Archives for category: Walton Foundation

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.

When a bright young man or woman gets an idea to replace experienced educators with inexperienced tyros and is quickly funded by billionaire foundations, you can guess that the ultimate goal is privatization. For one thing, the enterprise rests on a base claim that “our schools are failing,” and that experience is irrelevant and probably harmful.

Tom Ultican recounts the origin story of one such organization: New Leaders for New Schools.

The idea was so spot-on that the organization attracted millions of dollars from the plutocrats of privatization: Eli Broad, Bill Gates, the Walton Family Foundation, and many more.

Where are the miracle schools led by New Leaders? That’s a hard question to answer.

What Ultican demonstrates is the continuing relevance of New Leaders for New Schools. One of its illustrious graduates was behind the recent decision by the board of the Oakland Unified School District to resume closing schools, despite overwhelming opposition by students, parents, and educators.

Retired professor of political science Maurice Cunningham recently read an article about Randi Weingarten that quoted Kelli Rodrigues as leader of the National Parents Union, and presumably a spokesperson for American parents. Cunningham decided to inform Michelle Goldberg, the author of the article in the New York Times, that Ms. Rodrigues is not exactly a representative parent leader.

He wrote:

Dear Ms. Goldberg,

I read your story on AFT president Randi Weingarten with interest, especially the portion about National Parents Union. I have been researching NPU and similar organizations for the past six years.

Thus it was good to see you accurately characterize NPU “as funded by the pro-privatization Walton Family Foundation” but there is even more about the story of its president, Keri Rodrigues, than she or NPU lets on. So far as I know she did work for SEIU as a communications coordinator from 2008-2014 but since then she has worked for a succession of Walton-funded anti-union fronts: as Executive Vice President of Strategy and Communications of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) from Nov. 2014-2015, state director of Families for Excellent Schools Inc. in 2015-2016 (omitted from her Linkedin page), president of Massachusetts Parents United from Dec. 2016-present, president of Massachusetts Parents Action from May 2017-present, and president of NPU from March 2019-present. In a concept paper sent to the Walton Family Foundation in 2019, Ms. Rodrigues and her allies specifically cited as a reason for funding NPU that “The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the National Parents Union as being able to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

I first became aware of Ms. Rodrigues in 2016 when I was following the dark money awash in the 2016 charter schools ballot initiative in Massachusetts. She was working for the IRS 501(c)(3) Families for Excellent Schools Inc. and I was exposing the millions in dark money flowing through the IRS 501(c)(4) Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy into the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. After the 62-38% drubbing GSM received in that contest, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigated and ordered FESA to disclose its true donors, to shut down, and to pay the largest civil forfeiture in OCPF history. It also placed severe restrictions on the political activities of Families for Excellent Schools Inc., which was the largest donor to FES Advocacy.

One thing that interests me is what I like to call the “creation story” of privatization fronts. For instance in the Walton Family Foundation story you link to in your story, we see Ms. Rodrigues professes that “I started talking to other parents in my community at coffee shops and libraries and decided we were going to organize.” But the 2016 campaign ended in November, Ms. Rodrigues claims to have started Massachusetts Parents United a month later, and the Waltons poured in several hundred thousand dollars in 2017, mostly through Education Reform Now Inc. (the Walton-funded sister to DFER) as MPU secured its tax status. From 2018-2020, the Waltons put $1.85 million into MPU, with $450,000 of that apparently going to help start up NPU in 2020.

NPU has a similar “creation story”: two Latina moms start a National Parents Union. And then the Waltons jump in with hundreds of thousands of dollars, joined by foundations operating under the bequests of the Gates, Broads, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Schustermans, Michael Dell, Reed Hastings, John Arnold, and the Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Waltons and Charles Koch. Immediately the two moms hired international communications firm Mercury LLC and top Republican and Walton pollster Echelon Insights. It seems a bit suspicious.

So, in 2020 I examined the “parent” organizations that NPU seemed to be claiming as its members on Twitter (NPU has declined to provide me a member list and has never provided a list of member organizations on its web site). I collected seventy organizations or activists that seemed to be part of an organization. I was able to place 64 organizations into categories and found that many were charter school chains or other privatization organizations. I found only four I could categorize as parent organizations, including MPU and one in Minnesota that had organized at the same time as NPU. I’m not aware of any publicly available evidence that NPU represents parents at all. It represents the Waltons and their billionaire co-investors.

