The Importance of Public Education and the Danger of Privatization: Remembering Benjamin Barber

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, died last week. Over the years, his writing has spoken poignantly to the civic principles that have defined our society’s commitment to public education. In today’s American ethos—defined by individualism, competition, and greed—his thinking calls us back to the values to which our society has traditionally declared a commitment. Here are short excerpts from Barber’s own writing.

A short essay, “Education for Democracy,” published in Barber’s 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, remains remarkably timely 20 years later.

“Although a fifth to a quarter of all children under six and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from school lunch to after-school programs is being slashed at the federal and state levels… There is nothing sadder than a country that turns its back on its children, for in doing so it turns away from its own future.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 225)

“In many municipalities, schools have become the sole surviving public institutions and consequently have been burdened with responsibilities far beyond traditional schooling. Schools are now medical clinics, counseling centers, vocational training institutes, police/security outposts, drug rehabilitation clinics, special education centers, and city shelters… Among the costs of public schools that are most burdensome are those that go for special education, discipline, and special services to children who would simply be expelled from (or never admitted into) private and parochial schools or would be turned over to the appropriate social service agencies (which themselves are no longer funded in many cities.)  It is the glory and the burden of public schools that they cater to all of our children, whether delinquent or obedient, drug damaged or clean, brilliant or handicapped, privileged or scarred.  That is what makes them public schools.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, pp. 226-227)

“America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony.  Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity.  If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

Barber’s  2007 warning, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, explains precisely what is dangerous about the thinking of school privatizers like our voucher-supporting Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and others who dismiss as harmless the twenty year, bipartisan romance with charter schools.

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

“We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139)

“Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning.  I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones.  What do we get?  The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Barber’s 1992 book about education, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, feels dated, with much of it addressing the culture wars raging a quarter century ago. What’s timely today in this book is Barber’s challenge to what has become a dominant assumption among many parents that education is a zero sum game. Today, very often, parents have been taught to believe that education is a competition—a race to the top for those who can run fastest.  School choice—driven by an ethos of individualism—encourages parents to fear that, “If your kid wins, mine will lose.” Barber confronts and contradicts that assumption even in his book’s title: everyone can be part of an aristocracy of the educated.

“This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber articulates abstract principles, ideals we should aim for. I realized how important it is to think about these principles when— after Hurricane Katrina led to the “shock doctrine” takeover and privatization of New Orleans’ schools and the mass firing of all the teachers—I was sitting at a public meeting. As the keynoter described the hurricane as a opportunity to “reform” the public schools, a woman in the audience leapt to her feet and shouted out: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town!”

The New Orleans mother understood exactly what Benjamin Barber explains here: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)


Please Take a Minute Today to Call Both of Your Senators to Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

The U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP ) Committee’s confirmation hearing on Betsy Devos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, is scheduled for this coming Wednesday, January 11.

Today I am privileged to be part of a small group who will deliver a statement from a number of organizations to the local offices here in Cleveland of U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman.  I am delighted we’ll have the opportunity to talk with a staff person in our Senators’ local offices about why we believe Betsy DeVos is the wrong person to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

This blog has covered extensively all the reasons why Betsy DeVos—a billionaire philanthropist who has devoted her life and her money to opposing public schools and lobbying for school privatization through expanding vouchers and unregulated charter schools—should not be confirmed to lead the U.S. Department that oversees Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Even if you have signed onto one of the many online petitions that are circulating to oppose the DeVos nomination, please make a phone call today to the offices of your two Senators. Tell the person who answers the phone that you oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. The staff people in these offices are counting the phone calls they receive to support or to oppose confirmation of each nomination by President-elect Trump.

Make the phone call even if your Senator does not serve on the Senate HELP Committee, which is conducting this week’s hearing. DeVos’s confirmation will come before the entire U.S. Senate for a vote.

The Network for Public Education’s Campaign to Say ‘No’ to Betsy DeVos provides a toolkit including the phone numbers of the offices of all U.S. Senators. In the Network for Public Education’s toolkit, you will also find a couple of short sample scripts to help you when you make the call.

