Skip to content

Florida: Using Tax Payer (Public) Funds to Pay Criminals!

Yes, you read that title right!  Thank you to the amazing Diane Ravitch for bringing the below link and story from the Tampa Bay Times to my attention.

Basically, you are going to be disgusted, and maybe a little amazed by what you read in this article.  A big shout out to the excellent work of Michael LaForgia, the newspaper’s investigative reporter on this issue.  He did a fine job here and I only hope that this type of investigative reporting grows in newspapers around the country.

Before I get into the article I want to say that this is what happens when you deregulate education and open up public education to anyone who thinks they can make a buck off of public taxpayer funds.  You are going to get all manner of charlatan crawling out of every type of hole to try and get in on the windfall…students be damned…taxpayers be damned!  Quite frankly, when you read articles like this, and when you examine what is happening in Republican controlled states around this great country it makes you wonder about the upcoming election cycle in 2014.  Will people have enough sense to ‘vote the bums out’ or will their ideological predispositions of god, guns, and gays overrule their senses?

You have to read this article to believe it!  One tidbit I learned from this reporting is that the original culprit is the NCLB law itself which actually mandated spending private $$ on tutoring services.  Isn’t it amazing how one certain political faction in this country is always complaining about government, but they are more than happy to line up to suck off the government teat whenever they can figure out how!

When Yolanda Axson wasn’t watching, a pot of hot water spilled into a crib at her day care in Orlando, scalding a 4-month-old boy.

She served probation for felony child neglect and then, barred from child care, found a less regulated line of work. She started a company to earn tax dollars tutoring poor kids in Florida’s failing schools.

When state officials saw Axson’s name on an application for the government tutoring program, they didn’t hesitate. They stamped their approval, and her business, Busy BEE Services, went to work tutoring Florida’s neediest children.

The cost to taxpayers per student? At least $60 an hour.

Axson’s case points to a larger problem with mandated tutoring in Florida: The program pays public money to people with criminal records, and to cheaters and profiteers who operate virtually unchecked by state regulators.

In a three-month investigation, the Tampa Bay Times examined invoice records from 59 school districts, conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of complaint reports, audits and other documents, and found:

Florida school districts paid at least $7 million last year to tutoring companies run by people with criminal records. Among those who have headed state-approved tutoring firms are a rapist, thieves and drug users.

• In more than 40 cases across the state, tutoring companies have faked student sign-up sheets or billed for tutoring that never happened. Companies that overcharged for tutoring earned $7 million last year alone.

The program is riddled with conflicts of interest. In one county last year, more than 100 teachers moonlighted as tutors of their own students, flouting state ethics rules by positioning themselves to steer kids toward their secondary employers. Parents have billed for tutoring their own children and the head of a small North Florida school system ran a tutoring company that did business with neighboring school districts.

Dozens of tutoring firms have broken federal rules by luring impoverished kids to sign up with promises of bicycles, gift cards and computers. Others have sent school administrators on golf outings or sponsored retreats for district officials who administer tutoring contracts.

Despite uncovering millions of dollars in potential fraud and documenting flagrant violations, school districts almost never forward cases to law enforcement.

And state education officials charged with policing the program are missing chances to cut back on fraud and waste.

Florida’s Department of Education doesn’t screen backgrounds of the people who profit from subsidized tutoring, and it seldom cracks down on companies accused of improper billing, illegal marketing and low-quality tutoring.

Overwhelmingly, the state has allowed these companies to continue earning tax dollars year after year.

After nearly a decade, Florida last year won a waiver from the federal law that requires private tutoring. The state was set to shut down the program when lobbyists for the tutoring industry stepped in. They convinced state lawmakers to keep the money flowing.

Florida has spent $192 million on private tutoring firms in the past two years.

The companies are paid at a dramatically higher rate than conventional public schools. In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent period for which numbers are available, the state spent $9,981 per student — about $11 an hour. Florida spent $58 an hour, more than five times as much, on private tutoring.

Florida schools officials say the money could have paid for extended school days or extra instruction in high-poverty schools.

Tutoring companies, many of which meet high standards and offer quality instruction, say they provide a needed service.

But researchers disagree over whether government-funded tutoring is worth the money. Studies are inconclusive or contradictory.

The debate often takes on political undertones, with Republicans in favor of subsidized tutoring — known in education jargon as supplemental educational services — and Democrats against it.

In May, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in, telling a group of Florida business people that, when it comes to subsidized tutoring firms, “there never has been accountability for results.”

A new industry

The George W. Bush administration kicked off a gold rush in 2001 when, as part of its landmark education reform, No Child Left Behind, it required states to spend hundreds of millions of federal dollars on private tutoring for poor children.

The law — adopted with bipartisan support — forced districts to hire tutors at high-poverty schools that failed to improve test scores two years in a row.

