Privatization of Public Education: A Joint Venture of Charity and Power

Dangerous Bedfellows – Who stands to win?

It is important to know that CSF drew much of its original design from another organization – CEO America – and a $50 million startup gift from one of the founders of CEO America, John Walton. The self-described purpose of CEO America is to work for publicly funded vouchers – public policy changes designed to divert taxpayer funds from public schools to private schools, including ones that claim religious development as their primary purpose. From the beginning, CEO America has leveraged private funds as a means to an end; its ultimate goal is the passage of laws that mandate spending public dollars for private and religious schools. Publicly funded voucher programs are in place in Milwaukee (supported by the local affiliate of CEO) and Cleveland, and experiences there make clear the dangers of these proposals. (See “Grand Illusions,” a PFAWF analysis that accompanies this report.)

The Religious Right political movement is a vigorous participant in the campaign as well. John Walton, J. Patrick Rooney, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Eagle Forum, and others are regular partners in moving the Religious Right’s agenda forward on this issue as well as others. These efforts include working to elect Religious Right candidates to school boards, supporting anti-union and anti-affirmative action initiatives, and supporting the campaigns of Religious Right candidates for state and federal office.

Religious Right organizations have provided much of the public relations and organizing work that have built the voucher movement’s political momentum. Religious Right leaders conduct unrelenting attacks on the public schools, falsely pointing to some schools’ problems as symptoms of what they claim is systemic failure. Through radio and television broadcasts, through voter guides disseminated among networks of churches, and through aggressive get-outthe-vote efforts on behalf of pro-voucher candidates, Religious Right groups have put their political machinery and their committed activists to work on behalf of the voucher movement. The Religious Right’s political appeal to the general public, however, is limited; thus the critical importance of business leaders and philanthropists in softening the public face of the voucher movement.

There are two primary groups who foresee such handsome rewards from public vouchers that it is worth their investment of capital and energy to make massive policy change possible. First, there are venture capitalists and investors who see a business opportunity not unlike the early days of the HMO movement. Second, the Religious Right benefits from having access to massive amounts of public money to fund their teachings and their institutions. Other types of groups expect benefits as well, including Catholic schools, many of which have long records of service in inner cities. On the far end of the spectrum lie extremist and separatist groups for whom the diversity of public schools has always been anathema. Among the enormous risks of publicly funded vouchers, revealed by legislation already moving in some states, is the unfettered access to public capital by organizations of literally every sort – good and bad – and the ancillary abandonment of constitutional prohibitions against government promotion of religion.

Support from business and Religious Right groups has embedded two principles into Republican Party platforms around the country: the idea that schools should function as a free market, and the idea that religion should be supported with taxpayer funds. By including philanthropists in their efforts, many of whom give money through CSF, proponents of publicly funded vouchers have designed what they believe to be a winning strategy.

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