I will share that when I asked my own adult children who now live in other states to make calls to the offices of their Senators to oppose the DeVos confirmation, they didn’t even accuse me of nagging. They attended public schools and graduated from a public high school to which they are very loyal. They are determined that Betsy DeVos must not threaten public education, the institution that has been so important to them.  They even asked some of their friends and colleagues to make calls.

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Push Increasingly Discredited School Policy

While public schools across the United States are the quintessential institution of the Ninety-Nine Percent, for years now public policy has been driven by the ideas of the One Percent. Nobody exemplifies this ironic contradiction better than the woman nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as our next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She is the founder and chair of the board of the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, and she leads the All Children Matter PAC. Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick lead the Great Lakes Education Project, the organization behind the massive growth of unregulated—and mostly for-profit—charter schools that are now known to have contributed to the financial crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. DeVos is also a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll describes the political influence of the Michigan DeVos family: “The DeVoses sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”

Here is Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: “(I)t would be hard to find a better representative of the “donor class” than the DeVos, whose family has been allied with Charles and David Koch for years. Betsy, her husband Richard, Jr. (Dick), and her father-in-law, Richard, Sr., whose fortune was estimated by Forbes to be worth $5.1 billion, have turned up repeatedly on lists of attendees at the Kochs’ donor summits, and as contributors to the brothers’ political ventures. In 2010, Charles Koch described Richard DeVos, Sr., as one of thirty-two “great partners” who had contributed a million dollars or more to the tens of millions of dollars that the Kochs planned to spend in that year’s campaign cycle.”

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos are One Percenters, and both are proponents of the privatization of education —vouchers by which children carry tax dollars to pay tuition at parochial or private schools, and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. States and the federal government, pushed by far-right politicians and advocates like the DeVos family, have been trying out both forms of privatization since the 1990s, long enough that there is now a body of evidence to compare the performance of privatized schools to that of the local public schools and to see how their presence is affecting the school districts in which they are situated.

For example, University of Illinois professors of education Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, researching the quality of mathematics instruction in public, private, and privatized schools, published a book (2014) demonstrating, that because public schools employ curriculum staff exposed to the best current research and because certified teachers are trained in up-to-date theory at teachers colleges, there is a Public School Advantage: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (The Public School Advantage, pp xvii-xviii)

Even the proponents of school choice have begun raising questions. Robin Lake leads the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the organization that has made its name by promoting “portfolio school reform,” a theory that school districts ought to be managed as a business portfolio—shedding failing schools and opening new charters in an environment of perpetual market churn. Robin Lake went to Detroit in 2014 to observe how all this is working in the environment that has long been promoted by Michigan’s biggest charter school advocates—including Betsy DeVos. Here is how Lake described what she saw: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

And in Detroit, the DeVos family has helped ensure that charter schools remain unregulated.  Last May and June (2016) as the Michigan legislature worked on a plan to save the Detroit School District, made virtually bankrupt partly by the massive expansion of school choice, even Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed to the creation of a Detroit Education Commission as part of the plan.  The Commission’s role was going to be guiding the location of any new charter schools to ensure there remain quality schools in all of the city’s neighborhoods and to help regulate the worst charter schools out of existence. It seemed the plan would be approved  by the legislature until the DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project unleashed its lobbyists and $1.45 million in political contributions to members of the Michigan House, who then soundly eliminated the Commission from the Detroit Schools’ rescue plan.  Believing in the power of the market as the sole source of accountability, Betsy and Dick DeVos purchased the obliteration of meaningful charter school oversight in Detroit.

Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Daily News, has watched as the School District of Philadelphia has been undermined by the rapid expansion of charters, just as Detroit has suffered.  He explains: “Take a look at Detroit — Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call “school choice.” The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits — aided by the failure of a charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight — and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an “unreasonably high” number of charters were among Michigan’s worst 5 percent of schools… The president-elect’s endorsement of a radical “school choice” agenda comes as the Philadelphia School District struggles to find equilibrium after a two-decade charter-school exodus that created massive budget holes and devastated dozens of fading neighborhood schools. During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to re-purpose some $20 billion in federal dollars for school choice spending, to be administered by the states through block grants. Now, DeVos will be the high-profile point person for getting that done.”

