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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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A nationwide movement to promote school vouchers, funded by a coterie of wealthy corporate and Wall Street donors, has once again made Pennsylvania a battleground state in the fight over privatizing education. Voter turnout in the April 24 primary is expected to be low, and national media attention has moved on now that Rick Santorum has dropped his presidential bid. But voucher proponents have so far spent more than $1 million on an election season generally defined by low-budget state legislative races.

"I see a move by essentially a handful of very wealthy people who want to privatize public education for a wide variety of reasons," Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the anti-voucher Keystone State Education Coalition, told the Philadelphia City Paper. "Not the least of which has to do with crushing labor unions, but they also want tax dollars going to private and religious schools."

As I first reported in the Philadelphia City Paper, the pro-voucher state political action committee (PAC) Students First — funded by Pennsylvania hedge-fund managers and American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group headed by Amway heiress and major right-wing donor Betsy DeVos — has unleashed ad campaigns targeting opponents of school vouchers, which allocate taxpayer funds to private and religious school tuition.

West Philadelphia's 188th House District is the epicenter of the Pennsylvania fight, where homes have been sent glossy mailers attacking state Rep. James Roebuck, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and a leading opponent of vouchers.

"James Roebuck blocked kids from attending the schools of their choice," is printed in red letters on one mailer, above an unflattering photo of the legislator. 

Yet the two mailers primarily blame Roebuck for issues that have nothing to do with vouchers, and almost nothing to do with Roebuck: the enrollment cap at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania-supported Penn Alexander public school, former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's ruinous tenure, the dropout rate, crowded classrooms and school violence. 

"I don't support vouchers. I do support school choice," Roebuck told City Paper. "What we need to do is open up more options for students within the existing public school system so we don't divert money out of the system to the benefit of some kids and not the many."

Roebuck is even blamed for alleged widespread cheating on standardized tests at Philadelphia schools—cheating encouraged the by the high-stakes tests, which now play a decisive role in teacher evaluation and even a school's survival, touted by these very same school reform advocates.

Like pro-voucher efforts nationwide, the Pennsylvania campaign conceals the corporate money behind local front groups. The word "voucher" does not appear in any of the attack ads. 

“Many of their previous attempts at using voucher initiatives to privatize the nation's public schools have been transparent,” writes journalist Rachel Tabachnick, who has investigated the web of corporate funders and right-wing think tanks coordinating the pro-voucher movement. But “recent campaigns have been more covert and are camouflaged behind local efforts described as grassroots and bipartisan.” 

The obfuscation is pragmatic: hedge fund dollars notwithstanding, most Pennsylvanians oppose school vouchers

Students First has given $25,000 to Roebuck challenger Fatimah Muhammad, and another $12,000 to Public Education Excellence, the third-party group sending out the attack ads.

Muhammad has close ties to the powerful state Sen. Anthony Williams, the state's most high-profile pro-voucher Democrat and a major figure in the national “school choice” movement.

Roebuck contends Williams is behind the campaign and targeting him for his role in blocking legislation to create a voucher program, a top priority of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The bill passed the Senate last year but has so far failed to make headway in the House.

"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.”

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. 

The pro-voucher Democrats for Educational Reform, according to Rachel Tabachnick, call the strategy of creating front movements (and in the case of West Philadelphia front candidates) “flooding the zone.” The strategy has already been unleashed in states nationwide:

Pennsylvania, like many other states, already has a vouchers-lite program that offers generous tax subsidies to people who donate to other children's private school tuition. Republican governors in Virginia and Florida recently signed similar programs into law, and Pennsylvania advocates are promoting an expansion of the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC).

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Outside the corporate world, the Catholic Church stands as the most powerful supporter of school vouchers. A longtime voucher proponent, the Church is now stepping up its advocacy in a bid to save a crumbling parochial school system hemorrhaging dollars and pupils nationwide. In a January 29 letter evincing a desperate need for a bailout, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told parishioners, “Our schools can no longer count on unlimited Church support. The resources simply don't exist...We need to press our lawmakers, respectfully but vigorously, to pass school choice.”

The bishops’ campaign for vouchers has so far failed, Chaput writes, “not because they didn't try, but because too few people in the pews listened. Very few Catholics called or wrote their state senators and representatives.”

Other religious groups, including evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews, have also lobbied for vouchers. Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers are legal, public education advocates in the states are exploring state constitutional challenges. In Indiana, the lawsuit challenging the voucher law charges that paying religious organizations taxpayer dollars violates state constitutional protections for the separation of church and state. Some states, including Indiana and Pennsylvania, bar support for religious groups more explicitly than the U.S. Constitution's establishment clause. 

Ironically, the school choice movement has already gravely harmed many religious schools. The privately managed public charter schools that have witnessed explosive growth in recent years have been a primary cause of the enrollment decline in Catholic schools, according to the Pew Foundation

Furthermore, charters, like vouchers, have little research to support them: a 2009 Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University study found that charters as a whole perform no better than traditional public schools. And like the dismally funded public schools they seek to replace, charters in Philadelphia are no stranger to scandal: according to the Inquirer, 18 area charter schools have been the subject of federal investigations since 2008. An ongoing investigation by the Daily News has found that the Frontier Virtual Charter School laid off all of its teachers and was found to have many students who infrequently "attended" the online classes. Earlier this year, the CEO of the New Media Technology Charter School pled guilty to stealing more than half-a-million taxpayer dollars to fund a separate private school, a restaurant and a health food store. 

A decade ago, vouchers receded from the headlines after school privatization advocates shifted their attention to more politically palatable charters. Charters have spread like wildfire since and “reformers,” with the wind at their back, are once again giving vouchers a prime place in the legislative tool box -- alongside charters, teacher ratings, high-stakes test scores, and crushing the unions. In Pennsylvania, many public school districts are in serious trouble. If voucher advocates succeed in exploiting the crisis to further privatize public education, this swing state could set a national precedent. 

 

Daniel Denvir is a journalist in Philadelphia.
 
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