School Choice & Charters Opinion

Are Education “Reformers” Becoming Privatizers?

By Anthony Cody — November 02, 2012 5 min read
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Quite a few “liberal” education reformers ought to be doing a bit of soul searching these days, as their movement seems to be veering into territory previously occupied by segregationists and anti-union business and political leaders. Diane Ravitch has begun calling people whom we used to know as “education reformers” by the more loaded term “privatizers.”

In California, we are seeing where this path is leading some of our state’s most prominent “liberal” politicians, and it is not pretty. The former state senate Democratic majority leader, Gloria Romero, has become the “face” of Proposition 32, an initiative funded by the Koch brothers, which will disallow unions from making political contributions. The initiative has language that makes it appear even-handed, but due to court decisions such as Citizens United, corporations will continue to have few limits on their ability to make contributions.

Education reform has long been an easy ticket to political credibility for liberals. But in the past, this meant people actually fought for public investments in our schools. Ever since NCLB came along, however, there has been a new game in town. Some of those who supported NCLB did so because they thought higher standards combined with pressure from tests would “force” public schools to succeed. Others, however, wanted to “blow the system up.” It took a few years, but as the hedge fund managers and investment capitalists have figured out the billions to be made, they have been climbing on board the train. They have also seen the clear connection between the NCLB hammers - tests and school closures - and the creation of greater opportunities for “innovative” alternatives to public schools. And of course the new Common Core assessments will reveal new “performance gaps,” yet another set of opportunities for the “innovators.”

But the “liberals” who were gung ho supporters of NCLB have always insisted that their goal was the salvation of public education, not its destruction. People like Ted Kennedy and California Congressman George Miller staked their position firmly in the solid ground of civil rights. But now people like Romero are now using this same rhetoric to attack unions. Romero is all over TV this week, appearing in TV ads paid for by the Koch Brothers, to promote legislation that will force unions out of the political arena.

As Romero explained to reporter Matthew Fleischer, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics. It’s flowing to both sides. Government isn’t about drawing lines. It’s not about saying you’re on that side and you can’t come over.”

Romero “came over” via a group called Democrats For Education Reform. This organization has been influential with the Obama administration, and is funded by hedge fund billionaires who are seeking to expand investment opportunities in education.

Michelle Rhee is another “reformer” who has draped herself in the garb of a liberal. She claims to be a Democrat, and her husband is the Kevin Johnson, a former basketball player who is now the mayor of California’s capital, Sacramento. She told a reporter in September, “I’m not just a Democrat -- I feel like I’m a pretty lefty Democrat, and it is somewhat disappointing when I hear some people saying, ‘She’s not a real Democrat.’” In May, she shifted $2 million into a California StudentsFirst PAC, and has made contributions to influence legislative races in the state. This is how influence is purchased.

Rhee spoke out in support of Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and more recently, Rhee’s StudentsFirst PAC has funneled half a million dollars to DEFEAT a proposition in Michigan that would protect the right of workers (including teachers) to collective bargaining. The more influence “Democrats” like Romero and Rhee wield within the Democratic Party, the more we will see that party promote charter schools and the privatization of education.

Wendy Kopp, another supposed liberal, has morphed Teach For America into a program devoted to building “leadership.” A few years ago, TFA created the organization Leadership for Educational Equity, as a sort of launchpad for TFA alums interested in advancing their political careers. The candidates they support share some familiar political goals - advancing merit pay for teachers, the “parent trigger,” and the expansion of standardized testing. As this article in The American Prospect concludes, “what began--and is still viewed by many--as an apolitical service corps could be the Trojan horse of the privatization of public education.”

At some point, genuine liberals need to start to question this path.
Do they really want to be associated with people who are literally turning our public education system over to profit-making corporations? Is the fig leaf of “civil rights” going to continue to mask the re-segregation of our schools? Do the virtues of “innovation” justify turning public dollars over to parochial schools that teach students the Earth is 6,000 years old? Or to virtual charter schools that claim to “personalize” education by assigning poorly paid teachers hundreds of students, while their CEO rakes in $5 million a year?

I grew up in a liberal family. Certain values were upheld as sacred. You did not cross a picket line. Ever. You stood with the underdog, and supported worker’s rights to organize and strike. When our city moved to desegregate schools in 1968, we supported and participated not because it would improve test scores, but because we believed in Martin Luther King, Jr’s vision for the future, that our children would learn together, and build for their common future as they played together. I was one of those children, and these are values that still guide my support for public education and for teachers’ rights to collective bargaining.

It is remarkable to me that supposed liberals can abandon these values. But when enough “mothers milk” is made available, I guess it becomes hard to resist.

We do not have much difficulty identifying Michelle Rhee as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Will other “liberals” such as George Miller continue to provide steam for the engines that threaten our public schools? Will they continue to support special exemptions that allow Teach For America novices to be considered “highly qualified teachers”? Will they support the expansion of charter schools and the use of the deceptive “parent trigger” even as they increase segregation and leave the toughest to teach students behind? Will they support the expansion of sham virtual schools like K12 Inc even as they divert public funds to clearly inferior alternatives?

Tuesday’s election will tell us how successful they will be this time. Educators and underdogs know who our friends are, and they show this not by what they call themselves, or their party affiliation, but by their actions.

What do you think? Are “liberals” like Kopp, Rhee and Romero actually advancing the privatization of our public schools?

Dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.