Archives for category: Privatization

On September 22, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools put out a press release boasting of unprecedented enrollment growth during the pandemic. The report asserted that charter school enrollment increased during the pandemic in at least 39 states, with a 7 percent overall increase. The charter lobby said that this growth “is likely” to be “the largest rate of increase in student enrollment increase in half a decade,” as charter schools added nearly a quarter million students.

Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, conducted a state-by-state analysis of their claim and discovered that it was a half-truth at best. Maybe a quarter truth. Maybe less.

What she discovered was that most of the enrollment gains occurred at the worst-performing segment of the charter industry: virtual charter schools. Many brick-and-mortar charter schools actually lost enrollment.

Writing on Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” blog at the Washington Post, Burris documented the hollowness of the charter lobby claim.

She began:

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has been broadcasting a 7 percent surge in charter school enrollment during the 2020-2021 pandemic school year. Parents are “voting with their feet,” according to its new report, preferring charters to their local public schools. What the authors of the report avoid telling readers is that much of the increase — and likely most of it — was in virtual charter schools, the worst-performing in the charter sector. This occurred even at the expense of brick-and-mortar charters.

The report says this:

“Although a school-level analysis was not conducted as a part of this paper, in some states (e.g., Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Utah), charter school enrollment increases were primarily driven by enrollment in virtual charter schools. This explains some but not all of the enrollment increases experienced by the charter school sector nationwide last year.

What exactly does “primarily” mean? How bad is the problem? To find out, the Network for Public Education did a school-by-school analysis of virtual charter growth in the states with the largest proportional enrollment increases.

We began with the three mentioned states. In Oklahoma, the virtual charter-school sector more than doubled enrollment. Ninety-seven percent of the more than 35,000 new students in charters enrolled in virtual schools — most in the for-profit EPIC, which has been repeatedly under investigation for misreporting costs to state officials, improper financial transfers and more.

In Pennsylvania, 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment in the Commonwealth’s traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools increased by a mere 78 students.

Cyber charters accounted for over 131 percent of the growth in Utah, with enrollment in traditional charters declining.

We expanded our analysis to see if this trend occurred in other states. We began with Michigan, a state whose auditor general had recently released an audit finding that cyber charters could not document participation in at least a single course in more than half of the inspected student records.
The enrollment surge in that state’s cyber charters accounted for 237 percent of the increase. Cyber charters enrollment increased by 5,071 students, while traditional charter enrollment dropped by nearly 3,000.

We then looked at Arizona, a state where families have been bombarded with cyber charter ads and billboards. Over 94 percent of the charter enrollment growth in that state was in the cyber charter sector.

Burris then includes a graph of every state that experienced at least a 10% increase in charter enrollments; there were 13. The graph shows how many students switched to online charters and how many to brick-and-mortar charters. In sum, 95.5% of the enrollment growth was virtual charters. Some brick-and-mortar charters lost enrollments.

Why does this matter? The virtual charter schools have a record of low academic achievement, high attrition, and low graduation rates. In addition, the sector has experienced massive scandals, like the A3 chain in California, whose founders pleaded guilty to phantom enrollments and are repaying the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Like ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) in Ohio, which collected $1 billion over 20 years, gave generously to politicians, then declared bankruptcy rather than comply with a court order to repay $67 million to the state for padded enrollments.

Seeing this increase in schools with abysmal performance is cause for alarm. A study of virtual schools by CREDO in 2015 concluded that students who attend these schools lose ground. While findings vary for each student, the results in CREDO’s report show that the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers. To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year. This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.

Students may have”voted with their feet” to enroll in virtual schools during the pandemic, but we have to wait for the evidence to find out if they stayed or returned to public schools. If they decide to stay in virtual schools, we should be alarmed.

Jeremy Mohler of the nonpartisan, anti-privatization organization called “In the Public Interest,” opposes ridiculing anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. He thinks that those who support science should try to dispel their suspicion of government. Do we want to turn vital public services—like police, firefighters, the military, national parks, beaches, highways, protection of the air and water, and many other public services—to private entities? Ask them if they plan to refuse Social Security and Medicare.

Watch The Daily Show interview he refers to. It is horrifying.

Mohler writes:

You have to watch this Daily Show clip of anti-maskers at a school board meeting in North Carolina (despite the host, Jordan Klepper, self-righteously making fun of them, which doesn’t sit right with me).

It’s like an anthropological study of tactics that right-wing leaders use to divide us so that the wealthy few can maintain and expand their political and economic power.

“I’m against all mandates, whether it’s masks or vaccinations. I’m against it all,” said one protestor.

“[We’re here to] save the kids from all that’s going on with Critical Race Theory,” said another.

What really stood out was a phrase printed on t-shirts and written on protests signs throughout the clip: “I don’t co-parent with the government.” By which, I guess, protestors meant that democratically elected school boards shouldn’t be deciding how to make public schools safe for students and teachers.

