Who Controls Education Policy? The Power of the One Percent versus The Power of Educators

This blog will take a one-week summer break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 31.

For a long time it has been clear that the policy agenda for school privatization is being underwritten by the One Percent, while traditional public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent. During this spring and summer, we have been reminded of the role of organized teachers for reminding us about the needs of public schools’ powerless constituents—our children.

First we watched the teachers’ walkouts all this spring across far-right, tax-slashing states which have been starving their public education budgets.  Then in June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against teachers unions in the case of Janus v. AFSCME , a decision that will threaten the viability and power of public sector unions to advocate on behalf of the public institutions staffed by the members of these unions.  The Janus decision will discourage union membership and deny public sector unions money for organizing and bargaining. Who was behind the case? The Chicago Tribune explains the role of wealthy Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who worked with well-endowed, private libertarian organizations—the National Right to Work Foundation, the Illinois Policy Institute and the Liberty Justice Center—to bring the case and litigate it.

The Illinois Policy Institute is the Illinois member of the State Policy Network (SPN) of far-right, state-by-state think tanks which collaborate with the American Legislative Exchange Council to promote far-right bills across the 50 statehouses.  The Center for Media and Democracy describes the State Policy Network: “The State Policy Network (SPN) is a web of so-called “think tanks” that push a right-wing agenda in every state across the country. Although many of SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, an in-depth investigation by non-profit, non-partisan investigative reporting groups, the Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now, reveals that SPN and its affiliates are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.”

The role of the One Percent to drive education policy is much broader than its role in promoting the Janus case.  For Jacobin Magazine, Molly Gott and Derek Seidman map the role of “corporations, banks, and billionaires” driving a far right agenda across the states: “The teachers’ strikes… represent a major pushback by public sector workers against the right-wing agenda of austerity and privatization… The key forces driving the austerity and privatization agenda are similar across all the states that have seen strikes: Billionaire school privatizers. A small web of billionaires—dominated by the Koch brothers and their donor network, as well as the Waltons—have given millions to state politicians who will push their pro-austerity, pro-school privatization agenda… Regional corporate forces.  Major corporations in each state, often from the fossil fuel industry, are key drivers and beneficiaries of the pro-austerity, tax-cutting policies that have gutted school funding…. Koch-backed think tanks. A slew of state-level front groups—many tied to the State Policy Network, a national network of think tanks funded by the Kochs, Mercers, Waltons, and other billionaires—serve as a key PR wing for the anti-teacher, privatization agenda.”

Gott and Seidman trace the collaboration of this coalition to cut taxes and undermine public education in each of the states where teachers walked out this spring to protest their rock-bottom salaries and the deplorable conditions in their schools.  Remembering that public schools serve the 99 Percent (Quite literally 90 percent of America’s children are enrolled in public schools.), one learns from Gott and Seidman who is really behind public school policy in many states.

  • In Arizona: “Arizona governor Doug Ducey is a longtime Koch ally…. The Koch brothers poured $1.4 million into Ducey’s 2014 gubernatorial run, and he recently headlined a Koch donor retreat. Ducey’s chief of staff used to be president of the Koch-funded Americans for Responsible Leadership… The Koch donor network also funds the Goldwater Institute, Arizona’s anti-teacher SPN affiliate. Trump backer Rebekah Mercer is on the Goldwater board, and a former Ducey official now heads up the Institute… Arizona corporations fund the Arizona Education Project, which spent more than $1 million on pro-Ducey education ads before the teachers’ strike.”
  • In Oklahoma: “The fossil fuel industry drives the state’s austerity agenda. Three companies—Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, and Continental Resources, whose CEO Harold Hamm is worth $18.8 billion—succeeded in getting an ultra-low tax rate of just 2 percent on new drilling wells for the first three years of operations.” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has close ties to the Koch network and to ALEC.
  • “West Virginia has steadily slashed corporate taxes since 2006… Oil, gas, and coal dominate West Virginia and are key pushers of austerity… The Koch-backed SPN has two affiliates in West Virginia—the Cardinal Institute and the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.”

Gott and Seidman provide similar details about Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina, where massive political power is wielded by Art Pope, founder and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a chain of discount stores.