As Ms. Rodrigues’s Linkedin profile indicates, she has a B.S. in communications and that has been her role in professional life, not union organizing. Her career with the Waltons has been lucrative. NPU’s Form 990 tax return for 2020 shows that her reportable compensation from NPU in 2020 was $135,769. Reportable compensation from related organizations was $208,207, and estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations was $34,322. The related organizations are the Walton-funded Massachusetts Parents United and Massachusetts Parents Action. Total compensation across all related organizations for Ms. Rodrigues in 2020 was $378,298. The Form 990 also disclosed that Ms. Rodrigues and COO Tim Langan are engaged. Mr. Langan’s total compensation across related organizations was $248,479 in 2020. Combined total compensation for the two was $626,777.

You were correct to write “Beyond the immediate well-being of families and teachers, the future of public education as we know it is at stake.” Privatizers like the Waltons and their partners are using the Covid crisis as an opportunity to attack and undermine public education. For obvious reasons they can’t become the public face of that activity, so they underwrite Ms. Rodrigues and NPU to masquerade as parent representatives.

Sincerely,

Maurice T. Cunningham

After Cunningham wrote to The Times to complain about the megaphone for a front group for the Waltons, the Hechinger Report published a puff piece about the NPU, mentioning the Waltons but disassociating NPR from the Walton’s anti-public school, anti-union, pro-charter views. The Waltons don’t fund groups that don’t share their ideology.

Last week, I posted my thoughts on “Who Demoralized the Nation’s Teachers?” I sought to identify the people and organizations that spread the lie that America’s public schools were “broken” and that public school teachers were the cause. The critics slandered teachers repeatedly, claiming that teachers were dragging down student test scores. They said that today’s teachers were not bright enough; they said teachers had low SAT scores; and they were no longer “the best and the brightest.”

The “corporate reform” movement (the disruption movement) was driven in large part by the “reformers'” belief that public schools were obsolete and their teachers were the bottom of the barrel. So the “reformers” promoted school choice, especially charter schools, and Teach for America, to provide the labor supply for charter schools. TFA promised to bring smart college graduates for at least two years to staff public schools and charter schools, replacing the public school teachers whom TFA believed had low expectations. TFA would have high expectations, and these newcomers with their high SAT scores would turn around the nation’s schools. The “reformers” also promoted the spurious, ineffective and harmful idea that teachers could be evaluated by the test scores of their students, although this method repeatedly, consistently showed that those who taught affluent children were excellent, while those who taught children with special needs or limited-English proficiency or high poverty were unsatisfactory. “Value-added” methodology ranked teachers by the income and background of their students’ families, not by the teachers’ effectiveness.

All of these claims were propaganda that was skillfully utilized by people who wanted to privatize the funding of public education, eliminate unions, and crush the teaching profession.

The response to the post was immediate and sizable. Some thought the list of names and groups I posted was dated, others thought it needed additions. The comments of readers were so interesting that I present them here as a supplement to my original post. My list identified No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core as causes of demoralization that tied teachers to a standards-and-testing regime that reduced their autonomy as professionals. One reader said that the real beginning of the war on teachers was the Reagan-era report called “A Nation at Risk,” which asserted that American public schools were mired in mediocrity and needed dramatic changes. I agree that the “Nation at Risk” report launched the era of public-school bashing. But it was NCLB and the other “solutions” that launched teacher-bashing, blaming teachers for low test scores and judging teachers by their test scores. It should be noted that the crest of “reform” was 2010, when “Waiting for Superman” was released, Common Core was put into place, value-added test scores for teachers were published, and “reformers” like Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and other became media stars, with their constant teacher-bashing. For what it’s worth, the National Assessment of Educational Progress flatlined from 2010 onwards. Test score gains, which were supposedly the point of all this “reform” activity, were non-existent on the nation’s most consequential test (no stakes attached).

Readers also blamed demoralization on teachers’ loss of autonomy, caused by federal laws and the testing imposed by them, and by the weakness of principals and administrators who did not protect teachers from the anti-education climate caused by NCLB, RTTT, ESSA, and the test-and-punish mindset that gripped the minds of the nation’s legislators and school leaders.

Readers said that my list left off important names of those responsible for demoralizing the nation’s teachers.