Even the bond ratings agencies have begun to consider the impact of the rapid growth of charter schools in big city school districts where rapid expansion of privatized charter schools has sucked money out of the traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of children, and especially children in extreme poverty and those with expensive special needs.  Chicago and Detroit are two of the districts where bond ratings have recently been lowered, but more recently Moody’s has been writing about Massachusetts, where, on November 8, voters defeated a ballot measure that would have expanded charters. In a new report, Moody’s celebrates the statewide defeat of Massachusetts Question 2 and in doing so expresses concern about the kind of school privatization that President-elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Education have announced as their priority.  Shira Schoenberg describes Moody’s new report for the Springfield Republican: “Charter schools tend to proliferate in urban areas where school districts already reflect a degree of underlying economic and fiscal stress that can detract from a city’s ability to deliver competitive services and can prompt students to move to charter schools; this growing competition can sometime create a ‘downward spiral,'” the report stated. “A city that begins to lose students to a charter school can be forced to weaken educational programs because funding is tighter, which then begins to encourage more students to leave which then results in additional losses.”

Betsy DeVos has not always limited her school privatization activity to what is legal. Back in 2006, she helped David Brennan, owner of the notorious, privately held, for-profit, White Hat Charter School management empire to make an illegally large donation to the campaign coffers of Ohio legislators. On his personal blog, Steve Dyer, former Akron Beacon Journal reporter and former chair of the Ohio House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, describes what happened: “DeVos has a bad history here in Ohio. In 2006, she allowed David Brennan to launder campaign cash through her All Children Matter PAC. That led to the largest fine ever levied against a candidate or PAC by the Ohio Elections Commission — $5.2 million. By all accounts, that fine was larger than all fines put together.”

The Betsy DeVos nomination has received wide coverage by knowledgeable reporters. For excellent summaries, check out Kate Zernike in the NY Times, and Emma Brown and Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

Research Summarizes the Public School Advantage

A book like Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms from the National Education Policy Center—a compendium of two decades’ of academic research on today’s public school ideology, policy, and trends—is invaluable even for a non-expert, citizen-reader who just wants to get informed. After all, most academic research is published in the paywalled academic journals, and more specialized books are unlikely to appear in smaller, regional libraries.  There is a lot that I miss, even though I do a lot of searching around in books about education.

One book that I have always felt I ought to read is The Public School Advantage, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois. Here in NEPC’s new compendium is a chapter from the Lubienskis’ book—“Reconsidering Choice, Competition, and Autonomy as the Remedy in American Education,” (pp. 365-391 in NEPC’s compendium). The Lubienskis conducted an enormous study of the practices and student achievement in public, private and privatized schools. Their finding: “Despite what many reformers, policy makers, media elites, and even parents may believe, public schools are, on average, actually providing a relatively effective educational service compared to schools in the independent sector.” The Lubienskis continue: “(O)ur analyses indicate that public schools are enjoying an advantage in academic effectiveness because they are aligned with a more professional model of teaching and learning.” One reason people turn away from the public schools, they write, is simply that many believe that if people are willing to pay for private schools, they must be the superior model.

Other reasons people desire school choice?  “Obviously, some parents will prioritize safety…. Many parents consider extracurricular options or perceived pedagogical fit…. (F)or many families, finding a school that reinforces their values may be more important (religious schools)…. Some children enroll in schools that their friends are attending or where other families look like they do.”

What about the belief that expanding charters and school vouchers is a good way to boost achievement for the children our society has left behind?  “Although marketists believe that choice will open up opportunities for disadvantaged children, the data show that private and independent schools under enroll such students… (D)isadvantaged and minority students who are in most such schools are on average, no better served then they are in public schools, diminishing hope that private sector-based strategies have much potential to reduce achievement gaps between groups… Once we account for the SES (socioeconomic status) differences between the populations of students served in the different sectors, it is clear that the variables that differ between sectors are not significant predictors of achievement… The extended infatuation with vouchers for private schools, for instance, or the nationwide effort to expand charter schools, regardless of the thin empirical basis for these policies, speaks to the power of… belief to guide policy.”

The Lubienskis summarize a half century of economic theory and the role of organizations representing economists’ ideas to normalize assumptions about the benefits of privatization—Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises and their neoliberal philosophy, and free-enterprise organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute. “When the traditionally centrist Brookings Institution began producing pieces favorable to private/independent models, as with Chubb and Moe’s seminal 1990 work, the agenda really moved into the political mainstream.  Now advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and the Alliance for School Choice actively promote evidence that they see as favorable to private and independent models.”

