the film Waiting for Superman and soon after was hailed as a "Warrior Woman" by Oprah Winfrey.
Despite such feel-good rhetoric, in reality her corporate policies have wreaked havoc on the public education system in DC.
While bad DCPS teachers exist, they are a small minority. The real problem in DCPS and urban schools around the country is the leadership, which has left the majority of teachers and school staff overwhelmed without the proper supports, supplies, or the necessary training to overcome the tremendous obstacles that the children present.
According to Diane Ravitch, long time historian of education and author of the book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, "Fifty percent of all those who enter teaching leave within the first five years. Our biggest problem is not getting rid of deadbeats, but recruiting, retaining, and supporting teachers."
Embracing the business model
Rhee's strategy of attacking unions and teachers eased the implementation of free market policies, which rely on three main tenets: a top-down organizational structure, privatization, and competition (or "school choice").
It is not surprising, then, that reforming public education has become a very profitable industry, involving testing companies, consultants, supplemental educational services, educational management companies and charter schools. Some are non-profit but a growing number are for profit. And then there are the venture philanthropists: the Broad, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Walton Foundations, who direct huge amounts of money to projects they deem worthy.
The Broad Foundation's website claims, "We take an untraditional approach to giving. We don’t simply write checks to charities. Instead we practice 'venture philanthropy.' And we expect a return on our investment."
Is that what educating children has boiled down to—a return on investment?
Rhee sought to show that her reform was inclusive early on by ensuring that all emails from parents and teachers were immediately responded to. However, her top-down approach to school management made meaningful community participation and transparency nearly impossible. In response to mounting criticism, Rhee began monthly "Chancellor's Office Hours" where anyone could "sit down one-on-one with the chancellor for five minutes."
Five minutes and you have instant community engagement—the innovation of corporate education reform at work!
School communities have been further shut out of the process as privatization of public education has taken hold. Under Rhee, an increasing number of services were contracted out to private companies. This has been exacerbated by Federal No Child Left Behind regulations that mandate restructuring of schools that continually fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). 
Then there is the competition element, better known as "school choice." Every parent deserves a "portfolio" of school choices, the logic goes, just like they have the choice between fifteen types of tortilla chips on the store shelf. The idea is that competition among schools will improve the quality of all schools.
Without delving into the charter school debate, it is important to discuss how the concept of competition is driving the call to close down "failing" schools. Every year, new charter schools open in DC as both charter and traditional public schools close. The corporate education reformers celebrate schools closing as proof that reform is progressing.
But shuttering schools is not the same as closing down a Starbucks. Many of the children attending these schools come from unstable homes and most of them are not reading or writing on grade level, which is the primary reason for the school closures to begin with. Their teachers can be one of the few sources of stability in their lives. Bouncing these children around from school to school will only increase the chaos in their lives and make it more probable that they will slip through the cracks. 
It is also a downward spiral, as "competition" leads to shrinking enrollments. These schools scramble to attract new students as their funding drops, forcing staff cuts that make it more improbable that they will be able to raise test scores, which further fuels the loss of students. Instead, these schools, which happen to be in some of the neediest communities, should be infused with supports. 
More destabilization occurs in schools as the latest fads in education reform, funded by the generous support from the venture philanthropists, are forced on them. Most of the time these initiatives last a year or two, at which time a "new and better" program is brought in. This "flavor of the month" approach only adds to the disarray in schools.
No experience necessary
Since corporate education reform is viewed through the lens of the business model, the importance of having educational experience and formal training is diminished. In this new world of public education, you don't have to be an educator to be a principal or teacher, you just have to be a good manager. A degree in education is irrelevant to being "highly effective" and having years of experience is not valued.
You can't talk about corporate education reform without mentioning Teach For America (TFA), one of key players in the reform movement. TFA demonstrates an extreme approach to the concept of teaching. With just five weeks of on-the-job training, recent college graduates are placed in schools with high-needs populations. It is their energy, drive and belief that "all children can learn—no excuses" that is the supposed formula to success. TFA recruits only make a commitment to teach for two years, which adds to the turnover of public school teachers.
TFA embraces one of the most controversial aspects of corporate education reform, which is the contention that a teacher is the single most important factor in student achievement. According to this, poverty and dysfunctional home lives are extraneous factors. This fallacy has been drilled into the minds of the public so often that many people accept it as true. If you argue otherwise you are labeled as someone who believes that poor children can't learn.
Countless studies instead find that poverty is the "single biggest correlate with low academic achievement," as Ravitch notes. This does not mean poor children can’t learn and it does not mean that all poor children live in dysfunctional homes. Poor children can learn and even excel, but as Ravitch explains, "Children who grow up in poverty get less medical care, worse nutrition, less exposure to knowledge and vocabulary, and are more likely to be exposed to childhood diseases, violence, drugs, and abuse. They are more likely to have relatives who are incarcerated. They are more likely to live in economic insecurity, not knowing if there is enough money for a winter coat or food or housing. This affects their academic performance. They tend to have lower attendance and to be sick more than children whose parents are well-off."