To pay for it, districts were to tap Title I money, federal funds set aside for elevating impoverished kids.

A new industry was born.

Hundreds of companies were formed in Florida alone. The bulk of them were for-profit. Each year more companies lined up, lured by the promise of per-child fees that averaged about $60 an hour.

With so much money at stake, providers have offered children bicycles, laptops and other prizes for signing up. They have followed kids from bus stops and mobbed parents in school parking lots.

In Miami-Dade County, a company sent a high school’s administrators on a four-day golf outing while seeking to lease more tutoring space from the administrators, a district investigation found.

“I’ve had a provider tell me that they see children as individual income increments,” said Peggy Hildebrand, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Volusia County schools. “I had another provider tell me that NCLB stands for ‘No Cash Left Behind.'”

A Times analysis of district billing data — the first of its kind in Florida — showed that 20 companies earned $1 million or more last year.

The top five earners collected a combined $20 million. The No. 1 tutoring business — founded by an Orlando businessman who formerly worked in sales and marketing for Miller Brewing Co. — collected more than $6 million.

Although federal law gave Florida power to regulate tutoring companies, it didn’t hold owners and employees of the companies to the same high standards as teachers. Tutors hired by private firms don’t need a college degree. Some companies recruit through Craigslist.

And though instructors must pass criminal background checks to work with children, the state requires no screening for owners and operators of tutoring companies.

As a result, the industry remains open to people like Axson.

Record no obstacle

Axson was running a day care in Orlando in 1999 when she put a 13-year-old girl in charge of three babies at once. A crockpot of hot water spilled on an infant boy, badly burning him, and Axson tried to cover it up, according to the state attorney’s office.

Prosecutors charged her with felony child neglect and her mother, Beulah Wiggins, with a misdemeanor child labor law violation.

The case against Wiggins was dismissed, but Axson pleaded no contest in 2001. A judge withheld a formal finding of guilt and sentenced Axson to 10 years probation, during which she was banned from working with children and even from babysitting.

Under Florida law, her plea makes her ineligible to work in child care. She can’t own or operate a day care center.

But in 2009 she registered to do business as Busy BEE Services and became a state-approved tutoring vendor.

Last year, her business collected more than $95,000 tutoring students in Orange County schools.

Neither Axson, 42, nor a company representative could be reached for comment, despite repeated phone calls and emails.

Axson’s case isn’t an isolated example, the Times found.

The newspaper used corporate records to identify more than 1,100 officers and directors of the 456 tutoring companies approved in Florida last school year. Comparing that list with records of criminal convictions and arrests uncovered at least 36 companies headed by people with criminal records.

In 24 cases, they pleaded guilty or no contest to charges ranging from misdemeanor domestic battery and public lewdness to grand theft and rape. In the others, charges were downgraded or dropped after the defendants made deals with prosecutors.

State laws meant to protect children would bar many of these people from working in a day care business. But those laws don’t apply to government-funded tutoring companies, whose officers and directors are not screened.

Ernest R. Joe Jr. was in prison for raping a woman at gunpoint in front of her kids when he became a director of Kids World Enrichment Center Inc.

That didn’t stop regulators from approving the company as a tutoring vendor in 2009.

Founded by Joe’s mother, Carolynne Mather, in Lakeland, the company has earned more than $119,000 in the past two years tutoring children in Hillsborough and Polk counties.

In January, Mather told the Times she included Joe, now 42, in corporate paperwork because she listed family members as directors of her company. She stressed that Joe, released from prison last year and now a registered sex offender, was not involved with her business.

The company still is tutoring in Florida schools. Joe remained a director until June.

Dawud Brown, 34, pleaded guilty in 2008 to two counts of felony check fraud but skipped out on his probation.

He was listed as a fugitive when he became a director of Aspire Innovative Learning Inc., a Clearwater nonprofit that earned more than $33,000 last year from Pinellas County schools. Brown couldn’t be reached for comment. Calls to his company’s phone number during a two-week period were met with a busy signal. A company representative didn’t respond to emails.

This year, Brown’s company is tutoring again. He still is a wanted man.

Education officials across the state said these cases alarmed them.

“The vetting process is not as good as it should be. We need to tighten it up,” said T. Willard Fair, former chairman of the state Board of Education and an outspoken advocate for subsidized tutoring. “There can be no acceptable rationale for not doing it. We cannot give the impression that anything goes in this process.”

Tutoring cheats

After companies win state approval as tutoring contractors, there’s little to stop them from ripping off school districts.

In 2009, Erika Robinson’s nonprofit was making about $1 million a year tutoring at a handful of Miami-Dade County schools. As head of the business, Robinson paid herself more than $186,000 a year, district investigators later would find.