Philanthropists—notably Gates, Broad, and Walton—“have been instrumental in shaping the policy climate around education issues by providing political and financial support for pilot programs, stipulating particular policies from grantee districts, and underwriting researchers and research organizations that are predisposed toward their agendas.”  These philanthropies are underwriting think tanks that mask themselves as academic departments at major universities: “(T)hese major funding agencies have also directed strategic support to individuals and units at respected institutions, such as the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard or the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  In this way, they are able to capitalize on recognizable institutional brands in adding legitimacy to their policy claims, regardless of whether or not the rigor of research coming from these institutions merits the weight that is given to the studies in media and policy-making circles… The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to the PEPG at Harvard, which is run by a stable of pro-voucher scholars and public figures on its board. Similarly, the Walton Family Foundation was instrumental in creating the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which is led by a PEPG associate and staffed with pro-voucher theorists and researchers.”

What are the assumptions underneath the movement to privatize public education?  First is the belief in public sector failure.  Second is the belief that consumer choice ought to be a right: “This recasts the beneficiaries of public education from the wider community to a focus on more immediate chosers…. Fundamental to the theory is that parents are wise and informed consumers acting on behalf of their children, and many are.  However, much evidence suggests that many parents do not have access to useful information on school options.. and that such information—and the tendency to use it—is unequally distributed, with children most in need of better quality options least likely to have parents willing or able to effectively advocate for their children.”  The third assumption is that competition spurs school improvement. In response to this third assumption, the Lubienskis recognize a reality that is neither acknowledged nor examined by proponents of school choice: precisely because of their public mandate, public schools cannot cut costs to be competitive or emphasize the mere elevation of overall test scores as their sole mission. “(M)arket theory misses the fact that the multiple responsibilities placed on public schools as institutions created to serve common, nonmarket goals often require that they be shielded from the competitive pressures of the market.”

For me, the Lubienskis’ most important critique of privatization is their attack on the privatizers’ contention that school choice will expand opportunity by offering power to families and children who have heretofore been left behind. The Lubienski’s remind us that research documents the impact of peer effects on children’s school achievement: “Regardless of school type, having a child in a school with students from more affluent families with higher academic aspirations can have a beneficial impact on that child. Yet, choices based on such criteria can also lead to greater social sorting… As policy makers increasingly seek to shift students en masse from public to private or independent schools, or to privatize public schools, our analyses and the analyses of others indicate that such efforts can create a less effective (and more socially segregated) system of schooling.” “Even when they are working well markets can lead to inequitable outcomes, since those with resources are better positioned to use markets to increase their advantages and pass them on to their children.”  This gets at the ethical dilemma in competition-based school choice, a problem pointedly described by the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run, but ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

NEPC’s inclusion of this chapter from the Lubienskis’ book motivates me to locate and read The Public School Advantage.

Politico NY Sells Ads to Pro-Charter Advocacy Group but Fails to Label Them As Paid Ads

Even though I live in Ohio, every morning in my e-mail in-box, I receive and scan an update on news about education from Politico New York. I read it as a summary of public education issues surfacing in the state of New York and because its authors—Eliza Shapiro, Keshia Clukey and Conor Skelding—select and recommend a list of national stories about education.  As a blogger, I use a lot of tools to find current news.

Imagine my surprise when in yesterday’s morning e-mail newsletter from Politico NY, I found the following in a section called “TRACKING EDUCATION” as the second of several blurbs :

** A message from Families for Excellent Schools: New York City’s schools are divided into two separate and unequal systems – one for white, affluent children, and another for low-income children of color. But we can change that. Visit today to take a stand for school equality. **

Then at the end of the newsletter, I discovered a similar message:

** A message from Families for Excellent Schools: 478,000 New York City children — almost all black and Hispanic — are stuck in a network of failing public schools. That’s more children than the entire Chicago Public Schools, and they’re trapped in a separate and unequal education system. Our leaders must do better – especially Mayor de Blasio. It’s time for bold action, not more of the same.