This isn’t surprising. For decades, attacking government—perhaps more than any other idea or issue—has united right-wing forces, from white supremacists to the religious right. As political historian Nancy MacLean documents in her book Democracy in Chains, “The idea [is] to get voters to direct their ire at [public] institutions and divert their attention away from increasing income and wealth inequality.

Journalist Jeff Bryant nailed it when he tweeted, “The confluence of anti-masking with efforts to rid schools of teaching the truth about structural racism is where American libertarianism meets white supremacy.”

This is why we need to be loud and clear that public problems—inequity in public education, climate change, Covid-19—require public solutions.

We must defend our public institutions, make them more democratic, make sure they’re adequately funded, and wholeheartedly articulate the value of public things. (BTW, you can sign up for our Executive Director Donald Cohen’s new email newsletter—called Public Things—here.)

To be sure, it’s not that everything the government does is automatically great. I hate getting parking tickets. I get angry every time I go to the DMV. I’ve been waiting for a city-issued trash can for more than a year now.

But the answer isn’t to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy few even more. Or get rid of the DMV. Or privatize the sanitation department. Or—in the case of public schools—hand them over to privately managed, unaccountable charter school management organizations.

It’s to defend, fund, and improve the public institutions we rely on every day. And it’s to call out the obvious attempts by right-wing leaders to divide us against each other.

Nora de la Cour is a high school teacher and writer. This article about the sham of for-profit remote instruction appeared in Jacobin. Study after study has demonstrated the poor results of virtual instruction, but the research does not deter the greedy entrepreneurs who see the profit in virtual charter schools. You may recall the recent press release from the National Alliance for Charter Schools about how charter schools increased enrollment by 250,000 during the pandemic; what the press release didn’t admit was that the “increase” was due entirely to growth in virtual charter enrollments, which may turn out to be a temporary response to the pandemic.

De la Cour sees the push for for-profit remote learning as another front in the privatization movement.

She begins:

In spring of 2020, we saw signs that billionaires and neoliberal politicians were looking to use the COVID-19 lockdown to finally eliminate one of the last remaining venues where Americans convene in the practice of democratic self-governance: the brick-and-mortar schoolhouse.

Plutocrat-funded techno-optimists giddily suggested we use the temporary requirement of virtual learning to test-drive modelsthat give families more “flexibility” and “freedom.” Then-governor Andrew Cuomo formed a partnership between New York state and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore a post-pandemic future without “all these physical classrooms.” Betsy DeVos announced $180 million in grants for states to “rethink” K–12 learning, and her cohort of privatization pushers began licking their chops.

Advocates of public education were rightly horrified, recognizing that this would amount to a further hollowing out of one of our last remaining public goods. Fortunately, a combination of factors turned the discourse emphatically back in favor of preserving in-person K–12 learning as the American standard — for now.

The nearly universal problems with remote instruction last year made it politically impossible for the privatization crew to continue arguing that e-learning is the glittery new frontier of educational progress. In fact, survey data shows that a majority of parents disapprove of any kind of change to traditional schooling. This is despite a relentless onslaught of rhetorical attacks on public schools — from the bipartisan vilification of teachers’ unions to right-wing attempts to use mask mandates and critical race theory to breed ill will among parents. The term “school choice” has apparently become so distasteful that school choice conservatives are looking to rebrand their body blows to public education as a “school freedom” and “parents’ rights” movement. They’re winning legislative battles in diverse states, but they’re losing the war for public opinion.

It’s widely accepted that in-person schools meet critical developmental needs and are necessary for most students. Nevertheless, the pandemic has swiftly accelerated the expansion of digital instruction. Public education advocates are now at a crossroads. We can either proactively define the relationship between remote and in-person schooling, or we can watch from the sidelines as private companies claim a monopoly over distance learning and use it to undermine public education.

Open the link and read the whole article.

Jeanne Dietsch, former state Senator in New Hampshire, reports here on the predicted cost of the state’s new voucher program.

Voucher Update
Costs at 60 times budget, so far!

Taxpayers are in for a surprise when the bill comes due for vouchers. Instead of the $140,000 budgeted for 2022, current projected spending is $6.9 million, with 800 more applications pending! Applications soared after Americans For Prosperity [the Charles Koch organization] sent out mailers andcanvassed door-to-door urging parents to apply. Many applicants are parents already paying for religious, home or private education who might apply for free money. The NH scholarship organization decided that it could not handle program administration. It subcontracted Florida firm Class Wallet to distribute and track the funds. Class Wallet will take the lion’s share of the 10%-off-the-top administration fee.