As a social worker in an underperforming DCPS elementary school with a large population of "high needs" students, this reality is confirmed for me every day. Most of my time is spent responding to conflicts or crises in which students act out the trauma, neglect, abuse, and confusion in their lives. These children are suffering and it is affecting their ability to concentrate and learn. Schools get saddled with the responsibility of dealing with all of the societal ills that children experience. You can't ignore these realities.
One anecdote of many is about a girl who recently sought me out at recess. She shared that before she came to school that morning, the police raided her home with guns drawn to arrest a relative. She was extremely upset and terrified. But if it is test time, this is not supposed to affect her scores. Unfortunately, I have heard similar stories from other students many times before.
Why don't we look at more facts, like DC's child poverty rate? Forty-three percent of African American children live in poverty in DC. I wish the corporate education reformers would be as appalled at this statistic as they are with AYP scores.
Delving into the complexities of reforming public education doesn't jive well with the likes of Rhee. Instead, the reform debate is polarized: if you are against their reform, then you are for the status quo. If you support tenure, then you support bad teachers who can't be fired. If you oppose the closing of schools, then you think it is acceptable for children to be relegated to "failing schools." If you say that poverty and home dysfunction affects a student's ability to learn, then you have given up on all poor children.
It makes the debate easy to argue when you dismiss all criticism in this manner. The consequence is that no meaningful dialogue can take place.
Test factory
The final element of corporate education reform is accountability, which Rhee and the new reformers believe is best measured by "data driven outcomes." This requires excessive amounts of documentation, reports, and paperwork for a central office to track how schools are performing. But this emphasis to the extreme overburdens school staff, who are already stretched to the limit. Documentation is important, but it often appears as if documentation is an end unto itself.
Then there is the high-stakes standardized testing that determines a school's AYP, which has become the focal point for the entire school year. Almost all decisions made are based on how standardized test scores are going to be affected. This is especially true for schools like mine which have not been meeting AYP for several years. Critics point out that the emphasis on test scores narrows the curriculum. However, the most detrimental consequence for turning our schools into test factories is the effect it is having on the students' psyches. The school year is now saturated by testing mania. This is alienating for many students. For those who are two or three years below grade level, taking a test that could have very well been written in a foreign language leaves them feeling stupid and angry. The test experience just reinforces their perception that they are utter failures.
As if this wasn't enough, Rhee has reignited the movement to tie test scores to staff performance through one of her signature reforms, the teacher evaluation tool known as IMPACT. For some teachers, half of their score is based on one standardized test. Many teachers and other staff worry that even if they are doing a good job, they could be terminated. It is astonishing how many times I have heard staff members say they are making decisions not based on what is best for children but what is best for their IMPACT scores, especially because the two are in many ways unrelated.
In the end, instead of inspiring people, Rhee has instilled fear. Most DCPS employees felt intimidated into keeping silent, which prevented the media from exposing the many failures that resulted from Rhee's policies. When complaints did surface they were either minimized or denied all together.
DCPS is a perfect example of how data can be manipulated and packaged into promotional press releases. Gaming the system is more about politics than children—and the corporate reformers have won round one. The Obama administration has signed onto their agenda with the competitive grant program, Race To The Top. And although she has left DCPS, Rhee continues to push the corporate model nationally through her Students First organization.
Common needs
It is important to note that there are many well-intentioned people who embrace corporate education reform. Like the rest of us, they see public school systems that are failing children in numerous ways. However, these folks are misguided. This movement is being led and funded by conservative think tanks with an agenda that promotes the privatization of public schools. The deep pockets that are bankrolling all aspects of corporate education reform are from foundations headed by mostly white, male billionaires who put their own children in elite private schools that treat teachers with dignity and respect.
The system needs to be reformed. The unions, like the Washington Teachers Union, do have a history of not advocating for teachers in ways that are needed to improve "failing" schools. But teachers unions are not the enemy.
In fact, teachers and students have many of the same needs. When teachers are able to teach in buildings that are not dilapidated, children learn better. When teachers get the resources, training, and support they need, children can excel. When teachers are allowed to teach a varied curriculum rather than being forced to focus on standardized testing, children can have an enriching educational experience. When teachers are treated professionally without a culture of intimidation, children will learn in nurturing schools.
True reform cannot be imposed but must include meaningful participation with the school community and must address the poverty, violence, and dysfunction that plague too many of our children’s lives.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stand for Children: A Hometown Perspective of its Evolution