Her success had nothing to do with quality tutoring, the investigators alleged in an arrest affidavit filed in 2011.

Instead, they said, Robinson, 36, ran a brazen fraud scheme, filing suspicious enrollment papers and bilking the school district out of more than $130,000. Robinson has pleaded not guilty. Her case is pending in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

Hers wasn’t the only company accused of turning in suspect forms or inflated invoices.

Records kept by the Education Department and school districts across Florida chronicle widespread problems. But no regulator has examined those records to look for bad actors.

A Times review of audits, contract documents and written complaints filed since 2010 found at least 40 cases statewide in which companies were accused of faking or altering enrollment forms or billing for tutoring that didn’t happen. Only two of those cases led to criminal charges.

In Broward County, employees of Touchdown Learning forged student signatures and filed invoices for students they never tutored, schools administrators charged.

In Hernando County last spring, JFK Tutoring sent its employees instructions to falsify attendance records and bill for lessons that never happened, the district said.

In Miami-Dade County last year, one company faked enrollment forms that were supposed to be impossible to forge, tracking down the district’s supplier of a special paper and hiring a designer to fake the district’s logo, officials said.

A Touchdown representative couldn’t be reached. JFK officials denied the allegation.

In 2011, in a spot check of five counties, including Hillsborough, the state Education Department flagged “invoice errors” made by 10 of 21 companies.

“We have had providers do all kinds of things,” said Diana Holden, whose office oversees tutoring contracts for Collier County schools. “We’ve been billed for hours that never occurred, and we find out when the parents call us and ask when tutoring is going to start, and we’ve already paid for 10 or 15 hours of tutoring.”

Parents sometimes call to complain their child never was tutored, but they later change their story. “We believe that in some of those cases, the provider might have contacted the parent and offered them something,” said Bernadette Montgomery, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Miami-Dade schools.

Despite repeated problems, Florida school administrators say they often give tutoring companies the benefit of the doubt, treating billing errors as honest mistakes.

“It’s amazing how many people can’t count minutes,” said Eugenia Gordon, whose office oversees tutoring contracts in Bay County schools.

Moonlighting

Districts also have struggled to police conflicts of interest. In Palm Beach County last year, an audit found that one in three teachers who tutored on the side was earning money from students in their own classrooms. That’s a conflict, according to a 2004 opinion by the Florida Commission on Ethics, because it positions teachers to use a public job for private gain.

In Miami-Dade County, tutoring companies have relied on teacher influence to drive enrollment, School Board member Raquel Regalado said.

The businesses enlist the help of principals, who recruit their favorite teachers to work for the companies, Regalado said. “Then the teachers were going and telling the parents, ‘You have to put this kid in tutoring,'” Regalado said.

In Lafayette County, in northern Florida, it was the schools superintendent who had close ties to a tutoring company.

While serving as the elected head of the district, Thomas Lashley ran the region’s only Sylvan Learning Centers. In 2011, he valued the for-profit company at $800,000, according to financial disclosure forms. Lashley never sought business with his district, Lafayette schools officials said, but his company accepted more than $118,000 last year to tutor children in neighboring schools.

In the opinion of Peter Butzin, head of the government accountability group Common Cause Florida, the arrangement created the appearance of a conflict of interest but probably didn’t break any rules.

Lashley left office last year. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ignoring misdeeds

Every year, the state Education Department misses chances to crack down on troubled tutoring firms.

The agency keeps files documenting problems, including dozens of formal complaints and letters from school districts that outline serious misdeeds.

Yet regulators have done little with the information. They can’t even locate written complaints gathered during the tutoring program’s first six years in Florida.

The result has been to stick districts with the same questionable companies year after year.

Although the Education Department grades companies on a scale of excellent to unsatisfactory, the ranking largely depends on tests administered by tutoring companies to chart student progress.

The state-assigned grades don’t reflect allegations of suspicious paperwork, overbilling, shoddy tutoring or other misdeeds. Troubled companies often get good grades and are brought back to seek more government money.

The state can ban a tutoring company for two years when “the matter is of such magnitude that it cannot be addressed by the school district,” state Board of Education rules say. But the Education Department has rarely taken advantage.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education didn’t respond to specific questions about why the state hasn’t barred more companies for bad behavior. Cheryl Etters noted that districts have the right to cancel contracts with problem providers.

Yet state rules force districts to do business with every approved tutoring company that expresses an interest. If a company violates its district contract, the school system can fire the company for the remainder of the year.

But if the company keeps its state approval, it’s back the next year for more business with the district. Schools officials say they contract every year with companies they know to have serious problems.

“We all deal with the same kind of issues,” said Collier County’s Holden, “which is what’s so frustrating, because we can all compare notes, and we’re all seeing the same things from the same providers year after year.”

