Public Education

Betsy DeVos Nomination a New High-Water Mark in Right Wing’s Long War on Public Education

The right wing’s long-term campaign to undermine public education is a battle being waged on multiple fronts. Public education’s enemies include religious conservatives who want public tax dollars to support schools that teach religious dogma, ideological opponents of government and public sector unions, and sectors of corporate America who see profits to be skimmed or scammed from the flow of tax dollars devoted to education. Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Secretary of Education, has been actively engaged on all these fronts. DeVos, who like Trump celebrates being “politically incorrect,” has harsh words for the education establishment, declaring in a 2015 speech at an education conference, “Government really sucks.”

DeVos has been, in the words of Mother Jones’s Kristina Rizga, “trying to gut public schools for years.”  Indeed, as the New York Times noted, it is “hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools.” In addition to these ideological concerns, DeVos is simply unqualified for the job: she has never been a teacher, school administrator, or even state-level education policy bureaucrat. She did not attend public schools and neither did her children.

With the DeVos nomination, Religious Right activists have drawn a step closer to achieving the anti-public-education dream that the late Jerry Falwell did not live to see fully implemented: “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools,” Falwell wrote in 1979. “The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”

At the same time, if DeVos is confirmed, anti-government and anti-union ideologues will have taken a major step toward the late Milton Friedman’s vision of completely privatizing public education. Friedman, intellectual godfather of the voucher movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

There is some ideological overlap between the libertarian and Christianist designs on public education. Many Religious Right leaders have embraced the teaching of Christian Reconstructionists that the Bible does not give the government any role in education; hard-core limited government “constitutional conservatives” believe there is no legitimate federal role in education.  Milton Friedman, an intellectual godfather of the privatization movement, told a 2006 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council that it would be “ideal” to “abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it,” but since that wasn’t politically feasible, money spent on education should be converted into vouchers.

The DeVos Family Has Played a Key Role in Building Right-Wing Anti-Public-Education Infrastructure

Betsy DeVos is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Edgar Prince, and married the son of a wealthy businessman, Richard DeVos; the families have been major funders of the Republican Party and right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations. For example, the Family Research Council’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and distribution center in Michigan were built with millions from the DeVos and Prince clans. DeVos also served for a decade on the board of the Acton Institute, which provides religious rationales for right-wing economic policies. The DeVos family has promoted anti-LGBT policies and its anti-union lobbying helped turn Michigan into a so-called “Right to Work” state

Betsy DeVos and her extraordinarily wealthy family have helped to build the Religious Right’s political and policy infrastructure; lobbied for legislation to expand charter schools programs and protect them from regulation and oversight; promoted vouchers and related tax schemes to steer money away from public schools; and poured money into political attacks on elected officials, including Republicans, who resist their plans for the privatization of education. Putting DeVos in charge of the Department of Education is not just having the fox guard the henhouse, says writer Jay Michaelson, it is giving the job to the slaughterer.

An April 2016 report from Media Matters on the “tangled network of advocacy, research, media, and profiteering that’s taking over public education” highlighted some of the many organizations DeVos has been involved in:

Betsy DeVos is also the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice. The foundation is listed as a supporter of Campbell Brown’s The 74 education website. Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children further connects the DeVos family to right-wing corporate reform groups; it is listed as an education partner of the right-wing-fueled National School Choice Week campaign and counts at least 19 additional groups in this guide as national allied organizations, and its affiliated Alliance for School Choice group is an associate member of the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks.

As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has noted, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon mocked “the donor class” during the presidential campaign, but “it would be hard to find a better representative of the ‘donor class’ than DeVos.”

School Choice as P.R. Campaign vs. School Choice in Reality

Among the many efforts supported by DeVos and her organizations is a national “School Choice Week” held every year in January. It’s all about putting a shiny happy face on school privatization efforts, complete with bright yellow scarves for kids, an “official” dance to be performed at local events, and national publicity support for what organizers say will be more than 20,000 events this January 22-28 – more than 2,000 of them held by homeschooling groups. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by Betsy DeVos.

School Choice Week is intentionally designed to blur the very real and significant differences between policies that fall under the broad banner of “school choice.” There’s a huge difference between a school district offering magnet schools and the diversion of funds away from school districts to for-profit cyberschools, but National School Choice Week treats them all the same, with a “collective messaging” approach that hides the anti-public-education agendas of some education “reformers” by wrapping them all together in the language of parental empowerment and student opportunity.

The Failures of Market Fundamentalism

Advocates for school choice tend to promote “magic of the marketplace thinking,” believing that deregulation, competition and limited government oversight will automatically produce better results than “government schools.” But while DeVos and her fellow “revolutionaries” posture as champions for children against an indifferent “blob” of self-interested teachers and bureaucrats, the “reformers” don’t have a convincing track record when it comes to improving student accomplishment overall. Indeed, as Tulane University’s Douglas Harris argues, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”

Charter Schools and Michigan’s Mess

Advocates for various forms of “school choice” can point to mixed results from programs that they have put in place. Some charter schools, for example, do a good job, but many do not. And the biggest cautionary tale for those who want to expand such programs is, interestingly enough, precisely the place where DeVos has played the biggest role. As The New York Times reported:

Michigan is one of the nation’s biggest school choice laboratories, especially with charter schools. The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation’s 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation…

But if Michigan is a center of school choice, it is also among the worst places to argue that choice has made schools better. As the state embraced and then expanded charters over the past two decades, its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average.

And a federal review in 2015 found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010, after the passage of a law a group financed by Ms. DeVos pushed to expand the schools. The group blocked a provision in that law that would have prevented failing schools from expanding or replicating.

An earlier New York Times story reported, “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos…”

While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation's poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.

Politico has also turned a skeptical eye toward the DeVos-backed experiment in Michigan:

Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter-school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit operators. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s, at a time when many communities are still recovering from the economic downturn that hit Michigan’s auto industry particularly hard.

The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.

Education “revolutionaries” like DeVos argue that expanding charter school operations will boost public schools through competition. But a November 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute on the consequences of charter school expansion in America’s cities found that charter expansions put increased stress on public schools. It also documented problems with conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance among private managers and charter management firms.

Corruption in the charter school industry has also been identified as a problem by education historian Diane Ravitch. “There are all kinds of deals,” she says. “And the biggest and sleaziest deal of all is the charter operators, the for-profit operators, in particular, who buy a piece of property and then rent it to themselves at a rental that’s three, four, five, 10 times the market rate, and they make tons of money, not on the school, but on the leasing.” In a 2014 exposé on charter schools’ lack of accountability, the Detroit Free Press reported, among other things, that one charter school had spent $1 million on swampland.

The EPI report found another major problem:

Expansion of charter schooling is exacerbating inequities across schools and children because children are being increasingly segregated by economic status, race, language, and disabilities and further, because charter schools are raising and spending vastly different amounts, without regard for differences in student needs. Often, the charter schools serving the least needy populations also have the greatest resource advantages.

The report’s authors concluded:

To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Randy Weingarten describes DeVos as “a principal cheerleader of the practice of using the exponential growth of unregulated and unaccountable charters to destabilize, defund, decimate and privatize public education.” Adds Weingarten, “These consequences are why the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on charter schools and why the mayor of Detroit worked to establish some commonsense oversight of this sector. They’re also why voters rejected charter expansion initiatives in Georgia and Massachusetts this November.”

Voucher Movement’s ‘Four-Star General’

“Perhaps even more than her push for charter schools, Betsy DeVos is known as a fierce advocate for the expansion of vouchers,” noted a recent Mother Jones article. Indeed, she has been called “the four-star general of the voucher movement.”

Even more damaging than uncontrolled expansion of unaccountable charter schools would be the expansion of school vouchers. Education scholar Dana Goldstein has argued that the Trump’s pick of the pro-voucher DeVos— and his campaign’s call for a $20 billion federal voucher system“could gut public education.” Mother Jones’ Kristina Rizga notes that Trump’s voucher plan could divert some Title I funding, which now supports low-income schools, to “high-income private and religious schools,” which would mean “the erosion of one of the most important federal school programs created to serve America's most vulnerable kids.”

And this would be in spite of voucher programs’ documented failures. Here’s Goldstein:

Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math…

Public school student achievement in New Orleans has improved in recent years, in part because of increased family choice among nonprofit charter schools. But according to Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, “We’ve never seen an effect as negative as the private school voucher program.”

At Vox, Libby Nelson reports that of 20 studies by the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 10 of them “found vouchers had no effect on participants’ test scores at all.”

On the whole, while some studies have found a modest improvement in test scores, particularly for black students, there’s far from a resounding consensus from studies of citywide voucher programs.

Meanwhile, recent studies of newer statewide voucher systems in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who used vouchers actually fell behind academically, particularly in math. The pro-voucher Fordham Foundation, which analyzed Ohio’s program, was honest that it found those results dismaying: “We did not expect — or, frankly, wish — to see these negative effects for voucher participants,” the researchers wrote.

Nelson warns that the worst-case scenario for this kind of scheme could be that “bad private schools proliferate, and public schools get worse.”