Big money investors are not all supportive of tax-slashing and austerity budgeting. But they do tend to support privatized alternatives to traditional public schools. The Associated Press‘s Sally Ho traces Bill Gates’ role as the driver of the expansion of charter schools in the state of Washington. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported a pro-charter think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at a University of Washington branch campus but spreading its ideology of charter school expansion across the fifty states through its network of “portfolio school reform” school districts.  Gates has not only invested in think tanks and foundation driven research; he has also invested politically in the expansion of charter schools in his home state of Washington:

“Dollar for dollar, the beleaguered movement to bring charter schools to Washington state has had no bigger champion than billionaire Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder gave millions of dollars to see a charter school law approved despite multiple failed ballot referendums. And his private foundation not only helped create the Washington State Charter Schools Association, but has at times contributed to an entire year’s worth of revenues for the 5-year-old charter advocacy group. All told, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given about $25 million to the charter group that is credited with keeping the charter schools open after the state struck down the law, and then lobbying legislators to revive the privately run, publicly funded schools… (Gates) gave at least $4 million to help pass a state charter school law, though the concept had failed three times at the ballot.  Voters eventually approved a charter school law in 2012, making Washington one of the last states to adopt the schooling model.  After the state’s highest court ruled in 2015 that the charter law’s funding model was unconstitutional, the Gates-backed state charter group shepherded almost $5 million to keep the lights on at six charter schools and urged legislators to pass a new law.  In 2016, its political arm called Washington Charters Action was created, and an affiliated political action committee has already given small amounts to dozens of state lawmakers up for election this fall.”

Finally we can turn to the New York Post, where Melissa Klein reports on the investment by hedge fund billionaires in New York City’s charter schools: “The city’s 227 charter schools are privately run, but get public money for each student and also raise private donations.  Nearly half belong to nonprofit management organizations like the Success Academy network.”  Success Academies is supported by the Success Academy Foundation: “The foundation was set up in 2012 with a mission to support the Success Academy schools.  It has taken in $1 million in donations in the last two years—with the cash coming each year, all from a single undisclosed donor. A Success Academy spokeswoman said the foundation’s sole function was ‘supplementing the compensation of the CEO.'”

Eva Moskowitz is the CEO of Success Academies, and her compensation is extraordinary.  Klein reports: “Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the 46-school Success Academy network, received a pay package totaling $782,175 in 2016.  The nonprofit network paid Moskowitz $195,000 in base compensation and she received another $255,000 in salary plus a $300,000 bonus from the affiliated Success Foundation.” Richard Carranza, the new chancellor of New York City’s public schools that serve 1.1 million students, earns an annual salary of $345,000—less than half of Moskowitz’s pay package.

In a society where the One Percent controls the public policy shaping the schools where 90 percent of us send our children, I am grateful for the power balance provided by teachers unions through their organizing power and policy advocacy.  Teachers unions represent over 5 million teachers who work every day with the mass of our society’s children.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the recent annual meetings of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, meetings where leaders, “are coming out swinging after a Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to labor organizations’ ability to collect fees. Even as conservative groups are waging a social media campaign to persuade teachers to drop out of their unions, the presidents of the National Education Association, the largest public union in the country, and the American Federation of Teachers delivered tough speeches this month at their annual conventions… The Guardian newspaper recently published a story saying: ‘Documents obtained by The Guardian reveal that a network of radical conservative think tanks spanning all 50 states is planning direct marketing campaigns targeted personally at union members to encourage them to quit.'”

The NY Times Erica Green adds: “Conservative groups that bankrolled the Janus case have begun a nationwide push to inform public workers of their new rights to opt out… ‘This is a game-changer, a tremendous victory for worker freedom,’ said Erica Jedynak, the New Jersey state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by Charles G. and David H. Koch.  Americans for Prosperity is among the organizations working with a Michigan-based conservative group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to focus on states that have high numbers of public workers, such as New York, New Jersey and California.”

The battle will continue. The stakes are high as teachers unions push to retain their dues-paying members and their power as the only real balance for the giant voice these days of the One Percent.

