Archives for category: Billionaires

Tom Ultican explains why he spends so much of his time fighting for public schools.

The original cause for my supporting public education was that my rancher father married a school teacher. Growing up on a southern Idaho ranch, I learned many philosophical and theoretical reasons for supporting the establishment and maintenance of public schools from my mother. However, it was from watching mom and her dedicated colleagues in action that I learned to truly respect and appreciate public school.

I remember stories of my father being warned that he better not treat that women wrong. For several years in a row she won the Elmore County sharp shooting contest. She didn’t like to chop a chicken’s head off so she would pull out her rifle and shoot it off.

Mom had some old school attitudes but maintained a mind of her own. There was a period in which she had to come home at lunch time and milk the cow. One Friday, after having to chase the cow across King Hill creek again, she had had enough; didn’t discuss it just loaded that cow into a trailer and took it to market.

In my home, there was no doubt about the value of education and also an abiding belief that the American public education system was unparalleled. My father was a high school basketball referee and an ardent supporter of music study.

As was common in the community, school events were family events. Helping the local school was one of the main missions of our civic organizations whether it was building viewing stands at the football field or sewing costumes for school plays.

My grandfather was an immigrant from Scotland who came to America on the Lusitania. Three years after his arrival that ship was sunk by a German U-boat killing 1,800 passengers and further pushing America into engaging with World War I.

It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British Education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path; if that education would continue and weather it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future. American students were not immersed in testing hell.

Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year olds, did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.

Still today, Idaho has a greater than 90% white population making it one of the whitest places in the world. It used to be even whiter.

I did not meet a Black person until I was a 17 years-old high school student. That year the University of Idaho Vandaleers gave a concert at my high school. A local rancher’s wife threw an after party for the choir and that is where I met Ray McDonald. Not only was he a talented singer, he was also one of the top running backs in America who would soon be drafted in the second round by the Washington DC professional football team. All I really remember is I was star struck and he was a friendly guy who played piano.

Although there was very little racial diversity in the community there was significant religious diversity. We had Mormons, Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Assembly of God and other denominations attending our schools.

In a 2001 interview conducted at the Gathering, Richard DeVos lamented that it was awful that public schools had replaced churches as the center of communities. He did not identify whose church was going to be accepted as the community center.

The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school based relationships.

Public schools became the foundation for democratic governance in the region plus it was literally where people voted. To me, it is unfeasible that a healthy American democracy does not include a healthy public school system.

America’s Founding Fathers Believed in Public Education

The second and third presidents of the United States advocated powerfully for public education. Thomas Jefferson saw education as the cause for developing out of common farmers the enlightened citizenry that would take the rational action a successful republican democracy requires. Jefferson contended,

“The qualifications for self government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

When Jefferson who was a former ambassador to France was queried about the French Revolution, he responded, “It has failed in its first effort, because the mobs of the cities, the instrument used for its accomplishment, debased by ignorance, poverty and vice, could not be restrained to rational action.” He called for the establishment of universal free public education claiming it as a requisite for the survival of a democratic republic.

Jefferson and his peer John Adams were integral to the founding of the United States. Jefferson is credited as the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Our system of government with its bi-cameral legislative branch, judicial branch and executive branch came about in great measure because of John Adams’ advocacy.

Like Jefferson, Adams also saw public education as crucial for the survival of our fledgling democracy. In a 1775 essay, he wrote:

“reformation must begin with the Body of the People which can be done only, to affect, in their Educations. the Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. there should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselves”

Shortly before the American Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had published the controversial novel Emile, or On Education. He was widely condemned by the ruling elite for the religious views expressed in the book. However, the main portion of the book was about education. Rousseau’s character in the book was a tutor for children of the wealthy. That was the nature of education in the 18thcentury. Only children of the wealthy had the wherewithal to be educated by private tutors or in one of the few private schools.

Jefferson and Adams were calling for egalitarian progress giving common people the tools required to be self-governing. They were calling for a public school system.

It was the Massachusetts education advocate, Horace Mann, who more than any American political leader was responsible for the nationwide spread of public schools. With the challenges of industrialization, immigration and urbanization, public schools became the fabric of social integration. Horace Mann became the spokes-person for schools being that instrument.

It was Mann’s point of view that children in the common school were to receive a common moral education based on the general principles of the Bible and on common virtues. The moral values to be taught in public school were Protestant values and the political values were those of republican democracy.

Integrating the Protestant religious view into the common schools caused a split in communities. The burgeoning Catholic immigrant population did not want their children indoctrinated with an anti-Catholic ideology. Following the civil war, these influences irrupted into the “Bible Wars.” Author Katherine Stewart shared that it was in this atmosphere that “President Ulysses S. Grant declared that if a new civil war were to erupt, it would be fought not across the Mason-Dixon Line but at the door of the common schoolhouse.”

Stewart also shared an insightful admonition from Grant:

“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”

Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.

As the 21st century dawned, the American public education system was facing a billionaire financed attack. Instead of financially enhancing public schools, libertarians called them “failures” and too expensive. They called public schools “monopolies” shutting out private business that would surely outperform “government schools.” Hopefully the aphorism attributed Lincoln is true: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

Steve Ruis writes in his blog that “class warfare” is over, finished, kaput. The top .001% won. They made out like bandits during the pandemic while most people struggled to pay the mortgage or the rent. No wonder they prefer to claim that charter schools and vouchers will raise up the poor. Of course, they won’t.

He writes:

From an article in The Guardian on Forbes magazine’s latest list of billionaires:

“Forbes annual billionaire poll includes a record-breaking 2,755 billionaires, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once again topping the list. Elon Musk, zoomed into second place with a $151bn fortune, up $126.4bn from a year ago, when he ranked No 31 and was worth “just” $24.6bn.”

“Elon Musk, zoomed into second place with a $151bn fortune, up $126.4bn from a year ago.”

“Together the plutocrats added $5tn to their wealth for a combined fortune of $13.1tn, up from $8tn on the 2020 list. A record 493 people joined the list this year – one new billionaire every 17 hours. The majority, 205, were in China. But the gains were widespread with gains across the world.”

“But it was the incredibly wealthy who made the biggest gains. The 0.001% did even better than their lesser peers. The top 10 richest people on the list are worth $1.15tn, up from $686bn last year.”

Andrea Gabor is the Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, which is part of the City University of New York. Gabor has written insightful articles about education in the New York Times and at Bloomberg.com. She is the author of After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Education Reform.

The following is a summary of a chapter in her forthcoming book, MEDIA CAPTURE: HOW MONEY, DIGITAL PLATFORMS, AND GOVERNMENTS CONTROL THE NEWS, which will be published by Columbia University Press in June. She prepared this excerpt for this blog.

She writes:

For the past twenty years, American K-12 education has been on the receiving end of Big Philanthropy’s efforts to reengineer public schools based on free-market ideas, with foundation-funded private operators taking over large swaths of school districts in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Between 2000 and 2005 alone, three foundations—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—quadrupled their spending on K–12 education to $400 million. By 2010, the top 15 foundations had spent $844 million on public education.

Moreover, these Big Philanthropies coordinated their spending, investing in what Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Johns Hopkins’s Steven Teles call “jurisdictional challengers”—efforts aimed atupending traditional educational institutions, in particular public schools and school boards. Instead, the foundations funded a range of private and public institutions, including charter-management organizations and alternative teacher-development institutions such as Teach for America, as well as school-board candidates who would back the philanthropists’ reform agenda and help break the “monopoly” of public-school districts.

Diane Ravitch and a slew of other academics, bloggers and writers have documented the growing influence of Big Philanthropy and its convergence with federal education policies, especially under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, creating what the political scientist Sarah Reckhow calls “a perfect storm.”

As part of its soup-to-nuts strategy designed to maximize the impact of its gifts and expand its influence, Big Philanthropy has expanded its reach to universities, think tanks, government institutions, and the news media.

