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Right-Wing Campaign to Privatize Public Ed Takes Hold in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, voucher proponents have spent more than $1 million on election season so far. Will the state set a national precedent in privatizing public schools?

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"I've got loads of money from a number of the groups coming in on top of me," says Roebuck. He says Williams' "fingerprints are very much in evidence." Williams says he had not seen the mailings, but that "if someone wrote about blaming [Roebuck] for not having enough options...you have to take responsibility for not creating more options."

The movement picks bipartisan fights. State Sen. Pat Vance, a moderate Republican from Cumberland County, has been slammed with attack ads by pro-voucher Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania PAC, a major recipient of Students First funding. 

The voucher advocates have radically transformed state politics since the PACs made their first foray into Pennsylvania politics in the 2010 election, when Williams' quixotic gubernatorial campaign received over $5 million from Students First, backed by the conservative Bala Cynwyd hedge-fund managers Jeffrey Yass, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg. After Williams lost, victorious Democratic nominee Dan Onorato — with Williams' endorsement — declared his support for vouchers and asked Williams' backers for donations. 

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Supporters of privatization make big promises, but new data shows that vouchers are not the advertised panacea for poor children in bad schools. 

A 2011 review of voucher research by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy found that "inner-city poor students attending private schools with vouchers in general show no greater gains in academic achievement than ... in public schools," though "much of the research over the last 10 years has been conducted by pro-voucher organizations."

The pro-voucher movement's political efforts, however, have been more fruitful. Conservatives taking regular political beatings for cutting funding to public schools can use the voucher campaign as a means of “empowering” poor people, thereby shifting the debate to more comfortable ground. 

Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who last year cut education funding by $1 billion and this year proposes $128 million in cuts to assistance for the disadvantaged and disabled in Philadelphia, laments that poor students are "consigned to failure because of their zipcodes."

Williams leads a small but influential group of black Philadelphia Democrats who support him. 

“It's no longer a partisan right-wing conversation,” Williams told City Paper. “It's a conversation about what do you do about failing schools.”

That is exactly how major right-wing funder Dick DeVos, Amway heir and husband of American Federation for Children (AFC) leader Betsy DeVos, hoped things would play out. In a 2002 speech at the Heritage Foundation, DeVos said that vouchers must be advocated by “grassroots” groups so they would not be “viewed as only a conservative idea,” according to Tabachnick's account. From here on out, he said, the “battle” for vouchers “will not be as visible.” 

Indeed. The pro-voucher movement has successfully adopted a bipartisan, and even progressive, face. This May 3, Newark Mayor Cory Booker will join New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and erstwhile NPR correspondent Juan Williams in delivering a keynote address to AFC's third annual National Policy Summit. (Last year, Governor Corbett was the guest of honor.) 

But the movement's most energetic and powerful supporters remain firmly ensconced in the wealthy right-wing.

AFC is a member of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the embattled organization comprised of corporations and conservative state legislators that promotes model legislation to spread vouchers and other right-wing policy initiatives. Last year, ALEC released a report on education that struck an odd World War II analogy, comparing the reform movement to the Allies and teachers unions to the Nazis.

“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,” writes Julie Underwood, dean of the School of Education and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “The corporate members on its education task force include the Friedman Foundation, Goldwater Institute, Washington Policy Center, National Association of Charter School Authorizers and corporations providing education services, such as Sylvan Learning and the Connections Academy.”

 
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