Online Schools: Virtually No Accountability

Even worse is the track record of for-profit cyberschools, or “online academies,” another “choice” option championed by DeVos and her allies. A recent story by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reported on a stakeholder challenge to K12 Inc., the country’s largest operator of for-profit charter schools and a leader in online schools:

One big supporter of virtual education is Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire tapped by President-elect Donald Trump as his nominee for education secretary. Her husband, Dick DeVos, listed on a financial disclosure form in 2006 that he and his wife owned K12 stock. The nonprofit organization she runs, the American Federation for Children, lists K12 on its website among organizations that support school choice.

K12, which pays its executives millions of dollars, gets most of its money from public funds used to operate its “virtual” schools. Strauss notes that K12 protects that income stream by shelling out millions to lobby state lawmakers and donate to their campaigns and political parties.

Last April an investigation by the Mercury News found that K12’s online charter schools in California have secured hundreds of millions in state funding in spite of “a dismal record of academic achievement.” As the Post notes, “In July, California’s attorney general announced that his office had reached a $168.5 million settlement with K12, and the 14 affiliated nonprofit schools known as the California Virtual Academies that it manages, over alleged violations of California’s false claims, false advertising and unfair competition laws….”

It’s not just California. Education Week’s November 2016 story on online charters found that political influence and cash overwhelmed any accountability for the schools’ poor performance:

Despite more than a decade of state investigations, news media reports, and research that have documented startling failures and gross mismanagement in full-time online schools, the sector—dominated by two for-profit companies—continues to expand, spreading into new states and enrolling more students. Virtual charter schools, which collectively receive more than $1 billion in taxpayer money each year, are rarely shut down…

2015 national study by economists at Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found that math scores for online charter school students were so low, it was almost as if the students didn't attend school. While the online school providers disputed the study, the findings were damning.

As People For the American Way Senior Fellow Ari Rabin-Havt has noted, Betsy DeVos’ husband reported on disclosure forms for his 2006 gubernatorial bid that the couple owned stock in K12. “Betsy DeVos was and possibly is personally invested in this failure and was at the end of a funnel that took tax dollars dedicated to public schools and transferred them to Wall Street,”  he notes:

In her confirmation hearing, she should not only be questioned about her investment in K12 Inc. and her view on its track record, she should also be asked if she is still invested in the company. If she is, she should not be confirmed unless she divests. The conflict of interest that would exist should she continue to own shares in the K12 Inc. is made clear in the company’s annual report, which notes: “The public schools we contract with are financed with government funding from federal, state and local taxpayers. Our business is primarily dependent upon those funds.”

Privatization via Hardball Politics

As indicated above, the major expansion of school choice programs has not been due to a stellar track record of educational achievement, or to winning over the American people, but to hardball politics backed up with loads of cash from people like Betsy DeVos.

A March 2016 story in Inside Philanthropy said much of the credit for advances in “school choice” since 2000 goes to the DeVos family, “which operates three philanthropic foundations and has a remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes to shift voters' and lawmakers' mindsets in a rightward direction.” After she spent more than $2 million of her family’s money on a voucher referendum that was rejected by Michigan voters in 2000, DeVos doubled down on a strategy, backed by more millions, to elect compliant legislators at the state level and lobby them to enact vouchers and related tax schemes that would divert public funds to private schools.

DeVos isn’t shy about using her family’s deep pockets to buy politicians and policies more to her liking. In a 1997 interview she said, “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point…We do expect something in return.” In a 2014 interview with Campbell Brown, whose organization she has supported, DeVos said that Americans for Children’s role in the education “revolution” has been its willingness “to go hand to hand in political combat,” adding that “we can’t be stopped.”

In various speeches and interviews in recent years, DeVos demonstrates the kind of contempt for her political opponents that may have endeared her to the trash-talking Donald Trump. In a 2014 interview with Campbell Brown, DeVos spoke dismissively of “those that defend adult jobs rather than what’s in the interests of children.” Turning to the media, she said many reporters are “basically ignorant” and “don’t want to become informed.” She also said reporters are “basically lazy” and “will take whatever is fed to them.” And, like the president-elect, she spoke of using social media as a way to circumvent traditional media outlets.

DeVos has said she liked “mixing it up” in partisan politics, having served two stints as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, but now thinks education must be more “revolution” than “reform” and that requires thinking bigger than partisan politics.

 ‘School Choice’ as an ‘Ultimately Christian’ Venture

DeVos brings a Religious Right perspective to her politics and philanthropy. She once said,Democrats are in fact overtly and openly hostile to all things religious or anything pertaining to faith." The belief that public schools are hostile to people of faith drives many Christian conservatives’ support for educational privatization.

“It’s been a long-standing goal of the Religious Right to replace public education with Christian education,” says scholar Julie Ingersoll, author of a book about Christian Reconstructionism. “The long term strategy of how to change culture is through education.” Thanks to conservative court rulings, school privatization advocates have been able to steer public education dollars to religious schools through vouchers and other tax-credit schemes promoted by politicians elected with the help of DeVos organizations’ funding.

At Vox, Libby Nelson has written that Trump’s plan, which assumes that states will divert $110 billion in education funding into vouchers, along with $20 billion from the federal government, “would be a huge windfall for private schools— the majority of which are affiliated with religious groups. According to an analysis by Mark Weber, a teacher and education researcher, churches will ‘unquestionably’ be “the biggest beneficiaries of any new national school voucher program.”

In the 1990s, DeVos described the “Education Freedom Fund” she and her husband were running “as ultimately Christian in its nature because in excess of 90% of the parents who receive these scholarships choose Christian schools to go to.”  In 2001, DeVos and her husband were interviewed at The Gathering, an annual summit for funders organized by the Christian National Foundation, which allows individuals to steer big money to potentially controversial groups while masking the source of the donations. During that conversation, Betsy DeVos said that for many years, the church thought it was important to have Christian kids making a difference in public schools, but that in recent decades the schools have had more of an impact on the children. The Center for Media and Democracy recently wrote about that interview:

In a joint interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian ideology through philanthropy, she and her husband said they decided to focus on reforming public education and funding for private education because the “Lord led us there” and “God led us.”

At that meeting, they were asked if it would not have been simpler to fund Christian schools directly rather than fund political efforts like vouchers to get more tax dollars to fund Christian schools, and she replied: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education versus what is spent every year on education in this country… So, our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom,” adding that they want “to impact our culture [in ways] that may have great Kingdom gain in the long-run by changing the way we approach things.”

Her husband added: “We are working …. to allow for our Christian worldview, which for us comes from a Calvinist tradition, and to provide for a more expanded opportunity someday for all parents to be able to educate their children in a school that reflects their world view and not each day sending their child to a school that may be reflecting a world view that may be quite antithetical to the worldview they hold in their families.”

One of the Religious Right activists excited about DeVos is American Family Association radio host Bryan Fischer, who argues, like many privatization activists, that public education dollars should follow a child to the school of their parents’ choice, no strings attached. Fischer, like other school voucher advocates, dismisses the idea that taxpayer funding for religious schools violates the separation of church and state. He says it’s “none of the federal government’s business” whether a local school has prayer and Bible readings in the classroom.

Writing in the Forward, Jay Michaelson calls the DeVos nomination “a tragedy” for American Jews and notes:

And let’s also remember that the origins of Protestant private schools in America date to efforts to create “segregation academies” in the 1950s and 1960s, following the desegregation of American public schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. A writer on BlackCommentator.com called vouchers “the Right’s final answer to Brown.”

It’s no surprise that, then as now, it’s America’s ultra-rich, ultra-white and ultra-conservative-Christian elite—the 1% of the 1%—that is pushing to funnel your tax dollars to unregulated conservative Christian schools. They know that accountable, secular, quality public education makes the American dream possible. They know it gives immigrants and everyone else a chance to make it in this country, and inculcates pride in American values. It did for my family, and if you’re like the majority of American Jews, it did for yours, too.

That’s why they hate it, and why they’re now about to destroy it.

American Students Deserve Better

Education historian Diane Ravitch calls Betsy DeVos “the most unqualified person ever to be nominated” to head the Department of Education. “By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities,” says the National Education Association President Lilly Eskelen Garcia.

Public education has broad support among the American people, who understand that public schools play an important role in our communities and our country. The nomination of an unqualified ideologue as the nation’s top education official is an expression of contempt for democratic governance and for the American people.

An editorial in the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times summarized the case against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos:

Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos has sought for years to undermine public education as an advocate for irresponsible and discredited schemes to steer money away from the programs and the public school students that need them most.

She’s a special-interest power player who has used her money to warp the politics of Wisconsin and states across the country in order to advance an education agenda that is as unworkable as it is irresponsible….

Trump could not have chosen a worse nominee than DeVos…

Ultimately, what is at stake is the future of public education as a core democratic institution that has provided generations of Americans, including immigrants, with the means to become full participants in American society. Several years ago, educator Stan Karp argued that what is ultimately at stake in school reform debates is “whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed — however imperfectly— by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”

Strengthening Public Education in the Face of Relentless Assaults

Hundreds of teachers, parents, students, school board members and other public education advocates gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 16 and 17  for “And Justice for All: Strengthening Public Education for Each Child,” the third annual conference sponsored by the Network for Public Education and its political advocacy affiliate NPE Action.

