Children's Scholarship Fund Head Urged to Target Aid to Public Schools
A new report released today by the People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) gives the most detailed look to date into the organizations, leaders, and strategies behind the nationwide push for school privatization, a campaign at odds with efforts to strengthen education for all our nation's children.
The report, "Privatization of Public Education: A Joint Venture of Charity and Power," exposes the interlocking goals, leadership, and strategies of allied organizations such as the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), CEO America, and a network of statewide and local groups, including shared CEO/CSF affiliates, to turn public education money over to private schools and entrepreneurs. These organizations' efforts to remove children from the public schools dovetail with a goal long espoused by Religious Right leaders such as Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer, and Jerry Falwell – to eliminate the public schools entirely.
This report, on the eve of CSF's highly publicized "lottery" to pick the "winners" of 40,000 $600 to $1,600 scholarships, shows how this alliance uses charity to promote privatization through publicly funded vouchers that strip needed resources and support from the public schools and funnel vast amounts of money to private institutions, including pervasively sectarian ones.
"Whether the push toward private schools comes from CSF or from Gary Bauer, the result weakens public schools – and puts even more children at risk," said Carole Shields, President of People For the American Way Foundation.
The strategy parallels "bait and switch" tactics used in Wisconsin to pressure the legislature for publicly funded private school vouchers. There, a local organization called PAVE (Partners Advancing Values in Education) – CEO America's local affiliate – pressured for expansion of the state's voucher law to include sectarian schools by offering scholarships funded by the right-wing Bradley Foundation. Wisconsin's voucher program, which operates only in Milwaukee, drained away $22 million from the city's public schools this year alone, a figure that could nearly triple when the program reaches its full capacity.
"The question confronting us is how to give all our children the best education that we as a nation can deliver," said Shields, "but the Children's Scholarship Fund's answer is limited in benefit and sustainability. It is fraught with immediate consequences – including decreasing the funds and community support so needed by our public schools. Our money and work should focus on the public schools and every child."
Citing evidence that vouchers undermine efforts to strengthen public schools and produce little if any gains for students receiving them, PFAWF also called on CSF to extend its philanthropy to public schools, where their charity would help many more children.
In a letter to CSF co-chairman Ted Forstmann, PFAWF President Carole Shields wrote, "To make a difference in children's education requires us to put our money where the children are – and for the vast majority of children, that means the public schools. Schools need community support and adequate funds to improve. It's being done every day where support exists. Help us help our schools now. Strengthening the public schools can make all children the winners."
Shields' letter noted that the indicators are on the upswing for public schools – with test scores up, dropouts down, and tougher standards in place. "Great things are happening in our nation's public schools – much of it helped along by generous individuals and organizations that are making additional resources available," she wrote. "The challenge for all of us is to make all of our children's public schools as good as the best public schools. Your commitment to helping all the children could make all the difference. "
While the report acknowledges that many contributors to the Children's Scholarship Fund are acting from a commendable desire to help children, the report is critical of the organization's history and of the seeming conflicts of interest its chief architects, including Wal-Mart heir John Walton. Walton is a major investor in private schools and in the political campaign to achieve wide-scale publicly funded vouchers.
Charity – or a loss leader?
The report demonstrates how CSF's stated goal of helping poor children is called into question by the history and interests of the organization and its leaders. For example:
Walton is a director of the TesseracT Group (formerly Education Alternatives Inc.), a for-profit corporation that manages charter and public schools. He is also the founder of School Futures Research Foundation, a nonprofit group that manages charter schools in California.
Walton, a regular speaker on the pro-voucher circuit, spent a quarter of a million dollars on voucher initiatives in California.
Seeing teachers' unions as an obstacle to vouchers, Walton contributed $360,000 of his own money and another $50,000 from his American Education Reform Foundation to California's anti-union Proposition 226, the so-called "paycheck protection" initiative. Other voucher proponents including James Leininger, J. Patrick Rooney, David Brennan, Howard Ahmanson, and Richard DeVos (via his Amway Corp.) also contributed substantial amounts to the initiative.
Forstmann donated $10,000 to help secure passage of California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209.
Forstmann's leveraged buyout firm attempted to acquire one-third ownership in Whittle Communications, the creator of the controversial Channel One television program that has injected commercials into the classroom and of the Edison Project, a national chain of private schools.
James Leininger, co-founder of CEO San Antonio and Director of CEO America, is also a funder of religious right organizations including the American Family Association, Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family. His A+ PAC for Parental School Choice supports the campaigns of state and local pro-voucher candidates in Texas.
The Walton Family Foundation and the foundation of Ohio voucher proponent David Brennan contributed half a million dollars for Brennan to set up two private for-profit voucher schools in Cleveland immediately after the legislature enacted vouchers.
California venture capitalist Tim Draper, who is pushing for a voucher initiative on the March 2000 ballot, is investing heavily in education-related companies.
Michael Milken has moved from junk bonds to education, with investments of $500 million in education-related companies.
"The involvement of so many high rollers with vested interests in 'profitized' education raises questions about whether, for at least some individuals, a contribution to CSF is a loss leader rather than just charity," said Shields.
VOUCHERS ARE NO ANSWER
A white paper also issued today, "Theory in Practice: School Vouchers in Real Life," documents the poor performance and damaging impact of the nation's two current private school voucher experiments in Milwaukee and Cleveland. It provides a review of current research showing that educational quality has made no appreciable gains and, in some cases, has actually declined for students participating in these voucher programs.
"Theory in Practice" refutes voucher supporters' claims for their programs, for example:
In Wisconsin, where a special class-size reduction program called SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) has brought about impressive improvements in learning, Milwaukee students who would be eligible to participate if they lived anywhere else in the state are being denied access to this program. This inequity could be eliminated if the money now flowing out to private school vouchers were instead invested to bring SAGE into all eligible schools in Milwaukee.
Researchers who have looked into the impact of vouchers in Milwaukee and Cleveland have found little if any improvements for students in private voucher schools. In some areas, public school students did better than their voucher school counterparts.
In Cleveland, scores for students at the two Hope Academies, for-profit voucher schools set up by voucher advocate David Brennan with support from the Walton Family Foundation, trailed far behind students who stayed in the public schools.
In San Antonio, TX, the already struggling and underfunded Edgewood school district was further impoverished when CEO America pulled several hundred students out of the district with "scholarships" that caused a 7% drop in funding for the school because of the enrollment drop. Ironically, the school had been well on the road to improvement before this catastrophe, establishing an early childhood program that has become a model for elementary education, bringing up all low performing schools up to state standards, dramatically reducing dropout rates, and raising SAT scores by over 130 points.
"If we want to help all children, we should all take a lesson from Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Jordan, and Walter Annenberg – and all the others who are using their money and their generosity to make a difference in the public schools," said Shields.
Read the Report and Supporting Documents:
Privatization of Public Education: A Joint Venture of Charity and Power