Charter School Support Fades: U.S. House Appropriators Seek to Cut $40 Million from Charter Schools Program

Last week, the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, a body now dominated by Democrats, sent forward to the floor of the House an education appropriations proposal to cut—by 10 percent—Congressional funding for the federal Charter Schools Program. This year the program is funded at $440 million. The Democratic appropriations committee has proposed the allocation of $400 million for next year.

By contrast, the President’s budget—proposed in mid-March—reflects the priorities of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, who seeks an additional $60 million next year for a total Charter Schools Program allocation of $500 million in FY 2020.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2020 education budget: “A bill to increase the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by more than $4 billion is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives…  (T)he House appropriations committee approved legislation that would provide significant increases for grants aimed at disadvantaged students, after-school programming, and social-emotional learning…. While Democrats want more money for several programs, they want $40 million less for federal charter school grants, a cut of nearly 10 percent to $400 million.  The move symbolizes how opposition to charter schools has gained more traction in the Democratic Party recently….”

Ujifusa adds: ” It’s the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the appropriations process in the chamber, but their bill is very, very far from becoming the law of the land… The legislation hasn’t been approved by the full House yet.  More importantly, the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will likely introduce a bill that’s different in several key respects.”

But the move by the Appropriations Committee to cut charter school funding indicates an important political shift.  The proposed reduction is evidence that Democrats, who have been part of a bipartisan wave of support for neoliberal public-private partnership via charter schools are shifting their attention back to traditional public schools, which, after all, serve 50 million students.  Charters serve only 6 percent.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explains that a series of scathing biennial reports from the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General—reports which have condemned the appalling absence of oversight of this program—have contributed to the Charter Schools Program’s collapsing reputation.  In addition to cutting the budget for the Charter Schools Program by $40 million, members of the House Appropriations Committee included a warning that the Department must improve management of the program.  Strauss publishes the Appropriations Committee’s warning: “The Committee is deeply concerned that the Department does not intend to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars when it comes to CSP (Charter Schools Program) funding, as it has rejected the multiple Ed-OIG (Office of Inspector General) audit recommendations.”

A scathing recent report from the Network for Public Education has also contributed to growing skepticism about the Charter Schools Program.  In the report, Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education documents the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars out of the total $4 billion that has been spent on the Charter Schools Program. A third of the schools whose startup or expansion was seeded by the Charter Schools Program never opened or, once open, soon shut down due to fiscal improprieties, financial collapse, or academic failure. (This blog has covered the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report here.)

Strauss describes a growing backlash against charter schools among Democrats: “Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies with varying levels of oversight. Supporters say they are every bit as public as traditional districts, while critics say these schools are part of an effort to privatize public education. The Obama administration was instrumental in driving the growth of charters, even including it as a goal for states in its $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. But recently the charter movement has arrived at what appears to be an inflection point. Many public school systems are complaining about losing significant funding to charters. Teacher strikes that began in 2018 and have continued this year throughout the country—including in Republican-led states—have helped change the debate about public education funding.”

Education Week’s Ujifusa explores growing disenchantment with charter schools among Democratic politicians: “President Barack Obama supported charter schools, and some Democrats—like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 presidential candidate—still do. But elsewhere, antipathy toward charters among Democrats and progressives has grown as a political force.” Ujifusa quotes Charles Barone regretting the House Appropriations’ action to cut the Charter Schools Program budget.  Barone is the chief policy officer for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter PAC, founded more than a decade ago by New York hedge fund managers.

In a recent blog post, Diane Ravitch explains that Democrats for Education Reform’s claim—that it represents Democrats—seems to be fading: “The Democratic state parties in California and Colorado have denounced DFER as a corporate front that should drop the word ‘Democrat’ from its title.”

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Beware Democrats Trying to Burnish the Reputation of Corporate School Reform

Suddenly Democrats who bought into corporate school reform seem to be worried that their ideas—underwritten in federal law for over fifteen years—are slipping out of the public consciousness and losing public support.  This summer as we approach midterm elections, Democrats who have enthusiastically supported corporate school reform are scurrying to burnish their own reputations and extend the life of their favorite education strategies by repackaging their ideology ahead of the November election to help elect state candidates sympathetic to their cause.

Some history: How did so many Democrats join with Republicans around a school reform agenda based on business-school incentives, high-stakes accountability and marketplace competition in the form of privatized charter schools?

For over two decades In Washington, D.C., business-driven school reform has been a bipartisan cause. Political leaders in both major parties have relentlessly pursued school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy that was embedded in the language, philosophy, and operation of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, a conference chaired by a Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The purpose was to agree on national education goals and standards. Then in 2001, when—in a bipartisan effort—Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated its own accountability reforms. After President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top.  To qualify, states had to rewrite laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; promise to punish so-called “failing” schools or turn them over to charter management organizations; and change laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores. Both political parties supported education policy based on two business strategies: high stakes, test-based accountability to “incentivize” educators to work harder and marketplace competition through the introduction of charters schools.