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Teachers’ Walkouts Define the Danger of the Corporate Agenda to Destroy Public Education

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how powerful, moneyed interests have quietly taken advantage of the relatively invisible politics of state government to undermine public education.  Public school governance and funding is established in the state constitutions, and corporate interests, for decades, have been strategically manipulating state politics to starve the public schools our children attend and drive their own priorities: slashing government and growing privatization.

Why the states? “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… If most people can’t name their legislators, how many are likely to have a well informed opinion on whether prevailing wages should be required on public construction projects worth more than $25,000?…  Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Lafer documents that state policy to starve public schools has been driven by groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a wide network of far-right state and regional think-tanks associated with ALEC.  In an epigraph introducing his chapter on the destruction of public schooling, Lafer chooses a quote from Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a midwestern ALEC partner. Unlike Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who frames the far-right agenda for school privatization innocently as the mere expansion of choices for parents, Bast is more honest: “Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise… The way to privatize schooling is to give parents… vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice… Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will no longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization… This is a battle we should win… But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 127)

Lafer defines the corporate education platform plank by plank. Here are the subheadings of the sections of his chapter on the destruction of public education: “Budget Cuts and Crowded Classrooms,” “Vouchers,” “High-Stakes Testing,” “Charter Schools,” “Education Reform: An Evidence-Free Zone of Public Policy,” “Education Technology and the Replacement of In-Person with Digital Instruction,” and “Deprofessionalization—The Deskilling of Teachers.”  The most amazing thing about the reform agenda incorporating these mechanisms is that it has been enacted into law while we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in the legislature and while we’ve been too ignorant to block ALEC’s model bills. In many places it has been enacted by legislators elected in the money-driven Red wave in 2010, an election that created legislative, far-right supermajorities across many statehouses.

Lafer explains: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often they have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also often broadly unpopular. For example, a majority of the country opposes using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools… What parents want most of all are smaller class sizes… In this sense, education policy also provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (The One Percent Solution, p 130)

The widespread walkouts by schoolteachers this spring—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona to Colorado, and last week in North Carolina—have finally begun to help the public connect the dots.  We can now identify the same symptoms of the crisis in state after state: lower teachers’ salaries, larger classes, teacher shortages, more charters, more vouchers, school funding that has fallen over the decade. In a fine analysis of last week’s huge May 16th demonstration by teachers in North Carolina, the NY TimesDana Goldstein describes the very same set of problems striking teachers have been identifying all spring: “In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009.  Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year…. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay. After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes… Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half… And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs.” While Governor Roy Cooper, a recently elected Democrat has proposed ending some already-planned future tax cuts “for businesses and high earners,” Republicans in the North Carolina legislature make up a veto-proof supermajority.

Looking back at the effect of this spring’s walkouts by teachers—events that have awakened awareness and concern about the widespread financial crisis for public schools—Goldstein warns, however, that it will be extremely challenging to sustain the walkouts and demonstrations. Why? Because while the same destructive policies are in place across many states, the particular ways schools are funded and teachers’ salaries are set are very different from state to state: “Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts. This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts. Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity—and political leverage—across hundreds of miles.”

The challenge for all of us will be to pay attention to what’s happening in our statehouses. Then we must continue exposing—whatever the differences in the operation of education policy across the 50 states—the realities the corporate agenda has infused through ALEC model laws introduced across state legislatures. These are the laws that cut taxes, expand charters, redirect tax dollars to private schools through vouchers.  And we’ll need to identify the far-right money and political power in our statehouses blocking the equitable distribution of dollars to the school districts most in need. We owe thanks to the desperate schoolteachers whose walkouts this spring have jump-started this work.

Gordon Lafer’s policy prescription for improving school achievement is quite plain and very different from the corporate agenda. It is evidence based, and it ought to be obvious to anyone who has seriously considered a map of the geographic distribution of our nation’s struggling schools: “The single most important step policy makers could take to improve the education of disadvantaged students would be to make it easier for their parents to earn a living wage—or to ensure a sufficiently strong safety net to enable jobless families to live decently. Instead, many of the same corporate organizations advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty… The corporate lobbies’ proposals to replace public schools with privately run charters are presented as a needed response…. Yet by supporting reduced school funding and opposing economic policies that make it easier for families to work their way out of poverty, these organizations are helping create the conditions most likely to ensure failure.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 154-155)

State Cuts to Education Funding Demonstrate Impact of National, Far-Right Tax-Slashing Agenda

Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post report about four-day school weeks in Oklahoma provides the textbook example of the political phenomenon described by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017).

