Archives for category: Walton Foundation

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.

Why do so many billionaires think that it is their responsibility to redesign education? I, personally, would prefer to see them spend their time figuring out how to reduce poverty, how to provide medical care in low-income communities, how to provide affordable housing for all. But they don’t ask me.

Chalkbeat reported recently that three of our biggest billionaires are combining forces to discover “breakthroughs” in education. As usual, the billionaires—Gates, Walton, and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative—assume that they will discover a magic trick that solves all problems. Like the Common Core, which David Coleman and Bill Gates believed would raise test scores and close all achievement gaps. They assumed that standardization of curriculum, standards, tests, and teacher training would produce high test scores for all students. Except it didn’t.

Matt Barnum wrote:

Three of the biggest names in education philanthropy have teamed up to fund a new organization aimed at dramatically improving outcomes for Black, Latino, and low-income students.

The Advanced Education Research & Development Fund, announced Wednesday, is already funded to the eye-popping tune of $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Walton Family Foundation. (Gates and Walton are also supporters of Chalkbeat.)

AERDF (pronounced AIR-dif) says its focus will be on what it calls “inclusive R&D,” or bringing together people with different expertise, including educators, to design and test practical ideas like improving assessments and making math classes more effective. Still, the ideas will have “moonshot ambitions,” said the group’s CEO Stacey Childress. 

“One of our mottos for our program teams and the projects they fund is ‘heads in clouds and boots on the ground,’” she said. 

It’s an unusually well-funded start for a new education organization, especially as big education funders have seen their influence wane in recent years after some of their ideas showed uneven results and prompted backlash. AERDF suggests these funders still have significant ambitions for improving education in the U.S., even if those efforts are less splashy — or controversial — than they once were.

The organization emerged from work that began in 2018, when CZI and Gates teamed up to invest in R&D. That resulted in a project known as EF+Math, which funds efforts to embed lessons in executive functioning — a set of cognitive skills related to self control and memory — into math classes. 

Read on.


Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat reported that the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are joining forces to fund a “breakthrough” in American education, despite the consistent failures they have experienced.

Are they slow learners or persistent?

Barnum writes:

The Advanced Education Research & Development Fund, announced Wednesday, is already funded to the eye-popping tune of $200 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Walton Family Foundation. (Gates and Walton are also supporters of Chalkbeat.)

AERDF (pronounced AIR-dif) says its focus will be on what it calls “inclusive R&D,” or bringing together people with different expertise, including educators, to design and test practical ideas like improving assessments and making math classes more effective. Still, the ideas will have “moonshot ambitions,” said the group’s CEO Stacey Childress.

“One of our mottos for our program teams and the projects they fund is ‘heads in clouds and boots on the ground,’” she said.

It’s an unusually well-funded start for a new education organization, especially as big education funders have seen their influence wane in recent years after some of their ideas showed uneven results and prompted backlash. AERDF suggests these funders still have significant ambitions for improving education in the U.S., even if those efforts are less splashy — or controversial — than they once were.

The organization emerged from work that began in 2018, when CZI and Gates teamed up to invest in R&D. That resulted in a project known as EF+Math, which funds efforts to embed lessons in executive functioning — a set of cognitive skills related to self control and memory — into math classes.

“These executive functioning skills allow you to focus on what’s important, ignore distractions, let you think flexibly to solve problems and keep track of ideas,” said Melina Uncapher, the program’s director. “Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re strongly related to math skills.”

That effort, now part of AERDF, will start work in three school districts — Newark, New Jersey; Vista Unified in California; and Middletown, Ohio — this fall, said spokesperson Ed Wyatt.

You could write a book about their any failures. In fact, I already have written two. One is called Reign of Error and the other is Slaying Goliath.

What the billionaires refuse to recognize is that the root cause of poor academic performance is poverty. One experiment they might try is to raise the standard of living for targeted communities. Or they could fund hundreds of community schools with wraparound services for children and families.

Instead they prefer to search for the magic bullet that will overcome the obstacles in the lives of children who live in poverty. It appears that they learned nothing from their previous adventure into “education reform.”

A suggestion for the funders: Read Richard Rothstein’s Class and 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.

Tom Ultican tells the sad story of the Johns Hopkins University Education Policy Institute, which was once known for unbiased scholarship.

As he recounts the politicization of the Institute, he explains the upside of joining forces with privatizers, disrupters, standardized testing zealots, allies of Relay “Graduate School” of Education and the charter industry. The Institute is now the recipient of millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation, Charles Koch, the Walton family, and other very rich luminaries of the philanthropic world.