Susan Barrett was a volunteer for an education reform organization called Stand for Children, which is based in Portland. In this post she explains why she stepped down. This appeared on the website ofParents Across America.
Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman, co-founder and chief executive officer, just got some unpleasant publicity for remarks he made while he was on a panel at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival. Caught on video,he was shown bragging about how he manipulated people to get reform legislation passed in Illinois. He apologized but the damage was done.
Barrett’s post explains the history of Stand for Children, why she initially volunteered for the organization and how it is changed. It is a story that goes beyond a single organization’s narrative and explains the current reform dynamic.
By Susan Barrett
I recently stepped down as a volunteer co-leader of a Stand for Children (SFC) team in Portland, Oregon, the headquarters of this organization. Being a SFC member has meant fighting for the needs of children and better public schools for all students in this state (see this pdf.) However, things have started changing here in Oregon, and I worry that SFC is headed down the path that disaffected parents, like me, identify as the corporate reform movement.
I was prompted to write this piece for a couple of reasons: One, I have seen characterizations of SFC as one of the “astroturf” organizations that have recently sprouted up like weeds, generated by the fortunes of billionaires and hedge fund managers to push their particular preference for implementing business strategies in education, attacking teachers and their unions, and promoting privatization. SFC is not astroturf, and that can make them perhaps more deceptive if we are not paying attention.
This leads to my second reason for writing this: I want to make sure that people pay close attention to who is on the SFC board, where their money is coming from, and think critically about whether or not the agendas they are promoting will bring the results parents and community members hope for in public education.
As I read blogs and articles from across the nation, it seems that many people have already determined that SFC has a top-down, corporate reform type agenda. Here in SFC’s home state, it is not that simple to classify the organization. SFC holds a special place for many activist parents and community members in Oregon. You have to understand that they didn’t storm into the state with millions of dollars to influence election outcomes like they did in Illinois. Here, they had far more humble beginnings.
The organization was inspired by a Stand for Children Day Rally in 1996 in Washington, D.C. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, enlisted the help of her son, Jonah Edelman, to help organize this event. With over 300,000 people attending, Jonah wanted to keep the spirit alive and continue to work on issues attendees were passionate about. He and a co-founder set up a home base in Oregon, and worked on smaller issues with positive impact such as after-school program funding and emergency dental care for uninsured kids. Many parents like me who joined SFC a while back still remember how it was an organization fighting for the Portland Children’s Levy, which provided funds for early childhood education, foster care, child abuse prevention programs, and a variety of other programs centered on children.
Because this is part of the organization’s history, it makes it that much harder to believe how much it has changed. Parents and community members most likely do not know that SFC now has private equity investors and venture philanthropists on the board, making decisions for the organization as it grows new chapters. And, grow they will, as they have announced the need to hire a National Expansion Manager, having raised over a million dollars in funding from the Walton Foundation, and over three million dollars from the Gates Foundation.
My fear is that unwitting parents and community members will join SFC because they want to rectify the problems they see every day in their children’s public schools, such as underfunding, lack of arts programs, large class sizes, and cuts to the school year, only to find that they get roped into very different goals. With SFC inspiring many of its members to run for school board seats, and the funding it gives through its PAC, I worry we will lose a truly democratic discussion and action on education weighted in favor of corporate reforms.
Before I go further, let me just clarify, that those of us who are not on board with the “corporate reform agenda” don’t think everything is just peachy. We are not “defenders of the status quo” as we are often accused, but we just don’t see how the Arne Duncan and Bill Gates-type reforms are providing tangible, worthwhile outcomes for kids.
I first became familiar with SFC in 2001 when I worked in affordable housing and community development. Our organization’s parent network was invited to be the first SFC team in Portland. It was an incredibly powerful experience for the low-income parents we worked with to feel like they could band together to make changes for quality, affordable childcare. SFC was not working on school issues at that time.