In a letter last February, Holden accused Miami-based A+ Educational Mapping of placing kids with unscreened tutors, filing questionable invoices, employing a manager who couldn’t pass a background check and using tutoring materials that apparently were taken from another company.

“Such conduct not only constitutes a contract violation but also potentially puts students at risk of harm,” Holden wrote.

The state got a copy of the letter, then approved the company again to work with kids — awarding it a ranking of “excellent.”

The company’s owner, Schiller Jerome, told the Times that the district’s allegations were false. He said his firm was allowed to finish out the year in Collier County and noted that A+ Educational is back tutoring there this year. “And our company now has the most students,” he said.

Lax oversight means tutoring firms can keep earning tax dollars even when they rack up complaints. Florida school districts have ended contracts with Computer Ed at least 12 times in the past two years, according to the state Education Department. Run by Michael Bartley, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of fleeing police in Michigan in 2007, the company also was the subject of at least six written complaints.

One came from a former tutor who said Computer Ed sent her to work before she passed a background check, then told her to falsify records to cover it up. Another tutor accused the company of altering attendance forms before submitting bills to Leon County schools.

Bartley denied all allegations of wrongdoing and defended his company’s record, saying it often ended contracts with districts on its own terms.

The Education Department has approved Computer Ed as a government contractor every year it has applied, including this one. Last school year, Computer Ed earned more than $53,000 tutoring in Hillsborough, Pinellas and two other counties.

A lobbying win

Last year, as the legislative session drew to a close, funding for the tutoring program was in jeopardy. Florida earlier had requested freedom from No Child Left Behind, and the Obama administration had granted it. Requirements to hire private tutors no longer applied in Florida.

Then something unexpected happened. The state Legislature stepped in and restored the mandate.

How did this come about?

The answer traces to a special interest group that quietly has grown up around the government program, a group whose coffers have grown flush over the past decade with hundreds of millions of tax dollars:

Big Tutoring.

 

Chicago Teachers Letter to Arne Duncan

I have made my opinion about Arne Duncan known in these digital pages over, and over, and over again.  I feel that Arne Duncan is detrimental to the progress and fairness of our public school system.  Arne has NEVER been an educator in his life, so I don’t feel that he understands the challenges that teachers face in their day to day job educating students.

One of my major disappointments with President Obama has been his handling of the public education system.  The continued deification of the disastrous No Child Left Behind legislation has been a travesty, but to add insult to injury, Duncan and Obama heaped a fresh helping of insult onto teachers and students by moving forward with the equally ludicrous Race To The Top – RTTT is essentially  blackmail, really…it is!  In order to win one of Arne’s coveted ‘waivers’ from the onerous NCLB laws – teachers must be subjected to tying their performance to student test scores…if that isn’t blackmail, I don’t know what is!

Fast forward to today.  If you have been reading my posts for any length of time you have been privy to information about the growing trend of anti-high-stakes testing that has been spreading throughout our country.  Teachers, parents, superintendents, students, and school boards have all been voicing concern over the MINDLESS regime of bubble-in test quantification of data!  A group of educators has issued an Open Letter to Arne Duncan which is posted below.  Thank you to the always excellent Answer Sheet blog of Valerie Strauss over at the Washington Post for calling my attention to this.

If you are a teacher, or a concerned parent, it is time to get involved in this slow moving, but steam-gathering movement which is pushing back against the testing companies and their powerful vice-grip like hold on education policy in our country.  Read the letter below and share it with who you think may be interested.  The letter makes some excellent points, I especially liked how lobbyists and their actions are highlighted towards the end (in bold).  I agree with the authors’ sentiment – Put your faith in teachers rather than corporate interests to assess reading, writing, and speaking. Do not allow corporations to control American education.”

Here’s the Letter:

Dear Mr. Duncan,

As primary, secondary, and university educators who are passionate about the importance of a liberal arts education in building and maintaining a democratic society, we are very concerned with the impact of standardized testing on humanities curricula. The widespread trend of teaching to the test is undermining primary and secondary education. Social studies, history, the fine arts, the study of literatures and languages, drama and music; these and other subjects not assessed in the standardized tests of “No Child Left Behind” are subjects that are themselves being left behind as administrators pressure teachers to raise narrowly conceived test scores in a few core areas.

We seek to build respect for the democratic process, critical thinking skills, writing skills, and understanding that is not accurately measured in multiple-choice tests.  (see the Fair Test website for a review of the literature: http://www.fairtest.org/k-12/high%20stakes). While we see the Common Core Curriculum as a step in the right direction, we steadfastly reject attempts pushed by testing companies to devise standardized assessments to measure progress in reading, writing, and speaking. Nor do we believe that computer programs currently being developed by major assessment corporations, or any form of outsourcing of essay assessments, are viable solutions.