Here are readers’ additions, paraphrased by me:

Michelle Rhee, who was pictured on the cover of TIME magazine as the person who knew “How to Fix American Education” and lionized in a story by Amanda Ripley. Rhee was shown holding a broom, preparing to sweep “bad teachers” and “bad principals” out of the schools. During her brief tenure as Chancellor of D.C., she fired scores of teachers and added to her ruthless reputation by firing a principal on national television. For doing so, she was the Queen of “education reform” in the eyes of the national media until USA Today broke a major cheating scandal in the D.C. schools.

Joel Klein, antitrust lawyer who was chosen by Mayor Bloomberg to become the Chancellor of the New York City public schools, where he closed scores of schools because of their low test scores, embraced test-based evaluation of schools and teachers, and opened hundreds of small specialized schools and charter schools. He frequently derided teachers and blamed them for lagging test scores. He frequently reorganized the entire, vast school system, surrounding himself with aides with Business School graduates and Wall Street credentials. Under his leadership, NYC was the epitome of corporate reform, which inherently disrespected career educators.

Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, billionaire funder of charter schools and of candidates running for state or local offices who supported privatization of public schools. He claimed that under his leadership, the test-score gap between different racial gaps had been cut in half or even closed, but it wasn’t true. He stated his desire to fire teachers who couldn’t “produce” high test scores, while doubling the size of the classes of teachers who could. His huge public relations staff circulated the story of a “New York City Miracle,” but it didn’t exist and evaporated as soon as he left office.

Reed Hastings, billionaire funder of charter schools and founder of Netflix. He expressed the wish that all school boards would be eliminated. The charter school was his ideal, managed privately without public oversight.

John King, charter school leader who was appointed New York Commissioner of Education. He was a cheerleader for the Common Core and high-stakes testing. He made parents so angry by his policies that he stopped appearing at public events. He was named U.S. Secretary of Education, following Arne Duncan, in the last year of the Obama administration and continued to advocate for the same ill-fated policies as Duncan.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education despised public schools, unions, and teachers. She never had a good word to say about public schools. She wanted every student to attend religious schools at public expense.

Eli Broad and the “academy” he created to train superintendents with his ideas about top-down management and the alleged value of closing schools with low test scores

ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which writes model legislation for privatizing public schools by opening charters and vouchers and lowering standards for teachers and crushing unions. More than 2,000 rightwing state legislators belong to ALEC and get their ideas directly from ALEC about privatization and other ways to crush public schools and their teachers.

Rupert Murdoch, the media, Time, Newsweek, NY Times, Washington Post for their hostility towards public schools and their warm, breathless reporting about charter schools and Teach for America. The Washington Post editorialist is a devotee of charter schools and loved Michelle Rhee’s cut-throat style. TIME ran two cover stories endorsing the “reform” movement; the one featuring Michelle Rhee, and the other referring to one of every four public school teachers as a “rotten apple.” The second cover lauded the idea that teachers were the cause of low test scores, and one of every four should be weeded out. Newsweek also had a Rhee cover, and another that declared in a sentence repeated on a chalkboard, “We Must Fire Bad Teachers,” as though the public schools were overrun with miscreant teachers.

David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core, which undermined the autonomy of teachers and ironically removed teachers’ focus on content and replaced it with empty skills. The Common Core valued “informational text” over literature and urged teachers to reduce time spent teaching literature.

Margaret Raymond, of the Walton-funded CREDO, which evaluates charter schools.

Hanna Skandera, who was Secretary of Education in New Mexico and tried to import the Florida model of testing, accountability, and choice to New Mexico. That state has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the nation, and the Florida model didn’t make any difference.

Governors who bashed teachers and public schools, like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Gregg Abbott of Texas

“Researchers” like those from the Fordham Institute, who saw nothing good in public schools or their teaching

Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who turned Denver into a model of “reform,” with everything DFER wanted: charter schools and high-stakes testing.

Poorly behaving students and parents who won’t hold kids accountable for bad behavior

Campbell Brown and the 74

The U.S. Department of Education, for foisting terrible ideas on the nation’s schools and teachers, and state education departments and state superintendents for going along with these bad ideas. Not one state chief stood up and said, “We won’t do what is clearly wrong for our students and their teachers.”

The two big national unions, for going along with these bad ideas instead of fighting them tooth and nail.

And now I will quote readers’ comments exactly as they wrote them, without identifying their authors (they know who they are):

*Rightwing organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, (AEI), the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Heritage Foundation, even the allegedly Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) for publishing white papers masquerading as education research that promotes privatization.