The mission of the Network for Public Education is to “protect, preserve, promote, and strengthen public schools and the education of current and future generations of students.” It was founded by education historian and author Diane Ravitch as a way to mobilize supporters of public education in opposition to powerful forces that promote privatization and other “reforms” that undermine public education as a core democratic institution.

Rev. William Barber, who heads the North Carolina NAACP and has because a hero to progressive advocates for his inspirational leadership of the Moral Mondays movement, gave a rousing opening keynote before heading to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Democracy Awakening. Barber said public schools are “where we learn to be a public” and develop a “common civic identity.” But, he said, “racism always gets in the way of us meeting the noble goals of public education.”

“We’ve seen this before,” Barber said of attacks on public education combined with tax cuts for the wealthy. He recounted the history of resistance to Brown v. Board of Education and racial redistricting of school districts, noting that schools are re-segregating in high poverty areas today faster than they did in the 1970s.  He said school reforms that contribute to separate and unequal school systems are “giving in to the vision of Plessy v. Ferguson.”

Among the more than 45 panels and workshops was a conversation with two members of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, State Sen. Dwight Bullard from south Florida, and County Commissioner Jessica Holmes from Wake County, North Carolina, with PFAW Director of Outreach and Partner Engagement Diallo Brooks acting as moderator.

Bullard, the only classroom teacher in the state legislature, said that bad education policies are moving through the legislature for a variety of reasons: some of his fellow legislators are naïve about education policy and some have family and financial ties to charter school operations.  Bullard said that even though the state government has expanded so-called school choice provisions, the “house of cards is falling apart” when it comes to overzealous testing that harms students’ education. He said dissatisfaction with the overuse of high-stakes testing offers opportunities for coalition building, noting that a recent press conference included liberal legislators, members of the teachers union, and Tea Party activists.

Holmes said that she is a first generation college student attributing her success to “amazing, wonderful public school teachers.” She described herself as a reluctant politician, but urged other participants to consider becoming policymakers as a way to make a real difference.  In a state that ranks near the bottom of the scale for teacher pay, she said, she worked to win approval for the largest education budget in her county’s history, while also developing support for early childhood development. Meanwhile, at the state level, millions in tax dollars were diverted to unaccountable private schools through vouchers.  

The panelists said that supporters of public education must respond to the amount of money and political influence wielded by privatization advocates with on-the-ground organizing that can provide public officials with both incentive and cover to do the right thing.

Another topic of conversation was the damage caused by the explosion of high-stakes testing and the diversion of educational time and resources to test taking. Speakers argued that testing should be used to identify areas of needed improvement for students, not as simplistic evaluation tools that label students and schools as failing. The “test and punish” approach has set up teachers and schools to be declared failures by implementing high-stakes tests without resources and professional development.

Another keynoter, Seattle teacher and blogger Jesse Hagopian, noted that when Washington state declined to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan revoked a waiver from unrealistic standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As a result, nearly every school in the state, including some of its best, was classified as “failing.” School officials sent parents a letter required by the federal government informing them that their school was now classified as failing, but included a cover letter explaining that NCLB was “regressive and punitive” and that the designation was bogus.

Among other topics covered at the conference:

  • alternatives to increasing privatization and of public school systems, including proven community schools approaches that use schools as a vehicle for addressing broader community needs;
  • the impact of charter schools’ disproportionate use of suspensions and other “zero-tolerance” policies against students of color;
  • the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in promoting right-wing attacks on public education in state legislatures.  North Carolina’s Tom Tillis was ALEC “Legislator of the Year” before the Koch brothers helped finance his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate;
  • the growing movement among educators to resist high-stakes tests and an opt-out movement among parents and students.

A number of speakers denounced HB2, the recently enacted North Carolina law that overturned Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance – and banned localities from passing their own protections against discrimination as well as living wage ordinances.

People For the American Way Foundation board member Bertis Downs is also a member of NPE’s board of directors, said the conference was a “big success” in bringing together advocates from around the country to meet and compare notes with fellow activists. Downs praised the quality of the presentations and the fact that many of the workshops and all of the keynote speeches were livestreamed and are being archived online at www.schoolhouselive.org.

 

PFAW

‘School Choice’ Just Part of DeVos Family’s Far Right Agenda

Members of the DeVos family, which made billions with the Amway direct marketing company, have long been funders of far-right causes and Republican politicians. Over the years, they’ve appeared in PFAW and PFAW Foundation reports like Buying a Movement and Predatory Privatization. This week Inside Philanthropy has taken a  look at DeVos funding, which has been instrumental in driving anti-public education efforts all across the country.

The story’s author, Rick Docksai, writes that the DeVos family’s success at pushing “school choice” reflects its “remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes and putting it to work to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.”

Among the right-wing groups DeVos has funded are the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Federalist Society, Council for National Policy, Traditional Values Coalition, the Acton Institute, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. But education policy is a top priority.

Betsy DeVos is quite the political ringleader in her own right. She formerly chaired the Michigan Republican Party. And she's been called "the four-star general of the voucher movement," for her activism on this issue, which includes her present-day gigs as a board member of Advocates for School Choice and as head of All Children Matter, a group that has been pumping contributions into state elections since its inception in 2003. Conservative education reforms—school vouchers, in particular—are its rallying cause, and the organization claims a "win/loss record" of 121 to 60...

Docksai contrasts the DeVos family’s commitment to Religious Right and and social conservative causes with the Koch brothers’ more libertarian leanings. But, he notes, the DeVos family is just as far-right as the Kochs on economic policy:

DeVos' influence helped turn Michigan into a "right-to-work" state (e.g., no company in the state can obligate its employees to pay dues for union representation), for example. And they firmly back opponents of affirmative action: The Center for Individual Rights received funding from Dick and Betsy DeVos in 2001 after it challenged the University of Michigan's race-based admissions process in court, a lengthy legal fight that resulted in new court-imposed restrictions on the use of race as an admissions factor.

Inside Philanthropy says that Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign got “a significant share of its funding from Richard DeVos,” but says that’s a departure from the DeVos’s political win-loss record: “The family has been a major shaper of policymaking at the state and national levels and will surely remain so for years to come.”  

PFAW

'School Choice' Just Part of DeVos Family's Far Right Agenda

Members of the DeVos family, which made billions with the Amway direct marketing company, have long been funders of far-right causes and Republican politicians. Over the years, they’ve appeared in PFAW and PFAW Foundation reports like Buying a Movement and Predatory Privatization. This week Inside Philanthropy has taken a  look at DeVos funding, which has been instrumental in driving anti-public education efforts all across the country.

The story’s author, Rick Docksai, writes that the DeVos family’s success at pushing “school choice” reflects its “remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes and putting it to work to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.”

Among the right-wing groups DeVos has funded are the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Federalist Society, Council for National Policy, Traditional Values Coalition, the Acton Institute, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. But education policy is a top priority.

Betsy DeVos is quite the political ringleader in her own right. She formerly chaired the Michigan Republican Party. And she's been called "the four-star general of the voucher movement," for her activism on this issue, which includes her present-day gigs as a board member of Advocates for School Choice and as head of All Children Matter, a group that has been pumping contributions into state elections since its inception in 2003. Conservative education reforms—school vouchers, in particular—are its rallying cause, and the organization claims a "win/loss record" of 121 to 60...

Docksai contrasts the DeVos family’s commitment to Religious Right and and social conservative causes with the Koch brothers’ more libertarian leanings. But, he notes, the DeVos family is just as far-right as the Kochs on economic policy:

DeVos' influence helped turn Michigan into a "right-to-work" state (e.g., no company in the state can obligate its employees to pay dues for union representation), for example. And they firmly back opponents of affirmative action: The Center for Individual Rights received funding from Dick and Betsy DeVos in 2001 after it challenged the University of Michigan's race-based admissions process in court, a lengthy legal fight that resulted in new court-imposed restrictions on the use of race as an admissions factor.

Inside Philanthropy says that Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign got “a significant share of its funding from Richard DeVos,” but says that’s a departure from the DeVos’s political win-loss record: “The family has been a major shaper of policymaking at the state and national levels and will surely remain so for years to come.”  

Rating States' Commitment To Public Education

In the wake of National School Choice Week, the Brookings Institution released a report card on the largest school districts, which were ranked according to how open the districts are to school choice. That reflects a common assertion among education “reformers” that maximizing choice will always be best for students, a presumption also evident in scorecards from right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and corporate-minded reform groups like Students First.

But such an assumption is not true. We know that charter schools, for example, have a mixed record of success and failure. And a recent report from scholars at Berkeley, Duke, and MIT found that the test scores of Louisiana students who won a voucher to attend a private school “dropped precipitously in their first year of attending private school, compared to the performance of lottery losers.”