Here is Emma Brown: “A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week… Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules, nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall….”

Gordon Lafer explains that in the November 2010 election, “Eleven state governments switched from Democratic or divided control to unified Republican control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Since these lawmakers took office in early 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at lowering labor standards and slashing public services.” (p. 2) “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign…  (T)his was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country. Finally, the 2011 legislative sessions opened in the midst of record budget deficits (from the Great Recession), creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible… For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.” (p 44)

Oklahoma was one of the eleven states that turned all-Red in 2011; the others were Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Wyoming.  Today, after the 2016 election, the number of all-Red states has reached 25.  And, while it might seem to the residents of any one of these states that a climate of tax slashing, union bashing, and cutting public services reflects some kind of new trend among their voters, a more intentional national strategy is instead pushing the agenda into their state from the outside. Lafer explains: “Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’—suggesting that even members of Congress are ultimately elected on the basis of their reputation for solving local problems. The past few years, however, have stood this axiom on its head. Local politics have become nationalized with state legislation written by lobbyists representing national and multinational corporations… In fact, lawmakers… (have been) enacting the agenda of national corporate interests that had spent years preparing for just such a moment.” (p. 49)

Lafer continues: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also broadly unpopular… In this sense, education policy… provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (p. 130)

Who are the corporate lobbies crafting and pushing the anti-tax, union-bashing, anti-public education agenda? “Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (p. 130)  “Furthermore, the corporate agenda is carried out through an integrated network that operates on multiple channels at once: funding ALEC to write bills, craft legislative talking points, and provide a meeting place for legislators and lobbyists to build relationships; supporting local think tanks in the ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network to produce white papers, legislative testimony, opinion columns, and media experts; contributing to candidate campaigns and party committees; making independent expenditures on behalf of lawmakers or issues; and deploying field organizers to key legislative districts.” (p. 39)

A primary strategy is tax cutting: “‘The best way to stimulate the economy,’ insisted a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Cato Institute, is ‘to shrink government… lower marginal tax rates, and streamline regulations.’  The corporate right’s exhortations for an unprecedented policy of cutting taxes and services in the midst of recession was not an evidence-based policy and indeed did not yield the economic growth its proponents forecast… There was no reason to believe that tax cuts were the key to economic recovery.  However continuing tax cuts achieved something else; they dramatically—and perhaps permanently—shrank the size of government.” (p. 65)

How has all this affected public education?  “(B)udget cuts were particularly widespread—and particularly devastating—in the country’s school systems. In 2010-11, 70 percent of all U.S. school districts made cuts to essential services. Despite widespread evidence of the academic and economic value of preschool education, twelve states cut pre-K funding that year, including Arizona, which eliminated it completely. Ohio repealed full-day kindergarten and cut its preschool program to the point that it served 75 percent fewer four-year-olds than it had a decade earlier. Pennsylvania also cut back from full-day to half-day kindergarten in many districts—including Philadelphia, which also eliminated 40 percent of its teaching staff…. More than half the nation’s school districts changed their thermostat settings…. Research shows that the availability of trained librarians makes a significant improvement in student reading and writing skills, yet by 2014, one-third of public schools in the country lacked a full-time certified librarian.” (p. 69)

Lafer explores the reasons far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” (p. 129) But he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant: “Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.” (p. 129)

Which brings us back to Emma Brown’s recent piece in the Washington Post about Oklahoma, where parents and teachers are getting used to a reduced school week only four days long: “Oklahoma stands out for the velocity with which districts have turned to a shorter school week in the past several years, one of the most visible signs of a budget crisis that has also shuttered rural hospitals, led to overcrowded prisons and forced state troopers to abide by a 100-mile daily driving limit. Democrats helped pass bipartisan income tax cuts from 2004-2008. Republicans—who have controlled the legislature since 2009 and the governorship since 2011—have cut income taxes further and also significantly lowered taxes on oil and gas production… Facing a $900 million budget gap, lawmakers approved a budget (last) Friday that will effectively hold school funding flat in the next year. In Washington, President Trump has proposed significant education cuts that would further strain local budgets… Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008…. Oklahoma has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary in 2013—$44,128—put the state at 49th in the nation…. Teachers are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs across state lines…. And the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers—who have no education training… is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.”