The organization called “UnKoch My Campus” does a great job of tracking and exposing the influence of billionaire Charles Koch in schools and higher education. Join with them in calling attention to Koch’s Dark Money:

Essential Information C/O UnKoch My Campus (EIN 52-1299631)

Each year in October, UnKoch My Campus coordinates a National Day of Action that focuses on building public awareness of the impact of the Koch network within institutions of education and our broader democracy. This year, we will take collective action and reach out to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, requesting that he address the issue of dark money in education, all the way from Kindergarten through college. Our K-12 and Critical Race Theory reports have shown us the role dark money’s influence has in destabilizing our democracy, advancing climate denial, and prioritizing private profits over people and our planet.

Join us October 28th and 29th! We want to make sure Secretary Cardona knows about the impact of the Koch network and how they are leveraging our institutions of education to spread climate disinformation and destabilize our democracy.

Click the link below and we’ll do the work for you. Simply enter your information and we’ll add your name and return address to the postcard. SIGN UP FOR A POSTCARD BEFORE OCTOBER 15th.

In Solidarity,

Jasmine Banks, Executive Director SEND A POSTCARD

I am posting this notice after the press conference described here, but the details are important nevertheless. A group called Oakland Not For Sale formed to fight privatization and just won a major settlement. For many years, the Oakland public schools have been a plaything for billionaire privatizers and a succession of Broadie superintendents.

MEDIA ADVISORY FOR: September 23, 2021, 3:30 PM PT

CONTACT: Melissa Korber, 510-541-9669 or Amanda Cooper, 917-930-7552

Parents, Teachers, Atty Dan Siegel Announce Settlement with OUSD Over Police Brutality at 2019 School Board Meeting,

Plans to Donate Funds to Fight Public School Closures & Privatization

Parent and Teacher Members of Oakland Not For Sale (ONFS) Will Hold Press Conference With OUSD School Board Member Mike Hutchinson To Address Settlement, Donation Plans and Update in Kaiser School Fight

Oakland, CA — On Thursday, Sept. 23, at 3:30 pm PT, Oakland Not for Sale (ONFS) will host a press conference for parent and teacher plaintiffs and their attorney Dan Siegel to announce a six-figure legal settlement with the Oakland Unified School District as well as plans to donate toward the fight against school closures and public school-supporting Board candidates in the 2022 election. OUSD School Board Member Mike Hutchinson will also be present.

“We have reached a settlement of our dispute regarding the school board’s October 2019 meeting. We reached an agreement for a total amount of $337,500 in damages,” said Saru Jayaraman, plaintiff in the litigation Jayaraman v. OUSD. “We’re thrilled to be announcing not only this settlement with the District, but our ability to now give a six-figure donation to our fight to stop public school closures and support candidates who will fight the privatization of the Oakland Unified School District. We’re also thrilled that in the same moment, we can declare victory in that Kaiser Elementary, which we fought to keep public, will indeed remain a public facility — and we will build on these victories with resources to continue to fight all future public school closures.”

The settlement resolves litigation filed by the parents and teachers, many of whom are members of ONFS, over police brutality at an October 2019 school board meeting protesting the proposed closure of Kaiser Elementary School. At the press conference on Thursday, parents and teachers will announce that they plan to make a six-figure donation to continue the fight against further public school closures and privatization. They will also discuss their victory in keeping Kaiser Elementary a public facility.

“While it isn’t exactly what we would have hoped, we’re happy Kaiser is being used as a public facility for students and that we were able to resolve the litigation,” said Amy Haruyama, OUSD teacher who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, taught at Kaiser Elementary, and now teaches at Sankofa United Elementary School.

These actions come in the context of a long history of OUSD School Board decisions to close 17 public schools, mostly majority Black and brown schools, almost all of which have been replaced with charter schools. OUSD’s history of closing schools and allowing them to be replaced by charters has been driven by both the state of California, which retains trusteeship over OUSD, and by outside billionaire charter school advocates like Michael Bloomberg and Eli Broad.

ONFS was formed after the announcement that Kaiser Elementary School would become the latest in a long line of school closures that was intended for replacement by charter or private schools. After protracted peaceful public protest by parents, teachers, and students, and despite police brutality as a response to this protest, the School Board recently agreed to a public use for Kaiser Elementary. The school will house public early education .

Renee Sekel is a parent and public school advocate in North Carolina. She sends her children to public schools. She remembers when she naively believed that the state’s legislators supported public schools. Then the budget cuts started coming. Then charters. Then vouchers. Now, she says, public schools are in a race against time.

She wrote:

Four years ago, both Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina at least made a show of claiming to support public education, even as the legislature slashed budgets and passed one policy after another aimed at undermining public schools. What worries me today is how that rhetoric has shifted. Our Republican leaders now openly acknowledge that they are hostile to public education and would prefer to replace public schools with a voucher system. I know that the vast majority of North Carolinians from all across the political spectrum support public schools, but increasingly it feels like we’re in a race against time, trying to get citizens to understand that our schools are under attack. If it becomes orthodoxy in the GOP that public schools are anathema, and a critical mass is convinced that the schools their children attended−that they attended−should be destroyed, there is no going back.

