Is School Privatization Agenda Shifting to Vouchers? Charter School Advocacy Organization Collapses

On Wednesday, Politico New York‘s Morning Education update briefly covered a pro-charter schools advocacy day in Albany, New York and then noted, “The rally comes as the old guard of charter advocacy in the state officially collapsed Monday when Families for Excellent Schools announced it would close following the firing of its CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.”  Politico New York’s Eliza Shapiro broke the stories of Kittredge’s firing late last week and on Monday, Shapiro and Politico‘s Caitlin Emma broke the news that the organization will shut down.

Even if you live far away from New York, and even if you have forgotten who and what Families for Excellent Schools is, you should keep reading. Because what happened this week may signify a shift in the politics of school privatization.

It remains true that education policy shaping the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children (the 99 Percent) continues to be driven by the power of the One Percent. But in this week when we marked the first anniversary of Betsy DeVos’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education, the momentum behind school privatization has taken another step toward domination by the Republican libertarian crowd—the Amway DeVoses of Michigan and the Koch Brothers of Kansas—who are collaborating with the American Legislative Exchange Council to drive vouchers and neo-voucher education savings accounts and neo-voucher tuition tax credits through the nation’s 50 state legislatures and even into Puerto Rico.

It is the hedge-funded Democrats—the people who made up Families for Excellent Schools, and who continue to underwrite Education Reform Now, 50 CAN, StudentsFirst New York and Democrats for Education Reform, and who drove the expansion of charter schools during the Obama years and in Democratic states like New York—whose star seems to be fading.

Families for Excellent Schools, which collapsed this week, has also been closely tied with Eva Moskowitz’s chain of NYC Success Academy Charter Schools.  It was Families for Excellent Schools that spent $9.7 million in 2014, without revealing its donors, to campaign for charter school expansion through television advertising and sponsorship of huge rallies. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to stop the practice in NYC of co-locating charter schools into NYC public schools, but Families for Excellent Schools was powerful enough to win the support of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to pass a law dictating that the NYC Public Schools must find rent-free space in public school facilities for new charter schools or else pay the rent in commercially available buildings.

Families for Excellent Schools shut its doors this week after it was revealed that Jeremiah Kittredge, its director, had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a participant at the 2017 Camp Philos, an annual conclave of wealthy hedge fund supporters of charter schools that has been sponsored annually since 2014 at high end resorts and hotels by Education Reform Now—a sister organization of Families for Excellent Schools.

While in 2011 its founders set up Families for Excellent Schools with a name that connotes participation of a group of parents seeking better education, and while its website declares it was established “through a partnership between schools and families,” Families for Excellent Schools has been, in reality, an Astroturf—fake grassroots—organization.  Tracing ties of Families for Excellent Schools to Education Reform Now, StudentsFirst NY, and another lobbying effort, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, George Joseph reported for The Nation in 2015: “In contrast to most ‘grassroots’ parents’ organizations, Families for Excellent Schools has retained the services of David Grandeau, New York’s former top lobbying regulator, whose expertise has helped shield its donors’ identities by funneling most of its spending through a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Nevertheless, overwhelming institutional similarities indicate that Families for Excellent Schools is largely funded by the same nine hedge-fund billionaires behind almost all of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany’s rapid expenditures.”  Joseph identifies Joel Greenblatt, Daniel Loeb, Julian H. Robertson Jr., Carl Icahn, Paul Singer, Seth Klarman, and other wealthy hedge funders, along with known donors like the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation.  Nonprofit Quarterly also identifies Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma as a major donor.

It turns out that the problems of Families for Excellent Schools are much deeper than Kittredge’s misbehavior. Here is the NY TimesKate Taylor reporting this week on the real significance of the organization’s closure: “Families for Excellent Schools for years was the well-funded face of the charter school movement in New York, but its support seems to have evaporated… As a 501(c)3 organization, Families for Excellent Schools is not required under New York State law to disclose its donors. The group ran into trouble, however, in Massachusetts, where a related organization, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, spent $15 million in 2016 as part of an unsuccessful effort to expand charter schools in the state. The ballot measure it backed was overwhelmingly defeated. In the aftermath, the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance concluded that Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy had violated the state’s campaign finance law and fined it $426,466, the largest fine in the history of the office. To resolve the case, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy agreed to dissolve, and Families for Excellent Schools agreed not to fund-raise or engage in any election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years.”  Kittredge, who ran the Massachusetts campaign, lost support, especially after Massachusetts forced the publication of the names of donors to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, donors who prefer secrecy when making obviously political donations.