This week Valerie Strauss published  a reflection by an Oklahoma school teacher, a companion piece to Emma Brown’s report.  Shawn Sheehan is the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. At the end of this school year, he is leaving his position at Norman High School to take a job in Texas. His wife is also leaving her position in a Norman, Oklahoma school to accept a Texas teaching position. Sheehan explains: “(A)t the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job—this job we love very much—by heading out of state… We could stay, but it would cost our family—specifically our sweet baby girl… We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.”

October Charter School Investigations—Tales of Fraud, Mismanagement, and Mis-Education

There is so much news from place to place about the financial and management scandals in particular charter schools and charter management organizations that it is hard to keep track. Schools are taking public money—and too frequently finding a way to make a profit—while failing to serve the children they enroll or neglecting to enroll particular groups of children with special needs.  All of this increases the burden on public schools and misspends tax dollars, thereby undermining the public good.  Here are just three examples that have surfaced during mid-October.

North Carolina ProPublica just published a major investigation of Baker Mitchell’s charters in North Carolina including Douglass Academy in Wilmington.  After he came to North Carolina in 1997, according to ProPublica, “Mitchell quickly connected with the state’s big political players, including conservative Kingmaker Art Pope.  By 2002, he was sitting alongside Pope on the board of the John Locke Foundation…. part of the State Policy Network, a Koch-supported group of think tanks whose agenda includes steering public funds away from traditional schools and toward charters, vouchers and tax credits for homeschoolers.”

Mitchell then established the same kind of racket that William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow has going in Ohio: he created a private, for-profit company owned by himself to provide all services for his charter schools. “The company, Roger Bacon Academy, is owned by Mitchell.  It functions as the schools’ administrative arm, taking the lead in hiring and firing school staff.  It handles most of the bookkeeping.  The treasurer of the non-profit that controls the four schools is also the chief financial officer of Mitchell’s management company.  The two organizations even share a bank account.”  Back in 2001 the Internal Revenue Service denied Mitchell’s management company  non-profit status, for, according to IRS, “Mr. Mitchell… controls both your management company and your lessor.  He has dual loyalties to you and his private, for-profit companies.  This is a clear conflict of interest for him.”  However, Mitchell’s board (on which he was serving actively as a member) protested and the IRS eventually capitulated based on promises by the board—promises never fulfilled, according to ProPublica.

Mitchell has also become involved in advocacy for privatization of education in North Carolina.  In 2011, he joined the state’s Charter School Advisory Council that helped eliminate the cap on the growth of charter schools.  In 2013 he was instrumental in helping push a bill through the legislature to remove oversight and regulation of charters and to provide a tax exemption “for landlords who, like Mitchell, rent property to charter schools.”

Adelanto, California: Bill Raden, a reporter for California’s Capital & Main, has investigated the first school in the nation to have undergone a “Parent Trigger” conversion.  The investigation tracks the operation of Desert Trails Elementary School during its first year of operation after it was seized by parents through a petition and subsequently charterized.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) disseminated model “parent trigger” legislation across the state legislatures.  According to Raden, “At least 25 states have considered parent trigger legislation and seven of them have enacted some version of the law, including Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas,” in addition to California.

Rapid turnover of teachers has plagued Desert Trails. Although its executive director has been paid a salary of $200,000, teachers are reported by Raden to be earning only $3,300 per month.  “During its first year, teachers say, the charter lost a principal (Don Wilkinson) and a director (Ron Griffin)—both before the Christmas break—and its vice principal, six classroom teachers and its behavioral specialist.  In addition only nine of Desert Trails’ first-year teacher roster—or 33 percent—are returnees this year.”  Several teachers or former teachers who agreed to be interviewed tell of personally spending hundreds of dollars for basic classroom supplies.  They explain that drinking fountains were turned off to prevent their freezing at night during the high-desert winter when the heat was turned off to save money.