Christopher A. Lizotte of the University of Washington and Dan Cohen published an interesting research paper about how market-driven policies have been promoted and sold. The paper was published in 2014-2015, and the trends described here have become more powerful, promoted by some of the wealthiest people in the nation. The title of the paper is “Teaching the Market: Fostering Consent to Education Markets in the United States.”

Abstract. Marked-based reforms in education have garnered the support of politicians, philanthropists, and academics, reworking the nature of public education in the United States. In this paper we explore the methods used to produce consent for market-based reforms of primary and secondary (K-12) schooling in the United States, focusing on two case studies to interrogate how this consent is generated as well as how these reforms are resisted in place. In doing so we illustrate how market-making in public services is a contested terrain and the importance of understanding the nature of their roll-out at the local level.

Here is a brief excerpt:

We understand this shift toward marketization in education and its recent acceleration as being situated within the broad neoliberal shift towards privatization and deregulation of formerly public goods that has taken place over the past thirty years. As in other sectors that have been subject to this treatment, this process has occurred not simply through the retreat of the state but through the deliberate repurposing of the state to reshape its institutions in the image of a market (Peck and Tickell, 2002); indeed, many of the reforms that have taken place within education are the result of explicit state policies to create market pressures within education (Lubienski, 2005): These policies include (to name a few): the imposition of standardized testing as a method through which schools can be ‘judged’ by the market, the threat of school closures for ‘failing’ schools, and the use of selective grants to reward schools and districts conforming most closely to principles of deregulation and privatization. Crucially, however, these marketization processes require careful priming in order to generate public consent for market-based reforms. In particular, the marketization of education is powerfully promoted through the notion of school ‘choice’. Presented as an apolitical and socially neutral mechanism for allowing parents to maximize their children’s educational opportunities, choice is endowed with a moral authority that obscures the power inherent in who can exercise the power to choose and the available range of choices. This choice, it is argued, finds its natural expression in the expansion of markets as a supposedly level playing field where the best-performing options rise to the top and those that fail are eventually discarded. Indeed, as Rose (1999) claims, choice, defined as the individual maximization of opportunities, has become the litmus test by which good membership in the polity is defined. In this light, the term, like those used to describe other market-making projects in public services, hides assumptions about what kinds of choice can be legitimately exercised and under what circumstances. The power to ‘choose’ as it is understood under contemporary capitalism is a highly individualized capacity that seeks to maximize one’s return on investment. Other alternative possibilities tend to fade out of view in the language of most market-based school reformers.

NPE ACTION’S NEW PROJECT TO BRING TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES OF PUBLIC SCHOOL ADVOCACY

Public schools remain incredibly popular among Americans across the political spectrum, even under the strains of a global pandemic and a divisive political culture being inflamed by opportunists seeking to push radical, unpopular agendas. Parents, students, volunteers, and communities who rely on and cherish their public schools deserve to be heard now more than ever. Public Voices for Public Schools, a community project of the Network for Public Education Action, launches today with tales from the frontlines of public school advocacy.

Unfortunately, public education in America has been under systematic attack for decades by an axis of right-wing political radicals, self-appointed reformers, opportunists, segregationists, and wealthy special interests, all working together to dismantle and privatize our treasured public schools. Their efforts have done lasting harm to students and their communities, and it is time those communities have a platform where their stories can be shared.

“After my two sons enrolled in a private school thanks to vouchers, I began to understand that school is about more than academics,” said Dountonia Batts, a former voucher parent. “As charter schools and vouchers expanded, the school system in Indianapolis was falling apart. All of the high schools in our neighborhood had been shut down, even as charter high schools were popping up. I realized I could no longer accept school vouchers for my children because it was unethical.”

People like Batts rarely get a chance to be heard, especially by policymakers who are often targeted for pressure by pro-privatization groups with access to campaign donations and full-time public relations machinery. That’s why Public Voices for Public Schools is so important, as it is a place to elevate the regular people in our community and help them have access to the tools to engage their elected representatives directly.

“Once I understood that our funders wanted us to help them burn down the entire public school system, I realized I had very different intentions than the school reform movement,” said Gloria Evans Nolan, a former Missouri education reformer. “I could see for myself the toll that education “reform” was having on my city. The result was that our sense of community was dropping away. We were also losing our history. Every school I attended is now closed.”

Public Voices for Public Schools will regularly bring you stories from parents like Batts and Nolan, students, academics researching the effects of privatization, along with many others. Visit us at pv4ps.org where you can join our shared community and always be kept up to date. You will learn what you can do to preserve a pillar of our democracy, our neighborhood public schools.
*************

Maurice Cunningham is a political scientist with a deep interest in how Dark Money influences education policy. His motto is: “Dark Money never sleeps.” He is a master at following the money. He customarily blogs at a website called MassPoliticsProfs, but was kind enough to send me this post first.