My chapter, “Media Capture and the Corporate Education-Reform Philanthropies,” in Media Capture, explores the efforts of the Big Philanthropy to shape public opinion by ratcheting up its spending on advocacy and, in particular, by investing in local news organizations. The philanthropies have supported education coverage at a range of mainstream publications—investments that often helped promote the foundations’ education-reform agenda. In addition, they have founded publications specifically dedicated to selling their market-oriented approach to education.

For the news media, battered by internet companies such as Craigslist and Facebook, which have siphoned off advertising revenue, funding from philanthropies comes at an opportune time. Nor can private foundations be faulted for supporting the news media, especially given the rise of “alternative facts” and demagoguery during the Trump era. Foundation funding has long been important to a range of respected news organizations such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, as well as established education publications, such as Education Week.This is not to say that this funding has unleashed a spate of pro-reform coverage. Indeed, I have published essays critical of the education-reform philanthropies in many foundation-funded publications. However, logic suggests that publications desirous of repeat tranches of funding will at least moderate their critical coverage.

What is particularly troubling are the large contributions to local news organizations—many of them earmarked specifically for education coverage—by foundations that explicitly support the takeover of local schools and districts by private operators. My chapter explores how philanthropic support of news organizations—including new publications founded and run by education-reform advocates—is aimed at creating a receptive audience for the foundations’ education-reform agenda.

The Gates Foundation’s effort to influence local and national policy via the news media is a case in point.

The Gates Foundation alone devoted $1 billion in the decade from 2000 to 2010 to so-called policy and advocacy, a tenth of the foundation’s $3 billion-a-year spending, according to an investigation by The Seattle Times.

Although much of that money went to analyze policy questions—such as the efficacy of vaccine-funding strategies—“the ‘advocacy’ side of the equation is essentially public relations: an attempt to influence decision-makers and sway public opinion.”

In 2011, The Seattle Times published an exhaustive article about its leading hometown philanthropic organization and asked: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?” (At the time, the Gates Foundation also was bankrolling a slew of education policies, including the common core, and building political support for “one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history.”)

The Seattle Times showed how the Gates Foundation funding goes far beyond providing general support for cash-strapped news organizations:

“To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.”

Indeed, Gates usually “stipulates” that its funding be used for reporting on issues the philanthropy supports—whether curing diseases such as HIV or improving U.S. education. And although Gates does not appear to dictate specific stories, the Seattle Times noted: “Few of the news organizations that get Gates money have produced any critical coverage of foundation programs.”

The Seattle Times story was written before the newspaper accepted a $530,000 grant, in 2013, the bulk of it from the Gates Foundation, to launch the Education Lab. The paper described the venture as “a partnership between The Seattle Times and Solutions Journalism Network” that will explore “promising programs and innovations inside early-education programs, K–12 schools and colleges that are addressing some of the biggest challenges facing public education.” The Gates Foundation contributed $450,000, with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funding the rest.

In a blog post, the newspaper addressed the potential conflict of interest posed by the grant: “The Seattle Times would neither seek nor accept a grant that did not give us full editorial control over what is published. Generally, when a grant is made, there is agreement on a specific project or a broad area of reporting it will support.” The newspaper earmarked its funding for so-called “solutions journalism.”

It may be laudable for a publication to focus on “solutions” to societal problems. But almost by definition, a mission that effectively targets “success stories” diminishes journalism’s vital watchdog role.

Then too, Gates’s influence extends well beyond Seattle. The Associated Press documented the Gates foundation’s soup-to-nuts effort, in 2015, to influence education policy in Tennessee.

“In Tennessee, a Gates-funded advocacy group had a say in the state’s new education plan, with its leader sitting on an important advising committee. A media outlet given money by Gates to cover the new law then published a story about research funded by Gates. And many Gates-funded groups have become the de facto experts who lead the conversation in local communities. Gates also dedicated millions of dollars to protect Common Core as the new law unfolded.”

Meanwhile, the same year in Los Angeles, fellow philanthropist,Eli Broad, identified Gates as a key potential investor in his $490 million plan to dramatically grow the city’s charter-school sector. The plan included a six-year $21.4 million “investment” in “organizing and advocacy,” including “engaging the media”and “strategic messaging.” (The charter-expansion plan itself followed an $800,000 investment by a Broad-led group of philanthropists to fund an initiative at The Los Angeles Times to expand the paper’s coverage of K–12 education.) In 2016, Gates invested close to $25 million in Broad’s charter-expansion plan.

The Gates Foundation also served as a junior partner in one of the most audacious, coordinated efforts by Big Philanthropy to influence coverage of the education-reform story—the establishment, in 2015, of The 74 Million, which has become the house organ of the education-reform movement. The 74 has been a reliable voice in favor of the charter-school movement, and against teachers’ unions. In 2016, it published The Founders, a hagiography of the education-reform movement. And it has served as a Greek chorus of praise for the education reforms in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter district, while ignoring the experiment’s considerable failings.

Key contributors to the publication, which boasts a $4 million-annual budget, were the Walton Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. Soon after it’s founding, The 74 acquired a local education publication, the L.A. School Report, which itself had been heavily funded by Broad. In 2016, Gatescontributed, albeit a relatively modest $26,000, to The 74.

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Jeanne Kaplan is a veteran civil rights activist who was elected to serve two terms on the Denver school board. She has been active in multiple campaigns to stop privatization and over-testing and energize a genuine effort to improve the public schools. She wrote this piece for this blog.


  THE SISYPHEAN TASK IN DENVER

The dictionary defines Sisyphean task as something you keep doing but never gets completed, an endless task.  In Greek mythology Sisyphus is punished by the god Zeus and is tasked with endlessly pushing a rock up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back down each time he nears the top.  I will leave the deeper philosophical meanings to others.  Simply interpreted, public education advocates residing in the Queen City of the Rockies, “transformers” if you will, will find similarities to this story as we reflect on our battle to defeat “education reform.”  In Denver’s case the Sisyphean task master has not been a vengeful god, but rather a school board member or a school board itself which through their betrayals continues to keep “transformers” tasked with pushing the education transformational rock up the mountain.

Call it the Sisyphean Challenge, Groundhog Day, a Broken Record, Déjà vu.  However you describe it, these “transformers” are experiencing another setback in their attempts to stop or at least slow down the business-based “education reform” model. In 2009 Denver voters thought they had put an end to the then still budding “education reform” movement.  “Transformers” won four of seven seats on the school board but quickly lost that advantage when, within hours of the election, one supposed “transformer” flipped sides.  For the next ten years education reformers had free reign in Denver. Four to three boards became a six to one board, became a seven to zero board.  All for “education reform.”  Forward ten years to today.  “Transformers” once again gained control of the Denver School Board in theory.  This time the transformer majority was believed to be 5-2.  But local education reformers – with a lot of help from national reform partners – once again figured out how to get their privatization agenda through this hypothetically anti-privatization 5-2 Board.  By consistently voting to renew and re-establish privatization policies and projects, today’s Board has deprived Denver voters once again of reaching the mountain top, and usually by a 6-1 vote.  And from today’s perspective the rock has once again rolled down the mountain.