While Desert Trails employed a special education coordinator and teacher, teachers say they were advised by Debra Tarver, the current executive director, not to tell parents about their right to services for children with special needs.  Raden describes instances when parents of children with special behavioral needs were advised that the school “was not a suitable environment to meet their needs,” while school administrators denied that the students had been suspended or expelled.

Teachers report they were subject to a succession of curriculum changes as the school’s administrators turned over.  All report, however,  that intense pressure grew throughout the year to focus on language arts and math, the two tested subjects, and to cut out social studies, science, and physical education.  Raising test scores became an obsession.

Columbus, Ohio: Catherine Candinsky and Jim Siegel of the Columbus Dispatch examined real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools, a national charter management organization.  Candinsky and Siegel report that rent—paid to a real estate subsidiary of its national sponsor, Imagine Schools Inc.—is the highest expense for Columbus Primary Academy.  The school will pay rent of $700,000 this year to SchoolHouse Finance, a national Imagine-owned subsidiary, at the same time its expenditures for salaries and benefits will be only $614,000. “SchoolHouse buys the buildings, resells them typically for two or three times the purchase price, and then leases the facility from the new owner so it can rent the space back to Imagine.”  Policy Matters Ohio has highlighted that this arrangement yields profits for Imagine Schools “both at resale and as it collects rent.”

Real estate profit-making by Imagine Schools  is not merely an Ohio phenomenon: “The upshot is that the complex deals are diverting hundreds of thousands of public dollars to one of the nation’s largest charter-school operators, Imagine Schools Inc., and its affiliates.  Imagine operates 67 charter schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia.  At least three states and Washington, D.C, are investigating Imagine for real-estate maneuvers like those in Ohio, and a fourth state, Missouri, already has shut down several Imagine schools.”

As such investigations continue to turn up violations of the public trust, one wonders whether any kind of oversight is likely to be imposed by state legislatures.  Candinsky and Siegel conclude their Columbus Dispatch expose on Imagine Schools with a reflection on this very issue.  They describe the power of financial contributions for shaping public policy, in this case the political investments by Ohio’s two largest for-profit charter operators:  “David Brennan of White Hat Management and William Lager of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, have combined to give $2.25 million since 2009 to state political parties, lawmakers and statewide officeholders, mostly Republicans.  That includes a combined $320,000 to the House GOP caucus and Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina; $223,000 to Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and his caucus; and $71,000 to (Governor) Kasich.  The likely top two leaders of the House starting next year got a combined $104,000 since 2009.”

Special Interests Threaten Future of Public Education as Money Drives Politics

In Winner-Take-All Politics, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe the impact of organized money on our national politics:  “The foremost obstacle to sustainable reform is the enormous imbalance in organizational resources between the chief economic beneficiaries of the status quo and those who seek to strengthen middle-class democracy.  Powerful groups defending the winner-take-all economy—business coalitions, Wall Street lobbyists, medical industry players—are fully cognizant of the massive stakes involved, and they are battle-ready after years of training.” (p. 291)

Last weekend the NY Times launched a series of articles that demonstrate the power of organized money in state politics as well.  Powerful organizations, able to designate themselves as not-for-profit, are wielding enormous political influence as money is bundled and distributed to skirt even the political funding regulations of the most careful states.  Such funding has permitted political groups to “flip states,” contributing to the reality that 36 states are now run by one-party—one political party holding majorities in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.  Today 13 state governments are controlled solely by Democrats and 23 by Republicans.

The NY Times reports, “Both sides rely on interlocking networks of political action committees, party organizations and nonprofit groups, often based in states with forgiving campaign finance rules, that work in concert to raise contributions and shuffle money to thousands of local races around the country.  In some states, liberal or conservative donors have established political nonprofits that function like shadow parties, often exempt from the contribution limits or disclosure requirements that apply to candidates and traditional parties…  Campaign contributions that would be banned or restricted in one state can be sent to a state where the rules allow money to flow more freely, often scrubbed of the identity of the original donor.”