He writes here about the groups pushing the attacks on critical race theory:

The Corporate Critical Race Theory Attack: Chaos is the Product

“The backlash” begins an opinion piece in Newsweek by Parents Defending Education outreach director Erika Sanzi, and these may be the most accurate two words published by those who are attacking “wokeness,” gender studies, and Critical Race Theory. The sad fact is that white backlash has a proven record of effectiveness in American politics and it is once again being employed in the service of right wing corporate interests. The end product desired has less to do with CRT than with spreading disruption, fear, and chaos across America’s most important democratic public institution, schools.

According to the Washington Post, as of June 24 CRT (a theory developed in law schools and not well known among most Americans) has exploded on Fox News. The term was heard on Fox only 132 times in 2020 but has been mentioned 1,860 times this year, escalating month by month. The narrative is that grassroots parents groups have discovered the threat CRT poses to their children in schools and have arisen organically across the country to form local parent groups, a movement noticed and captured by websites and the powerful Fox News. The truth is that of an oligarch-funded and coordinated campaign using time tested techniques.

Follow the Money

Over the past five years I’ve been following “education reform” groups created by billionaire investors with names like Families for Excellent Schools, Massachusetts Parents United, and National Parents Union which have presented diversity as their public face while attacking teachers. So when I saw the launch of Parents Defending Education on March 30 I took note because it follows a different path: white backlash aimed more at school boards, superintendents, and principals. The first thing to do when evaluating these groups is always, follow the money.

But as the financial backers of groups like PDE well know, public disclosure of funders will only come about nearly two years down the road, if then, in publicly available Form 990 tax returns for organizations with Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3)status as charitable organizations. PDE president Nicole Neily has refused to disclose the organization’s donors when asked by media outlets. It’s not just that she won’t. She can’t. Disclosure would likely reveal ties to radical right funders tied into the Koch network and similar underwriters. We know this thanks to work done by PRWatch and from Sourcewatch at the Center for Media and Democracy. They show that Neily is a political operative at Koch network funded operations like the Independent Women’s Forum, Franklin Center, and Speech First.

The Speech First association is instructive. Neily is founding president of that non-profit as well. Sourcewatch has identified some of its funders as the Bader Family Foundation for $30,000, Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund: $500,250, Judicial Education Project for $1,000,000, and National Philanthropic Trust: $500,000. The real check writers will probably never become known. Form 990s show that Neily is the sole employee, earning $161,000 in 2018 and $150,000 in 2019. Speech First brings lawsuits against universities for policies touching on race. For this, it paid the law firm Consovoy McMullen $950,000 in 2018, and to get the word out paid the Republican communications firm Creative Response Concepts $106,000. Boiled down, Speech First is a pass through that allows wealthy conservative donors to remain hidden while paying Consovoy McMullen to attack universities.

And who represents Parents Defending Education? Why, Consovoy McMullen. William Consovoy also represents Donald Trump and clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas. The firm is conservative legal royalty. PDE did not hire it after an especially successful bake sale.

Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, and Moms for Liberty

PDE launched its well-developed website featuring pages with links to its allies, most of which were branches of groups called No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty. According to NBC, No Left Turn in Education was launched in 2020 when a parent from a Philadelphia suburb became enraged at her children’s school for teaching concepts of racism after the police murder of George Floyd. Elana Yaron Fishbein then sprang into action to attack wokeness and founded NLTE. In September she appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson program and the next day the group’s Facebook increased from about 200 followers to over 30,000 and there are now 30 chapters in 23 states.

But when I looked at local NLTE chapters’ Facebook pages linked to through the PDE site in April, I found sparse membership: Alabama, 7; Arkansas, 3; Delaware, 6; Iowa, 2; Idaho, 4; Indiana, 8; Michigan (Betsy DeVos home state), 13; Mississippi, 3; Montana, 2; North Dakota, 2; Massachusetts, 17; Hawaii, 1. All of the NLTE Facebook pages featured the same banner, a montage of diverse teens against a background of school lockers, each student smiling and engaged, not a pimple on their perfect teenage faces; probably models, most certainly not local students. As for Moms for Liberty, it too had sparse membership in its affiliates: Arizona, 17; Wright Co, Minnesota, 8; Corpus Christi Nueces, Texas, 70. Moms for Liberty’s creation story is similar to others in the anti-public education universe: “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” The story goes that two parents became upset with their local schools and started up a parents group. It happens. It’s a lot more unusual for the two grassroots moms to then book former Fox host Megyn Kelly for a fundraiser with tickets running from General Admission of $50 up to Presenting Sponsor for $20,000 with perks including a photo with Ms. Kelly and corporate logo on print and online marketing materials.

From Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty and on to groups like National Parents Union, the creation stories are similar. A handful of disgruntled moms talk over their frustrations, determine to start their moms or parents group to seek change, and then in pour the millions of dollars; contracts are quickly signed with nationally recognized public relations firms and pollsters (one newly birthed charter school-tied group in Rhode Island immediately hired a Biden pollster); the head mom is booked on Fox or featured in national media outlets. Conservative outlets like The Federalist, Washington Times, Campus Fix, and most importantly Fox News amplify the misleading message.

How to Attack Educators in a Few Easy Steps

The tactics for going after K-12 educators did not spring up anew but have been adapted from successful attacks on college and university professors. Isaac Kamola has explained this in an important article titled Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-Wing Attacks, Follow the Money. Kamola finds that groups like Campus Reform and Campus Fix, which pay conservative students as “reporters” to whistleblow on their professors, are funded by wealthy right wingers including Koch who wish to gain leverage over what is taught and researched at America’s universities. These attacks follow a common script. Something a professor says or writes in research, a lecture, or even on social media is grabbed and most often taken out of context; there is never an engagement with the actual intellectual product. (In Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Anne Nelson shows that Campus Reform is tied into right wing clearing house organizations the Leadership Institute and Council for National Policy). The targets are often scholars of color, especially women, and their work focuses on race or inquiries into capitalism. The out of context remarks are then percolated through a right wing ecosystem which includes web sites funded by the same network and all the way up to Fox News. Results can be stark. After Campus Reform did a story on a speech by Princeton University professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor the piece was picked up by Fox; threats against Professor Taylor were so virulent she cancelled talks in Seattle and San Diego. After Campus Reform misrepresented remarks by Trinity College professor Johnny Williams the campus had to be shut down due to threats and Williams was unfairly placed on leave. So the radical right knows how to generate chaos. Parents Defending Education has refined the play book further.

PDE relies upon two modes of attack on schools (which may include charter as well as public schools). The first, often well covered in the media and with appearances on Fox, is individuals who inundate school districts with public records requests. The second involves anonymous attacks on school personnel, concealment guaranteed by guidance offered by PDE to assure their agents remain hidden.

NBC News reported on one now famous Fox-supported attack by an individual wielding public law requests. A Maine parent named Shawn McBreairty was disgruntled with his local schools and joined No Left Turn in Education. He has filed over 50 public records law request with his Maine school district, tying up education professionals serving the public for his individual crusade. In South Kingstown, RI a parent whose child is enrolled but not yet attending kindergarten in the town filed 200 public records law requests “seeking copies of middle and high school curricula, lists of all books related to gender available in the library and 10 years’ worth of harassment complaints and emails.” The district estimated it would take 300 hours to fulfill the request. Local officials were undoubtedly right in assessing the attack as an effort to disrupt public education and attack a public good. The Rhode Island parent was rewarded with an appearance on Fox. When districts try to resist the onslaught of requests, corporate spokespersons like PDE’s Sanzi are ready with pro-wrestling sincerity to whine—to Fox News—about the people’s right to know. These groups weaponize the very openness of government to undermine government.

In a forthcoming work, Kamola and co-author Ralph Wilson show how groups like Speech First use discovery in lawsuits to create a “nightmare for administrators and their general counsel.” PDE and allies are now using public records lawsnationwide to achieve the same goal against public school districts.

While the public records requests are designedly onerous and discouraging, at least educators can tell where the attacks are coming from. The second tactic promoted by PDE is much worse, to encourage anonymous attacks against educators.

Take a recent example involving the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. This was an anonymous complaint forwarded by PDE grumbling that Wellesley had violated civil rights laws by providing affinity rooms for students to process their emotions after anti-Asian attacks across the nation. Ms. Neily confessed she has no idea who submitted it to PDE or if anyone in Wellesley agrees with the complaint. This is a baked in design by PDE as we see from examining the operation’s website page that teaches How to Create “Woke At” Pages. It provides detailed instructions for how to set up “an anonymous, safe Instagram page.” First set up a Gmail account “that can’t be tied to you.” Gmail is recommended because the site creator will also need to set up “an anonymous Google Form . . . which allows you to receive anonymous tips” that shields the informant’s identity, even from the Woke At administrator. At all times “we recommend erring on the side of secrecy.”

The Woke At instructions encourage PDE’s local spies to check out social media pages of educators which may reveal woke attitudes. The Understanding Woke Jargon page catalogs terms like “social justice” or “antiracism” the group finds offensive. Questions to Ask School Officials offers gotcha questions that can be asked of woke school officials “with cameras rolling.”