Instead of relying on standardized tests, we believe that the best way to pursue higher standards in reading, writing, and speaking skills is to develop standardized and widely accepted rubrics for assessment and allow teachers to assess their students with these rubrics.

We are very concerned with the extent to which current educational policies have embraced what John Dewey would call “instrumental rationality” in seeking solutions that can be statistically measured. We are currently seeing a national backlash against such measurements from parents, teachers, and administrators. These statistical measures merely confirm the very real social gaps between the haves and the have-nots in American education.  (For a review of the literature seehttp://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/reardon%20whither%20opportunity%20-%20chapter%205.pdf).

University administrators have known for some time that high SAT scores correlate closely with socioeconomic class. Students who do well on them may succeed more frequently in college than those who do not, but this correlation may be telling us more about the test than about the students. Secondary teachers often see students who are terrific at taking tests, but who choose to avoid tasks requiring difficult thinking.

University educators want students who can write, research, and think: students who are open minded, passionate, and curious. These qualities are snuffed out under the drive for high scores on standardized multiple-choice tests under “No Child Left Behind.”

Secondary educators want to prepare students for the challenges that they will face at colleges and universities. This is difficult to do when an overemphasis on discrete item standardized testing prevents them from engaging their students in the meaningful work that best prepares them for the next level.

We know that your office is bombarded with lobbyists from major testing companies, textbook companies, and big donors with big money who seek to shape education reform. State Boards of Education are faced with similar pressures. We feel strongly that big money is far too invested in the current debate, and we are concerned that their influence is determining much of what passes for “reform.” Put your faith in teachers rather than corporate interests to assess reading, writing, and speaking. Do not allow corporations to control American education.

We invite further discussion at your convenience. A delegation from among the signees below will be happy to meet you for hoops and a discussion.

Sincerely yours,

New Trier High School:
Lindsey Arado
Mike Baeb
Kerry Brennan
Ian Duell
David Hjelmgren
Tim Kajfez
Tom Kucharski
Debbie Johnson
Todd Maxman
Dean Pinos
John O’Connor
Alex Zilka

 Northern Illinois University:
Jerome D. Bowers, History Dept.

 University of Illinois-Chicago:
Robert Johnston, History Dept.

 Concord Review:
Will Fitzhugh, Editor and Publisher

 The Report Card:
William Korach, Editor and Publisher

 University of Chicago Laboratory Schools:
Luicija Ambrosini
Allen Ambrosini
Suzanne Baum
Charles Branham
Wayne Brasler
Brad Brickner
David Derbes
Steve Granzyk
Lee Gustafson
Paul Horton
Chris Janus
Bob Kass
Mark Krewatch
Andrea Martonffy
Lisa Miller
Rachel Nielsen
Diane Puklin, Emeritus
Susan Shapiro
Kelly Storm
Brian Wildeman

Ariel Community Academy
Allie Griffin
Shirley Knox
Jake Sklarsky
Willis Niederfrank

 Chicago Teachers Union

Elizabeth Warren: I Love Her!

I remember seeing the close race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat and thinking…”I hope she wins!”  Well, she did, and I am very pleased with the voters of MA for putting this lady in the United States Senate.

The reason I like Elizabeth Warren is evident in this video clip below.  She IS going to speak truth to power.  She IS going to go after Wall Street criminals (something our President and the feckless Eric Holder have refused to do).

Kudos to EW.  I am hoping to see other Senators grow a spine after watching what this lady is going to be doing in the next six years.  Maybe the taxpayers of the United States will get some prosecutorial justice served to them in the way of criminal indictments!

More About Money and Injustice in Public Schools

GFBrandenburg writes a good blog.  He brings up many good points in this post below.  One of the main themes which is recurrent in this post as well as in what I usually post about is the amount of money being wielded to change public education, but as Brandenburg points out, none of these changes has been proven to be effective!  It is interesting that this dichotomy doesn’t resonate more loudly with education reporters around the country.  I mean, if you were proposing to radically change a system that has been in place and shown proven results over decades you would think that the changes you are proposing would be empirically based…right?  Apparently not!

The piece below is absolutely correct!  Art…almost gone in my school, fully gone in others.  Music…forget about it…gone!  Shop classes like we had when I was in school (wood-shop, metal-shop, power-mechanics, mechanical engineering…all gone!)!

One of the unequivocal data points which is consistent over the years has been that smaller class sizes can make a big impact on student learning, and as a teacher, I can attest to this.  But, the reformers are trying to turn classrooms into little business ventures and thus they are trying to maximize productivity, i.e. merit pay, standardized curriculum, assembly line teaching with large class sizes, constant test-prep, etc…

The people proposing the reforms, as Mr. Brandenburg points out have children attending private schools with low class sizes and lots of interesting activities for kids.  But, they are attempting to impose a completely different reality for those ‘other’ students in poor districts, with poor parents who have no political or monetary clout…it is really shameless!  Our own President is one of these forked tongue individuals, at least on the issue of public schooling and it is a huge disappointment!