*Wall St moguls who invented Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) to gamble on & profit from preK student test scores.

*Rogues Gallery. One body blow after another. A systematic 💦 water boarding with no respite. And then we add the Broad Foundation who sent Broad-trained “leadership” so drunk on arrogance and ignorance that the term “School Yard Bully” just doesn’t capture it.
Operating with the Imprimatur and thin veneer of venture capital, plutocratic philanthropy, these haughty thugs devastated every good program they laid eyes on. Sinking their claws instinctively into the intelligent, effective and cultured faculty FIRST.A well orchestrated, heavily scripted Saturday Night Massacre.

*Congress and the Presidents set the stage, but the US Department of Education was instrumental in making it all happen. They effectively implemented a coherent program to attack, smear and otherwise demoralize teachers. And make no mistake, it was quite purposeful

*This list is incomplete without members of Democrats for Education Reform. Add in Senator Ted Kennedy, whose role in the passage of No Child Left Behind was critical. Same for then Congressman and future Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who noted (bragged!) in his recent autobiography that he was essential in keeping President George W. Bush on track with NCLB.

*Let’s not forget Senate Chair Patty Murray. She has been an important player in keeping the worse of Ed Reform legislation alive.

*You have presented a rogue’s gallery of failed “reformers” that have worked against the common good. In addition to those mentioned, there has also been an ancillary group of promoters and enablers that have undermined public education including billionaire think tanks, foundations and members of both political parties. These people continue to spread lies and misinformation, and no amount of facts or research is able to diminish the drive to privatize. While so called reformers often hide behind an ideological shield, they are mostly about the greedy pursuit of appropriating the education that belongs to the people and transferring its billions in value into the pockets of the already wealthy. So called education reform is class warfare.

*The Clintons, whose 1994 reauthorization of ESEA set the stage for NCLB

*Don’t forget the so called ‘liberal’ media, publications such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe who have published pro charter piece after pro charter piece, while simultaneously dumping all over public schools

*I’d like to include a cast of editorialists like George Will, Bill Rhoden, and many others, who have parroted the plutocratic-backed Ed Reform line. Armstrong Williams would certainly be part of this.

*Going back even further into the origins of this madness, I would add to Diane’s excellent rogues gallery those unknown bureaucrats in state departments of education who replaced broad, general frameworks/overall strategic objectives with bullet lists of almost entirely content-free “standards” that served as the archetype of the Common [sic] Core [sic] based on the absurd theory that we should “teach skills” independent of content, all of which led, ironically, to trivialization of and aimlessnessness in ELA pedagogy and curricula and to a whole generation of young English teachers who themselves NOW KNOW NEXT TO NOTHING OF THE CONTENT OF THEIR SUBJECT, typified by the English teacher who told one of the parents who regularly contributes comments to this blog, “I’m an English teacher, so I don’t teach content.” So, today, instead of teaching, say, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as part of a coherent and cumulative unit on common structures and techniques and genres of poetry, one gets idiotic test-practice exercises on “inferencing” and “finding the main idea,” with any random piece of writing as the “text.”

*It’s driven by how teachers have been treated the past 4-5 years, especially during the pandemic. Teachers are first responders. We should have been on the list of first-to-be-vaccinated. Schools should have strict mask and vaccine mandates. Teachers are professional educators. We should not be told what and how to teach by ignorant, conspiracy-driven MAGA parents. Public education is a cornerstone of democracy, and we teachers are motivated by a sense of civic duty. We are demoralized by attempts to destroy public education, led by anti-education bible-thumping “leaders” like Betsy DeVos and (in my home state) Frank Edelblut. Public education is being dismantled by gleeful right-wingers, while naive, well-intentioned moderates wring their hands and do little to defend it. It’s tiring to be under constant attack on the front lines, with no support. That’s why teachers are leaving today.

*One tiny example of a routine phenomenon. Teachers got the message pretty clearly: They were at the bottom of the pecking order. The absolute bottom. Micromanaged and undercut at every turn.Excellent points. The heavy handed top-down, bureaucratic demands for “data,” basically serve one goal, to justify the existence of administration.Don’t forget the voracious appetite of publishing companies…We had a district administrator prance around in our “professional; development days” tell use could not read novels or other picture books to the students…ONLY USE PEARSON.”And then 7 or so years later, the district made us THROW OUT every book from Pearson, and they bought new crap curriculum…that program was written by testing industry, not educators, I think it was “Benchmark,” real junk.

