Disaster Capitalism, K-12 Education, and Corporate Takeovers of Progressive Organizations

by Karoli on June 18, 2012 · 4 comments

This is how fundamental democratic institutions and progressive organizations get co-opted by corporate interests. Find an issue like, say, education reform, partner up with right-wing interests to undermine public education as a fundamental right of every child in this country, and let billionaires direct the flow of dollars into competing efforts.

Along the way, it’s useful to toss some corporate money at progressive organizations in order to give the appearance  that right-wing corporate policies are somehow progressive. This is exactly what has happened with Stand for Children and Change.org. Their union-busting petition microtargeted at Chicago teachers highlights how they have been played “at the edges” to promote ideas that are not at all progressive.

This video and the paragraphs above may be all you need to convince you. But if you want the details, continue reading below the fold.

Last week, 90 percent of Chicago’s teachers participated in a vote to strike if negotiations with the city failed. Of the 90 percent voting, 98 percent voted to authorize a strike. Jonah Edelman, president of Stand For Children, bragged about how he drove a wedge into teachers unions by making a deal with the Illinois Teachers’ Association (NEA) which he believed would force the Chicago Teachers Union (AFT) to cut a similar one. Their vote proves otherwise.

Why Chicago? Here’s why: Chicago is the current battleground for union busters, and to that end, corporations and right-wing charities have made unprecedented investments in Democrats and progressive organizations. Aaron Krager has the details:

Outside groups, such as Stand for Children, Education Reform Now and New Schools for Chicago, are placing a big bet on the impending contract negotiations between Chicago Public Schools Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union. All three organizations serve as advocacy groups that tend to push for charter schools, merit pay, and stronger testing.

But it’s not just Chicago. In Massachusetts, Stand For Children is pushing a ballot initiative intended to force teachers unions to cut a deal not in their best interests or in students’ best interests. That effort is being funded by Bain Capital and “philanthropic” organizations. By placing the ballot initiative, Edelman and Stand For Children put pressure on the unions to cut a deal in Massachusetts or face a well-funded, very negative campaign against teachers in November.

Meanwhile, billionaires plan the next decade…

In 2010, billionaire donors like the Waltons, DeVos and Gates families gathered in Houston, Texas at a Philanthropy Roundtable meeting to discuss ways to create “breakthroughs” in public education. After patting themselves on the back for promoting organizations like Teach for America and KIPP, as well as recognizing Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, they looked to the future. As they were brainstorming things to note in the current landscape, AEI’s Rick Hess suggested that unions could be co-opted by being encouraged to move from an industrial model to a “professional model”, and then offered this:

The fiscal condition of states and towns will open up opportunities, too. “There’s going to be a sustained window of four to five years or longer where you’re going to find local districts with very tight budgets,” Hess said. “This is a huge moment of opportunity for funders to step up to the plate and say, ‘We’re going to help you out—but there’s a quid pro quo.’”

That would be a textbook example of Shock Doctrine education reform right there, funded by the same billionaires who created and continue to maintain the fiscal condition of states and towns. Those same billionaires are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep that window forced open while they work to shift public opinion away from traditional K-12 education into for-profit models that will present “opportunities” for a quid-pro-quo deal.

Consider it a multi-pronged approach. Drive a stake into the heart of teachers unions and put proposals in front of them that will need to be “jammed down their throats”, demonize those same teachers in order to manufacture a “crisis” based primarily on flawed testing and unproven evaluation metrics. Add the online education movement amplified via ALEC and state legislatures, where online education isn’t simply an option, but is required in several states. Mix it up with a pinch of teacher humiliation, and the odor of “education deform” begins to permeate and bubble in every community.