This week the Network for Public Education released a different kind of report card, one that grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia according to how well they support their public schools. “Valuing Public Education: A Fifty State Report Card” was released at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where Network for Public Education co-founder and president, education historian Diane Ravitch, and NPE Executive Director Carol Burris spoke about the report.

Ravitch said the NPR report is based on factors that have proven to be important to the success of public schools. The report draws on the work of the University of Arizona’s Francesca Lopez and a team of researchers. They identified 29 measurable factors that could be used to evaluate states on six criteria: use of high-stakes testing; professionalization of teaching; resistance to privatization; school finance; spending taxpayer resources wisely; and “chance for success.” The latter category recognizes that factors outside schools that are influenced by policymaking decisions also have a big impact on schools and students, such as the percentage of children living in poverty even though someone in the household works full time, and the extent to which schools are segregated racially and ethnically.

Grading in the report is tough: while some states receive “A” grades in particular categories, no state earns higher than a C overall, and a majority were graded D or F. Ravitch said those scores reflect in part the impact of the “unprecedented assault” that is being waged against public education and the teaching profession, as well as the “unconscionable” number of American children now living in poverty.

Burris, a 2013 New York state high school principal of the year, said improving a school is hard work and happens incrementally over time – “there are no silver bullets.”

Regarding school finances, she said, the report considers not only funding levels but whether money is spent on things that are known to make a difference, such as class size in elementary schools.

Ravitch said that the current policy framework grounded in high-stakes testing has proven to be a failure, and that standardized tests in general reflect income levels more than anything else. Burris said that closing the opportunity gap is essential to closing the achievement gap, noting that schools with a high percentage of children in poverty need resources like social workers, guidance counselors, and nurses. But many poorer schools have been “stripped clean” of those resources, said Ravitch.

The report, “Valuing Public Education: A 50 State Report Card” is available online, and as an interactive map.

PFAW

Rafael Cruz: Public Education Is A Communist Plot

Rafael Cruz, the father of and top campaign surrogate for Sen. Ted Cruz, claimed today that the country’s public school system was founded by “a member of the American Communist Party.”

The elder Cruz alleged in an interview on the Sirius XM program “Breitbart News Daily” this morning that public schools are brainwashing children into communism as a result of the work of education reformer John Dewey.

While he did correctly identify Dewey as a secular humanist, Cruz alleged that “John Dewey was a member of the American Communist Party,” when, in fact, Dewey was “an avowed anti-Communist” who even believed that “known Communists should not be permitted to teach children.” He co-founded the anti-Communist Committee for Cultural Freedom and was widely denounced by supporters of the Communist Party. 

Cruz said that Dewey’s influence in the school system instilled anti-American values in children and, as a result, created “chaos in society.” This prompted Cruz to discuss Common Core, which he claimed “is about redefining education, redefining history and attempting to brainwash kids with a secularist view of history which denies the fundamental principles that have made America great.” 

This is just another example of Cruz promoting bunk history in an attempt to bolster his policy positions.

Report Calls For Stronger Accountability Against Charter School 'Profiteering'

A new report published this month by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder examines the ways that “charter school policy functions to promote privatization and profiteering.”

The report’s authors, Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, identify four major policy concerns:

  1. A substantial share of public expenditure intended for the delivery of direct educational services to children is being extracted inadvertently or intentionally for personal or business financial gain, creating substantial inefficiencies;
  2. Public assets are being unnecessarily transferred to private hands, at public expense, risking the future provision of “public” education;
  3. Charter school operators are growing highly endogenous, self-serving private entities built on funds derived from lucrative management fees and rent extraction which further compromise the future provision of “public” education; and
  4. Current disclosure requirements make it unlikely that any related legal violations, ethical concerns, or merely bad policies and practices are not realized until clever investigative reporting, whistleblowers or litigation brings them to light. 

Al Jazeera America quotes National Education Policy Center Director Kevin Welner:

“What we found is that there are a host of real estate and tax laws that were not put in place with charter schools in mind, but that the owners of charter school enterprises are using in order to profit. I think that understanding the nature of the charter school gravy train, as I call it, is extremely important for the public and policymakers.”

Charter school laws across the country vary wildly in terms of accountability, and school privatization proponents have become big spenders on state-level politics and lobbying in order to win laws that maximize their access to cash while minimizing their accountability to the public.  A recent Associated Press investigation in Florida examined taxpayer funding for charter schools that closed down, finding that “charter schools that receive millions of taxpayer dollars often spend the money on non-tangible assets, including lease payments for facilities,” meaning there are few tangible assets for school districts or taxpayers to recover if a school closes.

Baker and Miron, the authors of the new NEPC report, argue that the “financial incentives embedded in state law, combined with the need for most of the companies to make a profit” have led to schools being run by charter chains or “educational management organizations” to operate “in ways that are often at odds with the goals of charter school reforms and, ultimately, the public interest.”

As we have noted before, all charter schools are not the same – some do an excellent job educating students and some do worse than their public school counterparts. But the original purpose of charter schools – to be labs allowing creative teachers some freedom to identify new approaches that could strengthen public schools – has frequently been flipped on its head, wrote Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter in “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” Often teachers are forced to follow rigid rules while administrators and/or corporate operators rake in huge amounts of money diverted from public schools. Charters are often promoted under the broad  “school choice” mantle along with vouchers and other tax schemes as part of a broader privatization movement that seeks to dismantle public education and undermine teachers unions.

The NEPC report offers a set of specific policy recommendations designed to address areas of concern, improve transparency, and strengthen accountability for the public subsidies received by charter schools and management organizations that operate them. 

The need for greater accountability was also the focus of “The Tip of the Iceberg,” a report published earlier this year by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy, which estimated $1.4 billion would be lost to “corruption and mismanagement in charter schools” in 2015.

Change is possible. For years, Ohio’s charter school sector has been the source of embarrassment and scandal, characterized by the Columbus Dispatch as “[f]ailure to close poor-performing schools,mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, and an abundance of conflict of interest issues” -- what ProgressOhio called “a national joke.” Earlier this year, the man chosen by to oversee charter school accountability in the state was forced to resign “after getting caught manipulating school ratings to cover up for chronically failing online charter schools.” But after previously failed attempts to reform the state’s charters, a new law passed this fall with bipartisan support. And in November ProgressOhio cheered the announcement that Richard Ross would step down from his position as State Superintendent of Education, which the group said “gives the state a chance to properly enforce a sweeping new charter school accountability law.”

 

PFAW

Alex Jones Hails Manly Vladimir Putin For Promoting 'Masculine Men' And Homeschooling

Alex Newman, a far-right journalist and educator, appeared on Alex Jones’ show “InfoWars” last week to speak about his new book, “Crimes of the Educators.” According to Newman, “every tyrant in all of history has understood that to control and to enslave a nation you need to control the education system.” In the United States, he said, “John Dewey was the key figure” in laying the groundwork for tyranny.

Newman told Jones that the public school system is “mass-producing illiterates and collectivists” because “if you don’t have a dumbed down population, if you don’t have a population that’s sufficiently indoctrinated in this process, it’ll never fly.” That is why, Newman claimed, public education “is really at the heart of this globalist effort, really, just to be blunt about it, to enslave the world.”

Jones agreed, claiming that “top globalists” shaping the New World Order admitted to him, “off the record obviously,” that they do indeed control the public schools and are turning young people into their minions.

Newman continued by telling a hopeful story about when he “went to the Global Home Education Conference in Berlin in 2012 and there was a lot of Russians there. And they told me that homeschooling is totally free and wide open in Russia and that was amazing for me.”

While Newman claimed he “wouldn’t trust [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as far as [he] could throw him,” he agreed with Jones’ opinion of Putin that “you got to judge a tree by its fruits, and he’s promoting homeschool. He’s promoting masculine men and ‘men should be tough’ and, like, John Wayne. It’s the opposite of us, you know. It’s ‘men are good role models’ and ‘fathers are good.’”

Newman, agreeing with Jones that “when we see Russia going in the opposite of where we’re going we know we’re in trouble,” concluded, “yeah, and in the United States we’re moving towards crushing homeschooling. The government is becoming extremely hostile and the talking heads on MSNBC telling us that ‘the children belong to the community,’ and Hillary Clinton with her ‘village to raise a child.’ Homeschooling is one of the best options that parents could possibly seize upon right now. You need to get your kids out of the government school. You need to teach them to read using phonics. You need to teach them real history. You need to teach them the facts. And that is how we’re going to stop this criminal enterprise.”

National School Choice Week: PR For Privatizers?

On Wednesday morning, a roomful of school children were herded into a congressional meeting room and required to sit through an hour and a half worth of speeches by conservative Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, Sens. Ted Cruz and Tim Scott, Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Patrick McHenry, Education & Workforce Committee Chair John Kline of Minnesota, and a handful of others. Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana was the emcee.

The Capitol Hill event was in honor of National School Choice Week, whose organizers describe it as a nonpolitical, nonpartisan “independent public awareness campaign” promoting the idea that every child deserves access to an excellent education. Who would disagree?

