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

The National Scene: The Birth of CEO America

CEO America was until last year the only national organization directly awarding vouchers. The organization raised money from wealthy individuals to create a demonstration project to show vouchers in action, build public support, and soften legislative resistance to public funding of private schools. In its promotional materials, CEO America makes its pitch to corporate executives tired of “spoon-feeding basic skills to new employees” and says its program was created so that “policymakers and opinion leaders can see firsthand how school choice works.”21

CEO America’s original mission statement read: “To coordinate the expansion and replication [of] privately funded voucher programs designed to provide low-income children with greater educational opportunities and promote the public policy debate on school choice through educational activities.” It has since changed the wording of its statement to de-emphasize the public policy aspects of its efforts.22

CEO America thus set out to work on two fronts simultaneously. First, to push policy changes through legislatures that would legalize and legitimize public funding of private school vouchers. And second, to raise large sums of money from rich benefactors to create a nationwide demonstration project that would build support for public funding for private schools. To meet these marketing goals, CEO America chose a politically appealing target of opportunity – poor children in inner-city communities with underfunded and troubled public schools. (It’s worth noting that this same community was chosen by the Christian Coalition as the 1997 launching pad for its “Samaritan Project,” an effort to strengthen the organization’s political support among African Americans. Christian Coalition officials cut off support for the project a year later.) CEO itself described this dual approach: “Two factors were behind the Board’s decision [to create the national group]. The most important was the urgency to reach out to more parents of children trapped in failing public schools and giving them the opportunity to choose a better school. The other was rooted in the belief that the programs could be a vehicle of revolutionary change. The reason: they would be working models that would show politicians and government officials the clear benefits of school choice. Furthermore, each new program would create a small but vocal constituency of parents and business executives who understood and valued school choice and whose collective voice could do more to alter public perceptions than could be achieved by even the most massive public relations campaign.”23

CEO America President Fritz Steiger’s recent fundraising letter illustrates the group’s political and ideological agenda. Citing the statewide voucher bills that stand a good chance of passing in Florida and Texas, Steiger says that “the legislatures are actively considering a number of bills that could open the doors for education initiatives that CEO America has been advocating for years.” He urges supporters to sign enclosed postcards to Governors Jeb and George W. Bush, and to give generously to CEO America to help it “advance these bills through grassroot educational efforts.” With luck, “getting school choice measures approved in two of the nation’s most populous states could snowball into school choice legislation moving to the forefront in legislatures all across the nation.” He concludes by warning that “big-government liberals, the union bosses and the education bureaucrats” are opposed to a simple voucher solution because they are desperate to prevent choice and to rob taxpayers of billions of dollars.24

The Problem of Past Political Baggage

CEO America’s ability to work effectively and simultaneously on both fronts – charity and political advocacy – ran up against serious public relations and political obstacles as its full cast of characters became known. The right-wing cast of the major players included many who joined the Religious Right in their earlier opposition to legislation to help inner-city neighborhoods, schools, the unemployed and workers. Among the organization’s board members, J. Patrick Rooney, for example, is well known as one of the largest individual donors to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as to his GOPAC and Progress and Freedom Foundation.25 Rooney is also a founding board member of Republican National Coalition for Life, a PAC founded by Religious Right heavyweights like Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer and Beverly LaHaye to keep the abortion plank in the Republican Party strong.26 Wal-Mart heir John Walton is also a major contributor to right-wing candidates such as Lauch Faircloth, Steve Forbes and Pete Wilson.27 In addition to individual candidates such as former Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, James Leininger has also contributed to RNC for Life.28 CEO America board member Peter Flanigan has supported Jesse Helms’ senatorial campaigns and Phil Gramm’s 1992 presidential campaign.29 In addition, CEO’s founders have been active in passing voucher referendums and bankrolling right-wing candidates for state school boards. (The interconnections between the players in CEO America and CSF are detailed in an appendix at the end of this report.)

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