Archives for category: Walton Foundation

Maurice Cunningham, retired professor of political scientist, has written an exposé of the well-funded fake “parent groups” that spring up overnight to disrupt school board meetings and demand control of books, curriculim, and COVID protocols. Who is behind them? Read the latest report from the Network for Public Education: “Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and Their Funders.”

They show up shouting at school board meetings with endless complaints. The press interviews them as though they are some “regular moms” looking out for their children, but they are not. They are a well-funded facade for the Koch, Walton, and DeVos families to disrupt and destroy public education.

In our new report, author and academician Maurice Cunningham pulls back the veil on the players, tactics, and funders. This must-read report identifies the who, how, and why behind “Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and Their Funders.

Cunningham is author of the new book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.

Early in the pandemic, an economist at Brown University named Emily Oster gained extraordinary media attention for the advice she offered. She wrote multiple articles declaring that it was safe to open schools even without the funds needed to pay for extra safety precautions. She wrote, she was written about, she became the go-to person with “evidence” that schools were safe from COVID.

Oster’s research is funded by leading rightwing and libertarian foundations, organizations, and individuals. As the linked article by epidemiologists Abigail Cartus and Justin Feldman explains, Oster’s emphasis on individualism and personal choice ring sweetly in the ears of the rightwing philanthropists.

They write:

Oster’s influence on the discourse around COVID in schools is difficult to overstate. She has been quoted in hundreds of articles about school pandemic precautions and interviewed as a guest on dozens of news shows. Officials from both parties have used her work as justification for lifting public health measures. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cited her study while announcing an executive order banning school mask mandates, while CDC Director Rochelle Walenksy referenced Oster’s research in anticipation of relaxing classroom social distancing guidelines. Oster also co-authored an influential school reopening guidance document that was released in early 2021.

But despite its prominence, Oster’s work on COVID in schools has attracted little scrutiny—even though it has been funded since last summer by organizations that, without exception, have explicit commitments to opposing teacher’s unions, supporting charter schools, and expanding corporate freedom. In addition to grantsfrom the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation, and Arnold Ventures, Oster has received funding from far-right billionaire Peter Thiel. The Thiel grant awarded to Oster was administered by the Mercatus Center, the think tank founded and financed by the Koch family.

Although she claimed that her work was evidence-based, the authors show that her evidence was never as conclusive as she argued.

Cartus and Feldman draw a straight line between Oster’s views about COVID and the billionaire-funded attack on public schools. It is no accident that the same people who support charter schools and vouchers also support Oster.

What’s in it for the billionaires? Oster spreads the gospel of choice, they write, a philosophy of looking out for #1, and ignoring social responsibility.

They write:

Oster is far from the only person to apply an economic style of reasoning to the U.S. education sector. There exists an entire ecosystem of “education reform” organizations that have spent decades attempting to subject schools to market conditions, promoting “school choice”, (i.e., charter schools, some of which are for-profit). This necessitates, among other stances, taking a harder line against organized labor. When the pandemic arrived, billionaires and right-wing interests invested in neoliberal “education reform” saw an opportunity to advance their interests: breaking unions, promoting charter schools, and undermining public education. Oster’s preference for individualism, the rhetoric of choice, and economic reasoning over structural and collective justice-based conceptions made her—as an impeccably credentialed and high-profile economist prior to the pandemic—a valuable “expert” ally in their crusade to reshape U.S. education. Indeed, when the pandemic began, these groups promptly expressed interest in funding her work on COVID in schools….

Throughout the pandemic, Oster’s advocacy has helped make the “data-driven” case for peeling away successive layers of COVID mitigations: first ending remote instructionin favor of hybrid learning, then ending hybrid learning in favor of a full return to in-person instruction, then eliminating quarantine for those exposed to the virus. The direction of her vision for schooling during the pandemic ultimately involves abandoning universal public health measures altogether, turning masking and vaccination into individual, personal choices that can be decided through cost-benefit calculations.

The irony of the Rightwingers’ support for Oster and her “data-driven” approach to COVID is that it stands in sharp contrast to their total disregard for data or evidence about charter schools and voucher schools. The evidence favoring charter schools over district schools is scanty; the evidence of the failure of vouchers is overwhelming. But the funders don’t care.

The bitter struggle over COVID in schools, conducted with the rhetoric of “choice,” opened up space for an alliance between affluent white liberal parents and a right-wing propaganda infrastructure devoted to destroying unions and public schools. For instance, John Arnold, the former Enron executive behind the eponymous Arnold Ventures (which funds Oster), has used the pandemic to attack teacher’s unions and further his goal of dismantling public pension funding, much of which is allocated to unionized public school teachers. The pandemic also provided an opportunity to increase charter school usageat the expense of public school enrollment. It gave plutocrats like the Waltons yet another chance to attack teachers’ unions by painting their demands for safer working conditions as irrational. By advocating reopening in a seminar at Bellwether Education Partners (another Walton grantee) during a period when the Chicago Teachers Union was campaigning for stronger COVID rules, Oster helped the Waltons do precisely that.

To see all the links and read the full article, open the link.

Josh Cowen is a veteran voucher researcher, having worked in the field for more than 20 years. He is a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. After two decades as a researcher, he concluded that vouchers are a disaster for the children who use them.

Today, he writes an inside guide to voucher research. All pro-voucher research is actually disguised advocacy for vouchers, especially if it funded or produced by the organizations listed here.

I hope you will share this post with your friends on social media, post blogs about it, and get it into the hands of journalists. The public deserves transparency.

Josh Cowen writes:


The entire base of evidence to support school vouchers comes from a small, interconnected and insular group of research-activists with direct ties to Betsy DeVos, Charles Koch, the Waltons and other privatization financers.