The below listed organizations, initiatives and foundations have all had their hand in preventing educational transformation in Denver. The list is thorough but not comprehensive:

1 – A+ Colorado30 – Empower Schools
2 – Adolph Coors Foundation31 – Gates Family Foundation
3 – Anschutz Family Foundation32 – Janus Fund
4 – Bellwether Education Partners33 – KIPP – Knowledge is Power Program
5 – Bezos Family Foundation34 – Koch Family Foundations
6 – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation35 – Laura and John Arnold Foundation
7 – Bloomberg Philanthropies36 – Laurene Powell Jobs – Emerson Collective
8 – Boardhawk37 – Leadership for Educational Equity
9 – CareerWise38 – Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
10 – Chalkbeat39 – Lyra Learning – Innovation Zones
11 – Chan Zuckerberg Initiative40 – Michael and Susan Dell Foundation
12 – Schusterman Family Foundation41 – Moonshot
13 – Chiefs for Change42 – PIE Network (Policy Innovators in Ed)
14 – City Fund43 – Piton/Gary Community Investments
15 – City Year44 – Relay Graduate School of Education
16 – Colorado Health Foundation45 – Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation
17 – Colorado Succeeds46 – RootEd
18 – Community Engagement & Partners47 – Rose Foundation
19 – Daniels Fund48 – School Board Partners
20 – Democrats for Education Reform49 – Stand for Children
21 – Denver Families of Public Schools50 – Students First
22 – Denver Foundation51 – Teach for America
23 – Denver Scholarship Foundation52 – The Broad Academy/The Broad Center
24 – Donnell-Kay Foundation53 – Third Way
25 – EdLeadLeadership54 – TNTP
26 – Education Pioneers55 – Transform Education Now (TEN Can)
27 – Education Reform Now56 – Wallace Foundation
28 – Education Trust57 – Walton Family Foundation
29 – Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Below are some of the reform ventures coaxed through by these groups.  Many have been used to maintain the failing status quo.  Some have been used to make money for friends and colleagues.  Some have been outright failures.   But by its failure to address them or by its continued tolerance of them, the DPS Board has sanctioned the continuation of privatization in our city:

·      At a time when education reform was truly hanging on by a thread in Denver, the Board assured its continued existence for the foreseeable future by voting to renew the use of the racially biased state accountability system, going even further into reformland by promising to develop a new accountability “dashboard” (a key “reformer” tenet).  While testing is state mandated, the District did not even explore the possibility of waiving its obligation to rely on this system. This one decision has also allowed the proliferation of many of the above listed groups and has given new life to the overall privatization movement.  A lot of new players are making a lot of new money from the public education system in Denver. After all, what is the business model really about if it is not about making money?  This one vote has allowed the continuation of some of the most divisive and punitive practices such as:

1.     Relying on high stakes testing even though the Board has given lip service to wanting a waiver this year due to COVID; 

2.     Relying on a non-transparent Choice system, which some believe is being used to fill unwanted charters;

3.     Ranking of schools and continued competition resulting in winners and losers among students and schools;

4.     Relying on Student Based Budgeting where the money follows the student;

5.     Marketing of schools, whereby wealthier schools and schools with their own board of directors (charters and Innovation Zone schools) have a distinct advantage;

6.     Giving bonuses to employees of schools based on test scores.  

Other recent reform-oriented Board decisions include:

·      Voting to renew or extend all 13 charter school contracts that were up this year even when some were struggling for enrollment and academic success.  The Board claimed it did not want to disrupt kids and families.  Portfolio model.

·      Promoting school MERGERS as opposed to school CLOSURES for under enrolled neighborhood schools, somehow thinking voters won’t notice that merging schools results in the same failed policy as school closures, that campaign promises have been broken, and that charter schools are being treated differently.  Portfolio model.  

·      Voting to approve new Innovation Zones, the hybrid portfolio model that supposedly gives schools more independence while, unlike charters, is still under the control of the school board.  These Innovation Zones do, however, have their own administrative staff as well as their own boards and have ushered in their own cottage industry. Portfolio Model.

·      Working with City Fund funded School Board Partners for Board training. City Fund is a relative newcomer to the education privatization world and is largely financed by Netflix Reed Hastings and John Arnold of Laura and John Arnold Foundation.  Locally, City Fund has dropped $21 million into Denver’s own RootEd to assure “every child in Denver has the opportunity and support to achieve success in school, college and their chosen career.” This needs to be done equitably, of course!  And only within a non-union school!  Grant funding from private sources to promote private interests.

·      Hiring a Broad trained Superintendent search company, Alma Advisory Group.  Alma has also been involved in executive searches for both City Fund and The Broad Academy, two quintessential privatizers.  More than four months have gone by since DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova resigned.  Four metro Denver school districts have had superintendent vacancies this winter.  Two have already found their leaders.  Denver is still holding community meetings which if they follow DPS history, will end up be ing rather meaningless.  Most importantly, will this “reform” inclined group be able to bring a wide-ranging group of candidates forward? The Broad Academy, training leaders in education reform.

·      Continuing to allow and expand non-licensed teachers and administrators from programs such as Teach for American and Relay Graduate School of Education into DPS’ schools and continuing to tell the public they are just as qualified as professional educators.   Anyone can teach!

Why do these examples matter, you might ask?

For starters, review the list of organizations and people pushing privatization.  The sheer number is staggering.  Then check out the similarity of language in their missions, visions, and goals and the uniformity of strategies and messaging.

·      Every child deserves a great school. 

·      Every school deserves all the support it needs to ensure equity.

·      Every school should have parent and community partners.

·      Every school should be anti-racist, celebrate diversity, be inclusive.

These are all worthy goals, albeit very general ones.  But what is the overall strategy to achieve them?  Privatization and the business model focusing on innovative and charter schools using an accountability system based on high stakes testing to define success seems to be their answer.  And in spite of claims that “reformers” are agnostic as to the type of school they foster, there are a few common characteristics they demand in their privatized schools:  

·      the ability to hire and fire anyone at any time; employees do not have to be licensed; at-will employees if you will.  That’s right.  No unions in innovation or charter schools.  Anyone can teach. 

·      an accountability system based on high stakes tests; schools and employees evaluated and punished by the results of these racially inappropriate tests.

·      market-driven criteria used to define school success.  Winners and losers, competition, closures, choice, chaos, churn.

·      “learning loss,” the pandemic-based slogan, must be addressed by unrelenting dependency on high stakes testing.  No test waivers for this crazy school year.  “Reformers” must have that data, and they must remind everyone that in spite of Herculean efforts on many fronts, public education has failed. 

Add to this scenario the amount of money being spent to further this agenda. Determining this takes some patience because the tax records are often difficult to find and decipher. Then try to deduce who is benefitting from each program.  This also takes some digging, for let me assure you, public education has spawned not a cottage industry but rather a mansion industry!  Search the group you are interested in and check out its board and staff.  And finally, look at the effect all of this has had on kids.  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Isn’t it always about the kids?  In reality few of these extra ventures have had any effect on kids.  Fewer still touch kids directly.

Each privately funded unit on this list has had a privatized DPS connection of some sort.  Some initiatives are duplicative. Some are very narrowly focused. Some purport to be THE ANSWER to public education’s struggles.  There is no tolerance for differing beliefs.  Yet, after 15 years of experimentation Denver’s students remain mired in mediocrity, suffering from an ever narrowing curriculum and dependent on evaluations, ratings, and a definition of success based on racially biased tests.  Nationally, Denver Public Schools remains a leader in implementing “education reform” but alas, it also remains a leader in teacher and principal turnover and home to one of the largest achievement/opportunity gaps in the nation. 

We in Denver have been subjected to the high-octane version of “education reform” for more than 15 years.  Choice, charters, competition, closures have resulted in three unequal tiers of schools (charter schools, innovation zones, neighborhood schools).  Reformers call this “the portfolio model.”  I call it structural chaos. Michael Fullan calls it fragmentation, a system wrongly focused on “academics obsession, machine intelligence, and austerity.”  To those privatizers who say, “but you have no solution,” Fullan has one that would turn public education on its head and could possibly produce what all of us involved in the public education scene say we want: robust, equitable education for all.  Fullan has a solution for whole system success that would be focused on the human elements of public education:  learning and well-being, social intelligence, and equality of investments.   But in order for anything like this to work the superintendent and the board must be on the same page.  Elections matter.  And candidates need to understand what is at stake and what they have been elected to do.

Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy. (Given today’s America it might have slipped to second place behind voting rights). I ran for school board on that belief, I witnessed its importance through the lives of my immigrant parents. I do not believe our democracy will survive without public education, but the cornerstone must change. Radically.  Dramatically.

Imagine if all of the efforts of those 50 plus organizations were combined into one united movement focused on an anti-racist, equitable systemic change.  And imagine how truly revolutionary, transformative and unifying this movement could be if it included voices and ideas not aligned with the business model but with people who are willing to truly look at things differently, people who were willing to be honest and show leadership.  Imagine how during this unique time in our nation’s history this new system could have resulted in a new and exciting way of delivering and evaluating teaching and learning, well-being, equity and equality.  Imagine how exciting this unique time in Denver could been had we taken advantage of this opportunity.  , Instead, DPS decided to continue with the status where money and power continue to rule, where a business model has been buttressed to portray a non-existent success, and where an elected Board of Education has turned its back on its mandate.