Welcome to corporate “philanthropy”

When the billionaires met up in Houston, they spent some time congratulating themselves on what they had accomplished, and then went to work outlining their strategy for the next decade. Here, then, are the goals of educational “philanthropists” over the next ten years, listed in order of priority:

  1. Eliminate teacher tenure and traditional teacher compensation models based on years of service and continuing education efforts.
  2. Create “hybrid school options”that deliver increased student learning while reducing costs. One idea tossed out in their brainstorming session was to just buy a Rosetta Stone license for a school that wanted to offer Mandarin, because it would be one less teacher they’d have to hire. Other hybrid school options include mixing online learning with in-person attendance at a brick and mortar school. Of course, that brick and mortar school would be assumed to be a charter school. One can also assume the online learning component would be provided by a for-profit educational group.
  3. Increase voter awareness of public education spending, practice and outcomes. Don’t be fooled into thinking that “public education education” would be at all unbiased.
  4. Develop a leadership pipeline on a state-by-state basis to produce “5,000 exceptionally talented, data-driven school leaders every year.” I’m not quite sure what they mean by “school leaders,” to be honest. Are they advocates for profitized education, or the disposable teacher model?
  5. Lots of “no-excuses” schools: Make sure every urban zip code has a “no excuses” school to hold up as a shiny example of excellence. Of course, that “no excuses school” would also be a charter school. It is of paramount importance that traditional public schools be scapegoated to encourage and convince parents to enroll their children in charter schools.

…while congratulating themselves on their past “breakthroughs”

Here’s what this same group sees as their most significant achievements of the past decade in the K-12 universe, ranked in order of importance:

  1. The “human capital revolution” led by Teach for America. In case you’re not repelled by the term “human capital”, please review this recent TFA posting where they trumpeted their partnership with JP Morgan to recruit new Investment Bank Analysts, summer internships, and two-year mentoring opportunities before they’re sent into the inner city to teach those poor urban school students. Mitt Romney is quite fond of the term. The term suggests that humanity can be boiled down to a data-driven formula which derives a value for individual workers, work, and skills. It is intended to be dehumanizing and mechanistic. When teachers are dehumanized and reduced to becoming “human capital,” corporate influencers are then able to strip their humanity, dignity and all respect away. Once devalued, teachers become nothing more than a metric. To that end, TFA received a grant from the Walton Foundation of $12.6 million in 2011, with a total grant of $49.5 million over 5 years. 1
  2. Rapid scaling of “high-performing charter schools” like KIPP and YES Prep. KIPP and YES are non-profit charter school networks. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? In this case, the Walton Foundation was the primary benefactor, pledging $25.5 million over five years to double the number of students served by KIPP charter schools. Just for good measure, an additional grant of $22.9 million was made to the Charter School Growth Fund to augment rapid charter school growth. Yes, the CSGF exists as a venture capital fund to make investments in charter schools around the country.
  3. Proclaim that children of all socioeconomic backgrounds can perform at high academic levels. I don’t view this as news, or something they threw millions at to change. I do think the second part of their declaration is interesting, though. It reads “can perform at very high academic levels systematically at a very big scale. In other words, there’s profit to be made by virtue of scale. Yes, they’re referring to performance, but that’s not the key phrase. The key phrase is “systematically…” That suggests some self-congratulation over mechanized educational methods utilizing human capital to create an “efficient market”.
  4. Changed minds, changed leadership – They’re loving the new group of “reform-minded school district leaders” who came from outside education. Yes, this is a big deal, even though it was last on their bullet list, because it lays the foundation for policymakers to ignore those people who are most affected by policy — the educators. The formula: Remove educators from school district leadership, replace with corporate thinkers. Those corporate thinkers then lay the foundation for a hostile corporate takeover of education with all the attendant profit centers. Here’s just one example of ways they’re thinking about profiting from education “reform”, from the summary of their meeting:

    “We need to think differently about cost,” he added. Right now, thanks to taxpayer and foundation support, families and high-performing charter networks have “no skin in the game.” What if, Hess asked, a charter school ran a school for less than its per-pupil allotment and was allowed to pass some of the savings back to parents for supplemental education services? It could trigger a race to keep costs down.

Pay close attention to that last point, because you should be able to see where this is going. It begins with philanthropy and ends with a “market” through which those same philanthropists stand to profit much. This is a long term investment, not an effort springing up from the goodness of their hearts or because they particularly care about our children. Education is a profit center, just like medicine and infrastructure.