If you stopped reading this post right now, that’s the take-home message right there: the case for vouchers relies entirely on data and evidence contributed by what amounts to industry-funded research and advocacy on behalf of the cause.

But if you’re a journalist, an educator, or just a committed public school supporter (thank you!) and you want the links and the details, read on.

WHO’S WHO IN THE VOUCHER RESEARCH/ADVOCACY WORLD?

If you’re a professional journalist either in the education space or a broader policy/politics issue, you’ve probably heard of some of these people and certainly their institutions before. But you’re busy, you’ve got deadlines to meet and editors to approve your copy, and it’s not always easy to connect some of the important dots in this area.

But they need to be connected. The single most difficult task I’ve found in my writing on school vouchers has been to explain to journalists how the question of whether vouchers “work” for kids is not some obscure academic ivory-tower debate in which both sides have a nuanced, complicated and reasonably well-founded point.

There is credible research on one side—that vouchers are largely a negative force for student outcomes—and politically oriented reports on the other. That’s it.

So the next time you see a press release, or are given a quote, or talk off record to a voucher supporter saying that vouchers work, try this little exercise and see what you find for yourself:

STEP 1: DOES THE RESEARCH COME FROM ONE OF THE FOLLOWING ORGANIZATIONS?

• American Federation for Children: the 501(c)(4) advocacy organization co-founded by Betsy DeVos to lobby for vouchers. DeVos was so close to this group she had to recuse herself as Secretary of Education from contact with the group in her first year in government.

• Cato Institute: A Right-wing advocacy think tank co-founded by Charles Koch (although Koch later sued for lack of direct control of the group).

• EdChoice: Formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, named for conservative economist who first proposed vouchers. Enough said.

• ExcelInEd: The advocacy group founded by Jeb Bush to expand vouchers and other conservative education priorities from the model Bush developed while he was governor of Florida.

• Goldwater Institute: A self-described libertarian think tank in Arizona that is chiefly oriented toward litigation on behalf of a number of different conservative policy priorities—most recently school vouchers.

• Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG): A research center at Harvard run by Professor Paul Peterson, also of the Hoover Institution, and the father of modern-day pro-voucher research.

• Heritage Foundation: the most influential Right-wingthink tank in the country, devoted in part to privatizing schools and exploiting culture wars. Also directly tied to voter suppression efforts, per deep reporting by The New Yorker.

• University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform: A university-based doctoral training department responsible for producing nearly all of the currently active voucher research-advocates working at the institutions above today. This department was founded by a $10 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation in the early 2000s.

STEP 2: IS THE AUTHOR, CO-AUTHOR OR SOURCE FOR BACKGROUND OR ATTRIBUTION ONE OF THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE?

The Original Voucher Research-Advocates

Jay P. Greene Currently Senior Fellow at Heritage, former founding head of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, received his PhD under Paul E. Peterson.

Paul E. Peterson Currently Professor at both Harvard and the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and the primary intellectual force behind the original positive voucher studies of the late 1990s.

Their Students, Colleagues and Acolytes

Lindsay Burke Currently at the Heritage Foundation and a member of GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin’s transition team.

Corey DeAngelis Currently Research Director for DeVos’s American Federation for Children group. But so much more: a regular Fox News contributor and active campaigner with far-Right governors like Kari Lake in Arizona and Kim Reynolds in Iowa.

Greg Forster Currently at EdChoice and a co-blogger with Jay Greene.

Matthew Ladner Currently at ALEC, EdChoice, Goldwater, and the Charles Koch Institute.

Martin Lueken Currently a research director at EdChoiceand former PhD student of Jay Greene and Patrick Wolf at University of Arkansas.

Mike McShane Currently a research director at EdChoiceand former PhD student of Jay Greene and Patrick Wolf at University of Arkansas.

Neil McCluskey Currently “Director of Education Freedom” at the Cato Institute and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of School Choice—a publication edited by Robert Maranto of the University of Arkansas.

Patrick Wolf Currently interim-head of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, former colleague of Jay Greene and a former PhD student of Paul Peterson.

Not all of these organizations or individuals occupy the same problematic position. For example, I happen to make a point of reading everything McShane publishes, for example, because I respect his writing and the way he talks about the world even though I fundamentally disagree with his conclusions.

And the University of Arkansas group also includes a robust and insightful group of researchers examining the needs of teachers in the Ozarks and other high-poverty areas. I’m a great admirer of Professor Gema Zamarro and her students, who are doing some very important work on the role that the COVID0-19 pandemic played in teacher workforce conditions.

For that matter, some of what we know about the devasting effects of vouchers in Louisiana actually comes from Patrick Wolf’s reports. I’ve written with him myself on studies like one showing how critical strong oversight is to voucher program performance. Wolf is in fact the only person on the list abovewith a long and commendable history of publishing negative voucher impacts in top academic journals. The point here is not to disparage the individuals but to judge the insular and self-citing base of research that supports vouchers.

The point here is to be critical consumers of this line of research. Think of it this way: no news editor would release a story on an explosive topic going on the say so of a single source. At minimum that editor would require two and usually more sources. The problem for voucher advocacy research is that it is usually the only source for positive voucher impacts available. And it’s been that way for a decade or more.

What’s the take home point? It’s this: not all voucher advocates publish exclusively pro-voucher studies, but all pro-voucher studies come almost exclusively from pro-voucher advocates.

STEP 3: WHO FUNDED THE WORK YOU’RE READING OR THE SOURCE YOU’RE CITING?

One or more of the following funders—the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Kern Family Foundation, the Koch Family Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—funded the original studies supporting school vouchers.

The Bradley and Koch Foundations—along with Heritage—are directly involved in Big Lie, election denialism, and voter-suppression funding, as reported by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker in painstaking detail last summer.