That’s why New Yorkers from every borough are coming together to take a stand for school equality. If you believe EVERY child in New York City deserves a quality education, join Team Possible today: Join us at **

Both of these pieces are highly political.  Both condemn the New York City public schools and identify “Team Possible,” known to be affiliated with charter schools, as a fine alternative to the problems of public education. (I paste these sections into this post, because I cannot provide links; I cannot locate on Politico NY‘s website a cache of its daily e-newsletters.)

A lot of readers would skim such a publication without careful and detailed reading.  I checked my “delete” file and discovered that these very messages have been appearing in my e-mail newsletters all this week, but I hadn’t noticed them until yesterday, when it took me a minute to register what I was skimming over.  My eye caught precisely the same wording as the script in the television advertisements a group called Families for Excellent Schools has been running in New York City to denounce Mayor Bill de Blasio and the improvements that he and his chancellor Carmen Farina have been making in New York’s traditional public schools and also to lavish praise on the city’s charter schools, most particularly Success Academy Charter Schools, the charter school chain led by Eva Moskowitz.

Families for Excellent Schools, the sponsor of the television advertising campaign, claims to be a non-political, educational not-for-profit, though it continues to be very much involved in New York state education politics.  It appears that, besides paying for its television campaign, Families for Excellent Schools is also buying space in my morning e-newsletter, though you’d hardly guess these were ads unless you thought about it.  The newsletter is made up of bullets of information in the news about education; these ads are different from the other blurbs only because they begin and end with a series of stars.  There is no formal notation that they are paid advertising.

In a news story, Politico NY (the online news outlet that also sends around the morning e-newsletter) quite recently posted a report on its website about Families for Excellent Schools and its ad campaign.  The story declared: “Charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools is attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio in a television ad for the second time in just a few weeks, this time by targeting his K-12 education agenda.  The new ad, called ‘Reality,’ started airing on Friday and attempts to rebut the educational policies de Blasio announced during a recent speech… FES, which is closely aligned with Success Academy and its CEO, Eva Moskowitz, has been one of de Blasio’s most relentless antagonists over the last two years.”  So what does it mean when Politico NY‘s e-newsletter appears to promote Families for Excellent Schools?

This blog recently covered the very same television advertising campaign in a post, Plutocrats in NYC Wielding Power, Buying the Airwaves, and Trashing Public Schools Again, which explains: “Here is what Families for Excellent Schools is attacking in its new ad.  In a recent major address, De Blasio committed to extending school improvement well beyond his vast expansion of pre-school over the past year.  Well over 65,000 children in New York City are now enrolled in pre-K programs, including many low income children, even children living in shelters for homeless families.  The district is also engaged in the ongoing transformation of New York City’s lowest-achieving schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools.  In the recent address de Blasio promised to ensure reading specialists across the city’s second grades and access to algebra for all students by ninth grade.  He also promised that all of the small high schools created by Mayor Bloomberg will offer courses in advanced sciences and math.  Many of these schools that have offered a more personalized education have not, until now, provided a curriculum with enough courses for students to earn a Regents diploma.”

I urge you to read the entire blog post that explains how Families for Excellent Schools has been able to shield its donors to ensure that people watching (or reading) its ads do not know who is sponsoring them. The organization is closely affiliated with wealthy hedge fund managers, and has, to avoid naming its contributors and the limitations that might be imposed on their political giving, skirted the law that distinguishes nonprofit educational organizations from political advocacy groups.

This blog’s recent post suggested that readers reflect on the Families for Excellent Schools’ television ad campaign and, “Consider what it would be like to live in New York City these days with a bunch of wealthy plutocrats sponsoring political ads designed to trash your community’s public schools.  Mayor de Blasio has committed to making significant improvements in the way the city’s public schools serve over 90 percent of the city’s young people. What are a few rich friends committed to helping Eva Moskowitz grow her charter network doing undermining the public interest?”  This blog also recently covered Eva Moskowitz and her charter school empire so closely tied to Families for Excellent Schools in this post: Moskowitz and Petrilli Push Education Model Designed to Serve Strivers and Shed the Rest.

It would be easy for a reader of Politico New York‘s morning e-newsblast mistakenly to assume that Politico NY is somehow endorsing Families for Excellent Schools’ cause and that Politico NY is recommending that readers follow the link to the anti-deBlasio ads—just as readers are expected to follow the links to the news stories collected each morning.