The standards movement became the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.

Surprisingly perhaps, Betsy DeVos has brought trouble for the corporate education agenda (much of which she agrees with) because she is such an extremist.  She is an ideologically-driven, decades-long, educational libertarian proponent of privatized vouchers.  She promotes extreme, and unpopular ideas—disregard for First Amendment separation of church and state, and support for private school tuition vouchers which have never been embraced by Democrats.  She has also shown herself to be embarrassingly ignorant about the institution of American public education and the role of the federal department she was appointed to oversee. Ironically, DeVos (a promoter of school choice) has made some Democrats more cautious about charters; some now worry that charter schools are merely the gateway to vouchers. And DeVos’s deplorable leadership has distracted everyone—turning the conversation away from the movement for business driven, test based school accountability.

Today:  Suddenly corporate reformers in the Democratic Party are worried about the loss of their project.  Their concerns intensified last spring following the walkouts by classroom teachers across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, walkouts that brought the nation’s attention back to the importance of public education and the fact that through all the years of accountability-driven school reform, we have neglected the urgent need to fund public education at a level that pays the teachers, keeps class size down, and makes it possible to replace outdated textbooks. Corporate education reformers also face another worry: Now that enough time has passed and academics have been studying the record, it has become clearer and clearer that the strategies of No Child Left Behind and the diversion of tax dollars to charters didn’t improve school achievement, didn’t improve teaching, and didn’t do what corporate reform promised. These policies didn’t help children who had been left far behind by educational inequity, and they didn’t close achievement gaps. Billions of dollars have been spent, but children’s overall educational outcomes haven’t changed.

Warning:  Don’t be fooled as you watch these guys scurrying around trying to salvage corporate school reform and salvage their reputations.  Corporate school reform is losing its luster in in Democratic circles, where attention has moved to what the corporate reformers forgot about—inadequate and inequitable funding of public education, paltry teacher salaries, and the danger of tax cuts to state budgets.

Don’t be fooled by DFER:  One such effort to repackage and reframe has been undertaken by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded in 2007, whose mission has always been to promote corporate school reform as a cause among Democrats. DFER began in New York as a project of hedge fund managers who took on charter school expansion as their cause.  Later DFER formed affiliates across several states.  In this election year summer of 2018, DFER hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a national marketing poll and frame a new  communications strategy.

In a report by THE 74, the conservative education news website founded by Campbell Brown, reporter Taylor Swaak describes DFER’s new marketing campaign, designed by the Benenson Strategy Group based on its new poll: “For DFER… the findings demonstrate that most Americans are what they call ‘education progressives’—a result that would seem to contradict reports of a splintering within the Democratic party over issues like school choice and merit pay… The poll, on top of informing a new social media campaign, anchored the organization’s latest announcement that it will spend more than $4 million this year—an exponential hike from the reported $83,456 it spent in 2016—on ‘priority races.’  These include gubernatorial contests in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut, and the (state) superintendent’s race in California. Certain beliefs of ‘education progressives,’ such as charter school expansion, may put them at odds with other self-described progressives within the party.”

Marketing strategists help an organization frame its policy agenda to appeal to its target audience.  In this case marketing means making the language vague.  Swaak quotes DFER’s president, Shavar Jeffries describing the new DFER campaign to define an “education progressive”: “Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color.” “Doing anything and everything” is a phrase that is so vague as to be impossible to explicate.

Benenson Strategy Group intends its public opinion poll to help DFER talk to what people want to hear, even if it omits particular public policies that might really affect schools. Here are some of the findings from its marketing poll: “Voters, especially Democratic primary voters and voters of color, believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and that means we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future.” “Key Democratic constituencies believe strongly that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools. We need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools.” “Voters strongly believe that we need more funding to improve public schools, but funding alone is not enough…. Voters also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate.”  From its marketing poll and from all of these “principles,” Benenson Strategy Group concludes that real “education progressives” strongly support a policy agenda built around funding equity; school choice including charter schools, magnet schools and career academies; teacher quality and preparation; accountability; and more financial aid to support higher education.  (Emphasis in Benenson’s document.)

Democrats for Education Reform hasn’t changed.  It is the same old DFER, with the very same priorities. POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reports: “The organization… advocates for a host of school reform policies nationwide like strong test-based accountability and high-quality… charter schools.” But DFER will now be marketing this agenda to appeal to those who define themselves as “education progressives.”  And I presume DFER will generously lavish praise on folks who accept this agenda as exemplifying what it means to be progressive.