In other words, it’s a PR campaign, one that wraps itself in the moral mantle of children. But the bright yellow scarves it wraps around its participants are meant to distract attention from the fact that sponsors of this week’s thousands of events include many anti-public education, anti-union, anti-government ideologues, including the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for Prosperity and others. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by deep-pocketed right-wing activist Betsy DeVos and is funded by a who’s who of right-wing foundations.

As we noted during last year’s NSCW:

Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.

In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling.  Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.  

Indeed, this year, Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter published “A Smarter Charter: Finding What works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” The book documents that the original vision for charter schools – teachers empowered to be creative in diverse schools that could identify ways to strengthen public education – has been turned on its head. Rather than a teacher-empowering and collaborative paradigm, charter schools are often noted for tightly controlled teachers in highly segregated schools dominated by an ideology of competition with public schools. 

There are more collaborative models, just as there are charter schools with strong academic track records as well as those that lag behind the public schools that choice advocates consistently disparage. Important distinctions get lost under the big, vague, banner of school choice. And that’s intentional.

NSCW is about painting in broad strokes and drawing no distinctions, for example, between public magnet schools and for-profit corporations cashing in on the “reform” movement. No distinction is made between giving students choice among their district’s public schools and diverting education dollars into religious academies and online homeschooling via vouchers and other schemes.  These do not have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability, but in the interest of keeping things simple, and winning public support for across-the-board expansion of these programs, they’re all “choice.”

As we wrote last year:

The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.

Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions.  Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.

Other supporters of National School Choice Week have included companies that want to tap into the huge flow of public dollars spent every year on education. K12, a member of the “choice”-promoting American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” paid its president more than $5.5. million last year; two other executives each made more than $4 million. A November 2014 investigation by Bloomberg focused on the company’s efforts to turn around “subpar test scores” and declining enrollments.

National School Choice Week promoters say it is nonpolitical and has no legislative agenda, but that’s hard to take seriously given the agendas of its backers. At this week’s event on Capitol Hill, the only Democratic Member of Congress to join the Republican parade was Illinois’ Dan Lipinski, who declined to endorse Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. (Former Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford also spoke.)

Members of Congress at Wednesday’s event talked about pushing legislation this year to expand “school choice” programs, meaning that battles over vouchers, charter schools, and other education issues will be on the agenda this year, including February’s Senate markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit programs in 23 states and at least 10 states are looking to create new or expanding existing school voucher programs this year.”

Obviously, not everyone who participates in National School Choice Week activities is an anti-public-education ideologue. People from across the political spectrum are eager to strengthen schools and give students an opportunity for a great education. That includes public school teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively smeared as “the blob” by some “reformers.” People who are seeking to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations that see public education as something to be dismantled and corporations that see students as the means to a bigger bottom line.

This post originally appeared on People For the American Way's blog.

National School Choice Week: PR for Privatizers?

On Wednesday morning, a roomful of school children were herded into a congressional meeting room and required to sit through an hour and a half worth of speeches by conservative Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, Sens. Ted Cruz and Tim Scott, Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Patrick McHenry, Education & Workforce Committee Chair John Kline of Minnesota, and a handful of others. Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana was the emcee.

The Capitol Hill event was in honor of National School Choice Week, whose organizers describe it as a nonpolitical, nonpartisan “independent public awareness campaign” promoting the idea that every child deserves access to an excellent education. Who would disagree?

In other words, it’s a PR campaign, one that wraps itself in the moral mantle of children. But the bright yellow scarves it wraps around its participants are meant to distract attention from the fact that sponsors of this week’s thousands of events include many anti-public education, anti-union, anti-government ideologues, including the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance for Prosperity and others. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by deep-pocketed right-wing activist Betsy DeVos and is funded by a who’s who of right-wing foundations.

As we noted during last year’s NSCW:

Education policy is a vast, complicated, and hotly contested arena. Terms like “education reform” and “school choice” sound good, but they are so broad as to be almost meaningless. They can be applied to genuine efforts to strengthen teaching and educational opportunity as well as cynical schemes to destroy public employee unions and dismantle public education altogether.

In particular, “school choice” encompasses a huge array of education policies, from public charter and magnet schools to taxpayer-funded for-profit cyberschools and homeschooling.  Even a seemingly specific term like “charter schools” cloaks a more complex reality that ranges from innovation labs co-located in public schools to for-profit chain operations.  

Indeed, this year, Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter published “A Smarter Charter: Finding What works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” The book documents that the original vision for charter schools – teachers empowered to be creative in diverse schools that could identify ways to strengthen public education – has been turned on its head. Rather than a teacher-empowering and collaborative paradigm, charter schools are often noted for tightly controlled teachers in highly segregated schools dominated by an ideology of competition with public schools. 

There are more collaborative models, just as there are charter schools with strong academic track records as well as those that lag behind the public schools that choice advocates consistently disparage. Important distinctions get lost under the big, vague, banner of school choice. And that’s intentional.

NSCW is about painting in broad strokes and drawing no distinctions, for example, between public magnet schools and for-profit corporations cashing in on the “reform” movement. No distinction is made between giving students choice among their district’s public schools and diverting education dollars into religious academies and online homeschooling via vouchers and other schemes.  These do not have the same impact on public schools, or the same levels of public accountability, but in the interest of keeping things simple, and winning public support for across-the-board expansion of these programs, they’re all “choice.”

As we wrote last year:

The problem with this “collective messaging” approach is that it hides the anti-public-education agenda of some “reformers.” Celebrating “school choice” across the board lends credibility to organizations pushing for destructive policies that are not at all popular with the American public. In spite of decades of right-wing-funded attacks on public education, for example, Americans oppose privatization plans like vouchers that transfer public education funds to private schools.

Self-proclaimed reformers often dismiss concerns about privatization as a “red herring.” But you can’t embrace the Milton Friedman Foundation as a partner and then pretend that privatization is only an imaginary threat dreamed up by teachers unions.  Friedman has an explicit goal of getting rid of public schools altogether; they see programs like vouchers for poor kids as a tactical stepping stone toward that ultimate goal.

Other supporters of National School Choice Week have included companies that want to tap into the huge flow of public dollars spent every year on education. K12, a member of the “choice”-promoting American Legislative Exchange Council and a company the New York Times has described as “the biggest player in the online-school business,” paid its president more than $5.5. million last year; two other executives each made more than $4 million. A November 2014 investigation by Bloomberg focused on the company’s efforts to turn around “subpar test scores” and declining enrollments.

National School Choice Week promoters say it is nonpolitical and has no legislative agenda, but that’s hard to take seriously given the agendas of its backers. At this week’s event on Capitol Hill, the only Democratic Member of Congress to join the Republican parade was Illinois’ Dan Lipinski, who declined to endorse Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. (Former Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford also spoke.)

Members of Congress at Wednesday’s event talked about pushing legislation this year to expand “school choice” programs, meaning that battles over vouchers, charter schools, and other education issues will be on the agenda this year, including February’s Senate markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “There are currently private school voucher and tuition tax credit programs in 23 states and at least 10 states are looking to create new or expanding existing school voucher programs this year.”

Obviously, not everyone who participates in National School Choice Week activities is an anti-public-education ideologue. People from across the political spectrum are eager to strengthen schools and give students an opportunity for a great education. That includes public school teachers, administrators, and school board members – people who are collectively smeared as “the blob” by some “reformers.” People who are seeking to strengthen public education and make schools better for all children should think twice about making common cause with organizations that see public education as something to be dismantled and corporations that see students as the means to a bigger bottom line.

PFAW

Jody Hice: Public Schools Reminiscent Of Nazi Germany

Jody Hice, the GOP nominee for an open House seat in Georgia, said on his radio program in 2011 that “totalitarian” liberals have turned public schools into “camps for indoctrination,” a strategy he likened to Nazi Germany.

Hice launched into his commentary by citing a similar argument made by Chuck Norris in WorldNetDaily before adding his own spin to the issue.

Hice seems to imply that the very existence of public schools is a Nazi-like scheme, but that liberals in particular are trying to maintain their “clutch” on public schools in order to control “the minds of children” and raise money from teachers’ unions:

Obviously, if we have government — which is what the public school is — if we have government indoctrinating what students are learning, then we have a problem. This took place in Germany, friends. I’m not trying to say we are necessarily headed in that direction, but it is undeniable that one of the first things Hitler did was to grab, so to speak, the minds of the youth. And once he was able to instill in those young minds his own ideals and his own philosophy and that of the Nazi Party, then the rest of it was pretty much a piece of cake. It was a cakewalk to go through once you had the minds of the schoolchildren at every age level.

It is likewise just as dangerous what we are witnessing today. And it’s obvious that the liberals in this country are going to be fighting tooth and nail to protect the public school system from getting out from underneath their total, absolute, totalitarian control. If it gets out of their control, they not only lose the minds of the children in this country, but they also lose enormous financial resources, as the teachers’ unions are the number one biggest supporter politically to liberal ideology. So there’s a lot at stake for the liberals to continue their clutch on the public school system.