I challenge Politico NY to re-format the publication for the purpose of distinguishing clearly and without ambiguity the blurbs designed to inform from the blurbs designed to advertise. Ads ought to be labeled as “paid advertising.”  And I wonder, frankly, whether a publication devoted to coverage of what has become a highly politicized policy war in New York, shouldn’t stop selling ads to the proponents of one side in that battle.

Jerry Brown and CA Legislature Demonstrate Support for Public Education in State Budget

Summer weather is being intensified by the heat of the state budget season—a time when, in too many places, the cost of tax cutting and privatization of the public schools is being represented clearly in dollars and cents.  And today’s attack on the common good is bipartisan.

A new report shows that New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the NY legislature have been the target of $13 million in lobbying in the past year to push the expansion of charters and a tuition tax credit voucher program—both hot topics in NY’s budget debate—with Cuomo leading the charge for privatization and vouchers.

Another report explores the impact of pro-charter school lobbying on the Democratic governor of Connecticut, Dan Malloy—money from people like Jonathan Sackler, who made his fortune producing Oxycontin at Purdue Pharma, and who is the founder of ConCAN (which is part of a nationwide, Sackler supported, coalition of far-right privatizers, 50-CAN). In an opinion piece in the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker explains: “Governor Malloy’s tenure has been characterized by denigrating teachers, vigorously opposing adequate funding of public schools and vastly increasing financial support for privately run charter schools…. Why would Malloy favor these questionable privately run schools over underfunded public schools?… The web of charter money is so thick it must have blinded Malloy to the needs and wishes of constituents from Stamford and Bridgeport.”

And  in the middle of the country, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican and radical income-tax slasher, was forced to raise sales and cigarette taxes to keep the state from going broke—the predictable result of his deep income tax cuts enacted last year.  No matter that regressive sales and cigarette taxes eat up a larger percentage of the income of poor people, Brownback had bragged about his adherence to far-right orthodoxy, in his belief that the income tax cuts that have left his state on the verge of bankruptcy will eventually grow the economy.  John Hanna explains in an Associated Press report: “Kansas found itself in such a deep budget hole because the tax cuts implemented in 2013 initially led to a steep fall in revenue that has still not reversed as much as Brownback had hoped.  For the fiscal year beginning next month, the state estimated in mid-April that it would face a shortfall of 12 percent of its general fund budget.”  Hanna explains further: “Brownback and his GOP allies managed to avoid backtracking on past reductions on income tax rates… Instead, they raised the state’s sales tax to one of the highest rates in the nation and smokers will be paying 50 cents more for each pack of cigarettes.  Republican legislators cobbled together a mix of tax policies to both balance the budget and attract just enough votes for passage, but it’s not yet clear whether they’ve created long-term fiscal stability.”  A number of school districts in the state had been forced to cut weeks off the school year this spring when the state suddenly was unable to provide funding that had been previously allocated and promised.

In this context, what just happened in California looks pretty encouraging.  Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature just agreed on a budget that increases spending for education at all levels. California’s state fiscal capacity continues to benefit from the four-year Proposition 30, passed in November of 2012 specifically to pay for education.  Proposition 30 increased income tax rates for joint filers earning over $500,000 per year and single filers earning $250,000 per year, and it increased sales taxes for four years by a quarter of a cent.

At least until the four-year Proposition 30 ends, California has the capacity to increase education funding, and the new  budget agreement does just that. As reported by John Fensterwald for EdSource, the new agreement between Governor Brown and the legislature adds $6.1 billion (on top of last year’s 13.2 percent increase) for general funding for public education through the Local Control Funding Formula: “That’s an average of $1,088 more per student for an average district, in which 63 percent of English learners and low-income children receive extra money under the formula.”  The agreement also allocates $500 million this year for staff development for teachers.  It adds over $1 billion over three years for career and technical education.  It provides $60 million in new funding for interventions to support toddlers who have special needs. It adds $10 million to increase counseling and tutoring for children in foster care. It provides $7.9 billion this year for community colleges, a $700 million increase from last year.  Finally it provides $4 billion for debt repayment: “This includes $3 billion for unpaid state mandates and $1 billion in the final repayment for deferrals—late payments that required schools to borrow money.”