Don’t Be Fooled by Arne Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work:  Arne Duncan has been a towering figure in the history of corporate school reform. He didn’t enter the picture in a visible way until 2004, when he became the manager of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big new Portfolio School Reform project: Renaissance 2010—a plan to increase school choice in Chicago by phasing out “failing” or under-enrolled schools and launching 100 new charter schools by 2010.  In the spring of 2009, Duncan became President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary and brought corporate school reform into federal policy as Race to the Top became central to the federal stimulus after the 2008 economic collapse.  Race to the Top emulated business competition: States competed for grants and qualified for federal funds by adopting concrete pieces of the corporate school agenda like closing “failing” schools, charterizing so called “failing schools, and agreeing to change state laws to make teachers accountable in their formal evaluations for their students’ standardized test scores.

These days Arne Duncan is on a book promotion tour, and a first stop was CBS’s Face the Nation, where he followed the same sort of playbook as the Benenson Strategy Group is framing for DFER. Duncan explains to Margaret Brennan: “I think investing in our lowest performing schools is some of the hardest and most important work we can do.  Margaret, I don’t want to leave any kid behind or say they can’t make it.  As a nation we had more than 2,000 dropout factories a few years back.  We now have less than eight hundred… Our high school graduation rates are at all time highs.  Those (Race to the Top and School Improvement) grants were a small piece of that.  There are many things that go into that. And again, this is, we’ve got a long-long way to go, but to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs and to see many fewer students going to dropout factories. Those are things we feel really good about.”

Duncan’s book has not received positive reviews—from the supporters of traditional public schools or from corporate school reformers. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss despairs: “Arne Duncan never learns…. His new book starts with this sentence: ‘Education runs on lies.’ Really?  Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the ‘education system’ runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either. There is not a monolithic ‘education system’ in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United State, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell likes about student achievement—though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.”

Strauss continues, presenting a litany of Duncan’s own flawed policies that he continues to defend: “What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores—a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 billion to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be ‘an absolute game-changer’ for public education. They weren’t…  He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015—exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top—on School Improvement Grants, but a major (U.S. Education) department report found no positive effect on student achievement. Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association… called for him to step down in 2014.”

Then there is the equally scathing critique written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, and published in Education Next, a mouthpiece of the corporate school reform movement. Hess charges: “Especially for a guy who presents himself as a truth teller bent on exposing education’s ‘overripe and rotten lies,’ Duncan shows a disconcerting tendency to waffle…  Even as he repeatedly declares his faith in tests and vaguely asserts that Race to the Top and the Common Core fueled significant gains, Duncan never once mentions that in fact NAEP gains stalled out under his watch, even falling between 2013 and 2017.  And for a guy who repeatedly professes his talismanic faith in the power of data, Duncan is remarkably willing to set data aside when it is convenient.”

Research in very recent years has called Arne Duncan’s policies—and all of corporate school reform—into question. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is not a critique of policies originated by Betsy DeVos—the one issue voucher promoter who has (mercifully) never been able to enact any real K-12 education policy initiatives of her own.  Koretz’s book is a scathing critique of Arne Duncan’s policies—and Koretz’s critique applies, by the way, to the supposed rising graduation rates that Duncan bragged about on Face the Nation.  Studies by Bruce Baker at Rutgers, researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research have now exposed the ways that the rapid expansion of charter schools undermines the financial viability of the host school district and undermines public schools as community institutions that anchor vulnerable neighborhoods.

It is becoming clearer as the years pass that corporate school reform—including high states test-and-punish and the rapid expansion of marketplace school choice through charter schools—failed to address the needs of the 50 million students in America’s public schools.  Neither did corporate school reform close achievement gaps.  In fact the diversion of federal and state dollars to such programs has redirected needed funds out of states’ school budgets and undermined the institution we all count on—public education.

It is important to understand that these efforts by Democrats—who allowed themselves to capitulate to a far-right, business- and competition-driven school reform agenda—are merely a sign of desperation as they watch their agenda lose popular support.

Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

DFER’s Campaign to Dominate Local School Boards and Launch Charters

In Hedging Education, Justin Miller, for The American Prospect, describes “how hedge funders have over the past decade underwritten a movement to mushroom the number of local school board members who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. “A network of education advocacy groups, heavily backed by hedge fund investors, has turned its political attention to the local level, with aspirations to stock school boards—from Indianapolis and Minneapolis to Denver and Los Angeles—with allies.”

It all began in New York City, where, “Whitney Tilson, straight out of Harvard… deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach for America’s first employees in 1989.  Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York.  Soon after that, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him… The school was one of two original Knowledge Is Power Program schools—better known as KIPP, which has since grown into a prominent charter network with nearly 200 schools in 20 states plus the District of Columbia, serving almost 70,000 students, predominantly low-income and of color…  Tilson… started dragging all his friends, most of whom were hedge fund investors, from Wall Street up to the south Bronx to see the KIPP school.  ‘KIPP was used as a converter for hedge fund guys,’ Tilson says. ‘It went viral.'”  When he became a charter school evangelist, Tilson really didn’t know much about public schools themselves: “I personally never knew what the situation was like for families forced to attend their local school in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn. I didn’t know of anyone who dropped out of high school or college—much less that there were high schools where half the students dropped off.” One wonders whether Tilson also visited public schools in New York City or whether he just accepted that KIPP’s approach is the best strategy for educating children in poor neighborhoods.