Stand for Children: Originally progressive, now a wholly-owned corporate subsidiary

Stand for Children is an organization that began in Oregon and has branched out over time. It began with altruistic principles, but has been co-opted by corporate money and quid-pro-quo ideals. Indeed, Stand for Children’s president, Jonah Edelman, is compensated based upon the level of funds raised for Stand for Children each year. Their board includes Emma Bloomberg (Michael Bloomberg’s daughter), Julie Mikuta, partner at New Schools Venture Fund, Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell, and private investors Donald Washburn and Gun Dennart.

Stand For Children has two components: A 501c3 organization called “Stand for Children Leadership Center” and a 501c4 organization called “Stand for Children, Inc.” which is organized into state-based advocacy organizations. In 2010, their 501c4 was the conduit for nearly $3 million in campaign and lobbying payments in Illinois. But those donations did not go to right-wing tea party types. No, they funded Democrats, because the best way for the right wing to win is to drive a wedge right into the center of the Democratic party and progressives.

Change.org is no change at all

All of this brings me to that union-busting Change.org petition. Here’s a snippet of Stand for Children’s letter to the Board of Education and CTU President Karen Lewis. The petition is entitled “Tell Chicago Board of Education and Teachers’ Union: Get Back to the Table.”

400,000 Chicago students could be locked out of Chicago classrooms because contract negotiations are starting to break down, causing a premature strike-authorization vote to occur before anyone knows what is in the contract proposal. We strongly call for all parties to bargain in good faith to reach a new agreement. Don’t hold our students hostage in a negotiation where they have no voice!

Awwww. Imagine that. Teachers holding students hostage. How terrible.

Change.org promotes itself as a progressive organization, leveraging online petitions into pressure for action. The problem is that Change.org’s business model includes sponsored petitions which some non-progressive organizations use for list-building purposes. StudentsFirst and Michelle Rhee were among the willing buyers of Change.org’s paid services, and now Stand For Children is following suit. Change.org’s mission statement says this:

We accept sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear – fairness, equality, and justice. We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.

Which begs the question: How can they justify the Stand For Children petition under that set of principles? Here’s what their spokesman, Benjamin Joffe-Walt wrote to answer that question:

Yet there are also judgments that are difficult, and Stand for Children is one of those. Their stated mission is to help kids succeed in school. And clearly they fight, hard, against teachers unions. But our judgement is that they fit within our current client policy.

As did, evidently, Michelle Rhee. Never mind that Rhee’s organization is funded by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, or that the Walton organization is pouring money into Stand for Children. Never mind that I have demonstrated just how motivated the “school reform” movement is to turn our public education system into a private system with maximum profit potential. Never mind that, because Stand For Children “claims” to be all about the children.

So what now?

What now is simply this: Change.org should either withdraw their agreements with Stand For Children and StudentsFirst or admit that corporate interests own them too. To that end, representatives of Change.org spoke to progressives at the Take Back the American Dream conference today and are considering the serious objections progressives have to giving the likes of the Walton and Murdochs of the world a chance to drive discord into the center of the progressive movement. Keep the pressure on them.

MoveOn.org has a true grassroots petition site — Signon.org — that one teacher is using to fight Stand For Children and Change.org. I suggest signing her petition as a way to express support for teachers’ right to stand up not only for children, but for the long-term health of our education system.

Democratic politicians, including Arne Duncan and President Obama, need to witness our commitment to supporting teachers and their unions as a core value and hear our objections to their efforts to weaken teachers and teachers unions. I do not believe one can be a progressive and support private, profitized education paid for on the taxpayer’s dime with profits going into billionaires’ pockets. That’s not quid pro quo. It’s destruction. It is a road to unequal and inadequate education, mechanical and lifeless. One small way to demonstrate our objection to their corporate acquiescence is to reject Change.org’s acceptance of sponsored campaigns that directly undermine progressive principles.

The right wing wins because they see everything as a long-term investment. I believe if we take the same approach and do not waver in our refusal to allow teachers to be bullied by corporate interests, we can preserve one of the core institutions of our democracy — Education.

1 Washington Post, “Who won millions in Walton Foundation grants in 2011″ Link

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