The Center for Media and Democracy has also exposed the role of the State Policy Network of conservative state foundations all linked in a well-staffed national network and working in tandem with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pairs member legislators and business lobbyists to craft model laws that  benefit business and promote privatization, and that can be introduced in several state legislatures all at once.

Public education has been targeted in one-party states that now lack bipartisan checks and balances.  In this blog I have recently written about what is happening to public education in some of those states .  Closest to my heart, of course, is my own state, Ohio, where I have been tracking very closely issues around school finance for 25 years.

Only recently, as Ohio politics has been entirely dominated by big money and one party rule, have I seriously believed that engaged citizens—including the public school teachers and parents who know the most about what is happening in their communities’ schools—can have virtually no impact on what happens in Columbus.  It is a frightening feeling as we watch state funding reduced year after year—school nurses and librarians cut; school social workers eliminated in Cleveland, a school district with more concentrated poverty than most American cities; and students pay to play sports or join the debate team even in relatively wealthy suburban school districts.

And yet Ohio’s charter scams continue unregulated.  Ohio takes more from public school districts to pay for students in charters than the state aid allocated per child in traditional public schools. And William Lager and his Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow siphon millions that ought to be flowing to the state’s public school districts.

This week brought another report of lax oversight.  The Columbus Dispatch reports that 17 charter schools closed last year in Columbus alone.  All were authorized by something called the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center (ESC), based not in Columbus but instead in Marion and Tiffin.  Jim Lahoski, the superintendent of the ESC told the Dispatch that, “he doesn’t think the ESC is particularly at fault.  It was a difficult market, and some of the operators simply weren’t ready to handle running a school.”

When the Dispatch asked the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) whether the ESC, that seems unable effectively to vet charter school plans, ought to be sponsoring charter schools, ODE spokesman John Charlton replied that Ohio law does not give the ODE the real power to regulate the sponsors of charter schools: “The way it works right now is, if a school has a sponsor and they sign a contract, that school can open.  We don’t have any approval or denial power.”

During 2013, when 17 charter schools closed mid-year in Columbus, 250 students had to find other schools on short notice.  Nine of these schools lasted only a couple of months into the fall, but neither the state nor the school districts whose money had followed children to the charters were able to recoup the money.  “The state spent more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money to keep the nine schools open only from August through October or November.”

There is no discernable movement in the Ohio legislature, however, to strengthen regulation of Ohio’s worst charters or to regulate their sponsors.  Steve Dyer, a former member of the Ohio House of Representatives and former chair of the House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, explains: “Nearly $888 million is being spent on Charters this school year—a 7.7% increase over last school year’s record amount.  Between Charters and Vouchers, Ohio now spends more than $1 billion a year on privately run schools.”

The Guardian Investigates Far-Right State Policy Network

Yesterday The Guardian published an in-depth investigation of the workings and funding of a network of far-right state think-tanks that make up the State Policy Network (SPN), State Conservative Groups Plan US-Wide Assault on Education, Health and Tax.  “In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Guardian is publishing SPN’s summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities.”

(In mid-November, here, I wrote about the Center for Media and Democracy’s recently launched campaign to expose SPN, stinktanks.org.)

The Guardian describes the State Policy Network as a sister organization to the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC.  “SPN’s president, Tracie Sharp, told the Guardian that ‘as a pro-freedom network of thinktanks, we focus on issues like workplace freedom, education reform, and individual choice in healthcare: backbone issues of a free people and a free society.'”

Despite that the majority of the state affiliates of the State Policy Network are 501 (C) (3) organizations, according to The Guardian, the State Policy Network makes grants to its member think-tanks for projects “aimed at changing state laws and policies, or (that) refer to ‘advancing model legislation’ and ‘candidate briefings’, in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.”

The proposals submitted by specific state think-tanks for funding from the State Policy Network’s war chest include attacks on public employee pensions, campaigns to eliminate or reduce taxes, promotion of school vouchers, attacks on worker and union rights, and opposition to Medicaid.