The next time you read a report, or talk to a source for attribution, ask first about their funding sources. If they decline to provide those sources, consider declining to report their results or their viewpoint. It is common for philanthropists to request non-disclosure of their donations—that is their right. But it is your right as a reporter, and certainly the right of your readers, to decline to print their material.

Transparency is just the name of the game for credible research. You can see my own research funding right here. You can see that I once upon a time also received grant funding from the Walton Foundation. And from Bloomberg, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. My only current active funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences—awarded to my research team while Betsy DeVos was education secretary!

Do I believe those organizations swayed my earlier research? Of course not. And the advocates above would say the same thing. But I don’t get to decide what to think and neither do they. That’s for the reader to judge, and that can’t happen without full transparency.

WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

This all may seem like inside baseball. A bunch of current and former voucher researchers arguing about who’s who and what’s what. A bunch of annoying and self-centered PhDs.

But in some sense that’s the entire point.

Whether an educator, reporter, researcher, policymaker or just avid reader of Diane’s blog here, you would be hard-pressed—if not find it absolutely impossible—to find a single study of voucher participant effects (how vouchers impact outcomes) that did not come from one of the few organizations or few individuals listed above, or a handful of others with direct ties to Greene, Peterson, or Arkansas.

That’s a problem, because what that means is that hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of school children are being affected every day by the advocacy of a small group of people. In many cases advocacy disguised as objective and credible research.

As a counter point, consider this humble list of studies showing far more nuance and at times outright negative results from voucher programs. To create that list, I made a simple rule: no studies from organizations listed in Step 1 above. Notice the variety of names and the diversity of venues and outlets. That’s what a credible research base looks like.

A LITMUS TEST: IS THE PRO-VOUCHER EVIDENCE I’M READING POLITICAL/IDEOLOGICAL?

If at this point you’re still not convinced that the entire structure of pro-voucher research amounts to industry-funded research—think the Sacklers funding research on oxycontin’s addictive properties, or ExxonMobil funding research on fossil fuel environmental effects—there is also this:

Many of the organizations and individuals noted above also contribute to other areas of politically engaged conservative education reform.

Consider that Greene alone has published in the last 12 months studies arguing against the provision of gender-affirming care, against “wokeness”, and against Diversity, Equity and Inclusionoffices in both K12 and higher education.

Greene even put right in print for you to see that these culture war issues are useful to Right wing activists pushing the privatization of schooling.

In other words, pro-voucher research exists right alongside—and is often published by—the same people and organizations pushing other far-Right education outcomes. You need to know that to have a full picture of what voucher research truly says.

Pro-voucher research is pro-voucher advocacy, and pro-voucher advocacy is part of the larger effort to undermine public education, undermine a more humane approach to tolerating difference and diversity in our schools, and in many cases undermine free embrace of democracy itself.

This post is so important that it is the only one I have scheduled today. Please read it and share it with your friends, your local newspaper, your local radio station, your elected representatives, social media, anyone who cares about the future of our society. This is not a reprint. The author, Josh Cowen, wrote this post for this blog.

Josh Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University, has been studying vouchers for more than 20 years. He has been a member of the teams conducting major studies of vouchers. When I read his article in The Hechinger Report, where he declared that he was convinced that vouchers were disastrous for students who use them, I wanted to know more about him and his experience. I wanted to ask him, “Why did you change your mind?” That’s the question that’s been asked of me hundreds of times. I have a simple answer and a complicated answer: the simple answer is “I was wrong.” The complicated answer is contained in my recent books, starting with The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

I invited Josh to explain his views for my blog, and he graciously accepted. I consider this piece to be one of the most important statements I have posted in the decade this blog has been live. Please note two points he makes:

One, vouchers harm the children who leave public schools to use them.

Two, most of the early voucher research was conducted by researchers who were partisan supporters of vouchers.

Josh Cowen writes:

It’ll be a few more days for the final election results to be tallied nationwide, but it seems clear that with midterm wins by voucher supporters in places like Oklahoma, Texas and even Pennsylvania—where even the Democratic gubernatorial victor is on record in cautious favor—voucher opponents are going to have to keep working hard to block public funding of private and religious schools.

School vouchers have devastating effects on student outcomes. Full stop. That’s something even the nation’s voucher advocate-in-chief Betsy DeVos has had to admit, because the data are so stark.

Large-scale independent studies in D.C.,Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show that for kids who left public schools, harmful voucher impacts actually meet or exceed what the pandemic did to test scores. That’s also a similar impact in Louisiana to what Hurricane Katrina did to student achievement back in 2005.

Think about that next time you hear a politician or activist claim we need taxpayer support for private schools to offset what the pandemic did to student learning. Here, their cure would in test score terms be quite literally worse than the disease.

There’s another data point you need to know up front: vouchers overwhelmingly fund children who were already in private school without them. In states that have released those numbers—Arizona, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin—we know more than 75% of voucher applicants came from private schools.

The bottom-line: most kids using vouchers didn’t need them to go to private school, and the few kids who actually did use vouchers to transfer sectors schools suffer average test score drops on par with what a once-in-a-generation pandemic did to test scores too.

If you’re a picture person, our friends at the National Coalition for Public Education were kind enough to put their considerable talents into two graphics based on these data I provided to them.

Notice the citations these graphs include. They’re the same as the hyperlinks above. These data come from independent sources and from non-partisan journalists. That’s a critically important part of this story.

And then there’s this, before we get into the details: the same people pushing vouchers are the same people working to undermine fair elections and the right to vote.

None of these are metaphors, and this is not a drill.

So how did we come to this?

1. A Quick History of Voucher Research

First let’s talk about the evidence.

I came into the school voucher research community early. It was around 2001 or so, as a young graduate student assistant for a study of privately funded vouchers led by the conservative professor Paul E. Peterson who was based at both Harvard and the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford (never heard of Hoover? Think Condoleeza Rice.)