According to Politico reporters Shapiro and Emma, Kittredge had already planned to leave Families for Excellent Schools to take an advocacy position at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools: “Although Success has internal and external media relations operations, Kittredge has frequently served as Moskowitz’s unofficial press secretary at events. As recently as November, he orchestrated a press conference on the steps of City Hall about a school space sharing dispute between Moskowitz and Mayor Bill de Blasio…. and served as the logistical arm of Success’ ambitious political advocacy program.”

After Kittredge was fired by Families for Excellent Schools last week for inappropriate behavior, however, Success Academy Charter Schools severed ties.

It Is Spring and Big-Money Conferences on School “Reform” Bloom

I  was educated in the public schools of small town Havre, Montana, and my children were educated in the public schools of inner-ring suburban Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  I am a strong believer in public education—publicly funded, universally available, required to accept all children who present themselves at the door, and accountable to the public. A public system seems to me the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. While public education is not a utopia, I believe it has fewer structural flaws, from the point of view of the common good, than privatized alternatives.

How quaint seem my attitudes this month when the money blooming around privatizing public schools is far more lush than the flowers of spring.   Privatization—privately managed charters, vouchers,  all the private contracting that creates and services all the standardized testing, and the education technology sector—is rapidly expanding.  There is money to be made and power to be wielded.

Two national conferences in the next couple of weeks demonstrate the impact of money in education this spring.  Beginning yesterday, the Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley Education Innovation Summit is meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Diane Ravitch quotes the sponsors of the conference:  “Our founders have spent the past two decades focused on the Megatrends that are disrupting the $4 trillion global education market along with the innovators who are transforming the industry.”

The long list of speakers includes a who’s who of supporters of “corporate” education reform: Margaret Spellings (George Bush’s Secretary of Education), Penny Pritzker (portfolio school reform supporter in Chicago before she became Secretary of Commerce), Jim Shelton (formerly director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now Assistant Secretary of Education), Jeb Bush (former Florida Governor and through his Foundation for Excellence in Education a proponent of awarding schools and school districts A-F grades), Christopher Cerf (now with Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify ed tech company, formerly Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey commissioner of education), and Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix and vocal supporter of the elimination of elected boards of education).  The 49 sponsors of the conference include publishers, test designers and data processors like Pearson, McGraw Hill Education, and Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt; for-profit universities like Apollo, DeVry, and Kaplan; tech companies like Microsoft, and philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Over 100 companies are slated to present their wares.

Maggie Severns at Politico describes the reason for the conference: “Capital flows into companies serving the K-12 and higher education markets jumped to $650 million last near—nearly double the $331 million invested in those spheres in 2009.”

Or if you want a different kind of education “reform” experience, you can make your way to an Adirondack Camp at Lake Placid, New York on May 4-6 to “reform, relax, retreat.”  Your host will be the Honorable Andrew Cuomo, New York’s charter-friendly governor.  Hofstra professor Alan Singer describes what is to be called Camp Philos in this fascinating piece at Huffington Post. The fee for normal participants is $1,000, but VIPs can pay $2,500 for the three day event being sponsored by Education Reform Now, which Singer describes as closely but unofficially tied to Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge fund-supported, pro-privatization national PAC.

This event isn’t about making money from education; instead it is about using money to shape education policy.  The sponsors are the people who, for example, used their money to ensure that Governor Cuomo blocked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to reign in the Success Academy charter school network of powerful Eva Moskowitz.  Singer notes that Education Reform Now has made campaign gifts to Cuomo since 2010 that add up to $65,000.  “The Education Reform Now Board of Directors,” writes Singer, “reads like a list of hedge fund royalty.”  Board members head up Highfields Capital Management, Cornwall Capital, Bain & Company, Sessa Capital, Gotham Capital, Covey Capital, Maverick Capital, Charter Bridge Capital… and the list goes on.

M. Night Shyamalan, the film maker, is also a sponsor.  According to Singer, Shyamalan “attended elite private schools as a youth, decided he is an education expert and wrote a book about saving public schools after filming in a Philadelphia public high school.”  Shyamalan’s preferred genre, however, is not the public education documentary;  Singer lists Shyamalan’s Hollywood horror films: After Earth, Devil, The Happening, The Village, and The Sixth Sense.

Singer concludes: “According to the online agenda, break-out sessions include discussions on ‘The Next Big Thing: Groundbreaking Approaches to Teacher Preparation,’ ‘Up, Down, and Sideways: Building an Effective School Reform Coalition,’ ‘Tight-Lose Options for Ensuring All Kids Have Access to a Great Education,’ and ‘Collaborative Models for Changing State and Local Teacher Policies.’ But really only one topic will be discussed — How to promote and profit from the privatization of public education in the United States.”