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Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform

The private funders and non-profit groups behind ed reform are getting political like never before -- using big money to pressure politicians to do their bidding for them.

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The main reason that poor and minority communities fail to engage in our movement has very little to do with elected Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with us. As a movement (and I've seen this first-hand for more than twenty years), we believe advocacy is when a professional shows up in their friend the majority leader's office and has a good meeting....Real grassroots efforts are on the ground, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, long-term, sustainable education efforts to engage and fortify REAL people, to be REAL voices. Neither ConnCan [flagship branch of 50CAN, $2.4 million from Gates in 2011], nor Stand, nor any of those who claim to do grassroots do it....It's the failure of people who love and advance an issue through their own narrow (albeit powerful) lenses and fail to recognize that the marketing and lobbying firms they hire are clueless about what is really necessary to truly make progress.

Endgame

A strong democracy requires a public education system, one that is excellent throughout and open to all. The United States failed even to aim for this standard until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation in schools. Since then, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (which directed federal funds to low-income schools), the nation has made progress toward access and excellence. Too slowly, of course, but progress nonetheless ( see Richard Rothstein’s March 8, 2011 analysis for the Economic Policy Institute). Ed reformers ignore the data, claiming that poor and minority children are no better educated now than thirty or forty years ago. In fact, progress has slowed only in the last decade, since No Child Left Behind was implemented and the reform agenda gained traction. Other factors may play a role, but the ed reformers certainly haven’t improved progress.

The line of battle for the future of public education is clear. Allied on one side are free-market zealots in the business community, pro-voucher social conservatives, and this peculiar breed of reformers whose political movers are often wealthy, private-school educated, white, male, and under the age of fifty. They are the junior plutocracy, strivers whose do-good goal twenty years ago would have been a seat on the board of the municipal art museum. They are typically clueless about public education. On the other side are public school students, their families, their teachers, and believers in the link between democracy and public education. The first side has money, powerful political connections, and an infrastructure of nonprofit organizations with paid staff. The other side has this: the ability to become a true grassroots movement. This looks like an unequal contest. But with sustained effort, citizen activists at the grassroots can trump hired guns on astroturf.

 

The 1 Percent for School Board

Louisiana: The usually low-key elections for state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education cost well over $1 million in the fall of 2011. According to state campaign finance data, a pro-reform funding group called the Alliance for Better Classrooms took in more than $750,000—40 percent of it from construction mogul Lane Grisby and family members ($200,000) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s trust ($100,000). The state’s most important business lobby, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, gave pro-reform candidates at least $250,000, according to Stateline, a news service sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts (Gates, $1.4 million to the Pew Research Center, 2011). The pro-reformers won six of the seven races.

Wake County, NC: The fall 2011 school board elections were the most expensive in the county’s history, costing more than $500,000, according to an early tally by the News & Observer website (November 8, 2011). At stake was a nationally acclaimed program that uses busing to achieve economic—and thereby racial—diversity. In 2009 multimillionaire conservative Art Pope (profiled in the New Yorker, October 10, 2011) spent heavily to get a Republican majority elected that would dismantle the program. The board promptly devised a plan to do that. The backlash against Pope, his allies, and the board produced a Democratic sweep of the five open seats in 2011. This vote for school integration made news around the country.