Cheating, StudentsLast, and Corporate Chieftains

It is clear that a tiny group of the very wealthiest people on the planet is backing Rhee and her plans, and I can name a few of the most important: Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Koch Brothers, and a few dozen others.
.
All of a sudden they have decided to back her ideas, even though they have not produced ANY of the results that they claimed would happen. NOT ONE.
.
Instead, the public education system as we used to know it has become even more segregated and unequal than ever before, with the children of the poor getting an utterly stultifying education based almost 100% on mindless test-prep activities that teach submission to authority, while simultaneously denying teachers any authority whatsoever and removing any and all supports from them while pouring more and more responsibilities for filling out stupid, time-wasting forms that help nobody do anything but generating long streams of nearly-random numbers that are easy to game. On the other hand, the children of the wealthy send their kids to a handful of public, charter or private schools that are somehow exempt from any of those regulations — usually precisely because they have wealthy students, and we know there is a very strong correlation between social class & income on the one hand, and how students do on tests like the ones used in these testing regimes — in DC we call it the DC-CAS, but there are plenty of other sets of letters: RTTT, NCLB, SAT, AP, and so on.
.
At the wealthy schools, kids actually get to have field trips, sports, music, crafts, arts, projects, interviews, small classes, and so on. On the other hand, Bloomberg and Rhee fight for the right to make classes in PUBLIC schools 50:1 ratios with utterly-untrained, inexperienced, temporary teachers who are supposed to quit after 2 years so that they can go on to direct educational policy, having failed themselves but pretending not to notice that. The sheer injustice of this system is amazing.
.
 It is so bizarre: under the guise of ‘parental choice’, instead of leveling the playing field and devoting the same amount of resources to kids from ALL walks of life, they actually make things WORSE. Because resources at the level of urban public schools are being siphons off to make money for testing contractors, and extremely-highly-paid consultants. Teachers are denied any autonomy, are micro-controlled down to the minute of every work day, and loaded down with mindless data tasks that help no student. (I know, because I’ve done them. And they keep changing! What used to be enough 2 years ago is considered utter rubbish because they’ve gone and changed the system again and you have to spend lots of time learning how to use it … again, for the umpteenth time since you’ve started working….)
.

 And the students in the regular public schools get an utterly inferior education — which all of the mandates are making actually WORSE. While the children of Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Barack Obama, and all the children of all the officers and directors of the boards of all of the large corporations and banks in the US (and abroad) are given educations that are designed to turn them into versatile, will=-rounded individuals with lots of powers of self-motivation, personal initiative, and other touchy-feely individualized stuff – so they can become future rulers of the world as well, if they choose, or else become a craftsperson, a writer, or just a housewife or layabout wealthy heir or heiress.

Whereas, the rigorous no-excuses, SLANT, drill-like, almost military schools run by some of the charter-school chains, while they have their fans and wealthy sponsors, have two extreme strikes against them in my book:

(1) I would have hated it, and I know my own children would have hated that, because I would have thought it’s an utterly suffocating environment without any give-and-take.
(2) Many of them also strip the curriculum of anything like gym, art, music, projects, or anything else that makes school really interesting. School becomes test prep.
 
While I admit that there is a lot of pressure on teachers, and I agree that there are lots of things in real life that people will find to be in a gray area, I resent the implication that all teachers are cheaters. The cheating examples at Noyes school, about 10-15 blocks from my school, that Adell Cothorne described in the recent Frontline movie are WAAY out of the realm. It was a highly-organized cheating ring run by someone who knew exactly what he was doing, and earned large amounts of money, power, and fame by doing so. He was a major cheater, his name is Wayne Ryan, you can look him up easily, and once the news of the cheating scandal hit USA Today despite stonewalling by Michelle Rhee and her lackeys, he was quietly allowed to retire for unstated reasons and no penalties.

    • That is quite different from bending over backwards to try to allow someone to pass your course, waiving requirements that everyone else, because you thought it would help them in the long run to pass even though their numerical average was below whatever the cutoff point was…

When does teaching to the test become cheating? That is a question people could debate on nuances for a long time… Kinda like anything else involving interactions between people. What’s fair? Says who?

New York Money Buying the Los Angeles School Board

Well, if you needed any verification that there is BIG money involved in swaying how a school board will vote on issues in a major school district, all you need to do is check out the hefty One Million $$ ‘donation’ that New York Mayor Michael (Billionaire) Bloomberg made to support hand-picked, charter school friendly, Eli Broad (Broad Academy) endorsed candidates for LA Unified’s School Board.