Later in the program, Hice elaborated on his concerns, citing a book lamenting “political correctness" on college campuses to warn that public schools are training students to “disdain America” and to defend homosexuality and “the green agendas.”

“What happens when our schools become just nothing other than liberal – or, soften it up a little, progressive – camps for indoctrination, which in essence is what they have become?” he asked.

He warned that schools are engaging in “the intentional training of students to dislike, to actually disdain America” and “encouraging students to freely experiment with all forms of sexuality, forcefully defend issues like abortion and homosexuality and also just encouraging students to become cultural advocates for political correctness, and there’s no tolerance for political incorrectness.”

“There’s the push for relativism, for globalization, for environmental agendas, the green agendas and tolerance for everybody,” he continued. “All of this stuff is now being pushed upon children in the public school system.”

NC Lt. Gov. Dan Forest: America 'Must Decide For Or Against God'

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest followed Texas Lt. Gov. candidate Dan Patrick to the microphone at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 2014 Road to Majority conference. Forest joked about following another “Lieutenant Dan” and said he’d been backstage crossing things out because Patrick was already saying them. Indeed, Forest’s comments about the Constitution being grounded in “biblical truth” echoed Patrick’s Christian-nation address. “My friends,” Forest said, “America is at a great crossroads where it must decide for or against God.”

Excerpts from Dan Forest's remarks:

Forest quoted George Washington and Abraham Lincoln writing about the nation relying on God’s aid, and he said that the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was “one small declaration from tyranny, one giant declaration of dependence upon Almighty God.”

American leaders, he said, continued to rely on God until Supreme Court rulings on church-state separation:

In America, as time moved on, our leaders sought the help of the Lord through the great and terrible Civil War, through a Great Depression, through two great world wars and numerous other conflicts. Then, in 1947 our Supreme Court separated church and state and placed a high wall between the two. In 1962 our Supreme Court removed prayer from our public schools. In 1973, our Supreme Court ruled that it was OK to kill children still in the womb. In the span of a mere 25 years, we, the people allowed our nation to turn its back on God in the name of independence and freedom.

And he began a litany of ways he said America had turned its back on God:

We have forgotten God and we call it freedom.

We kill our children for convenience, and we call it freedom.

We enslave our poor in welfare and call it freedom.

We take from the hard working and give to the sluggard in the name of income equality and call it freedom.

We allow our children to become addicted to pornography in the name of free speech and we call it freedom.

We rack up mountains of debt on the backs of our grandchildren and we call it freedom.

We reward the criminal at the expense of the victim and we call it freedom.

We take God out of our schoolhouse, out of our statehouse, out of our courthouse and we call it freedom.

We allow a few individuals in the courts to determine the moral standard for all and we call it freedom.

Forest said the country must choose between “policy band-aids” and getting at the root of problems, which is that we as a nation have taken our eyes of God, “who is the giver of truth, virtue, and a moral compass.”

The heart of the matter is we have forgotten God. We have kicked him out of our house, out of our schoolhouse, out of our courthouse, and out of our statehouse, and now, out of our nation. We call it everything but what it is, we call it everything but sin, the turning away from God.

He said that the national focus on rebuilding after the 9/11 attacks was done in the name of freedom and security, but that we did it by our own strength rather than relying on God.

We don’t just need, my friends, to rebuild the walls of America. We need to rebuild the biblical foundation upon which the walls sit. We need to trust God. Fear only comes when we don’t believe that God is who he says he is. If God is the creator of the universe, if he allows our hearts to beat and our lungs to breathe, why do we not trust him? If we trust God, my friends, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. With him we can do anything. Apart from him we can do nothing. Seek first his kingdom and all these things will be given.

We continue to declare ‘God Bless America’ without doing our part, without prayer, without fasting, and repentance as a nation, without recognizing the sins we commit and humbling ourselves before the sovereign ruler of nations, and asking for forgiveness.

It is time for America to recognize that freedom does not come from being a nation of wealth, power, influence, abundance, and ease – but rather it comes from being a humble nation on its knees. It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

 

Ohio Board Of Education Member Calls On Religious Right To Take Over Education

One of Ralph Reed’s most infamous statements — “I want to be invisible. I do guerilla warfare…You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag” — came in an era of school board takeovers by stealth Religious Right candidates. But stealth is so 1990s. At the Road to Majority conference sponsored by Reed’s Faith and Freedom coalition last weekend, a member of the Ohio state board of education openly called on conservative Christians to take over the educational system and return it to a foundation of “biblical truth.”

Mark Smith, who was appointed to the board of education by Gov. John Kasich last year, is president of Ohio Christian University and president of the Ohio Faith and Freedom Coalition. He said at one board meeting that books like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” are “quite divisive” and part of an “underlying socialist-communist agenda.”

Excerpts from Smith's Friday night address to the 2014 Road to Majority conference:

At Road to Majority, Smith sounded as if he’s been reading discredited “historian” David Barton’s claims about the Constitution being drawn directly from the Bible.

“America, for 60 years we have tried to deny the source of truth. But we as a nation must not forget that truth, biblical truth, is what we were founded upon.  In fact, let me remind you, truth concepts like liberty, freedom, personal responsibility, law, justice, and hope are all words that came out of the Bible. They are words that our founders relied upon and they understood that biblical truth was our foundation.”

America was blessed for more than 200 years, Smith says, because it recognized God and biblical truth, and our current problems come from a rejection of those principles

“The first problem that I see is a God problem. Too many people think that they’re God, but we know that they are not. There is only one true God. In current society, you see people deciding critical issues by all manner of means, humanistic thinking, and polls. But many of them do not consider that the Lord our God is how they should be considering these issues.”

Smith also sees the desire for equality as a major problem.

“Secondly in America, we have a truth problem. Few understand foundational truth. The basis for our American doctrines and documents has been biblical truth....”

“In fact, let me remind you further that equality and liberty are in opposition to each other. We hear equality, equality, equality. If you begin to study what you’re being fed by the media and by the president that is in our office today, you would understand that this word equality and liberty are diametrically opposed.”

A third problem, he says, is an educational problem.

 “It’s no secret that our educational system is full of teachers and professors who desire to obfuscate truth, and these individuals are effectively [deconstructing] our nation. It’s been happening since John Dewey and his humanist manifesto.”

He said that Common Core, Race to the Top, and other efforts to “nationalize” the curriculum “are becoming an agenda that is hostile to the traditional family, promoting causes that we do not believe in, promoting sexual promiscuity — I’ve looked at the material and I refuse to accept it.”

He urged conservative Christians to join him in taking a stand for traditional marriage and to take back the country’s schools:

“You see I’m excited to lead the cause for the rebirth of faith values in America, the rebirth of embracing a love for God, the love for family, and a love for our nation. I like traditional marriage. I’m for traditional marriage. Let’s embrace traditional marriage....”

“I call on us to stand and to bring about change in a failed educational system that opposes freedom, capitalism, and personal responsibility, and that wastes billions of dollars on experiments on our children. It’s fine for us to take back our school system, and every one of you should be running for school boards, getting involved in the Department of Education, in the state board of education – and you should take it back as Faith and Freedom members, that is the hope for America.

Ohio Christian University seems to be doing its part. Its lobbyist helped push through the legislature a program that allows gifted high school students to take classes at OCU at taxpayer expense. The Akron Beacon Journal reported in February that OCU’s lobbyist C. Todd Jones “not only sits on the school board with Smith but chairs the committee” responsible for guidelines for the program. “He has actively lobbied the legislature and governor’s office on [the law] that would benefit the colleges at the same time he is running board meetings on the topic.”

As an example of its curriculum, the school says students taking the class Survey of American History “will be able to analyze the varied political, economic, religious, and cultural achievements of America in light of biblical truth,” according to an online course description.

Payment for a high school student taking such classes is deducted directly from money provided by the state to that student’s school district.

PFAW Action Fund Endorses Young Progressive Candidates in Michigan

People For the American Way Action Fund today endorsed a slate of young progressive candidates running for the Michigan State Legislature. The endorsements are part of PFAW Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program that supports progressive candidates age 35 and younger. The Michigan candidates endorsed today are a diverse mix of progressive leaders who are positioned to make Michigan’s legislature be more inclusive and accountable.

“These candidates are the best and brightest young progressive candidates running for the legislature in Michigan,” said PFAW Political Director Randy Borntrager. “They are people-oriented folks from all walks of life who will fight for social, economic, and environmental justice, and promote equality for all. Their leadership in their communities demonstrates a progressive vision that will benefit all Michiganders.”

People For the American Way Action Fund is proud to endorse the following Michigan YEP candidates for 2014:

•         Stephanie Chang – MI House District 6
•         Jon Hoadley – MI House District 60
•         David Knezek – MI Senate District 5
•         Kristy Pagan – MI House District 21
•         Rebecca Thompson – MI District 1
•         Robert Wittenberg – MI House District 27

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People For the American Way Action Fund Endorses Young Progressive Candidates in Michigan

People For the American Way Action Fund today announced its endorsements of a slate of young progressive candidates running for the Michigan State Legislature. The endorsees include a diverse mix of 35-and-younger candidates running for the Michigan state House of Representatives and state Senate, representing a new generation of progressive leaders who will put Michigan’s legislature back-on-track towards a common sense, inclusive, accountable public policy agenda for the state’s future. Their leadership represents a progressive vision that will benefit all Michiganders as they fight for social, economic, environmental justice and equality for all.