Peterson and his protégé Jay Greene had already done one study of Milwaukee’s publicly funded voucher program, as well as the one in Cleveland that was about to be the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first favorable ruling on voucher funding. That work generally showed positive results for vouchers. As did the research of a young academic named Cecilia Rouse, who is now President Biden’s chief economist.

But they were small programs. What policymakers and researchers call a “pilot phase.” Back then when both parties cared at least nominally about evidence, you wouldn’t expand a program like vouchers without testing it. So those early tests seemed somewhat positive.

The first research I joined was Peterson and team’s next project: multi-site studies in Dayton, New York City, and Washington D.C. Those programs were also pilot-size. And the New York site in particular showed some limited evidence of voucher success. But overall the lead researchers focused as much on things like parental satisfaction and measures of civic engagement as metrics. That work resulted in a book called The Education Gap. You can find my name in the credits if you own a copy. If you don’t own one, don’t waste your money.

No one knew it at the time, but the mixed results documented in The Education Gap were to be the best vouchers were ever going to do—and ever have done since by an academic based team looking at voucher test scores.

Just a short time later in 2005, I joined a new voucher evaluation led by Patrick Wolf, another Peterson protégé and contributor to The Education Gap. Wolf was by then ensconced with Jay Greene at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, a Walton Family-funded academic group that was about to train a new generation of voucher advocates. Most notably Corey DeAngelis, now at Betsy DeVos’s 501(c)4 voucher lobbying group American Federation for Children.

The Milwaukee evaluation, which was officially done for the state of Wisconsin, lasted from 2005-2010. We found no evidence in five years that voucher kids outperformed public school kids. Two exceptions: we found limited evidence that graduation rates and college enrollment were somewhat higher for the voucher kids. We also found that voucher kids improved when the state required private schools to participate in the same No Child Left Behind-style accountability systems as public schools. In particular once voucher schools knew their performance would be made public they—shockingly!—improved their outcomes.

At the same time as the Milwaukee evaluation, Patrick Wolf and other Arkansas colleagues were working on a new evaluation of Washington D.C.’s federally funded voucher program. That study showed no difference in test scores, but large positive graduate results.

That pattern of “no test score benefits, some attainment benefits” has stuck in the research narrative even among voucher skeptics. But as I recently explained in a piece for the Brookings Institution, it’s just that: a narrative. Other studies in New York, Louisiana and Florida all show no real advantages for vouchers on educational attainment.

And certainly nothing to offset the cataclysmic results that began to come out after the early-stage evaluations I just described. The newer D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio studies that took place after 2013 and have showed pandemic and Katrina-sized harm to student test scores are all of at-scale voucher programs.

What do I mean by “at scale?” I mean that despite limited evidence in those pilot programs, vouchers have been steadily expanding across the country, and within states. So those D.C., Indiana Louisiana and Ohio studies represent our best understanding to date of what happens when you expand vouchers beyond the initial test phase. The answer: horrific impacts on student outcomes.

There are a number of reasons this could be, but I tend to argue we need not overthink this. Vouchers just don’t work. The kids who stand to gain from private schooling were and are already there. For the vast majority of kids, they’re better off in public schools. That’s what the latest voucher research shows.

As an example of what I mean: consider that in Wisconsin (which has not had a statewide study since ours ended in 2010), 41% of voucher-receiving schools have opened and then closed and failed since public funding began in the early 1990s.

That’s what happens when policymakers divert tax dollars to private schools: it’s like venture capitalism for education. It’s like Theranos but for private schooling. New providers race to gobble up new taxpayer money, but most of them have no business near kids.

Now, to fully understand why these terrible policies exist and in fact have never spread faster and further than they are today, we need to understand the politics. And to understand the politics, we need to understand the money.

On the one hand it’s pretty simple. Once you understand that the same people pushing vouchers are the same people funding groups that insist Donald Trump won the election and are now organizing a similar “Big Lie” for 2022’s results, you understand a lot. But read on.

2. Funding Vouchers, Funding Election Lies

It’s difficult to tell how much money has been spent to advocate for school vouchers over the years. But we know perhaps the biggest single funder—perhaps even larger than Betsy DeVos herself—is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. The Bradley Foundation is a little-known group based in Wisconsin and they’ve given tens of millions of dollars to voucher activism over the years.

Bradley not only funds voucher activism, it funds voucher research too. It was a major funder of the Milwaukee evaluation I was part of and described above. I don’t think they directly influenced our results, but generally speaking you don’t want activism and research funding to mix. Think about it this way: should the Sackler family fund research on the addictive properties of oxycontin? Should Exxon fund studies about the existence of climate change?

For me though, the real problem today is that the Bradley Foundation is hardly limiting itself to supporting research and political advocacy for private schooling. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has meticulously documented in her reporting on financing behind Big Lie activism sowing doubts about President Biden’s 2020 victory, the Bradley Foundation is the convening funder around those activities—the “extraordinary force”, in Mayer’s words, funding and coordinating the Big Lie and other efforts to undermine the integrity of democratic elections.

Bradley is not alone. The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing organization known for its pro-voucher advocacy is, according to Mayer, “working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators—on ways to impose new voting restrictions.”

In recent months, Heritage has also distributed talking points that under the guise of objective research attack school diversity and inclusion and directly question health care support for LGBTQ children. Heritage has recently released a report-card style rubric rating state laws on a so-called “Education Freedom” index for tax-supported private tuition. That report card includes the extent to which issues like diversity or sexual preference are components of public school teaching curricula.

The author of each of these documents is a Heritage Senior Fellow named Jay P. Greene. The same Jay Greene who while a conservative scholar at the University of Arkansas was co-director of that Bradley-funded voucher project that hired me back in 2005.