Historically “transformers” in Denver have been dogged in their attempts to get that rock to the mountain’s peak.  We have kept fighting even when betrayed by school board members, even when organization after organization has put down roots to continue the mirage of success, even when untold millions of dollars have been invested in programs that have yet to make a significant difference in educational outcomes.  Can we in Denver defy Greek mythology and end this Sisyphean nightmare? Or are there too many yet unknown obstacles in our path to stop us once again?  Elections will decide. Time will tell. 

Bob Braun was an education reporter for 50 years. After he retired from the New Jersey Star-Ledger, he began blogging and paid close and critical attention to the state takeover of Newark. This column, posted in 2014, is as timely now as it was when it first appeared.

Let’s get this straight. Those of us opposed to the structural changes to public education embraced by crusaders ranging from the billionaire Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—along with Governor Chris Christie and Microsoft founder Bill Gates—are not opposed to the reform of public schools. We oppose their destruction.

We do not oppose making schools more accountable, equitable and effective—but we do oppose wrecking a 200-year-old institution—public education—that is still successful in New Jersey.

Public schools give students from all backgrounds a common heritage and a chance to compete against privileged kids from private schools. We don’t want schools replaced by the elitists’ dream of privately managed, publicly funded charter schools, which can be money makers for closely aligned for-profit entities.

We oppose eliminating tenure and find laughable the idea embodied in Teach for America (TFA), an organization that recruits new college graduates for short stays in urban schools, that effective classroom instructors can be trained in weeks if they’re eager and want breaks on student loans—breaks that come with TFA participation. We oppose breaking teacher unions, reducing education to the pursuit of better test scores and using test results to fire teachers. We want our teachers to be well trained, experienced, secure, supervised, supported and well paid. We want our kids to graduate from high school more than “college and career ready”—a favorite slogan of the reformers. We want them to graduate knowing garbage when they see it—to understand mortgages, for example, rather than just solving trigonometry problems.

Don’t call it reform, call it hijacking. A radical, top-down change in governance based on a business model championed by billionaires like Eli Broad, the entrepreneur whose foundation underwrites training programs for school leaders, including superintendents—among them, Christopher Cerf, New Jersey’s education commissioner from late 2010 until this past February. The Broad Foundation seeks to apply to public institutions, like schools, the notion of “creative destruction” popularized for businesses by economists Joseph Schumpeter and Clayton Christensen. In a memo forced into public view by New Jersey’s Education Law Center, leaders of the Broad Superintendents Academy wrote that they seek to train leaders willing to “challenge and disrupt the status quo.”

Sorry, but it’s neither clever nor wise to disrupt schools, especially urban schools. Irresponsible, distant billionaires cause unrest in communities like Newark, a place they’ll likely never get closer to than making a plane connection at its airport. These tycoons say they want to improve learning—to narrow the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. I don’t buy that. The gap is caused by poverty and racial isolation, not public schools. They want reform that doesn’t raise taxes and won’t end racial segregation. So they promote charter schools that segregate and pay for them with tax funds sucked from public schools. Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, calls it “revenue neutral and nonintegrative” reform. What that means, Baker says, is “don’t raise our taxes and don’t let poor black and brown kids access better-resourced suburban schools.”

School reform once meant equity and integration. Now it’s called choice. Not the choice that would allow Newark kids to take a bus 15 minutes to Millburn. Not the choice that would allow the dispersion of disadvantage so the poorest attend the same schools as the most advantaged. It’s choice limited to a district. And choice limited to families who win a lottery for charter-school admission. “We’re letting poor parents fight it out among themselves for scrap—it’s Hunger Games,” says Baker.

Charters segregate. In Newark, where there are 13 charter schools, children with the greatest needs—special education kids, English-language learners, the poorest children—are stranded in asset-starved neighborhood schools. Disadvantage is concentrated, public schools close, and resources shift to charters. In Hoboken, three charter schools educate 31 percent of the city’s children, but enroll 51 percent of all white children and only 6 percent of youngsters eligible for free lunches.

Such skimming of the more able students lets proponents like Christie claim that charters outperform public schools. But charters serve a different population. In his devastating send-up of Newark’s North Star Schools, titled “Deconstructing the Cycle of Reformy Awesomeness,” Baker describes how charters achieve high test scores and graduation rates by shedding underperforming students. Half the kids—including 80 percent of African-American boys—dropped or were pushed out.

Charters are not the solution. “Overall, charters do not outperform comparable public schools and they serve a different population,” says Stan Karp, an editor at Rethinking Schools, an advocacy organization dedicated to sustaining and strengthening public education. He adds, “Nowhere have charters produced a template for district-wide equity and system-wide improvement.”

Many suburbs have resisted charters, but state-run urban districts like Newark cannot. In Newark, Christie joined with then Mayor Cory Booker, a devotee of privatization, to bring in Broad Academy graduates Chris Cerf to be state schools chief and Cami Anderson to be Newark superintendent. They were awarded a pledge of $100 million from Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg to support school reform in Newark.

Suburbs cannot escape other reforms, including federal insistence on relentless, time-consuming annual testing to measure student achievement and teacher performance. While states can opt out of testing, the price in lost federal revenues can be high. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a national political action committee, applauds these changes as “bursting the dam” of resistance from unions to test-based evaluation and merit pay.

The coalition of foundations, non-governmental organizations and financial institutions promoting privatization is an opaque, multi-billion dollar, alternative governance structure. They include the Broad and Walton foundations; the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation; the Charter School Growth Fund and the NewSchools Venture Fund (a pair of nonprofit investment operations overseen largely by leaders of for-profit financial firms); the training and support organizations New Leaders for New Schools, the New Teacher Project and America Achieves; as well as the advocacy groups Stand for Children and Education Reform Now.

At its most recent summit of education reformers—including Newark’s Anderson—the NewSchools Venture offered workshops on “How Disruptive Can We Be?” and a seminar on charter schools that was advertised this way: “Charter schools are being brought into the center of reform strategies, not just to provide new options for some students, but to transform an entire public education system, based on a diverse portfolio of autonomous school operators.”

Why is school privatization such a draw for investors? Is it just philanthropy? No, there is also profit to be made from the $650 billion spent annually on public schools. Some charter school operations are profit making, including nearly two-thirds of charter school operators in Michigan and many in Florida—and Christie has been pressing to allow profit-making charters in New Jersey. Salaries for operators of charter school chains can run as high as $500,000 a year. The New Markets Tax Credit, pushed by charter supporter Bill Clinton when he was president, allows lenders to reap higher interest rates. Then there are rents paid by charter schools to charter-related profit-making companies like Newark’s Pink Hula Hoop (started by TEAM Academy board members); legal fees; and the sale of goods and services.

The costs of this movement: urban schools stratified. It’s an apartheid system, with the neediest warehoused in neglected public schools and a few lucky lottery winners in pampered charters. It is stratification on top of a system already stratified by all-white suburban districts and $35,000-plus private schools.

More costs: unconscionable amounts of time, energy and resources devoted to test preparation. The brightest young people, says Baker, will leave teaching to short-stay amateurs rather than endure the unpredictability of evaluations that rate a teacher “irreplaceable” one year and “ineffective” the next.

New Jersey ranks at the top nationwide in educational achievement, reports Education Week. We are second in “chance for success,” third in K-12 achievement and fifth in high school graduation. These statistics include urban schools; if properly funded, they succeed. Look at Elizabeth: good schools, no charters. Christie left it unmolested and provided millions in construction funds kept from other cities—perhaps because the school board endorsed him.

New Jersey is not the basket case Christie says it is. Urban schools are not failure factories. We don’t need a hostile takeover by Wall Street.

