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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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Indeed, AFC is akin to an independent ALEC singularly dedicated to corporate education reform. Like ALEC, AFC “outlines legislative goals, crafts specific proposals and then works with allied legislators and governors to implement its agenda,” writes the  Nation's John Nichols.

The well-funded voucher movement knits together an overlapping set of activists, politicians, PACs and think tanks that reach down to the city level. In Pennsylvania, these financial and political ties have fostered a potent force for vouchers centered around state Sen. Anthony Williams' political machine.

Philadelphia pro-voucher advocates supporting the Muhammad campaign include Barbara Chavous, and her daughter Dawn Chavous, who managed Anthony Williams' 2010 gubernatorial campaign and now runs Students First PAC. Dawn's cousin is former DC city councilman Kevin Chavous, a major national pro-voucher figure who works with AFC. Both sit on the board of the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Philadelphia's controversial former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, a one-time voucher opponent, also joined the fray, calling vouchers “the civil rights movement of our generation”—soon after she walked out the door with $905,000 in taxpayer-funded severance. Ackerman indicated that she would become a consultant upon leaving the public sector, and her change-of-heart on vouchers was perhaps an effort to jump on the well-heeled speaker circuit occupied by the likes of superstar reformer and ex-DC schools chief Michelle Rhee. 

Meanwhile, the urban, disproportionately poor and nonwhite schools that voucher proponents claim to hold close to their hearts are slipping beyond the point of crisis.

Philadelphia public school advocates warn that vouchers could be the knockout blow for a district in deep financial crisis. Last year, the state cut nearly $300 million to the district, contributing to a partially self-inflicted $629 million shortfall. 3,800 teacher and staff positions were eliminated. The district must still cut an estimated $26 million by the end of the fiscal year. A shortfall of $186 million is projected for 2012-13.

Schools in Chester, a deindustrialized working-class city outside of Philadelphia, received nationwide media attention earlier this year when teachers pledged to work for free in the face of potential bankruptcy. The school district was under state control from 1994 to 2010, during which time it was transformed into a veritable laboratory of education reform, including a failed effort to install for-profit education management organization (EMO) Edison Schools. 

Today, more than half of Chester students are enrolled at one charter school, Chester Community Charter. The school is one of dozens statewide currently under investigation for cheating on high-stakes standardized tests

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In many ways, Pennsylvania is a bellwether for the national corporate free-for-all unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision: the state has no limit on personal campaign donations

And the attack on Roebuck mirrors pro-voucher campaigns nationwide bankrolled by a small set of right-wing businesspeople and Wall Street bankers. In New Jersey, two hedge-fund managers created an organization called Better Education for Kids to support like-minded candidates. The commitment is, as mentioned above, not only ideological but economic: Investors work closely with PACs with an eye toward the growing market in for-profit education. Investment banker Michael Moe, according to a Nation investigation, " leads an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education."

Moe also sits on the board of the Center for Education Reform (CER), which last year spent $70,000 on ads in Pennsylvania comparing voucher opponents to segregationist former Alabama Gov. George Wallace. CER president Jeanne Allen also served as an education adviser to Governor Corbett, who, like other Pennsylvania politicians, received tens of thousands of dollars in Students First donations. 

 
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