Greene is not alone in the Heritage-Bradley nexus. Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who participated in Donald Trump’s infamous phone call to the Georgia Secretary of State demanding evidence that would overturn the state’s election results, was actively training poll watchers to question voters leading up to the 2022 midterms in places like my own state of Michigan. The night before the election, the New York Times even ran a story about Mitchell’s work in Michigan. The headline read: “Fueled by Falsehoods, a Michigan Group is Ready to Challenge the Vote.”

Mitchell is a known elections conspiracy theorist, according to CNN, and figures prominently in Mayer’s New Yorker reporting on broader election-related organizing. In her spare time Mitchell is on the Board of Directors of—wait for it!—the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. She’s actually an officer on the Board too.

Michigan is important because we have a voucher proposal waiting to go to the state legislature—even though voucher opponent Gretchen Whitmer has won reelection. That proposal, backed by billionaire and privatization advocate Betsy DeVos, exploits a quirk in the state law allowing lame-duck Republicans to pass the voucher plan without the governor’s signature.

The spokesman for the DeVos voucher campaign is a man named Fred Wszolek. Wszolek is also the strategist for a group that tried unsuccessfully to prevent abortion access from becoming enshrined in the Michigan state constitution. And he heads a political action committee (PAC) called Michigan Strong, which has worked to elect now-defeated DeVos-backed GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon.

Also working for Dixon was Kyle Olson of the Education Action Group, an entity devoted to right-wing education reform that’s received money from Charles Koch, the DeVos Family and Harry Bradley—he of the Bradley Foundation.

That’s just one example, but you get the idea: the same people working to push school vouchers are the same people working to undermine elections. And in some cases even reproductive rights.

3. So Why Now?

 

I’ve spent the last six months writing column after column in opinion pages across the country trying to warn ordinary readers who aren’t education lifers about the dangers of vouchers. You can read samples here or here or here or here if you like. There are more than 10 in all.

Because of my long career working in the middle of all these voucher advocates and researchers, I’ve been asked multiple times what changed my mind. Or, more specifically, why am I speaking out today?

I hope the story I’ve told you above answers some of that. But the reality is, I was also doing other things. I had a young family, other research interests, and other professional tasks like editing the country’s premier education policy journal.

Most of all I had a naïve sense that the facts would speak for themselves. Remember, those pandemic-sized voucher failures began appearing back in 2013. I was an associate professor then, newly arrived at Michigan State University after receiving tenure at the University of Kentucky.

To me, after a decade of mixed-at-best results that I outlined here, I assumed that catastrophic results like those in Louisiana—and then confirmed in Indiana, Ohio, and D.C.—would have killed vouchers a thousand times over.

It’s sort of quaint now, that assumption of mine. In my research community, which is centered in the Association for Education Finance and Policy, we talk a lot about using evidence to inform policy. It’s a nice idea, but vouchers are the big, glaring and alarming counterpoint. We have never seen such one-sided, consistently negative research results as we have for school vouchers in the education research community.

And yet they thrive.

To me, the piece to that puzzle is politics. Negative voucher results aren’t the only thing to happen since 2013.

2016 happened. Donald Trump happened. January 6th happened. Dobbs v. Jackson happened.

Voucher advocates are overwhelmingly on one side of those events. And they’ve racked up some wins.

We know voucher programs exist today not for how they might help some kids, but for how they might exclude others. We know private schools taking public money can and often do discriminate against certain children. In Florida for example, one private school barring LGBTQ kids has received $1.6 million so far in taxpayer funding. In Indiana, more than $16 million has gone to schools refusing to admit LGBTQ kids—or even kids with LGBTQ parents!—or about 1 out of every 10 private schools on the taxpayer dime.

I wish I had come around earlier to the level of alarm I’m raising today. Others have even without having to take a kind of road to Damascus like I did.

I’m a tenured full professor now. I’ve had a successful career working hard to bring evidence to public policy. I firmly believe that school vouchers are a fundamental threat not just to student learning, but also to democracy and to human rights.

So on vouchers I’ve come to the same view any number of us would if we stumbled onto a massive fraud in our workplace, or if we saw a young child being bullied simply for being who they are. None of it is okay.

And if you see something, you have to say something.

You can find Josh Cowen on Twitter

@joshcowenMSU

The Walton Family Foundation has poured hundreds of millions, possibly billions, into privatizing America’s schools via charter schools. It recently announced that it would add another $100 million, in alliance with the PNC bank, to enable charters to grow.

The curious aspect of Walton’s devotion to charter schools is its complete indifference to the failures, poor performance, scandals, and frequent closures of charters.

Clearly the foundation has a goal that is unrelated to performance or success. The funders criticize public schools for poor performance, but in many states, the public schools outperform the charter schools. Nonetheless, Walton keeps pouring in more money.

Its goal seems clear: not to provide better opportunities for kids, but to undermine and disrupt public schools.

If they cared about students, the Waltons would pour hundreds of millions into improving public schools, which enroll 85-90% of American students.

Maurice Cunningham wrote in the Tampa Bay Tribune about “Moms for Liberty.” It seems to be a Dark Money front for some familiar billionaires.

Is it Koch? DeVos? Waltons? Or another billionaire?

Maurice Cunningham is a political scientist who recently retired from the University of Massachusetts. He recently published Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.

When he learned that the U.S. Department of Education had included the National Parents Union on its list of parent organizations advising the Department, he wrote the following letter to Secretary Cardona:

June 28, 2022

Secretary Miguel Cardona
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Cardona,

The Department of Education has made a significant error in including the National Parents Union among the groups invited to participate in the National Parents and Families Engagement Council. NPU does not represent parents and has few if any parent organizations as members. It is a front operation for the policy preferences of wealthy individuals who wish to transform American education to meet their ideological preferences, political goals, to keep their own taxes low, and to profit off what Rupert Murdoch has termed a $500 billion market.