Having frozen local property-taxing capacity in 1978 with Proposition 13 and, over time, reduced the state’s investment in education, California has desperately needed to increase its budget for education.  In 2012 just before Governor Jerry Brown pushed through Proposition 30, according to the Education Law Center, California was spending only $8, 218 per pupil (when the average expenditure per pupil across the states was $11,110 ) and ranking 41st among the 50 states.  In a commentary back in November of 2012 immediately after passage of Proposition 30, Molly Hunter of the Education Law Center commented on what had been the deplorable level of tax effort in California: “Not surprisingly, California received an ‘F’ on fiscal effort.  This measures the percentage of the state’s fiscal capacity that is spent on education.  California, despite its enormous economy and relatively high fiscal capacity, devotes a small proportion of its wealth and economic vibrancy to public education.”

California continues to face serious problems in education funding.  John Fensterwald comments: “The fat budget years for education are expected to level off with the expiration of temporary taxes under Proposition 30.  Surging revenues have enabled the state to pay back most of the more than $10 billion… owed to districts in past years…. But districts are still owed $700 million, and that amount is expected to grow post Prop. 30.”

While for years to come California will grapple with a legacy of disastrous cuts to state and local funding of schools, at least this year Jerry Brown deserves credit for leadership in talking about the need to fund public services that serve California’s children from pre-school through the K-12 years and into community colleges. His declared support for public education, with dollars allocated to prove it, is refreshing.

Orwellian Language Again: Info-Graphic Answers Your Questions about Democrats for Education Reform

It has perhaps slipped your mind, but beginning Sunday afternoon and ending this morning, a group of New York hedge fund managers and charter school supporters has been meeting at Camp Philos in a retreat center at Lake Placid, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.  The honorary chair of this event was Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.  Governor Cuomo is not only the man who went before an Albany rally this spring to proclaim, “We will save charter schools,” but also the man who, we discovered later, worked behind the scenes with supporters of a well connected New York City charter school network to stage the rally.

Billy Easton is the executive director of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, a large statewide coalition of organizations that has been working hard for over a decade to help ensure that New York’s public schools are adequately funded.  AQE, as the organization refers to itself, has worked assiduously to ensure that New York lives up to the commitments made in response to a statewide school funding lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, only to be disappointed repeatedly by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been more interested in cutting taxes and supporting charter schools.

According to Easton in a recent commentary published at Gotham Gazette, “While backers of the corporate school agenda are proclaiming Cuomo as a conquering hero, public school parents around the state are protesting against him.  His policies have systematically forced classroom cuts every year he has been in office and have promoted a damaging culture of teaching to the test…  The organizers of Camp Philos are literally bathing in money from hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy donors that are ready to continue arming the Governor in his effort to push forward more corporate-style reforms…. Meanwhile, our public schools are barely scraping by.  Year after year, school districts across the state have been through an endless cycle of classroom cuts that have resulted in shrinking opportunities for students.”

In honor of Camp Philos, late last week Easton’s organization, AQE, and its allies put together an info-graphic to help us all connect the dots among Camp Philos’s sponsors, their allies, and the people who spent $1,000 to attend the three day event ($2,500 for VIP attendees).  The info-graphic is helpful because you may have wondered about the involvement of hedge fund managers in the promotion of charter schools.  You may have wondered about Democrats for Education Reform, that has chosen a name that sounds progressive but instead promotes school privatization and works with the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos and her pro-voucher American Federation for Children.  And you may not have been able to figure out that Education Reform Now (the group that just last month spent nearly $5 million for TV ads supporting Success Academy Charter Network’s right to co-locate three charter schools into New York City public school buildings) is the 501(c)(3) arm of Democrats for Education Reform.  And maybe you thought Democrats for Education Reform couldn’t touch public schools in your state because it is only a New York organization, but you didn’t realize that DFER, as it is called for short, has also been spending huge amounts to impact state and local elections across the country.

This info-graphic, Democrats (In Name Only) for Education Reform,  along with the links it provides to background material, will establish DFER clearly in your memory and straighten out any misconceptions you may have about what this organization really stands for.