Nancy Bailey is a retired teacher and a terrific blogger. She and I co-authored a book called EdSpeak and DoubleTalk: A Glossary to Decipher Hypocrisy and Save Public Schooling. We have never met in person but I asked her to help me revise a similar book that I published a decade earlier; it had become obsolete. Now it is the go-to book to understand education jargon and decipher hoaxes. It was a joy to work with her. Nancy wrote this post for me while I was out of commission having surgery.


Why I Write About Students and Public Schools

Democratic Public Schools

Ensuring that the public has access to good public schools after Covid-19 is more critical than ever. We cannot go back to continuous high-stakes testing and schools that punish teachers and students, especially our youngest learners. Schools should also not be allowed to continue to collect unregulated data through online assessments. Parents need stronger FERPA laws. 

I think we have also learned with this pandemic that parents and students value public schools, that technology is a tool but can never replace the classroom.      

Americans own our schools through a democratically elected school board, or at least we should. We lose that ownership when outsiders with ulterior motives to privatize or change schooling’s nature make schools more like a business. They convert the system to charter schools or change curriculums to serve companies that will make money on the school district’s new plan.

The more involved corporations become with public education, the more changes occur within public schools. Common Core, high-stakes standardized tests, the reliance on AP classes and SAT and ACT testing from the College Board, and many tech programs convert public schooling to a privatized system. 

It is crucial to protect public schools from individuals or corporations who wish to remove the “public” in public schools. Parents should be able to be involved in how their schools function. We need parents, teachers, and the community to be active participants in how public schools serve children bringing Americans together. 

School choice fans believe parents should choose their school, but this is a false argument. Most private school administrators will determine who to accept to the school. Charter schools may choose students by lottery, which is not parent choice either. Even if a student is randomly selected, charter schools can always counsel students out.

Charter schools were initially supposed to be for teachers to run. The charters doing the best jobs are likely run by or highly influenced by real teachers. But many charters are run by Educational Management Operations (EMOs) that set the rules and are prone to scandal. For years, charter schools have primarily served children of color, often with harshly run curriculum and punishing discipline. 

It is hard to see why America needs two systems of education. It further divides people, and charter schools are still substandard to a well-run public school system. Charters that work, run by real teachers, could become alternative schools in a public school system.  

Helping students work together in public schools—students with all kinds of backgrounds and students of color—will bring us together as a nation. The diversity in our country should be cherished, not destroyed by privatization. 

When public schools are valued, when school boards are elected and work with the constituents to better schooling for all children, it is the best that democracy can be. We must afford every child a chance to learn in a well-managed, excellently staffed public school. 

Teaching

I learned to be a special education teacher in the seventies when the All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 became law. It was amazing to see schools open their doors for all children, and universities begin offering specialized classes for different special education areas. I saw it as a shining moment in America.

My undergraduate degree was to teach students with emotional disabilities, with a minor in elementary education. I took challenging coursework. My student teaching took place at one of the best residential treatment centers in the nation, Hawthorn Center, along with an elementary school near Detroit where teachers worked well together, especially in reading. 

Hawthorn Center has struggled with funding since I student taught there, yet many parents desperately search for residential treatment. The elementary school where I student taught closed long ago. I struggle to understand this.  

In the meantime, Teach for America claims that you can teach with five weeks of training, or maybe it is six weeks now. Many from this group go on to lead schools in states and the nation when they never had the kind of preparation necessary to teach children! 

Writing

I write about these issues and more. It is sometimes overwhelming that public schools have so many concerns and how children and teens face such hurdles to get good schooling in America. There is no reason why this country should not have the best public school system in the world for all children!

Privatization of important parts of the public sector is a great scourge of our times. No institution is more fundamental to the American Dream than public education, and it is under assault by powerful and well funded forces. By billionaires who have dreams of lower taxes and libertarians who want to destroy whatever government provides. We must fight privatization of the goods and services that belong to us.

Frankly we should join together to fight for a society where there are no billionaires and no poverty. Let us agree to take care of one another and have a fairer society, where everyone has a decent standard of living, where there is no hunger or homelessness. I recommend a book called The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, in which two British sociologists-Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett-demonstrate that societies with more equality are happier than those where great inequality persists. By contrast, scan Bloomberg Billionaires Index. I am not a socialist, but I don’t believe we should have either billionaires or poverty.

The pandemic impoverished millions of people. But the billionaire class got richer, much much richer. Senator Bernie Sanders said recently that the fifty richest people in this country have wealth equal to the bottom 50 percent of the population. That is gross, disgusting, obscene inequality.

Our nation and its democratic ideals are being undermined by extremes of wealth and income. The middle class is struggling not to slip into poverty.

From Forbes in 2018:

In the 1950s, a typical CEO made 20 times the salary of his or her average worker. Last year, CEO pay at an S&P 500 Index firm soared to an average of 361 times more than the average rank-and-file worker, or pay of $13,940,000 a year, according to an AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch news release today.

This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not what America should be.

I have found these old English rhymes to be inspiring.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.

The latest ploy of the billionaires pushing their version of “reform schools” is to fund faux grassroots parent organizations, like the “National Parents Union.” The media refer to them as “family-led.” Like the Walton family? In Rhode Island, as Massachusetts professor Maurice Cunningham demonstrated, a parent group demanding charter schools suddenly popped up, called “Stop the Wait, Rhode Island.” These moms somehow had the money to commission a statewide poll.

In her latest post, Mercedes Schneider probes the latest “grassroots” group of parents, who somehow have the funding to intervene in litigation. It calls itself “Parents Defending Education.” She refers to this group as “prefab grassroots.”

The post is vintage Mercedes, who utilizes her considerable investigative skills to follow the money behind the facade.

The Florida League of Women Voters has long been wary about the state’s rush to privatize public school funding through charters and vouchers. It has previously published reports on the conflicts of interests, the politics, and the money in the charter sector. In this report, it investigates the organization created to hand out money for vouchers, called “Step Up for Students.” I am posting only the introduction. To read the body of the report, please open the attached PDF file.

Step Up for Students

 Preliminary Investigative Report

League of Women Voters Education Task Force

Contact: Dr. Sarah (Sally) Butzin

President, League of Women Voters of Tallahassee

sally.butzin@gmail.com

850-728-1097

March 2021

Introduction

For the past 20 years, a private organization has been growing exponentially using direct and indirect public funds largely out of public view. This organization is the conduit for an unregulated school system without standards being created by the Florida Legislature.

The organization is called Step Up for Students (StepUpForStudents.org), an SFO (Scholarship Funding Organization) that awards and manages tax credit scholarships for the state of Florida, as well as in Alabama.  According to Forbes, Step Up is the 21st largest charity in the United States. To put that in perspective, the American Cancer Society is 18th. In 2019 Step Up and Subsidiaries had $697,363,075 in total assets. 

Step Up began with a mission to award vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools. It has grown to include vouchers, now known as scholarships, for students with special needs, students who have been bullied, students who are homeschooled, and students with reading difficulties. The income threshold has been raised through the years to at least 300% of the poverty level, with no income threshold for homeschool or special needs students.

Step Up receives donations from corporations who receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on corporate and certain sales taxes owed to the state of Florida. Billions of dollars have been diverted to Step Up instead of having been deposited into General Revenue to operate state government, including public schools. These tax diversions have been cleverly labeled as “donations”.

This report is the work of a team of volunteer members of the League of Women Voters of Florida. The League’s mission is to Empower Voters and Defend Democracy. Voters become empowered through information, while democracy requires transparency. An equitable and high-quality public education system is also essential for a vibrant democracy.

We hope to bring the shadowy operations of Step Up for Students into the sunshine through this report. The growing and unaccountable privately-controlled school system, while ostensibly under the Dept. of Education, should concern every Florida taxpayer. We hope that what we have learned will encourage an investigative reporter or organization to uncover more of what is unknown by the public. It’s a matter of fairness and justice. There’s more to the story.

A money management/marketing firm operating as a charity

Step Up for Students was created by venture capitalist John Kirtley in 2002, one year after then Governor Jeb Bush’s administration established the first (FTC) Florida Tax Credit voucher program, now called a “scholarship.” By 2020, Step Up had total net assets of over a half billion dollars. It is headquartered in Jacksonville at 4655 Salisbury Road. There is an affiliate office in Clearwater.