I am very familiar with National Parents Union. As a recently retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) I have been researching groups like NPU since 2015 and continue to do so.

Since NPU is related to a group I was already following named Massachusetts Parents United (the leader of both groups is Keri Rodrigues) I took note when a concept paper for the new group surfaced in April 2019, appealing to the Walton Family Foundation for funding (WFF is the primary sponsor of MPU, over $2.2 million from 2017 through 2020). The concept paper listed three goals. First, to impact the 2020 Democratic Party nominating process. Second, to support “dozens of organizations (that) are building strong pockets of parent power.” Third, “to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

National Parents Union does not now and never has published a list of its member parent organizations. However I researched this question for my book based upon organizations NPU was claiming as participants to its January 2020 founding convention, primarily in claims made on Twitter and other social media. On its website NPU was claiming to be “a network of highly effective parent organizations and grassroots activists.” I collected seventy organizations or activists that seemed to be part of an organization. I created categories for different types of organizations and was able to categorize 64 of the 70 organizations. Only four of them even purported to represent parents. There were 15 charter school organizations and nine charter school trade organizations. There were another 15organizations I categorized as education options/choice, groups which present as helping navigate among different schools but which are designed to funnel students to charter schools. That makes 39 organizations tied in to the charter schools industry. There are nineteen organizations I identified as “civic” and some I could further identify, for instance civic/Latinx, civic/civil rights, civic/autism, etc. Within the civic groups that could be identified, there were four I categorized as civic/parents.

I was able to locate primary state locations for 53 of the 70 organizations. Of those I could place in states, there are 22 states represented plus the District of Columbia. The Massachusetts parent organization was MPU, the Walton operation. The Minnesota parent organization incorporated about the same time as NPU did. The other two parent organizations were also doubtful.

NPU’s arrival was announced in a January 2020 story in U.S. News and World Report, heralding “Two Latina mothers from opposite sides of the country” starting a parents group to “disrupt” education. One founder, Alma Marquez of California, disappeared from the organization about 8 months later. Ms. Rodrigues, known in her days as a radio host in the heavily Portuguese city of Fall River as the “pint-sized Portuguese pundit” remains.

Even with Ms. Marquez gone it is difficult to sort out NPU’s real leadership. At the January 2020 meeting Ms. Marquez was elected to a three year term as secretary-treasurer. She was a director in filings with the Massachusetts Secretary of State but left by March 2021. In March 2021 the National Parents Union website listed three board members: Peter Cunningham, Bibb Hubbard, and Dan Weisberg. But NPU registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation with the Secretary of State in Massachusetts where its annual report filed November 1, 2020 showed two directors: Keri Rodrigues and Tim Langan. The Secretary filings listed Ms. Rodrigues as president and clerk and Tim Langan as treasurer (he was chief operating officer on the website). In January 2020 Gerard Robinson was also listed as a founding director, but he left a year later. Ms. Hubbard is also gone and filings with the Secretary have been updated but still do not match the website.

Of the founding directors and officers, Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Hubbard, Mr. Weisberg, Ms. Marquez, and Ms. Rodrigues all were communications professionals or had significant experience in public relations. Ms. Rodrigues, always billed as a parent activist, has been a communications professional for nearly a quarter of a century, since commencing her career with CBS Radio in 1998 while completing her 2000 BS in Broadcast, Telecommunications, and Media Management from Temple University. Since 2014 she has been executive vice president – strategy and communications for Democrats for EducationReform in Boston, state director of Families for Excellent Schools, president of the IRC 501(c)(4) Massachusetts Parent Action and 501(c)(3) Massachusetts Parents United, and president of IRC 501(c)(3) National Parents Union. Corporate records indicate that she and Mr. Langan (to whom she is engaged) are the principals of the Estrella Group LLC, a political consultant firm. Across the two state and one national organizations they paid themselves over $626,000 in 2020—an atypical income for working parents.

NPU has a page where one can “find your delegate.” Delegate suggests that someone has been chosen by others to represent them. But I cannot find where NPU explains what their delegates do and it appears that delegates are not chosen by parents (or the mostly non-existent parent organizations) but from the top down, by NPU itself. For example in Massachusetts—the corporate headquarters of NPU and MPU—when NPU wanted to find a state “delegate” it advertised for someone to become “an official Massachusetts delegate” on Twitter!* (* indicates material in Addendum).

No, National Parents Union is not about parents at all.

To understand NPU, follow the money. The Walton Family Foundation funneled $400,000 to NPU in 2020 through MPU.The Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Walton Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, invested $700,000.The CEO of Vela is an oil and gas executive from Koch’s corporate holdings. Other donors include the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The City Fund, which receives funding from the Waltons, the Hastings Fund, and the Arnold Foundation. Reed Hastings has called for the abolition of school boards. John Arnold is most well-known for his campaign to gut workers’ pension plans.

Most parents have taken tickets at the high school football game or baked goods to be sold at intermission of the school play. Not many have started a little parents’ organization that collected $1,481,110 in its first year. NPU paid out $400,461 in grants and had a payroll of $634,273. In October 2021 the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced a grant of $1,500,000 to support NPU—an organization that had not existed less than two years before. Also in 2021 the Silicon Valley Community Foundation donated $1,500,000 to NPU. SVCF is a donor advised fund, a pass through that protects the identity of the ultimate check writer. It’s deep dark money—the true source of the $1,500,000 will never be known. But it isn’t parents.

Small wonder then that since its inception NPU has retained the services of top conservative and Walton Family pollster Echelon Insights and the international communications firm Mercury LLC. Just like any other infant parents group.