When my oldest child started kindergarten in 2007, I looked at the myriad of ways to be an involved parent. I decided to join our school SFC team because I wanted to put my efforts into a cause that would improve the education of all schoolchildren in Oregon. Since I had familiarity with the group from my past work, I felt this was the right choice.
When I joined, SFC fought for more school funding and endorsed pro-education candidates for elective office. Our elementary school parents were passionate about lowering class sizes and enhancing our crumbling school facilities. A “grassroots” organization like SFC was the perfect fit for parents like me who wanted to work on these issues. Team members grumbled when some decisions seemed to come more from the top than from the bottom-up, but since those decisions were articulated as “standing for children” it was hard to put up a fight.
About three years ago, some team leaders at my school became uncomfortable when they were asked to engage in what they considered to be tacky conversations with teachers around hiring practices. When a fellow parent and I were asked to take over as the new team leaders for this school year, we were cautioned about this, but otherwise, we all assumed SFC was working to enhance public education, and this was just a minor mistake along the way.
Well, SFC definitely knows they made a mistake because they recently commissioned a consulting firm to work on better “teacher messaging” which provided them with a list of what to say and what not to mention when talking to teachers (such as, “Don’t reinforce that there are not many teachers involved with Stand chapters.”) That was a red flag, but now as I look back and connect the dots, I see so many more.
I think about the visits from the Policy Director of the New Teacher Project, and the former aide to New York City charter operator, Eva Moskowitz, who said she was moving to Portland and trying to set up a chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge-fund driven organization.
I think about their push for Oregon to submit a Race to the Top application, (which the state did initially, but it failed); and how the organization acted as the “social justice partner “of Waiting for Superman and urged parents to attend the film.
Only recently did I come to realize that the SFC Portland Director, Tyler Whitmire, is the daughter of Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a book lavishing praise on Michelle Rhee.
This past year, Oregon SFC staff wanted us to press our legislators to pass a “bipartisan education package,” which basically tied the release of much-needed school funding to the expansion of charter schools, online learning, and other so-called “reforms.” SFC also pushed to lower the capital gains tax in exchange for “kicker” reform. (The “kicker” is an automatic tax rebate that significantly restricts state revenue that could be used to improve schools.) Reforming the “kicker” has been a long-term goal of SFC Oregon members, but apparently SFC now has to compromise, by supporting the goal of lowering the capital gains tax at the same time, which would considerably reduce or eliminate the revenue gained by repealing the kicker.
This stance is a great departure from what people would normally expect of SFC, and only makes sense when you see the wealthy investors on SFC’s National Board of Directors, and how billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Walton Family Foundation are now funding and driving the organization’s agenda.
What is even more frustrating than the reforms they are pushing is what they aren’t pushing for anymore.
Oregon has one of the shortest school years and lowest education spending in the nation. All of this has taken away from a focus on working for meaningful improvements in our schools. Even though SFC’s membership has risen over the past decade, Oregon’s per pupil spending has continued to drop. I can’t blame SFC for the economy, but where is the concentrated effort to address this? And, now that they have a national presence, they could actually try to create a national movement around funding an equitable and quality education for all.
One of the most prominent charter schools featured in Waiting for Superman was the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies. These schools have very small class sizes, amazing facilities, and wrap around services for students. Those are the kind of “reforms” we should have for all students in our public schools.
Perhaps if SFC replaced their Board Chair, Julie Mikuta, who is also partner at New Schools Venture Fund, which finances charter schools, with someone who has actually made meaningful improvements in public education, they could inch their way back to this work. They could also replace Emma Bloomberg, the daughter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire charter school supporter, as well as Steve Jobs’ wife, and two other board members who are private equity investors, in exchange for people who are stakeholders with a broader perspective and real experience in education....
I look forward to banding together with other parents and community members willing to make meaningful improvements for all kids in our public schools and work for real reform. Anything else, I just can’t stand for.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