Why the advice to always act with hidden identities? Because of the terrifying disposition of those “woke activists” who talk about “inclusion, equity, justice” but are really “divisive, toxic, and extreme.” PDE is one education organization that was absent on the day irony was taught, for it insists on secrecy while pretending it promotes transparency. Concealment is especially important “given how angry and retaliatory many woke activists get when criticized.” PDE understands that much of its audience consumes a heavy diet of Fox News. Research by Jeffrey M. Berry, James M. Glaser, and Deborah J. Schildkraut shows Fox’s “underlying strategy is to anger viewers by stoking their resentment of racial and ethnic minority groups” and building fear. For instance, after the images of George Floyd’s murder, which initially shocked even Sean Hannity, Fox repeatedly showed video of “rioting and looting by protestors, relying on film showing fires burning and Blacks running out of looted stores with stolen merchandise in their arms.” These images were repeatedly shown well beyond the first week, after which there was little new such behavior to report upon. But the coverage stokes ideas of lawlessness and fear.

Whether by an avalanche of public records requests or generating negative coverage from anonymous tipsters, PDE and its allies are in business to create disruption and chaos in public education.

Getting Results

As Kamola has shown with his work detailing the corporate backed assault on higher education, these tactics often work. They are now working at the K-12 level. Public records requests have tied up school boards and administrators. NBC reports that Washoe County, Nevada halted in person school board meetings “after residents filled a large auditorium and lobbed insults and threats of violence during the public comment portion.” When open meetings later convened in a smaller venue, many residents waited long hours in the hot sun to make their comments against CRT and anti-discrimination policies—including quite a fewwho do not even have students in the system. “During the most recent meeting, which lasted 11 hours, speakers railed at school board members, calling them Marxists, racists, Nazis and child abusers, among other epithets.” In Rockwood Illinois, the St. Louis Post dispatch reported, teachers called upon the school board and superintendent to protect them against “personal attacks and outright threats of violence.” In Camas, Washington, the state’s 2020 teacher of the year thanked the school board and administrators for defending her efforts to promote inclusion and access after some residents “railed against the school district’s ‘woke’ agenda, COVID-19 mask mandates, remote learning and racial justice and equity programs.”

After all, as No Left Turn Maine’s Shawn McBreairty said in an email to NBC News, “This is a war with the left, and in war, tactics and strategy can become blurry.”

As the corporate agitators behind all this understand, they are making public service exhausting and distasteful, a campaign to drive good community members away from serving. This isn’t an unfortunate byproduct. We’ve seen it at the university level. It’s intentional.

The Rise of the Right Wing Moms

In announcing PDE’s complaint against the Columbus, Ohio public schools for its willingness to address racism in the wake of the police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, Ms. Neily acknowledged that no Columbus parent had complained, but that PDE was just a concerned group of parents. “We just all work from home,” Neily told the Columbus Post-Dispatch. “We’re all working moms.”

That sounds cozy and homey but Neily is a well-compensated veteran of numerous right wing organizations, including not only Speech First but the Cato Institute. Sourcewatch reports that “Nicole Neily has worked for many Koch-affiliated groups.” Ms. Sanzi has worked for billionaire funded school privatization groups, also bringing home a hefty paycheck. According to research from Mercedes Schneider the Education Post, an online publication originally funded by Eli Broad, paid Sanzi $121,000 in 2016 and $131,000 in 2017. She is also a “senior visiting fellow” at the Fordham Institute.

This is another area where patterns are not immediately visible but things become more clear years down the road when Form 990s become available. What we see is that following the emergence of these organizations with their tales of concerned moms banding together is that the moms are actually political operatives or communications professionals being well paid. Take for example Keri Rodrigues, “mom-in-chief” of the Walton backed Massachusetts Parents United. One of the several creation stories is that Ms. Rodrigues (always identified as a former union organizer) and a few other mothers gathered in their local library and decided to start a parents group. Actually, Ms. Rodrigues had been state director for Families for Excellent Schools, which ran a losing ballot campaign to increase charter schools in Massachusetts in 2016. She is also a communications professional, having been a radio host. MPU and an affiliate paid Ms. Rodrigues over $388,000 in 2017-2018. But the mom-in-chief story has had some penetration.

When the CDC announced reopening guidelines for schools in May 2021 Ms. Rodrigues, now also of Walton and Koch backed National Parents Union, appeared on Fox News to accuse teachers unions of undue influence. The host accused “teachers unions of basically writing the guidelines” a claim that Ms. Rodrigues enthusiastically agreed with. There was no basis for that claim other than that the unions, like over fifty other advocacy groups, had offered comments to the CDC. But it was blown up by Republican senators from a letter provided by a Republican dark money group. And then on to Fox and the eagerMs. Rodrigues.

