Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform
Photo Credit: Irina Tischenko | Shutterstock.com
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If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled “education reform movement.” As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They’ve gone political as never before—like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers’ unions.
Devolution of a Movement
For the last decade or so, this generation of ed reformers has been setting up programs to show the power of competition and market-style accountability to transform inner-city public schools: establishing nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, hiring business executives to run school districts, and calculating a teacher’s worth based on student test scores. Along the way, the reformers recognized the value of public promotion and persuasion (called “advocacy”) for their agenda, and they started pouring more money into media outlets, friendly think tanks, and the work of well-disposed researchers. By 2010 critics of the movement saw “reform-think” dominating national discourse about education, but key reform players judged the pace of change too slow.
Ed reformers spend at least a half-billion dollars a year in private money, whereas government expenditures on K-12 schooling are about $525 billion a year. Nevertheless, a half-billion dollars in discretionary money yields great leverage when budgets are consumed by ordinary expenses. But the reformers—even titanic Bill and Melinda Gates—see themselves as competing with too little against existing government policies. Hence, to revolutionize public education, which is largely under state and local jurisdiction, reformers must get state and local governments to adopt their agenda as basic policy; they must counter the teachers’ unions’ political clout. To this end, ed reformers are shifting major resources—staff and money—into state and local campaigns for candidates and legislation.
Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-2011), sums up the thinking: “We’ve learned the hard way that if you want to have the clout needed to change policies for kids, you have to help politicians get elected. It’s about money, money, money” ( Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2010).*
[* The ed reform movement comprises a large network of nonprofit organizations and consultancies whose funding comes mostly from private foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—with assets six times larger than Ford, the next largest foundation in the United States—dominates the movement. To give some sense of the interconnections and the scope of the colossal foundation, I note in parentheses the amount of money various groups have received from Gates.]
The Great Political Opening
The Obama administration created the perfect opening for the ed reformers’ political strategy. The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that in order to win federal funds in the 2010 Race to the Top contest, applicant states would have to pledge to abolish limits on charter schools, legislate teacher and principal evaluations based in part on students’ standardized test scores, and fully implement statewide data-collection systems. The mandates spurred money-starved states to propose controversial new education laws. Candidates running for office—from state senator to local school board member—took sides. The ed reform organizations plunged into both legislative and candidate battles, ratcheting up the campaign spending and rhetoric, casting each contest as a battle for the future of the nation through public school reform (tales of the campaigns further on).
The movement’s market-modeled reforms have so far produced more failures than successes. Study after study throws into question the value of most charter schools, incessant standardized testing, and grading teachers or closing schools based on student test scores. The ed reformers’ drive to get new laws passed aggravates matters by making bad policy mandatory and more widespread. It is mindless micromanaging gone amuck.