For most of you reading this, dear advocates of public education, none of this that I am about to mention will be very new information for you. But given Sam Dillon’s report on the front page of the New York Times today, I think perhaps momentum is building in reexamining the emerging role of the wealthy in this country in re-writing the assumptions of what public education is, and should be in the future. This post was also prompted by an excellent piece by our own Ruth Conniff, writing in the Isthmus this week.
Dillon has performed a yeoman’s task of putting together, in a short article, the convoluted inter-workings of the Bill Gates education philanthropy’s strategy for overhauling the nation’s education policies. In some cases the Gates Foundation is immediately engaged in financing educators to offering direct challenges to teacher unions on such issues as the seniority system and and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. In other cases, Mr. Gates has actually created entirely new advocacy groups, while at the same time financially supporting many Washington education analysts with contacts with journalists, even giving grants to some media organizations.
“It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who said he received no financing from the foundation.
“It’s easier to name which groups Gates doesn’t support than to list all of those they do, because it’s just so overwhelming,” noted Ken Libby, a graduate student who has pored over the foundation’s tax filings as part of his academic work.
The impact of the foundation’s role in education policy is immense. Dillon reported that it had developed and promoted common core academic standards that have been adopted in 45 states in recent months.
While the foundation has nominally supported the AFT and the NEA, it was also a supporter of a campaign focused on the “Waiting for Superman” film, a piece of agit-prop that was quite critical of the AFT head, Randi Weingarten. Two other Gates-financed groups, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus, are focussed on giving non-union voices to newer teachers.
In Wisconsin, as Ruth Conniff has so eloquently stated:
There is something horribly fascinating about watching Wisconsin Republicans discuss their plans for our state’s school system.
First, they swing the bloody ax:
- The biggest budget cuts to our public schools in state history, nearly $900 million. Kerchunk.
- A bill to create a statewide system of charter schools whose authorizing board is appointed by Scott Walker and the Fitzgeralds, and which will funnel resources out of local schools and into cheapo online academies. Kerchunk.
- Lifting income caps on private-school vouchers so taxpayers foot the bill to send middle- and upper-income families’ kids to private school. Kerchunk.
and then goes on to document the slow drip-drip of multiple camel noses under the tent, as local authority is usurped and for-profit charters and vouchers begin to gather size and influence within the system from a slow trot to a gallop, balkanizing and dismembering public education as we currently know it.
Despite the public outcry and some nervous chatter from the sidelines from some Republicans, as Conniff as so astutely pointed out,
… this is a sideshow. As Wisconsinites are becoming increasingly aware, the real money in state politics is streaming in from a nationally financed campaign to destroy public schools and privatize education. Olsen’s second-biggest individual contributor, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign data, is Richard Sharp of the Richmond, Va.-based Alliance for School Choice.
The American Federation for Children, which hosted Walker in Washington, D.C., is a spin-off of the Michigan-based group All Children Matter, which has poured millions into phony issue ads in state legislative races and been the defendant in multiple campaign-finance lawsuits, including one here in Wisconsin.
Both groups were founded by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos, who brought Walker out to be a star speaker in Washington.
While he was there, Walker gave a shout-out to disgraced former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who now works for the American Federation for Children, along with Brian Pleva, who used to run the powerful Republican Assembly Campaign Committee here in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, James Bender, former chief of staff for now-Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, is now a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.
In fact, school choice groups are poised to become the single most powerful lobby group in the state, edging out bankers and realtors; who would thought such a thing was possible just a few short years ago?
As a new report by Think Progress’ Zaid Jilani has pointed out, Wisconsin is, of course, not alone in being inundated with billionaire’s money to undermine, undercut and to privatize public education.
For over 45 years vouchers were up for a vote in states 25 times, and were rejected by voters 24 of those times. As I noted a couple of years ago on AMPS, these same set of billionaires that Jilani cited (he noted that the American Federation for Children alone spent $820,000 in Wisconsin during the last election) have the money and the organizational power to reach their ultimate goal, unless we begin to stop them in their tracks.
Jilani noted that:
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.