A Handy Reference Guide on Who is Donating to Corporate-Style Education Reform
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The way some of them throw around the green stuff, you'd think corporate style education reformers were made of money. Oh, wait. Some of them are. As Big Money plays a bigger and bigger role in shaping public education, it can be hard to keep all the players straight— from wealthy individuals, to foundations, superPACs, astroturf groups and corporations. Here's a handy reference guide:
Some of the wealthiest people on the planet are pouring their money into corporate-style education reform. Some are doing this through foundations (see below) and others are happy to invest their millions in politics to shape policy, or directly into charter schools as money-making investments. Some have a profit motive and others seem more ideologically driven (to privatize public goods, oppose union rights, etc.). One thing all of these folks have in common? Not one is an educator or education researcher. And none of their ideas is based on evidence of what actually works for kids.
- Start here in Pennsylvania with charter school operators like Van Gureghian, Governor Corbett’s largest campaign donor. He makes so much money that he and his wife bought beach front property in Florida worth $28.9million, while he’s been fighting for years to keep his salary a secret. [See “ Soaking the Public”]
- Recall that 4 of the top contributors to all political races last fall in our state had ties to charter school operators. Wealth advisors are on record recommending that people add charter schools to their investment portfolios, especially in places like Pennsylvania. [See “ Charters are Cash Cows”] Cyber charter schools are particularly lucrative investments, as the public taxpayers are currently over-paying them by $1million every single day. [See “ One Million Per Day”]
- How about folks like Philip Anschutz? He’s the oil billionaire with ultra-right politics who owns Walden Media, which made the anti-public school films, “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down.” He funds groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights, environmental regulations, and union rights. [See “ We Won’t Back Down Either”]
- Then there’s New York Mayor Bloomberg, who likes the idea of privatizing schools so much that he put $1million into the Los Angeles school board races last month to try to maintain a corporate-reform minded majority there. Too bad his horse didn’t win. [See “ School Boards Matter”]
The “big three” foundation are Gates, Broad, and Walton. Education historian Diane Ravitch calls them the “billionaire boys club,” though each has a slightly different emphasis. And there are others.
- The Gates Foundation is currently funding teacher evaluation systems throughout the country. As I have argued before, not only does this focus on the wrong thing, by avoiding the issue of poverty (or even early childhood education where many agree we might most effectively concentrate our resources), it starts with the faulty assumption that we have a plague of bad teachers. Though the foundation itself has warned that teacher evaluation should not be based solely on high-stakes-testing, this is exactly what is happening all over the country (or in many places, student testing is being used for a large portion of teacher evaluation). The Gates Foundation is so large and distributes so much money that it can essentially set policy through its grant making. And combined with the Great Recession, school districts and other beneficiaries have not been able to say no to the money nor been willing to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes (i.e. that his “reforms” don’t work). Gates has also launched a clever campaign to shift public opinion, by strategically targeting grants to community organizations (for example, over a half-million to A+Schools this year) and astroturf groups (see below) in communities where they are working.
- The Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with “road”)Foundation runs a non-accredited superintendents training program premised on the idea that business executives with no education experience will improve urban school districts. Both the current and former Pittsburgh superintendents are Broad Academy graduates (though Dr. Linda Lane is an educator). The Foundation promotes teacher effectiveness and competition (i.e. charter schools), and drafted President Obama’s current reform strategy. They also literally wrote the book on how to close schools, using Pittsburgh as an example. Eli Broad also continues to spend his personal millions on corporate-reform, putting a half-million into the LA school board races this spring alone. [ Los Angeles Times, 4-24-13]
- The Walton Family Foundation derives its money from Wal-Mart and gave $158 million in K-12 education grants last year to promote charter schools and voucher programs. Its current top grantees include Teach for America, which has come under increased scrutiny for its method of placing young college graduates with only a few weeks of training in urban schools with the neediest students, where they stay only two years. (Teach for America, by the way, is looking to set up shop in Pittsburgh and has been making inquiries about hiring a local executive director. Stay tuned.) Here in our state the Walton Family Foundation is also funding the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. And they fund Bellwether Education Partners, the group hired by Pittsburgh Public Schools (through subcontract with FSG) to craft its education plan. [ Walton Family Foundation 2012 Grant Report]
- Let’s not overlook the role that other foundations play in education reform. Remember a decade ago when thePittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, andGrable Foundation (the big three education philanthropies in Pittsburgh) yanked their funding from the school district, forcing them to introduce new reforms? [ Post-Gazette, 7-10-02] The history books have yet to finish writing that episode – and there were no doubt both positive and negative long-term outcomes – but it illustrates the power that foundations can wield over a school district.
- What about when a venerable old foundation starts behaving badly? Our big sister grassroots group in Philadelphia, Parents United, recently filed a legal complaint against the William Penn Foundation “based on the fact that they had solicited millions of dollars in donations for an exclusive contract” with a consulting group, with an agreed “set of ‘deliverables’ such as identifying 60 schools for closure, mass charter expansion, and unprecedented input into labor and contract negotiations – without the School District of Philadelphia being a party to the contract.” After a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center that concluded the foundation was essentially engaging in illegal lobbying and funneling private donations for the purpose, Parents United joined the Philadelphia Home & School Council, and the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in bringing the complaint. [ Parents United, 2-14-13]