NPU affects a different posture than recently founded “parents” operations that have attacked Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ youth. NPU purports to speak up for people of color (as did Families for Excellent Schools, which was driven by the Waltons and wealthy Wall Streeters). Scratch the surface though and NPU’s billionaire-driven agenda appears. NPU has been happy to surf on the turmoil created by right wing attack groups with its own “Disrupt the Status Quo—School Board Edition” campaign, and after the victory of Glenn Youngkin in Virginiaoffered by tweet to work with Leader Kevin McCarthy and the House Republicans on a Parents Bill of Rights. Ms. Rodrigueshas appeared at a forum organized by Betsy Devos’s American Federation for Children and just recently on a panel with Governor Youngkin’s Secretary of Education. In a Twitter exchange with a friendly journalist who was doubting the level of “School Board Chaos” being created by right wing groups, she responded “Depends on the type of chaos we are talking about.”*

That remark may help illuminate a paradox of the recently contrived “parents” movement: why is Charles Koch funding both the “progressive” NPU and the white backlash Parents Defending Education? And the answer is that both groups are designed to create chaos in the public education system. Chaos is the product.

As a “parent” group NPU is mostly distinguished by a lack of parents. It will produce polling information but as you understand interest group polling is going to show what the interest group wants you to see. NPU has had substantial media success—with the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, and Fox—but it’s worth asking yourself: how do two moms on opposite coasts afford Mercury LLC to run communications?

DOE should be working with real parents, not billionaire directed right wing fronts masquerading as parents. If the department wishes to hear the viewpoints of the Waltons, Gates, Koch et al., heavens knows they have access to key policy makers. DOE should not permit them to sneak in the door masquerading as parents.

Sincerely,

 

Maurice T. Cunningham

 

 

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education and the Mayor of Boston reached an agreement not to label the Boston Public Schools “underperforming” and the state backed away from taking control of the district. Perhaps they realized that state takeovers typically make things worse, not better.

Our reader Christine Langhoff is a retired teacher in Boston. She added the following informed comment.

Christine Langhoff writes:

Despite the Boston Globe’s heartfelt desire for privatization – its education reporting is outsourced to privatizers and charteristas at The Barr Foundation – public pushback had an impact. The state has had zero success in the school systems where it intervened, when measured by the metric the state board loves: test scores. Boston scores, even during the virtual schooling of the pandemic, have been higher than in Lawrence, Springfield, Holyoke and Southbridge, where the state is in charge. They failed to get this done before Governor Charlie Baker – funded by the Kochs and the Waltons – leaves office this year.

Our newly elected mayor, Michelle Wu, has her own two young sons in BPS and is committed to public education. She has refused to back away from her advocacy for the schools. Her predecessor, Marty Walsh (now Biden’s Secretary of Labor), was himself a founder of a charter school, and underfunded the schools during all seven years of his mayoralty. He made no effort to solve the issues cited in the state’s report in his quest to defund, destabilize, and destroy the school system.

Wu has managed in a brief time to recruit two excellent finalists for the superintendent’s position. Both of them are true public school educators who live in Boston. Mary Skipper’s three children are BPS graduates and Tommy Welch’s kids are presently enrolled as well. Contrast with Laura Perille, who was named superintendent by Walsh, despite being completely unqualified save for the fact that she ran an umbrella group for the foundations bent on privatization. (Perille took over from Broadie Tommy Chang, who was responsible in LA for the disastrous rollout of laptops.)

It’s a new day for public education in the city of Boston. The Waltons are somewhere, licking their wounds in defeat once again.

Thank goodness for independent media! Oklahoma Watch published an investigative report that detailed a secret slush fund that supplements the salary of the state Secretary of Education.

(This story was produced in partnership with the Oklahoma nonprofit newsroom The Frontier.)

Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed legislation that would have required cabinet members to file public reports to disclose their finances.

If Stitt had signed the bill last month, Oklahomans would learn that Secretary of Education Ryan Walters makes at least $120,000 a year as executive director of a nonprofit organization that keeps its donors secret. Walters is also paid about $40,000 a year by the state, according to state payroll data.

The nonprofit, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, has refused to disclose its largest donors.

But a joint investigation by The Frontier and Oklahoma Watch has found that much of the organization’s funds come from national school privatization and charter school expansion advocates, including the Walton Family Foundation and an education group founded by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch.

As Secretary of Education, Walters serves as Stitt’s top advisor on public education policy and is the governor’s liaison for dozens of state boards and programs.

Walters’ outside employment with a nonprofit funded by advocacy groups could be a conflict of interest, said Delaney Marsco, senior attorney for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group that focuses on government transparency and accountability.

“If you are responsible for making decisions in a certain area of the government and you are being paid by an outside organization that has an interest in that, that absolutely can be a conflict of interest,” Marsco said. “If you are a public servant, your duty is to the public, and anything that kind of calls that into question, even raises the appearance of a conflict of interest, is a problem.”

Under Walters’ leadership, Every Kid Counts Oklahoma was the public face of Stitt’s program that distributed $1,500 grants to families in 2020 funded with $8 million in federal coronavirus relief money. The money was intended to buy tutoring and educational supplies. But a lack of safeguards allowed parents to use some of the funds to buy TVs, gaming consoles and home appliances, an investigation by Oklahoma Watch and The Frontier found. Emails and other recordsshow that Walters helped secure the no-bid contract with a Florida company to distribute the money. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General has opened an audit into how the state used those funds.

Walters, who declined multiple interview requests, is now running for state superintendent, an elected position overseeing the state Department of Education and a budget of over $3 billion. Unlike in federal elections, candidates for state office in Oklahoma are not required to fill out financial disclosures until after they are elected.

Please open the link and read on.

The federal Charter Schools Program was launched in 1994 with a few million dollars, when the Clinton administration decided to offer funding for start-ups. At the time, there were few charter schools. In the early, idealistic days, charter enthusiasts asserted that charters would set lofty goals and close their doors if they didn’t meet them. They were sure that charters would be far better than public schools because they were free to hire and fire teachers.