Howard Blume, in the LA Times gives us a nice insight into the political spending habits of the far-off New York Mayor.  It begs the question from any thinking person: Why is Bloomberg opening up his checkbook in a blatant attempt to influence school boards 3,000 miles away from his home state?  Anyone who has been reading my blog posts for the past two years will know the answer to this question.  Bloomberg is a major player in the reform schematic, he has done his best to harm teachers and teacher unions in New York City, now he is trying to spread the ‘love’ cross-continental style.  Unluckily for teachers in LAUSD, their superintendent John Deasy is a graduate of the Broad Academy, which has been instrumental in attempting to ‘charterize’ and ‘privatize’ public education.  So Bloomberg’s style of ‘reform’ fits right in with Deasy.

This is ANOTHER shot across the bow of public school teachers in this country.  Bit by bit, piece by piece, political donation by political donation the underpinnings of our public education system, which has served our country so well (despite what is bandied about by naysayers) is being undermined.  I feel encouraged that Mr. Blume chose to write on this topic in the Times…more people need to know whose outside money is trying to buy local school boards so they can put a stop to it!

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has donated $1 million to help preserve a Los Angeles Board of Education majority that has pushed for several controversial efforts dealing with teachers — including remaking evaluations and speeding the dismissal process — that are supported by the L.A. mayor and the superintendent.

Brokered by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the contribution to the Coalition for School Reform is the largest on record — by far — to support school board campaigns. The group is planning to spend the money on behalf of one incumbent, school board President Monica Garcia, and two others, Kate Anderson and Antonio Sanchez, in the March 5 election.

The donation could immediately skew election spending on behalf of those backed by Villaraigosa and the relatively small group of donors in the coalition, who have now collected more than $2.5 million. It is seeking both to protect Supt. John Deasy’s policies and to override the historic influence of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

“Michael Bloomberg threw down the gauntlet today,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “He’s obviously very serious about changing education in America, and Los Angeles is now ground zero for that effort.”

He added: “This is a game changer.”

The efforts to revamp policies in L.A. Unified mirror those occurring nationwide over such topics as the growth of charter schools and the proper role of standardized testing as well as teacher evaluations and job protections.

Coalition employees had been in contact with Bloomberg’s staff in advance of a U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering in Washington last month. Villaraigosa talked to Bloomberg about Deasy’s leadership and the risk of losing a majority on the school board, coalition campaign manager Janelle Erickson said.

L.A. is a notably different education landscape than New York, where the mayor controls the school district. Villaraigosa unsuccessfully sought such authority when he took office eight years ago. In New York, Bloomberg has used his powers to close low-performing schools and accelerate the growth of independently managed charter schools. He also released the individual ratings of teachers based on student test scores and pushed for a new evaluation system that uses these results.

“Mayor Bloomberg is the most important voice in education reform today,” Villaraigosa said in a statement.

“The mayor has said he’s going to support efforts and candidates around the country on the issues that he cares about and education reform is one of the issues at the top of that list,” Bloomberg press secretary Marc LaVorgna said.

But the largess of Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman outside of public office, was met with dismay in some quarters.

“The prospect that the mayor of New York City might use his vast wealth to choose the school board for the people of Los Angeles is repugnant and an affront to democracy,” said education historian Diane Ravitch, a critic of Bloomberg’s education initiatives.

Before Bloomberg’s intervention, the largest donations were $250,000 each by arts and education philanthropist Eli Broad and Latino media magnate A. Jerrold Perenchio.

The coalition said it had reviewed records dating to 1999 and could find no other contribution larger than $250,000.

In Los Angeles, Deasy’s agenda has resembled that of Bloomberg, although Deasy has opposed the release of individual teacher ratings and has rarely converted low-performing campuses to charter schools. L.A. has more charters than any other school system in the nation.

The most direct competition between the coalition and the teachers union is over District 4, which stretches from the Westside to portions of the west San Fernando Valley. That race pits one-term incumbent and former teacher Steve Zimmer against lawyer and parent Anderson.

The teachers union said it is undaunted by Bloomberg’s cash.

“Our strategy is unchanged,” union Vice President Gregg Solkovits said. “We expected to be outspent.”

A union statement called the donation “yet another example of outsiders trying to influence the outcome of the election.”

The union is far from defenseless; it can call on its corps of teachers to make its case, and the union, too, has a war chest, with about $700,000 remaining, according to the union. To support Zimmer, United Teachers Los Angeles also has the backing of other employee unions, the L.A. County Federation of Labor and the Democratic Party.

Filings listed through Tuesday indicated that the coalition had spent about $269,000 on Anderson’s behalf. Unions had spent about $215,000 in support of Zimmer.