In one of JHU’s consequential reports, it was commissioned to study the high-poverty Providence, RI, school district. Only weeks later, they turned in a gloomy assessment that set the stage for a state takeover. Then-Governor Gina Raimondo hired ex-TFA Angelica Infante-Greene, who never been a principal or a superintendent, as State Commissioner of Education. She, in turn, hired a new superintendent and deputy superintendent for Providence, who were both fired after the deputy was caught forcibly massaging boys’ toes.

Infante-Greene has now been inducted into Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change (which had previously designated by Chiefs as a future leader.)

Is it worth mentioning that the outcomes of state takeovers have been dismal?

Maurice Cunningham is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts. His specialty is following the gobs of money poured into “education reform.” His exposes of Dark Money in the 2016 charter expansion referendum was a crucial element in turning the public against the referendum (you can read more about him in his blogs and in my book Slaying Goliath.)

In this post, published here for the first time, Professor Cunningham writes about the innocence or naïveté of Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who met with a billionaire astroturf group and thought he was reaching out to ordinary parents and families.

Cunningham writes:

Who Got Suckered, Secretary Cardona or Readers of The74?

“The Pro-privatization education blog The74 recently published To Rebuild Trust with Families, Ed. Dept. Seeks Input from Outspoken Parents Group. The story purports to be about how Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona “seeks” the advice of parents and thus turns to the National Parents Union. But the National Parents Union isn’t about parents, it’s a front for oligarchs with “parents” in the name. So who got suckered here, Secretary Cardona or readers of The74?”

“Let’s start at the end of the post, with The74’s disclaimer:

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and The City Fund provide financial support to the National Parents Union and The 74.

Let’s not stop there. Here’s an excerpt from The74’s first ever piece of NPU puffery, Mothers of Invention: Frustrated with the Educational Status Quo and Conventional Parent Organizing, Two Latinas Gave Birth to a National Parents Union.”

Marquez and Rodrigues raised seed money and funding for the recent convening from several philanthropies that fund education initiatives: The Walton Family Foundation; EdChoice; the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; National School Choice Week; the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation; and The City Fund, which in turn receives funding from Walton, the Hastings Fund, the Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures), the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ballmer Group.

“Picture this. You’re a parent sitting at your kitchen table thinking about school just like millions of parents across the country. You call a friend across the country and decide to start a parents group. You’ll need some startup money so you divide up possible donors: ‘You call the Waltons, Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, and John Arnold. I’ve got Mike Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Mark Zuckerberg, and Charles Koch.’

“A few months after ‘giving birth’ Ms. Marquez disappeared from her position as secretary-treasurer. No word from NPU or The74 on what happened to her. 

“You’d have to know this to get the irony of The74 writing a headline about rebuilding “trust” with parents. Maybe rebuilding trust with the Waltons, Koch, et al. but not parents. 

“Here’s how The74’s post begins:

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Monday he wants “families at the table” as schools prepare for the fall, offering welcome news to parents who have felt shut out of efforts to help their children recover from the pandemic.

Last week, his staff took steps to fill up the guest list by contacting the National Parents Union, a network of advocacy groups that has been critical of distance learning, especially for low-income and minority students, and has pushed for schools to reopen.

On April 28, Christian Rhodes, chief of staff for the department’s Office of Elementary and Secretary of Education, met with Keri Rodrigues, National Parents Union’s founding president, and Marisol Rerucha, the group’s chief of strategy and partnerships.

Since then, the group’s representatives have been asked to work with the department’s School Climate and Discipline Work Group and the Office of Parent Engagement and Communication, and to be involved in a meeting regarding federal relief funds later this week.

“This is artful. It starts out with an actual quote from Secretary Cardona and then transitions to the only place one could go to hear the authentic voice of parents, NPU. If any of this is true, it is epically bad staff work. We can discuss corporate America’s value in education policy but Gates, Walton et al. have no problem getting a seat at the table. They just shouldn’t get one masquerading as parents. 

“Back to that kitchen table conversation. ‘Oh, and once we line up the Waltons and Gates and those other billionaires, we’ll need a chief of strategy and partnerships. Every parent group needs one of those.’

“Just wondering, who was the source for this information?”

“They feel like we represent a really important constituency,” Rodrigues said. “We were very clear with them. We’re not here just to be disseminating information from [the department]. We need to be informing policy.”

“It appears that the source was Ms. Rodrigues, not only a mother of invention but now able to read the feelings of DOE personnel. It doesn’t look like The74 spoke to any DOE source.”