Right-wingers jumped on the charter bandwagon as a way to undermine public schools and to bust teachers’ unions. In short order, a gaggle of billionaires decided that charter schools would succeed because they operated with minimal or no regulation, like a business.

What no one knew back in 1994 was that the charter industry would grow to be politically powerful, with its own lobbyists. No one knew that the “most successful” charter schools were those that excluded the students who might pull down their test scores. No one knew that for-profit entrepreneurs would set up or manage charter chains and make huge profits, mainly by their real estate deals. No one knew that one of the largest charter chains would be run by a Turkish imam. No one knew that charter schools would develop a very old-fashioned militaristic discipline that prescribed every detail of a student’s life in school. No one knew that the little program of 1994 would grow to $440 million a year, with much of it bestowed on deep-pocketed chains that had no need of federal money to expand. No one knew that charter schools would become a favorite recipient of big money from Wall Street hedge-fund managers and billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, John Arnold, Betsy DeVos, Reed Hastings, and many other billionaires and multi-millionaires. No one anticipated that by 2022, there would be 3.3 million students in more than 7,400 charter schools.

Perhaps most important, no one expected that charter schools, on average, would perform no better than public schools. And in many districts and states, such as Ohio, Nevada, and Texas, charter schools perform far worse than the public schools.

School choice has been a segregationist goal ever since the Brown Decision of 1954, when southern states created segregation academies and voucher plans to help white students escape from racial integration. It should be no surprise, then, to see that the same states that are passing laws to restrict discussion of racism, to ban teaching about sexuality and gender, and to censor books abut these topics are the same states that demand more charter schools. Coincidence? Not likely. These are culture war issues that rile the Republican base.

How strange then, given this background, that the Washington Post published an editorial opposing the Department of Education’s sensible and modest effort to impose new regulations on new charter schools that seek federal funding. The education editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao very likely wrote this editorial, since she has that beat. Armao was a cheerleader for Michelle Rhee when she was chancellor of the D.C. schools and imposed a reign of terror on the district’s professional staff, based on flawed theories of reform and leadership.

In the following editorial, she makes no effort to offer two sides of the charter issue (yes, there are two, maybe three or four sides). She writes a polemic that might have been cribbed from the press releases of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the amply endowed lobbyist for the industry. She gives no evidence that she has ever heard of the high closure rate (nearly 40%) of the charters that received federal funds from the Charter Schools Program. She seems unaware of the scores of scandals associated with the charter industry, or the number of charter founders who have been convicted of embezzlement. She doesn’t care about banning for-profit management from future grants. She thinks it’s just fine to set up new charters in communities where they are not needed or wanted. She seems unaware that the new regulations will not affect the 7,000 charters now in existence. Charters can still get start-up funding from Michael Bloomberg, the Waltons, or other privatizers. New charters can still be opened by for-profit entrepreneurs like Academica, but not with federal funds.

Here is the editorial, an echo of press releases written by Nina Rees of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (Rees previously worked at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, served as education advisor to Vice-President Dick Cheney, and worked for financier Michael Milken).

The editorial’s title is: “The Biden Administration’s Sneak Attack on Charter Schools.”

Advocates for public charter schools breathed easier last month when Congress approved $440 million for a program that helps pay for charter school start-up expenses. Unfortunately, their relief was short-lived. The Biden administration the next day proposed new rules for the program that discourage charter schools from applying for grants, a move that seems designed to squelch charter growth.


On March 11, a day after the funding passed, the Education Department issued 13 pages of proposed rules governing the 28-year-old federal Charter Schools Program, which funnels funds through state agencies to help charters with start-up expenses such as staff and technology. “Not a charter school fan” was Mr. Biden’s comment about these independent public schools during his 2020 presidential campaign, and the proposed requirements clearly reflect that antipathy.


The Biden administration claims that the proposed rules would ensure fiscal oversight and encourage collaboration between traditional public schools and charter schools. But the overwhelming view within the diverse charter school community is that the proposed rules would add onerous requirements that would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet and would scare off would-be applicants. Those most hurt would be single-site schools and schools led by rural, Black and Latino educators.


Consider, for example, the requirement that would-be applicants provide proof of community demand for charters, which hinged on whether there is over-enrollment in existing traditional public schools. Enrollment is down in many big-city school districts, which would mean likely rejection for any nonprofit seeking to open up a charter. “Traditional schools may be under-enrolled, but parents are looking for more than just a seat for their child. They want high quality seats,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.Hence the long waiting lists for charter school spots in cities with empty classrooms in traditional schools. Also problematic is the requirement that charters get a commitment of collaboration from a traditional public school. That’s like getting Walmart to promise to partner with the five-and-dime down the street.

The Biden administration surprised the charter school community by what charter advocates called a sneak attack. There was no consultation — as is generally the case with stakeholders when regulations are being drafted — and the public comment period before the rules become final ends April 14.The norm is generally at least two months.

The proposed changes, according to a spokesperson for the Education Department, are intended to better align the Charter Schools Program with the Biden-Harris administration’s priorities. “Not a charter fan,” Mr. Biden said, and so bureaucratic rulemaking is being used to sabotage a valuable program that has helped charters give parents school choice.

If you disagree with this editorial, as I do, please send a comment thanking the Department of Education for proposing to regulate a program that has spun out of control and urging them to approve the regulations. Give your reasons.

If you think that charter schools have no need for federal funding when so many billionaires open their wallets for them, if you think that your community has enough charter schools, if you think that public schools must be strengthened and improved, if you want to stop federal funding of for-profit entrepreneurs, if you are tired of funding schools that never open, please write to support the U.S. Department of Education’s reasonable proposal to regulate the federal Charter Schools Program.