Step Up has approximately 265 employees with an $18 million payroll. The current President is Doug Tuthill, with a salary of $286,847. Eleven key employees have six-figure salaries with a total of $1.2 million in compensation. 

Founder John Kirtley remains the unpaid Chairman of Step Up. He, and his wife, have numerous board affiliations. Kirtley is co-chairman of the Florida Federation for Children, a PAC (Political Action Committee) that donated $1.4M during the 2020 election cycle.

The Board consists of 8 members, many with corporate ties. John Legg is a former state legislator and chairman of the Senate Ed Committee, and Al Lawson is a United States Congressman. Step Up also works for the state of Alabama through its subsidiary ASOF (Alabama Scholarship Opportunity Fund). Four of the Step Up board members are also on the ASOF board.

Step Up is one of two SFO’s authorized to administer five school choice scholarship programs in Florida. Step Up administers 99% of the contributions, while AAA Scholarship Foundation handles the remaining 1%. Step Up takes an administration fee of 2.5-3% of contributions. The cap on corporate contributions in 2020 was $874M, which means a 2.5% fee would be nearly $21M for Step Up.

This leaves plenty of funds for Step Up to promote the tax credit scholarship programs to corporations and car dealers, as well as to market the program to parents. Step Up offers webinars and support systems to recruit parents and assist them in applying for scholarships. Through the years, Step Up has organized large rallies in Tallahassee to bring thousands of students and parents to Tallahassee to lobby legislators to expand the program.

The fox guarding the henhouse

The Florida Department of Education’s Office of School Choice cannot supervise a program of this magnitude.  The task of supervising over 1,800 private schools and tracking individual vouchers given to parents is huge and varied.  Where students enroll must be verified.  Some schools report vouchers for students who are not enrolled. Some vouchers are awarded to students who do not meet the family income requirement for their voucher.  In addition, some vouchers allow parents to purchase supplies and services for students.  These individual purchases must be tracked.  

This is where Step Up has stepped in. The DOE (Department of Education) has outsourced oversight functions to the same private agency that also awards the scholarships. Since its inception, Step Up has awarded over one million scholarships.

What Step Up financials tell us about their size and growth

Income – Form 990 – 2018 & 2019:

$714,828,892 in “contributions and grants” – 2018

$614,153,616 in “contributions and grants” – 2019

Two Year Total: $1,332,982,508

Expenses – Form 990 – 2018 & 2019:

scholarships totaling $624,325,270 – 2018

scholarships totaling $667,545,702 – 2019

Two Year Total: $1,291,870,972

Payroll & Benefits & Outsourcing

2018 Payroll & Benefits: $19,899,245 

2019 Payroll & Benefits: $22,110,485 (Including $1,164,052 for “management & key employees) 

   $1,120,016 of the 2019 total listed as “fundraising expense”, so as of the last public report, they’re paying over $1 million just to fundraising professionals

Two Year Payroll Total: $42,009,730

What Step Up financials DON’T tell us

  • What is the source of the “contributions and grants”? Donor names are not listed. 
  • 2019 Audit Report listed $683,370 in functional expenses for “recruiting and advertising”. This included (according to the 990) a total of $592,698 paid to two employment agencies. Why? This is very unusual in a non-profit financial report. Who are they recruiting? What is their function?
  • More questions about payroll expenses are raised in Finding 2 of the 2019 audit (below).

What Step Up Audit Reports tell us about their program monitoring function

Findings from August 2019 Audit:

  • Finding 1: Step Up did not always properly evaluate the household income of FTC Program scholarship applicants to ensure that scholarships were only awarded to eligible students. A similar finding was noted in our report No. 2019-012. 
  • Finding 2: As similarly noted in our report No. 2019-012, Step Up procedures do not require and ensure that records of attendance and time worked by exempt employees, reviewed and approved by applicable supervisors, be maintained. 
  • Finding 3: Step Up did not notify employees and students of the purpose for collecting social security numbers. In addition, some unnecessary information technology (IT) user access privileges existed that increased the risk that unauthorized disclosure of the sensitive personal student information may occur. 
  • Finding 4: Application processing errors caused a delay in funding for certain students eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship Program. 
  • Finding 5: Step Up procedures did not always identify private schools receiving more than $250,000 in scholarship funds in a fiscal year to verify that those schools contract with an independent certified public accountant for an agreed-upon procedures engagement pursuant to State law. 
  • Finding 6: Step Up expended $280,000 in FTC Program earnings for non-FTC programs.

Other audits have revealed that Step Up has financial irregularities that require further investigation. For example, Step Up earned $1.4M in interest on tax-credit dollars from 2016-18, which could have been used on up to 237 scholarships. Step Up President Tuthill defended using the interest money for non-program expenses by pointing to “start-up costs.” 

What Step Up Audit Reports DON’T tell us

  • With respect to Finding 1: Failure to properly evaluate household income (multi-year finding) – What is the remedy if a student/family has been awarded a scholarship for which they do not qualify?
  • With respect to Finding 2: This finding says that Step UP has 29 exempt employees, including the Senior Director of Development, Development Officers, Director of Marketing, and Managers of Community Outreach, who worked from home in Florida, Georgia, or Pennsylvania. Who are these employees and what work are they doing on behalf of Florida’s students? Why are they living and working out of state? How much are they being paid? 

NOTE: Proposed legislation under SB48 is changing the SFO audit requirement from annually to every three years.

What School Financial Reports Tell Us about Step Up compliance monitoring 

  • In 2019, there were 1,209 schools that received more than $250,000 of scholarship funds. Of the 1,107 who actually submitted the required reports, 28% contained material exceptions that ranged from inadequate segregation of duties to not utilizing an operating budget.
  • There were 78 schools that did not submit reports and 48 that submitted incomplete reports.

What School Financial Reports DON’T tell us

  • Which schools are in compliance and which are not? Is this information available to parents?
  • Who is monitoring the quality and appropriateness of the educational materials and services that are eligible for purchase using scholarship funds?
  • Who is monitoring the quality and academic outcomes for students attending private and religious schools?
  • Who is monitoring compliance with DOE regulations that require to qualify for scholarship money, schools must “comply with the anti-discrimination provisions of 42 U.S.C. s. 2000?” That statute is part of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and says “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

Charitable donations as a means to avoid taxes

Per the Florida Department of Revenue, “The (Florida Tax Credit) program allows taxpayers to make private, voluntary contributions to eligible nonprofit scholarship-funding organizations and receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against the following Florida taxes;”

  • Corporate income tax;
  • Excise tax on liquor, wine, and malt beverages;
  • Gas and oil production tax;
  • Insurance premiums tax; and
  • Sales and use tax due under a direct pay permit

What this means is that “donations” made to Step Up are not coming from the company’s assets, but by diverting taxes owed that would have gone into the state’s general revenue fund to pay for government services, including public schools. Since its inception, over $3 billion has been diverted, primarily to Step Up. In 2019 Step Up received $618 million from 250 donors. To date, 1,799 private schools participate in the tax credit scholarship program, 66% of which have a religious affiliation.

The “donations” appear to come primarily from the following since 2010:

  • Alcohol Distribution Industry ($1.3B)
  • Insurance Industry ($75M)
  • Healthcare Industry ($104.5M)
  • Financial Services Industry ($45.5M)
  • Banking Industry ($14.2M)

Notable donor/tax credit companies include:

  • Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits (largest single donor at $615M thru 2019), 
  • Geico Insurance, 
  • AutoNation Insurance, 
  • Humana Insurance, 
  • Iberiabank
  • Continental National Bank, 
  • United Healthcare, 
  • HCA Healthcare, 
  • HMS Host Restauranteur, 
  • Raymond James Financial, 
  • Waste Management, 
  • Skechers USA, and 
  • Circle K Stores. 

It is interesting to note that the Step Up website has not listed its corporate donors since 2018. Why have they gone dark? Perhaps due to negative publicity when it was revealed that many of the religious schools receiving scholarships had policies discriminating against LBGTQ students, employees, and families.  Some corporations withdrew their tax credit donations, including Wells Fargo, Fifth Third Bank, and Wyndham Destinations.