Tilson and his friends in the hedge fund world founded a new political organization, Democrats for Education Reform, and, according to Justin Miller, they set out to confront what they considered to be the politically powerful supporters of public schools, the teachers unions.  “Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in.  Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission ‘to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.'”  Miller adds that DFER also targeted national Democratic leaders: “Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions.”

Miller corrects the common assumption that hedge funders got into supporting charter schools for the money: “Many critics of the corporate education-reform movement are quick to accuse proponents of seeking to cash in on the privatization of one of the United States’ last public goods.  And while there are certainly those in ed-reform circles who stand to benefit from a windfall of new education technology, testing, and curriculum services, hedge funders by and large do not fit that stereotype. Theirs is more of an ideological and philanthropic crusade, rather than a crude profit-seeking venture.”

Miller reports that DFER, which is currently active in 13 states and the District of Columbia has expanded the role of charters across the country by partnering with other Astroturf groups that, like DFER,  pretend to be local, but are in fact, well-funded national organizations—StudentsFirst (that just merged with 50CAN), 50CAN (operating in 7 states), Stand for Children (with 11 state affiliates), and Students for Education Reform, described by Miller as an Astroturf offshoot of DFER.  Shavar Jeffries, the national president of DFER, denies, of course, that DFER is an Astroturf organization: “Our state chapters are not run by people flying in from Washington.  They are staffed by local political organizers and education experts that are overwhelmingly from the communities they work in.”  Miller responds: “But the financial influence of the outside charter-boosters is an ill-kept secret.  The pushback against outside pro-charter money in local races has been steadily growing as more and more cities are impacted.”

These organizations have, according to Miller, been able to influence local school board races with big financial investments primarily because, “Compared with other political races where a campaign will stretch over the better part of a year… school board races are unique.  Filing deadlines are much closer to Election Day, meaning that the field of candidates doesn’t fully materialize until quite late and the actual races don’t heat up until about two months out.  That makes it more difficult to vet candidates and learn about connections.  Campaign finance reports exposing big money often pop up late….”

These big national groups—DFER, StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, 50Can and Students for Education Reform—have, as profiled by Miller, influenced school board elections in Denver, Minneapolis, and most particularly Indianapolis, where candidate Gayle Cosby eventually raised a total of $80,000 (from several organizations and investors) to support her successful 2012 school board candidacy: “DFER pumped more than $40,000 into Cosby’s campaign, hiring her a campaign manager, orchestrating several direct-mail flyer blasts, and buying up radio spots.  This was unheard of in Indianapolis school board races.”

Cosby is described as reflecting that after DFER contributed $40,000, “At that point, I felt a loss of control in certain respects.” Today Cosby has become disillusioned with the cause promoted by her original campaign investors: “Cosby has since taken up the role as the board’s main dissenter. She believes that charter special interests have completely co-opted the desire for change in the schools and have promoted an agenda that sees charter schools and privatization as the only way to fix Indianapolis Public Schools. Four seats will be up in 2016, including Cosby’s, who has decided not to seek re-election….”

Diane Ravitch Explains Why New York’s Governor Cuomo Loves Charters

This morning in a very important blog post,  Why Cuomo Loves Charters, Diane Ravitch connects the financial dots.  New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo has received political financial backing from the leaders of New York’s very powerful charter school sector.  Cuomo’s financial backers include powerful members of the board of Success Academy Charter Schools; Great Public Schools—Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC; and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) , the national pro-charter school PAC.

I urge you to read Ravitch’s post and the articles linked to it which detail the size of financial contributions made to Cuomo’s political campaigns.  It is important to follow the money trail.

I blogged earlier today about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s over-the-top praise this week for charter schools and especially for Eva Moskowitz’s politically connected Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City.

Cuomo has made it his business to support Moskowitz and her charter network and to oppose New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio’s request for enabling legislation in Albany to allow New York City to tax those with incomes over $500,000 annually for pre-kindergarten for thousands of children and middle school after-school programs for New York City’s children.

Mayor deBlasio has prioritized the needs of the traditional public schools in New York City which continue to serve the vast majority of the district’s 1.1 million students.  He has criticized NYC’s practice of allowing charters to co-locate in New York City’s public school facilities without paying rent.  deBlasio has said that well-funded charter networks like Success Academy Charter Schools should have to pay for the facilities they occupy.  After all, Eva Moskowitz’s board pays her an annual salary of $475,000, twice the salary of New York’s schools chancellor.