School Choice: Taxpayer-Funded Creationism, Bigotry, and Bias

by: Rachel Tabachnick, Talk To Action | Video

Preview of "School Choice: Taxpayer-Funded Creationism, Bigotry, and Bias" from Rachel Tabachnick on Vimeo.

Click here to view video.

The full length version focuses on the state of Pennsylvania and its Education Improvement Tax Credit program or EITC, the oldest and second largest corporate tax credit program in the country.

Starving Public Schools


(Editor's note: Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights. More information about ALEC activitiesclick here.)

Public schools,” ALEC wrote in its 1985 Education Source Book, “meet all of the needs of all of the people without pleasing anyone.” A better system, the organization argued, would “foster educational freedom and quality” through various forms of privatization: vouchers, tax incentives for sending children to private schools and unregulated private charter schools. Today ALEC calls this “choice”— and vouchers “scholarships”—but it amounts to an ideological mission to defund and redesign public schools.

The first large-scale voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, was enacted in 1990 following the rubric ALEC provided in 1985. It was championed by then-Governor Tommy Thompson, an early ALEC member, who once said he “loved” ALEC meetings, “because I always found new ideas, and then I’d take them back to Wisconsin, disguise them a little bit, and declare [they were] mine.”

ALEC’s most ambitious and strategic push toward privatizing education came in 2007, through a publication called School Choice and State Constitutions, which proposed a list of programs tailored to each state. That year Georgia passed a version of ALEC’s Special Needs Scholarship Program Act. Most disability organizations strongly oppose special education vouchers—and decades of evidence suggest that such students are better off receiving additional support in public schools. Nonetheless, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida, Utah and Indiana have passed versions of their own. Louisiana also passed a version of ALEC’s Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act (renaming it Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence), along with ALEC’s Family Education Tax Credit Program (renamed Tax Deductions for Tuition), which has also been passed by Arizona and Indiana. ALEC’s so-called Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act has been passed by Arizona, Indiana and Oklahoma. ALEC’s 2010 Report Card on American Education called on members and allies to “Transform the system, don’t tweak it,” likening the group’s current legislative strategy to a game of whack-a-mole: introduce so many pieces of model legislation that there is “no way the person with the mallet [teachers’ unions] can get them all.” ALEC’s agenda includes:

  • Introducing market factors into teaching, through bills like the National Teacher Certification Fairness Act.
  • Privatizing education through vouchers, charters and tax incentives, especially through the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act and Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, whose many spinoffs encourage the creation of private schools for specific populations: children with autism, children in military families, etc.
  • Increasing student testing and reporting, through more “accountability,” as seen in the Education Accountability Act, Longitudinal Student Growth Act, One-to-One Reading Improvement Act and the Resolution Supporting the Principles of No Child Left Behind.
  • Chipping away at local school districts and school boards, through its 2009 Innovation Schools and School Districts Act and more. Proposals like the Public School Financial Transparency Act and School Board Freedom to Contract Act would allow school districts to outsource auxiliary services.
ALEC is also invested in influencing the educational curriculum. Its 2010 Founding Principles Act would require high school students to take “a semester-long course on the philosophical understandings and the founders’ principles.”

Perhaps the Brookings Institute states the mission most clearly: “Taken seriously, choice is not a system-preserving reform. It is a revolutionary reform that introduces a new system of public education.”

ALEC’s real motivation for dismantling the public education system is ideological—creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone—and profit-driven. The corporate members on its education task force include the Friedman Foundation, Goldwater Institute, Washington Policy Center, National Association of Charter School Authorizers and corpo- rations providing education services, such as Sylvan Learning and the Connections Academy.

From Milton Friedman on, proponents of vouchers have argued that they foster competition and improve students’ learning. But years of research reveal this to be false. Today, students in Milwaukee’s public schools perform as well as or better than those in voucher schools. This is true even though voucher schools have advantages that in theory should make it easier to educate children: fewer students with disabilities; broader rights to select, reject and expel students; and parents who are engaged in their children’s education (at least enough to have actively moved them to the private system). Voucher schools clearly should outperform public schools, but they do not. Nor are they less expensive; often private costs are shifted to taxpayers; a local school district typically pays for transportation, additional education services and administrative expenses. In programs like Milwaukee’s, the actual cost drains funds from the public schools and creates additional charges to taxpayers.

But a deeper crisis emerges when we privatize education. As Benjamin Barber has argued, “public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity.” What hap- pens to our democracy when we return to an educational system whose access is defined by corporate interests and divided by class, language, ability, race and religion? In a push to free- market education, who pays in the end?

More information about ALEC activities, click here.

Julie Underwood, JD, PhD, current president of the Horace Mann League, dean of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She was previously the general counsel of the National School Boards Association. The opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Wisconsin.

Source:  The Nation.  August 1/8, 2011, page 22.

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