An expanded voucher program marches on

Using the tax credit donations, Step Up awards scholarships to qualified families, based upon ever-changing criteria. What started as a program to assist low-income families obtain funds to attend private schools (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship), has morphed into four additional programs for students with special needs (Gardner Scholarship), students who have been bullied (Hope Scholarship), students who attend a low-performing public school (Family Empowerment Scholarship), and students with low reading scores (Reading Scholarship).

The income eligibility threshold continues to rise, with pending legislation in 2021 rising to 300% of poverty level ($78,600 for a family of four), with annual increases going forward. There is no income threshold for students with disabilities or homeschooled students. And once a child qualifies for a scholarship, they keep it through 12th grade regardless of whether the family income grows.

New proposals through Senate Bill 48 will convert the five current scholarship programs into two ESA’s (Educational Savings Accounts) where recipients have full choice of spending on an array of approved goods and services and/or private school tuition. Leftover ESA funds can be banked for future college funds. The proposed ESA’s will be funded from a Trust Fund using general revenue funds as well as tax credit donations, which raises interesting constitutional questions.

During the Senate Education Committee debate during the 2021 Legislative Session, Senator Manny Diaz, Jr., the chief proponent of the new ESA program, assured the Committee that the program had ample guardrails to prevent fraud and abuse. However, what our Task Force has learned about Step Up makes us wonder if these guardrails are made of toothpicks.

Follow the money: Step Up and politics

This is an area that needs deeper delving, as it is difficult to trace the various PAC’s  (Political Action Committee) and entities that make campaign contributions under the radar. One place to start would be with Miami Senator Manny Diaz, Jr. (not to be confused with Manny Diaz who heads the Florida Democratic Party). 

Senator Diaz is the driving force with expanding charter and scholarship programs. He has inherent conflicts with his employment with Academica, a for-profit charter school management company. Senator Diaz also operates a PAC called Better Florida Education PC, which reported $1,152,070 in donations in 2021.Step Up President Doug Tuthil was quoted in 2011 on YouTube saying, “One of the primary reasons we’ve been so successful (is) we spend about $1 million every other cycle in local political races, which in Florida is a lot of money. In House races and Senate races, we’re probably the biggest spender in local races.” Is Step Up still making campaign contributions as a 501-c-3 non-profit organization?

We attempted to connect the dots to find connections between Step Up and campaign contributions to key legislators, as well as from corporations receiving tax exempt benefits. This again proved difficult given the practice of bundling individual contributions into groups with vague names such as Floridians for Good Government.

A driving force behind the ESA expansion is to create a cottage industry of start-ups and business ventures. In a presentation to the Florida Senate Education Committee, Tuthill was enthusiastically promoting opportunities for business to offer goods and services to growing numbers of parents who can choose what to purchase.

Step Up has conveniently created a portal on their website called “My Scholarshop” with direct links to vendors. It would be interesting to discover any links between the vendors and legislators, Step Up board members, or staff? 

Constitutional issues

The Tax Credit Scholarship program is an ingenious way to skirt constitutional issues such as the separation of church and state. By using Step Up, a non-profit entity, as a pass-through, the state is not directly funding the vouchers to religious schools.

In 2017 the Florida Supreme Court dismissed a law suit filed by the Florida Education Association for “lack of taxpayer standing” since the scholarships were funded from donations rather than tax revenue. The question remains whether the expanded ESA program will have the same protections.

Separate and unequal

In their book A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, authors Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider ask, “Where does this end?” Some have suggested the ultimate goal is to create a completely parent-driven system where scholarships are available to all. Others have pointed out the cost-savings of privatizing the education system, eliminating the state’s responsibility to monitor the quality of educational programs, certify professional teachers, build safe school buildings, and provide annual assessments of learning progress.

When asked about quality control and learning outcomes, voucher proponents always revert to “parent choice.” It is up to the parents to make those determinations about “what is best for their child.” This assumes that all parents are up to the task.Are we on the road back 200 years ago when schooling was solely a parent’s responsibility? Parents back then cobbled together clusters of one-room schoolhouses and private tutoring. 

Parents with means had access to private schools with qualified teachers, while the Catholic Church created a system of parochial schools.

As the industrial age approached, it was clear that this parent-driven school system was inadequate for a modern society. In 1838, Horace Mann founded and edited The Common School Journal. Mann is considered the father of public education. His six main principles for creating public schools were:

  1. the public should no longer remain ignorant;
  2. that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public;
  3. that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds;
  4. that this education must be non-sectarian;
  5. that this education must be taught using the tenets of a free society; and
  6. that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

It is ironic that in the post-industrial information age, the Florida Legislature is promoting a system that was abandoned years ago. The Covid Pandemic has laid bare the importance of being highly educated to survive and thrive in a technological age. A high-quality education is more important than ever. This means highly trained teachers and a curriculum based on research and science. 

Reverting back to a cobbled-together system of home schools and religious schools in church basements will leave more children behind, and will lead to re-segregated schools based on race and income. Is this where Florida is headed?

Resources

This is a preliminary list of resources we found during our investigation. Others may find them helpful in uncovering more about the operations and conflicts with Step Up for Students.

John Kirtley: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article235210632.html

John Kirtley: http://search.sunbiz.org/Inquiry/CorporationSearch/SearchResults?InquiryType=OfficerRegisteredAgentName&inquiryDirectionType=PreviousList&searchNameOrder=KIRTLEYJOHNF%20L040000768592&SearchTerm=Kirtley%20John&entityId=L04000076859&listNameOrder=KIRTLEYJOHNF%20L040000768592

Step Up For Students, Creation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Step_Up_For_Students

Step Up For Students, Promotion: https://www.politico.com/states/florida/story/2016/11/new-us-education-secretary-has-ties-to-florida-voucher-fight-107601

Step Up For Students & Donors: https://jaxkidsmatter.blogspot.com/search?q=Step+up+for+students+takes+down+their+annual+reports+to+hide+their+donors

Step Up For Students, Audit: https://www.news-journalonline.com/news/20190905/audit-finds-problems-at-floridas-step-up-for-students#:~:text=The%20audit%2C%20issued%20last%20week,students%20before%20it%20was%20fixed

Step Up For Students, Our Leadership Team: https://www.stepupforstudents.org/about-us/our-leadership-team/

Step Up For Student, Equal Opportunity: https://www.stepupforstudents.org/equal-opportunity-education/

Step Up For Students, Anti-gay policies: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/education/os-ne-vouchers-gay-students-updates-20200214-kprtbtsjfjbnhlsfat2asjfvle-story.html

Step Up For Students, Financial Reports: https://32n7ya2og9cc2147lx4e0my6-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019-2020-990-Form.pdf

Manny Diaz: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article235210632.html

SB48, Bill Analysis: https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2021/48/Analyses/2021s00048.aed.PDF

Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, School Requirements: https://revenue.alabama.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Non-Public_School_Notice_of_Intent_to_Participate.pdf

Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, Jeb Bush: https://yellowhammernews.com/bush-visits-alabama-raise-awareness-school-choice-low-income-scholarships/

POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS SUMMARY

Step up:  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/office-of-student-learning-2/teaching-learning/

Step up Advocacy: Voices for Choices.  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/step-up-voices-for-choices/

Step up Regional Councils:  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/office-of-student-learning-2/school-support/

Employee Giving:  https://www.stepupforstudents.org/donor-resources/employee-giving/

Kirtley vs AAA 

https://www.politico.com/states/florida/story/2019/04/18/school-choice-advocates-face-off-even-as-vouchers-win-support-972612

KEY LEGISLATOR PACs

https://www.news-journalonline.com/news/20191228/florida-legislatorsrsquo-pacs-amass-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars/1

Sen. Wilton Simpson:  Pasco County, Trilby: Senate President

PACs:  Future Florida and Florida Green PAC, Jobs for Florida, Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee $68,934,933.44