Thus we shouldn’t be too surprised by a recent Media Matters study that showed that a number of the concerned parents featured on Fox News criticizing CRT are actually Republican political operatives. Quisha King, an African American woman billed by Fox News as an “everyday American” who is “Northeast Florida co-chair of Moms for Liberty” and “mom of two daughters” is also a GOP political consultant who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2020. Though Fox News billed Ms. Neily as a parent fighting against CRT in schools, Media Matters added that she “has spent her entire career working in and for libertarian and conservative political advocacy organizations and think tanks . . . .” PDE senior fellow Elizabeth Schultz was noted by Fox’s Dana Perino as a former Fairfax County, Virginia school board member. But she is also a former Trump appointee to the Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos. Before being defeated for re-election to the school board Schultz was known for opposing “‘expanding the school system’s sex-education curriculum to include lessons on gender identity and transgender issues’ and supporting armed teachers in classrooms.”

Charles Koch’s Pincer Movement

Far right groups like Parents Defending Education are new born but billionaire funded corporate education reform groups like Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union have been around a bit longer. Families for Excellent Schools was successful in New York until its 2016 Massachusetts charter school campaign was badly beaten, its dark money donors were ordered to be disclosed by the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and its CEO was fired after #MeToo allegations surfaced. These groups often present themselves as leaning liberal, non-partisan but vaguely Democratic, featuring spokespersons who are women of color, and advocating for their privatization policies as being pro-civil rights. National Parents Union even released a statement defending Critical Race Theory on May 21, but it seems to have dropped the topic since. Why then would Charles Koch, a likely source of support for the right wing groups, also be funding National Parents Union?

But he is, through his Charles Koch Institute, which is partnered with the Walton Family Foundation in a joint venture called the Vela Education Fund. Vela dropped $700,000 on NPU to promote home schooling. NPU then spread Vela funds around in grants for home schooling. As Casey Parks explained in The New Yorker these foundations “advocate ‘school choice’—rerouting money and families away from traditional public schools through such means as charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, and vouchers, which allow public-education dollars to be put toward private-school tuition.” NPU had been launched by the Walton Family Foundation to help in the Waltons quest to undermine teachers unions. Recognizing the opportunity presented by closed schools Vela formed and wrote the $700,000 check even though NPUhad been in business only a few months. Vela has pursued other such opportunities including funding the far right Home School Legal Defense Association.

Coincidentally or not in 2017 the civil rights-proclaiming Ms. Rodrigues and the radical right Ms. Sanzi were partners in another venture named Planet Mom, which featured a podcast and proposed radio show. In her paid position at Education Post Ms. Sanzi wrote of Ms. Rodrigues “I consider her a partner in this work. And a friend.” It’s a small planet, after all.

The point is not Critical Race Theory, or charter schools, virtual schools, or home schools. The point is to undermine public education, keep taxes low, spread doubt of the efficacy of public goods, and demolish institutions like unions and local school communities that make demands on the Waltons and Kochs of the nation. It is, as Nancy MacLean has said, to put democracy in chains. Diverse-presenting National Parents Union and white backlash Parents Defending Education serve the same cause.

Whither We Are Tending and What to Do About It

I hope my colleagues in academia continue to speak out about the intellectual contributions of Critical Race Theory and the fine efforts of K-12 educators to provide the kind of schooling all our students need—open and honest about the nation’s race and history and our ongoing challenges, including corporate promoted white backlash.

On the other hand, don’t expect any engagement from Nicole Neily or the anti-CRT bard Christopher Rufo, who has helped spike this ridiculous campaign. In a triumphant appearance at the Claremont Institute, Rufo described his annoyance at scholars trying to bait him into a discussion of what CRT really means and proclaimed “I don’t give a shit about this stuff.” (Nine minute mark)

As Isaac Kamola has urged, start with follow the money and pursue that relentlessly. There’s a reason groups like PDE and NPU can’t come clean about their funding sources and amounts and that reason is that they know the public is suspicious of the Kochs and Waltons of the world and what’s more, the public and America’s billionaires are on a different page on policy issues.

These are corporate generated right wing attacks. Say it. Name names.

Come awake to the threat. Recognize what this is and that isn’t just about wokeness or even education but something else Koch and the Waltons can’t say out loud: to destroy the capacity of people to coalesce together and fight for a better life for themselves, a project that offends oligarchs ideologically and threatens their power and pocketbooks. They focus on educationbecause schools have been a fertile locale for white backlash but also a source of great progress, because teachers unions are a barrier to them, and because local community organizations defy them.

That means that teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, principals, lunch workers, school bus drivers, custodians, business, parents and students—everyone who serves their local school community—have to recognize that they need to fight together against this assault. In other words, join together to take action—exactly what the Waltons, Kochs, and other radical right billionaires fear.

And stand up for a real education for all our children, not the white(wash) backlash being promoted by phony AstroTurf fronts like Parents Defending Education. Remember, fronts are fronting for someone and in this case, fronting for radical right billionaires.

Money never sleeps. Follow the money.

Maurice T. Cunningham is recently retired as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a union member. He is the author of the book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, forthcoming in 2022.