The Guardian describes a proposal from the Massachusetts Beacon Hill Institute (BHI) that requested $38,825 to reduce regulation of greenhouse gases. “BHI appeared to have already arrived at its conclusions in advance, admitting from the outset that the aim of the research was to arm opponents of cap-and-trade with data for their arguments, and to weaken or destroy the initiative.”

“Watchdogs that monitor the work of SPN and other conservative networks in the US said that the centralised coordination of state-level campaigns showed a significant attempt to build local activism into a nationwide movement.”

Stunning New Report and Website Expose Connected State-by-State Web of Privatizers

As an advocate for public policy, I believe it is more important to know more about what I am for than about what I am against.  Let me begin by naming what I am for: public schools—universally available, publicly funded, and accountable to the public.  I also believe that our most important priority in the United States, as far as public education goes, is to improve—not punish—the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  These are the places where many children live in neighborhoods where extreme poverty is concentrated.

But knowing about the forces on the other side of this highly polarized debate is also important, and this week a new website was launched to help with the task of learning more about the privatizers: stinktanks.org, a joint project of the Center for Media and Democracy (which also houses the valuable ALECExposed site) and ProgressNow.  The goal of stinktanks.org is to expose the State Policy Network (SPN), a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good.

While these organizations have ties with the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and while they are actively promoting the same agenda, they are lesser known.  If you live in Ohio, you may have heard of the Buckeye Institute; if you live in Pennsylvania, you may know about the Commonwealth Foundation, or if you live in Michigan perhaps you have learned about the Mackinac Center, but you likely don’t realize how funding for all of these groups is connected to the same philanthropists, and how their interests are being pursued state by state by state. The new website features an interactive map of the states.  By clicking on any state, you’ll access a one page description of that state’s SPN member’s agenda and its funders. You will also find a more detailed report about a number of the state think tanks.

For example, if you have been paying attention to Michigan, you know that destroying workers’ rights, privatizing public schools, blocking healthcare, destroying public pensions, opposing minimum wage laws, and lowering corporate taxes is being pushed by Michigan’s governor and many in the legislature.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised then to discover that the Mackinac Center devotes itself to promoting this very agenda.

This week, to launch the new “stink tanks campaign,” The Center for Media and Democracy and AlecExposed.org released a stunning national report, Exposed: The State Policy Network—The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government.

Here you will learn more about the extensive role of the Koch Brothers and others in the secretive world of far-right funding.  “The largest known funders behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorTrust and Donors Capital Fund… They are what are called ‘donor-advised funds,’ which means that the fund creates separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different non-profits.  It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients…. For example, a relatively unknown Koch family foundation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund gave $4.5 million to DonorsTrust between 2007 and 2010, but what organizations received that funding from Donors is unknown.” (p. 18)

None of these state organizations focuses solely on privatizing education; they all pursue a complex agenda.  You will learn, however, that several of these groups have representatives on ALEC’s Education Task Force: the State Policy Network itself, the Goldwater Institute (AZ), the Pacific Research Institute (CA), the Independence Institute (CO), the James Madison Institute (FL), the Illinois Policy Institute, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, the Mackinac Center (MI), the John Locke Foundation (NC), and the Freedom Foundation ( MN).

The report describes the goal of the State Policy Network as creating an echo chamber across the states: “While SPN is a national organization with 63 affiliates and over 100 associate members, it remains a closely connected network.  It is not uncommon for think tank members to share board members, “scholars,” or staffers, nor is it uncommon for the think tanks to share research materials, coordinating their agenda and tailoring national research to fit into state-related politics.” (p. 9)

The report wonders how groups like like ALEC and these state advocacy organizations continue to operate as tax-exempt, 501C3 non-profits:  “Acknowledging the group’s political power, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called the SPN member Idaho Freedom Foundation a ‘do’ tank.  Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of SPN member think tank the Goldwater Institute, told the National Review, ‘We’re in the business of applied policy.’ Applied policy appears to translate to changing state laws. Although most do not register lobbyists, many SPN members advance legislation through ALEC and outside of ALEC” (p. 13)