Senate Education Committee Republicans

Sen. Jennifer Bradley: District 5, Marion County; Education.  Husband is Rob Bradley, 

Chair of Senate Appropriations Committee

PAC:  Working for Florida’s Families https://www.opensecrets.org/campaign-expenditures/vendor?cycle=2020&vendor=Working+for+Florida%27s+Families

Sen. Doug Broxson: District 1, Okaloosa County; Pensacola Appropriations Subcommittee on Sen. Education, Appropriations

PAC:  none

Sen. Manny Diaz Jr:  District 36, Hialeah, Miami-Dade; Education, Appropriations, Appropriations Subcommittee on Education

PAC: Better Florida Education: http://www.betterfleducationpc.org/contributions.php

Manny Diaz Jr: https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/candidate/manny-diaz-jr-can?cycle=2018-election-cycle

Sen. Joe Gruters: District 23, Sarasota; Education, Governmental Oversight and Accountability, Appropriations

PAC:  Republican Party of Florida $605,925,807.52

Sen. Travis Hutson District 7, Volusia County; Palm Coast Appropriations and Appropriations Subcommittee on Education

PAC:  First Coast Business Foundation $762,575

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/pac/first-coast-business-foundation-69922-pac/donors

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo: District 28, Lee County;   Appropriations, Appropriations Subcommittee on Education

PAC: Working Together for Florida

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/payee/working-together-for-florida-pac

Other School Choice Supporters 

Sen. Kelli Stargel: District 22 Lake; Appropriations Chair

PAC: None

Sen. Aaron Bean: District 4 Duval 

PAC: Florida Conservative Alliance $751,742.60 

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/pac/florida-conservative-alliance-60710-pac/donors?page=5

Lizbeth Benacquisto, District 27, Lee County: 

PAC:  Protect Florida Families $666,536.02

https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl/pac/protect-florida-families-fund-74099-pac

POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEES 

American Federation for Children: Advocates for School Choice/Alliance for School Choice-Walton Foundation, Betsy DeVos https://www.politicalresearch.org/2012/08/01/rights-school-choice-scheme

Conservatives for Principled Leadership http://conservativesforprincipledleadership.com/

Conservative Solutions for Jacksonville http://conservativesolutionsforjax.com/

FAPSC-PAC https://www.fapsc.org/page/33

Federalist Society Members:  National group of conservative attorneys 

Fl Education Empowerment: Kirtley (closed)

Florida Federation for Children (Kirtley):  https://www.federationforchildren.org/about/

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/opinion/editorials/fl-op-edit-florida-voucher-schools-20210202-t7eunnz47vcezlzqys4ex6dfq4-story.html

*Victorious candidates supported by FFC:

https://www.federationforchildren.org/school-choice-supporters-victorious-florida-elections/

Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future:  FP&L; U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals Corp (aff. with Associated Industries of Florida). https://unitedforflchildren.com/

Contributions Reporting

Florida Elections Commission Campaign Finance Database https://dos.elections.myflorida.com/campaign-finance/contributions/

Center for Responsive Politics runs the Open Secrets https://www.opensecrets.org/

National Institute on Money in State Politics runs Followthemoney https://www.followthemoney.org/

Campaign Finance Database: https://dos.elections.myflorida.com/campaign-finance/contributions/#both

Florida Transparency USA https://www.transparencyusa.org/fl

NSPRA describes major funders of educational reform https://www.nspra.org/our_mission

Download the pdf here:

Fiorina Rodov wanted to teach, and, as she writes, she believed the glowing claims about charter schools as beacons of hope for the neediest students. She saw “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and cheered for the kids who wanted to get into a charter. She believed the movie’s hype about the magic of charters. So she got in 2016 a job teaching in a charter school in Los Angeles.

There she learned the truth about charter schools, or at least the one where she was teaching.

The school was non-union. Teacher turnover was high every year. Student attrition was high.

But the chasm between the hype and reality became evident to me immediately upon starting work. There were high attrition rates of students and teachers. Over the summer, more than half the faculty resigned and were replaced by new teachers. About three-quarters of the students hadn’t returned either, and though new kids had registered, the enrollment wasn’t anywhere near what was needed in order to be fiscally stable, because funding was tied to enrollment. There were legal violations: The special education teacher had 43 students, though the law capped class sizes at 28. The overage made him fall behind on students’ individualized education plans (IEPs), making the school noncompliant on special education requirements.

Rodov also learned about the big-money forces promoting the charter myth. She was in L.A. for the election campaign between charter skeptic Steve Zimmer (chair of the LAUSD school board and former TFA) and charter zealot Nick Melvoin. The charter leaders across the city strongly supported Melvoin, of course.

I learned that billionaires fund local school board elections across America in order to accelerate charter school growth. In District 4 in Los Angeles, Steve Zimmer was financed by teachers’ unions while Nick Melvoin was reportedly bankrolled by California billionaires Eli Broad, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, and Gap clothing company co-founder Doris Fisher, as well as out-of-towners like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Walmart heirs and siblings Jim and Alice Walton, and others in an expensive race...

Furthermore, CCSA [California Charter Schools Association] Advocates donated to an organization called Speak UP, which was a “strong opponent” of Zimmer, according to the Los Angeles Times, and whose co-founder and CEO Katie Braude resides in the Pacific Palisades, where the median home price is about $3.4 million. Braude helped launch the Palisades Charter School Complex, which sought to serve “all students in an ethnically and economically diverse student body,” according to her bio on the Speak UP website. But at Palisades Charter High School, “[w]hite students are 2.8 times as likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as Black students,” while “Black students are 7 times as likely to be suspended as [w]hite students,” according to ProPublica. In 2016 and 2017, Black students were victims of hate crimes at Palisades Charter High School, and in 2020, a Black teacher sued the school for racial discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” According to the Pacific Palisades Patch, Pamela Magee, the school’s executive director and principal, responded to the teacher’s allegations via email, “PCHS is an equal opportunity employer, and we take allegations of discrimination seriously…”

Melvoin’s list of individual donations, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, is filled with some of the same moguls who donated to CCSA Advocates, such as Eli Broad and Reed Hastings. It also includes then-co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios Alan F. Horn, president of the Emerson Collective Laurene Powell Jobs, and Martha L. Karsh and her husband Bruce Karsh, who at the time of the election was the chair of the Tribune Media Company, which then owned the Los Angeles Times. (Bruce Karsh stepped down from the Tribune in October 2017, five months after the school board election.)

The billionaires who fund school board races across the country also finance education reporting. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which was partly behind a $490 million plan reported in 2015 to enroll half of LAUSD’s students in charters by 2023, funded the Los Angeles Times’ reporting initiative Education Matters with the Baxter Family Foundation and the Wasserman Foundation, which also support charters. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Amazon (whose founder and former CEO—now executive chairman—Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post) fund the Seattle Times’ Education Lab. The Bezos Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, fund Chalkbeat. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation fund Education Week and The 74, which owns the LA School Report. The Gates Foundation finances the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), whose “Fixes” column in the New York Times covers education and other issues. And Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective owns the Atlantic, which has a robust education section.

The infusion of billionaire cash and media ownership helps to explain why the mainstream media seldom reports on the failures of charter schools or expose their lies and propaganda.

Rodov goes on to explain that her school was finally closed, but no one in the mainstream media in Los Angeles bothered to interview teachers about “the climate of terror at the school.”

She ends with the hope that Biden’s election will mean an end to favoritism towards charter schools and a beginning of focus on public schools, which are a vital democratic institution.

Those of us who are sick of charter school lies and propaganda share her hope. We will know in time whether Biden will keep his promise to cut off federal funding of for-profit charters, whether he will eliminate the $440 million federal Charter Schools Program (which Betsy DeVos used as her private slush fund), and whether he will make the strengthening of public schools his top education priority. Six percent of America’s students attend charter schools, and they are the darling of billionaires like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, Laurene Powell Jobs, Charles Koch, Michael Bloomberg, and many more (I wrote a chapter in my recent book Slaying Goliath naming the billionaires and corporations that pour money into charter schools). Let the billionaires pay for them.