The endorsements are part of People For the American Way Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program. YEP evaluates and endorses young progressive candidates age 35-and-younger in their bids for elected office around the U.S. at all levels.

People For the American Way Action Fund is proud to endorse these Michigan YEP candidates for 2014:

Stephanie Chang – MI House District 6

Running for Michigan’s House of Representatives District 6, Stephanie Chang is a Michigander whose dedication to the community has benefited many. Chang has worked around the state advocating for Affirmative Action, serving as a mentor for Detroit Asian Youth Project, and promoting a fair justice system. Chang’s knowledge and breadth of experience in Michigan make her an important leader for the state as she fights for social, economic, and environmental justice. Visit Stephanie’s page for more details.

Jon Hoadley – MI House District 60

Jon Hoadley is the clear choice to represent Michigan’s 60th District in the state House of Representatives. Hoadley, a small business owner and member of several advocacy organizations in Kalamazoo, is deeply ingrained and in tune with the needs of his community, which makes him the ideal representative. He has already worked to better Kalamazoo advocating for full LGBTQ equality, creating strong and sustainable public schools, and protecting the environment. Visit Jon’s page for more details.

David Knezek – MI Senate District 5

David Knezek is running for Michigan state Senate’s 5th District and has proven that he is the ideal candidate for the position. Knezek is a true leader, having been promoted to the rank of Sergeant during his time in the U.S. Marine Corps. At the University of Michigan-Dearborn, he was elected Student Government President, and in his senior year of college he was elected to be a Michigan state representative. Knezek has proven that he will advocate for his community and improve education, public safety, and job opportunities for Michigan citizens. Visit David’s page for more details.

Kristy Pagan – MI House District 21

Born and bred in Michigan, Kristy Pagan is the ideal candidate for the 21st District of Michigan’s state House of Representatives. She has worked in Washington, D.C. as a legislative aide and a national grassroots organizer. Her determination to serve coupled with her knowledge of and dedication to Michigan will serve the state well. Pagan is a true progressive, and has both the resolve and the passion to reform Michigan’s educational system, advocate for women and children, and improve job growth. Visit Kristy's page for more details.

Rebecca Thompson – MI District 1

Rebecca Thompson is running for election to the 1st District of the Michigan state House of Representatives. Thompson was born and raised in Detroit, and overcame experiences with poverty and homelessness to become a leader in the community. She has worked tirelessly to better Detroit for everyone, using her own experiences to positively impact those around her. Thompson is passionate about affordable education, improving safety, protecting women’s rights, and advocating for her community. Visit Rebecca's page for more details.

Robert Wittenberg – MI House District 27
                                                                                                                     
Robert Wittenberg is running to represent District 27 in the Michigan state House of Representatives. After being inspired by his parents’ and brothers’ work, he is determined to follow in their footsteps and serve his community. As a public servant, he advocates for full equality for the LGBTQ community, increased public transportation, and access to healthcare for all. Visit Robert's page for more details.

PFAW

Six Decades Later, Still Fighting for Equality in Schools

The following is a guest post from the Reverend Dr. Merchuria Chase Williams, a former school teacher and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.

Last month, sixty years after the Supreme Court threw out the toxic doctrine of “separate but equal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked us to keep our “eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She pointed out that in law and in daily life, race still matters deeply and cannot “be wished away.”

Justice Sotomayor wrote those words in a dissent to the Schuette decision that upheld Michigan’s state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action, six decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said schools may not be segregated by race. It’s no coincidence that both of these decisions were about education. If anything proves that race still matters in America, it’s our public schools.

While the 1954 Brown decision brought badly needed change and helped invigorate a nationwide civil rights movement, glaring racial inequalities persist to this day – and nowhere are they more evident than in the classroom. In recent years, school segregation has actually gotten worse rather than better. On average, a black student today goes to a school where 29 percent of her fellow students are white – a percentage that has dropped seven points since 1980. Students of color are less likely to have access to a broad range of math and science courses and are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And according to the Center for American Progress, on average American schools spend hundreds less on each student of color than they do on each white student.

While we may no longer be legally separate, educational opportunities and conditions for our nation’s students are far from equal.

Despite these gaps, big funders on the Right continue to pour money into efforts to privatize the education system rather than strengthen the public education system that the vast majority of our nation’s children use. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family that established Walmart, has pumped millions into efforts to expand private school vouchers, undermining the public schools that are, in education advocate Diane Ravitch’s words, “the heart of most communities.”

Those of us who have been working for many years to improve the education system in Atlanta and across the country know that we need to support and strengthen public education, not undercut it. We need to work to address ongoing education inequalities for students of different backgrounds, not pretend that race simply doesn’t matter or that racial inequalities do not exist. Let’s use the anniversary of this landmark decision to recommit ourselves to building an education system that truly provides equal opportunities to all of our nation’s children.

Today’s Supreme Court majority may not get it, but the millions of children failed by our school system do.
 

PFAW Foundation

On the Brown Anniversary, The Struggle for Equal Education Continues

The following is a guest post from Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard, a member of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

Six decades ago the nation said “separate, but equal” is separate, but it certainly is not equal. This week we celebrate the 60 year anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Brown gave our nation the opportunity to show the world that we are as good as our promise. And while the impact of this groundbreaking decision cannot be overstated, a quality education is still not a guarantee for African American and Latino students today.  

In my state of Florida and across the country, students of color continue to be underserved by our school system. Recent data from the Department of Education highlights massive racial inequalities that persist six decades later. Beginning in preschool, African American students are suspended disproportionately – a distressingly early start on what many have characterized as the school-to-prison pipeline. Students of color are more likely to have lower paid teachers and fewer course options.

Undocumented students also face serious barriers in our education system. In Florida, undocumented students do not receive in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. Florida’s DREAM Act would fix this, allowing undocumented students who attended a Florida high school for at least three years to receive in-state tuition to attend one of Florida’s public colleges or universities.

Our students’ success or failure is incumbent on each and every one of us. As a teacher and as a member of the state Senate’s education committee, I know that building strong communities, a strong economy, a strong electorate, and a strong country requires investments in a public education system that works for all students. When we fail to fight for equal educational opportunities, our democracy is at risk. If we hope to improve our future, we must realize we are only as successful as our least privileged.

On the anniversary of the Brown decision, May 17th, I will join over 120 young elected officials from all corners of the nation to discuss and build education policy together. We will honor this moment in history through continued action to improve our children’s education system. We will do this because our kids deserve the chance to be their best, and because our future will demand it of them.

PFAW

South Carolina GOPer: Public Schools Leading To 'Holocaust In Our Churches' With Teachings On 'Evolutionism' & Homosexuality

A GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in South Carolina said yesterday that public schools are pushing a “silent holocaust” in churches by supposedly turning young people away from Christianity.

Ray Moore has made criticism of public schools a centerpiece of his campaign, urging the state to replace public schools with an education system led by “churches, families, and private association” and warning that they turn students, like a young Hillary Clinton, into anti-Christian “janissaries.”

Speaking yesterday with conservative talk show host Steve Deace, Moore warned that public schools are “wrecking” Christian families.

Moore claimed that studies show that “80 percent of Southern Baptists youths are leaving the church and abandoning the Christian faith, and we think all of this is pretty much attributable to government schooling.”

“We think the main culprit is public schooling,” he said. “So there’s a holocaust, a silent holocaust going on in our evangelical churches.”

He also attacked the “viruses” of same-sex marriage and abortion rights:

The pastors go on and on oblivious like nothing is happening and they’re out there preaching against same-sex marriage and abortion, so why is same-sex marriage and abortion and all of these viruses latching on to our society so readily? And we think part of it is government-sponsored education where they’re thoroughly and aggressively teaching socialism, humanism; turning their hearts away from Christ; teaching them evolutionism; Common Core has pervaded the system even in the so-called Bible Belt South; we have sex education apart from covenant marriages being taught and homosexuality is being taught in the Bible Belt as well as the Northeast and the far-west. So the system is thoroughly handed over to egregious and harmful teachings, and it’s just wrecking and causing havoc in our churches and in our family.

Back in 2007, Moore criticized California public schools after the state enacted new laws protecting LGBT students: “The public school system is a monster, “but this [the new laws] may be the most egregious thing they’ve done.”

His group sent out a statement alleging that California was “mandating that public school children be indoctrinated to accept as normal the homosexual lifestyle and other forms of sexual deviancy” and warning that “California’s schools are now promoting behaviors and lifestyles that are physically and spiritually dangerous for children.”