The department’s invitation to the organization to be part of its “kitchen cabinet” follows accusations that the teachers unions have had greater access to the secretary and the administration than other interest groups. The National Parents Union represents groups that have largely blamed unions for slowing down the reopening process and say schools have failed their children during the pandemic. Parent organizations were not represented during Cardona’s March 24 reopening summit, and in early April, Rodrigues said she was “furious” that the department had not yet reached out to any groups within the network. With states facing a June 7 deadline to submit plans to the department for spending American Rescue Plan funds, some of those local groups now want to have more say in how districts spend that money.

“‘Kitchen cabinet’”? Here is something very basic from the concept of principal-agent theory. A principal, here the lead investor Walton Family Foundation, employs an agent, here Ms. Rodrigues, to pursue the goals of the principal. So you have an agent of the Walton family and its wealthy allies in Secretary Cardona’s “kitchen cabinet.” 

“Let’s continue with that paragraph because it’s really funny: “accusations that the teachers unions have had greater access.” With a link! But the link has nothing to do with accusations about teachers unions, it is to a Today.com story where First Lady Jill Biden is praising teachers for their matchless contributions to children’s development, Jill Biden honors fellow teachers in her 1st official event as first lady. I cannot make this up. 

“So who has made accusations against teachers unions? National Parents Union! Which is exactly what we should expect from an agent working for the anti-union Waltons and Koch.

“States are looking at revisiting what it means to have families engaged,” Cardona said at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference. “This pandemic taught us that we have to be nimble, we have to be flexible and we have to meet families where they are.”

As part of his “Help is Here” tour to local schools, mostly in the Northeast, the secretary has interacted with some parents who don’t represent particular advocacy groups. And Rodrigues said her group is directing the department to other organizations “doing important work.”

Cunningham concludes:

“Wait a minute, Secretary Cardona has already been meeting with real parents? I imagine one of the groups Ms. Rodrigues will be recommending is Massachusetts Parents United, which she also “founded” with millions in Walton backing and where the organizations Form 990 tax return shows that she was compensated $189,000 in 2019. 

“Here’s more artistry from The74, the very next paragraph:

“Rachel Thomas, a spokeswoman for the education department, said working with parents is “critical” to addressing academic inequities made worse by the pandemic.

“It’s with parents’ partnership that we can build our education system back better than it was before, and make sure our schools are welcoming environments that work for all students, not just some,” she said.

“The placement invites the reader to conclude that Ms. Thomas was responding to Ms. Rodrigues. But there’s no evidence she was. It’s just boilerplate. 

“The story goes on some, I provided a link above.

“National Parents Union is a sucker’s game. The question is, who got suckered, Secretary Cardona, his staff, or the readers of The74

“Or all three?”

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, democracy, and oligarchy.]


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

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

She writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max Brantley writes in the Arkansas Times that the voucher lobby is determined to reverse their 44-52 loss in the Arkansas House. Backed by Walton money, they are naming and shaming the legislators who stood up for their community’s public schools.

Although Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, and his children attended public schools, they are determined to destroy public schools that provide the same opportunity for other people’s children. They blithely toss out millions to buy the support of people who have no heart or soul and will gladly lobby to harm the institution that has been an abiding symbol of our democracy for generations. Public schools have failings, like every other institution. They must be far better, and they should have the respect and the funding to provide equal opportunity to all children.

But the Waltons have led the forces of greed that seek to undermine public schools that accept all students and have standards for professionals. Let me tell you what I think of the Waltons: I think they are greedy. I think they don’t care about other people’s children. They hate unions and public schools. They love privately managed charter schools, vouchers,and any other substitute for the public schools they attended. They treat everyone else as peasants. They are arrogant. They are prideful.

The Waltons represent the worst of American society: people who have become fabulously wealthy by killing small towns, driving small stores out of business, underpaying their one million employees, using their vast wealth to impoverish others and to undermine the community institutions that enrich the lives of people they treat with contempt. For them and their ilk, playing with the lives of other people’s children is a hobby, a pastime. They are very, very rich, and they must have their way. They don’t understand why the peasants refuse to bow down to their wishes.

Maurice Cunningham is the Master of the Mysteries of Dark Money. In this post, he traces the shifting membership of the board of directors of the Walton-funded “National Parents Union.” You know what NPU wants: charter schools. After reading the story, you will understand who pays the bills: the Waltons and Charles Koch. They are parents too! Be sure to read Christine Langhoff’s comment.