*I’d like to mention how I often lose my student teachers when they see the edTPA requirement. They switch majors, and the teaching pool gets even smaller.

*After Skamdera in NM came the TFA VAM sweetheart Christopher Ruszkowski. At least he had 3 years in a classroom, Skammy had none, but the Florida model, you know?

*Children’s behavior is in large part in response to the drill and kill curriculum and endless testing and teaching to the test that has been driving public education since NCLB and the back-to-basics movement that ushered it in. No room for creativity, no room for self expression, no room for innovation. Highly scripted Curriculum like Open Court turned children into little automatons, barking their answers like well trained dogs and turned teachers into task masters. It was a drive to dummy down the curriculum for fear of teaching too much free thinking. And a drive to turn teachers into testing machines and teacher technicians, easily replaced by anyone who can walk in a classroom and pick up the manual. Only it doesn’t work. It was and is developmentally inappropriate and the resulting rebellion in the classrooms if proof of that. No wonder teachers are leaving in droves!

*Under threat of closure of the MA school board in the mid 1800s, Horace Mann turned to the cheapest labor he could find, literate northern females, and deployed the Protestant ethic “teacher as a calling” trope to institute state free-riding on teachers (as opposed to the free-riding of which teachers are accused). Everything in this piece is correct except for the “almost” in the final paragraph. There’s no “almost” about it … free-riding on teachers is an operational feature of a system imported from Prussia, designed to produce cheap, obedient labor by underpaying women. As of 2012, teachers would need to make around 1/3 higher salaries to be paid on the same level as their professional peers. Everyone mentioned in the article is simply this generation’s enactment of the long-standing, systemic class war that preys on gender and race to continue and exacerbate inequity. While naming the current situation is very important, we also need to discuss, address, and shift these deep issues.

*It’s the boiled frog effect over the last 50 years that began as a response to mini-courses, sixties curriculum, obsession over college attendance, professors and teachers walking out to protest with their students, Viet Nam… and the Civil Rights Act. Since 1964, Intentional segregation influenced Local, state, and federal decision making on transportation, health care, insurance, zoning, housing, education funding, hiring, and more. When whites fled the cities and insured two sides of the tracks in towns and two systems evolved, quick fixes became that accumulation of bad decisions and leadership – and slowly, slowly, deterioration became acceptable.

*The list is not dated. It’s illustrative of the accumulation of negativity, quick-fix seeking, acronym-filled, snake-oil salesmen, desperate mayors and governors, obsession with rankings, publisher fixation on common core, NCLB votes hidden under the shadow of 9/11, and keep-everyone-happy state and national professional organizations.

*At the end of 2021 it is far right and left of politics and their rhetoric like CRT and homophobic slurs. So much for especially the “Christian Right.” In their god’s (yes lower case since not The Lord Jesus Christ’s New Testament words of love) name they exclude instead of include to share the good news/word.

*Data, data, data. Yesterday, I commented that I feel sympathetic toward the anti-CRT petitioners. I do. They’re not bad people. They’re just afraid of changing social rules. Their actions are demoralizing, but not dehumanizing. Wealthy corporations and individuals on the other hand , through their untaxed foundations, gave carrots to governments the world over to give the stick to education so that greater profits could be made through privatization and data monetizing. I was once called a 2. I was once labeled the color grey. I was numbered, dehumanized by test score data in an attempt to make education like Uber or Yelp. Not just demoralized, dehumanized. It’s not just who but what dehumanized teachers. It was the wrongheaded idea that education can be measured and sold by the unit. That idea was insidious. The marketing ploy to make my students into consumers who consider their efforts junk unless they are labeled with the right number or dashboard color was insidious. I have no sympathy for the investor class. They are not people with whom I disagree about social issues; they are hostile, corporate takeover wolves out to tear the flesh of the formerly middle and deeply impoverished classes for profit. Not one of the investors in education “reform” or any of their revolving door bureaucrats is any friend of mine. The list of who is long. The list of what is short.

*Jonah Edelman (Founder, Stand on Children); brother Josh Edelman (Gates Foundation: Empowering-?!–Effective Teaching; SEED Charter Schools); Charles & David Koch. Pear$on Publishing monopoly&, of course, ALEC (interfering in our business for FIFTY long years!)

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.