In a 2012 radio interview, while promoting the movie “IndoctriNation: Public Schools and the Decline of Christianity in America,” Moore railed against homosexuality:

We can look at the rise of the aggressive homosexual movement in our country, I’m old enough to remember it was as late as 1968 that it was pretty much an underground movement but it has just swept through our culture in a way now that Christians are on the defensive, marriage is under attack, they are teaching it to our children in the schools. We are looking at this and incredulously saying ‘how could this happen,’ this is another example of a tipping point in a bad direction, the rise of the modern, aggressive, homosexual movement and its attack on marriage.



In some of the states now they’re mandating the instruction of homosexuality and transgender education in the schools: California, some of the New England schools. It’s just incredible what’s happening and parents just sit there and think if they complain that they’ll listen. They won’t and the best way to deal with it is to get the kids out.

Mobilizing to Defend and Strengthen Public Education

I wish politicians and pundits who make a habit of railing against teachers and public schools had spent some time at the conference put on by the Network for Public Education (NPE) last weekend.  The organization’s first national conference brought together about 400 teachers, scholars, education bloggers, and activists to learn from and encourage each other, and to strategize on how to push back against the assault on public education.

The passion that fueled the high-energy gathering was not teacher pay or pensions. It was a commitment to students, teaching, and the future of public education as an institution that serves all children and helps prepare young people for life.

There was also plenty of anger and frustration at the status quo: budget cuts, diversion of energy and funds into various privatization plans, and a vast amount of time being taken away from teaching to satisfy ever-increasing demands for high-stakes standardized tests.

At the end of the two-day conference in Austin, Texas, NPE called for congressional hearings on the use, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing in America’s public schools. In a letter to members of Congress, the group urged them to examine 11 questions about the quality, costs, and effectiveness of such tests. The letter, which has drawn some surprising support, concludes:

We believe that every child in the United States deserves a sound education. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It’s our conclusion that the over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized tests may now warrant federal intervention. We urge Congress to pursue the questions we have raised.

After the conference, NPE board member Bertis Downs, who also serves on PFAW’s board, published a compelling open letter to President Obama inviting the president to consider the harmful impacts of excessive high-stakes testing and other educational policies backed by the administration.

A primary focus of the conference was the heavily funded corporate “reform” movement that pushes for increased testing and expanded “school choice” via vouchers, charters, and virtual schools. That push comes in the context of massive cuts to public education, particularly in states where Tea Party Republicans took power in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And huge sums are being diverted to for-profit companies through tax credit schemes and lucrative contracts.  In Texas, for example, the state has a five-year, $500 million contract with testing giant Pearson, the world’s biggest for-profit education corporation.

Saturday’s keynote speeches were by Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union and John Kuhn, who as a Texas school district superintendent might be considered by some a more surprising speaker. Kuhn gave a barn-burner of a speech on behalf of public education and the children it serves. Kuhn is the author of a new book, part memoir and part pro-public-education manifesto, called Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education.

“I am here speaking for one reason. I care about my country, I care about the future, and I love my children,” he said. “Anything that weakens the public schools in the United States of America weakens the nation.”

Kuhn slammed the ongoing political efforts to divert more public funds to for-profit charter chains and voucher schools that are not required to serve all children, as well as the underlying premise that educational opportunity will be improved by turning education into a system based on competition.  In education, he says, competition breeds marketing and cost-cutting and search for competitive advantage.  Competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellence, he said. “If it did, our fast food restaurants would serve the healthiest food around.”

Sunday’s keynoter was Diane Ravitch, widely considered America’s finest education historian. Ravitch, an NPE board member, served as an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, but she has since become an energetic critic of the corporate reform movement, saying it is based on ideology rather than evidence, and that it threatens to destroy public education in America.  Ravitch’s most recent book is Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which Jonathan Kozol calls “a fearless book, a manifesto and a call to battle.” Ravitch’s speech was also a manifesto and call to battle against the corporate-reform “juggernaut” that is “devouring education.” 

While conference participants shared a burning desire to change the conversation and push back on efforts to dismantle and privatize public education, there wasn’t always unanimity among participants. A panel on Common Core, for example, featured a number of educators who are strongly opposed, but also included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who defended the standards as a way to build broader public support for a public education system that serves the common good.

At the conference, more than two dozen panels focused on a wide range of issues regarding the future of public education, including teacher preparation, the role of parents, the impact of educational corporations and foundations promoting privatization, the importance of truth-telling academic research and investigative reporting, and organizing and communications strategies.

A consistent theme at the conference was the imperative to better serve high-needs students living in conditions of concentrated poverty. Socioeconomic status is a major predictor of success on standardized tests, but the corporate reform movement often dismisses talk about the impact of poverty and inequities as excuse-making.  “They want us to say that poverty and segregation and policies that continue to foment that should not matter,” said the CTU’s Lewis. “Well, yeah, that would be lovely. They should not matter. But they do.”

Among the organizations offering resources was the Opportunity to Learn campaign. For example, Opportunity to Learn challenges school closures as a reform tactic and provides examples of alternatives that have proven effective in strengthening public schools.  Among those strategies is creating “community schools” by wrapping schools and students in social and family support services.

In spite of the huge challenges and relentless attacks on public education, the conference as a whole, like Ravitch’s speech, had a kind of David vs. Goliath optimism.  She devoted part of her speech to educational heroes. Among them was the Providence Student Union, which has engaged in creative protest and street theater against tests required for students to graduate. In one high-profile project, the group recruited 50 prominent Rhode Islanders to take the math tests students would have to pass to graduate from high school; 60 percent of the adult professionals failed.

Ravitch said that the tactics of those who are out to destroy public education are failing, and that parents and educators are mobilizing to build public opposition to “reforms” that are based on “junk science.”

There’s no question the facts are on our side. But we have to shape the narrative. And the narrative is, we have a great public institution. Our public schools are not failing. If you’ve read my last book you know that the test scores today are the highest they’ve ever been in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian children. The graduation rates are the highest they’ve ever been in history. The dropout rates are the lowest they’ve ever been in history. So their narrative is a lie…We are defending American democracy. We are defending children. We are fighting for what’s right….

She called for parents and others to be active both in advocacy and in politics.

So my message is, first of all, be not afraid. Be strong. …. Speak proudly of our children. Our children are amazing -- the fact that they’re able to put up with all the garbage that’s being thrown at them. And get political…Run for office. Get involved. We cannot win unless we throw some of these guys out of office….I’m 75 years old…I’m not gonna be here forever….Who’s gonna take my place? My answer is, “you will.”

….We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning. Not profit centers for corporations and entrepreneurs and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants. We are many, and they are few, and this is why we will win.

PFAW

Right Wing Targets 'Moral Mondays' Organizer

Right-wing groups and media are waging a concerted attack on Rev. William Barber, organizer of this weekend’s “Moral March” in Raleigh, North Carolina.

North Carolina’s politics lurched to the far right after multimillionaire Art Pope poured money into a far-right takeover of the state government.  A tidal wave of horrible legislation last year attacked voting rights, public education, health care, and unemployment insurance -- and raising taxes on poor families to give tax breaks to a handful of the state’s wealthiest people. Basically, if you want to see what unfettered Tea Party governance looks like, look at North Carolina.

In response, a huge statewide coalition led by Barber, the president of the state NAACP, organized “Moral Mondays” protests to draw attention to the legislature’s extremism. State GOP officials initially dismissed the movement, with one legislator deriding “Moron Mondays” and others blaming the protests on “outside agitators.” But the protests grew to thousands, with more than 900 people, the vast majority of them from North Carolina, being arrested.

The progressive Forward Together coalition drew tens of thousands of people to Raleigh this weekend for a “Moral March,” which kicked off a year of organizing and voter engagement. This progressive mobilization has generated excitement among progressive activists nationally, and has made Barber a target of the right wing.

In recent weeks, Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren have invited Sen. Tim Scott, Allen West, and Star Parker – all right-wing African Americans – to attack Barber for comments he made suggesting  that Scott is a ventriloquist dummy for the Tea Party.

In the days leading up to Saturday’s march, the state’s Republican Chairman Claude Pope slammed Barber for using "inflammatory and offensive" rhetoric. And Tami Fitzgerald from the North Carolina Values Coalition snarked, “The so-called Moral March on Raleigh is anything but moral. It is spearheaded by groups that support abortion and homosexual marriage.” I am not aware that Fitzgerald has raised moral objections to right-wing state officials’ attacks on poor families’ access to health care.

At a press conference after the March, Tea Party activist David Webb, a Fox and Breitbart contributor, badgered Barber about whether he owed Scott and other black conservatives an apology. No apology was forthcoming. The unruffled Barber said his job and calling are “to speak the truth about public policies, policies that hurt millions of people.” 

Barber said his critique was based on policy, not personality. “While some people may choose to get caught up on a metaphor,” Barber said, “the real indignation and upsetness should be over the regressive agenda” and over policies that are causing “real-life suffering and death.”

If folk want to get upset, get upset over the denying of Medicaid expansion, get upset over voting to reject unemployment benefits for laid off workers who are Republican, who are Democrat, who are black, who are white. Get upset over reduced access to public education and funding of it….and get upset over the attacks to turn back voting rights that were won through blood, sweat and tears.”

 

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