Zimmer’s unwillingness to replace Deasy has helped the superintendent survive a partial erosion of support on the board. But Villaraigosa and his allies want to solidify Deasy’s standing. And in this election, Zimmer is relying on a teachers union that has battled Deasy. Zimmer’s opponent, Anderson, has stressed her support for the superintendent.

Zimmer said Tuesday that he looks forward to an opportunity to “sit down with Mayor Bloomberg, go through my initiatives and voting record, so I can understand why it would be worth him investing his money in this board race.”

In District 2, which is centered downtown, the coalition supports incumbent board President Garcia. The teachers union is trying to force Garcia into a runoff and has begun spending funds to oppose her but not to support any particular opponent.

District 6 is an open seat representing the east San Fernando Valley. There, the coalition is spending on behalf of Sanchez. The teachers union has endorsed all three candidates in that contest, including Sanchez, but has not spent on behalf of anyone.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Another “Reform” Tenet Laid Bare…

Ah, the Reformers…just the word “reform” – it sounds so great…right? I mean, who is not for reform?  It reminds me of No Child Left Behind, who could possibly be against that?  Can you imagine a politician having the guts to come out and say…”I voted NO on NCLB!”  He/she would immediately be attacked in a barrage of politically motivated TV and radio articles staying that: “__________ voted AGAINST your children and wants them to stay behind!”

That is how it is with the word “reform” – the “reformers” hide behind this helpful and benevolent sounding word and mostly produce smoke and mirrors while the entire time they are looking to privatize and corporatize public education.

In this piece in Mother Jones Kevin Drum does a good job of debunking of one of the tenets of the reformers: Increase standards and you will always get better performance regardless of the student population.  What the reform set FAILS to realize time and time again is that students are ALL different, and they have different needs depending on their socio-economic status.  Wealthier students have parents who help them at night with their homework, and who study with their kids and take time to teach them as they were taught.  Students who come to school from immigrant communities or migrant worker communities have parents who are just scratching out a living.  They don’t have time or they may not have the educational acumen to help their kids with homework…they are worried about survival and the next rent payment.   It is all very complicated, and I repeat: All students are different!  There is no one-size fits all in education.

I thank Kevin Drum for this piece, it is short and well worth the read.

Do high schools with higher standards get better performance from their students? If you require everyone to take college prep classes, will more kids go to college? The San Jose school district has long been a poster child for this notion, but guess what? It turns out it was all a crock:

San Jose Unified has quietly acknowledged that the district overstated its accomplishments. And a Times analysis of the district’s record shows that its progress has not, in fact, far outpaced many other school systems’….In 2000, before the college-prep program took effect, 40% of San Jose graduates fulfilled requirements for applying to University of California and Cal State University. In 2011, the number was 40.3%.

My cynicism about the ed reform community grows by leaps and bounds every time I read a story like this. And that’s pretty often. Here’s my advice for what you should do whenever you read an article about a school that’s shown miraculous results by applying some reform or another (or by hiring a miracle worker of some stripe or another):

  1. Don’t believe it if it’s based on a single school or other small sample.
  2. Don’t believe it if most of the evidence comes from the school itself.
  3. Don’t believe it if the reform in question was put in place only a few years ago.
  4. Don’t believe it if it hasn’t been replicated elsewhere.
  5. Don’t believe it unless it’s been rigorously tested by academics who didn’t already support the idea in the first place.
  6. And even if it passes all those tests, don’t believe it anyway.

The number of ed reforms that hold up when the evidence is looked at critically seems to be tiny. The number that continue to work when they’re scaled up seems to be tiny. The number that continue to show results all the way through high school seems to be tiny. The number that can withstand critical scrutiny seems to be tiny. And of the ones that are left, the cost to keep them up usually appears to be prohibitive.

I understand that I’m being too cynical here. I’m probably going to get the usual batch of emails from ed reformers telling me that there are too reforms that really and truly work. And I suppose there are. But I don’t think you can go too far wrong by being almost boundlessly and annoyingly skeptical about this stuff. Don’t worry about seeming unsophisticated. Just keep repeating that you don’t believe it until and unless the evidence becomes simply overwhelming. You won’t go too far wrong with that attitude.

Texas In Revolt Over High-Stakes Testing

Yes, you read that right…Texas!!!  You would think that a major revolt with regard to high-stakes testing would come from a more…shall we say…bluish, or Democrat controlled state, but, nope!  I am so pleasantly surprised by this development because if they can revolt in one of the reddest of the Red states, then it will be possible in the more purple and certainly in the blue states!  In other words, this is GREAT news!

In this MUST-SEE video below Rick Casey goes over the news out of Texas with regard to huge news in the education world.  I can imagine the board room at Pearson Education right now in panic.  You see, Pearson makes tons of money providing all of the testing for school districts.  As a matter of fact, here is a priceless quote from the video below, something I have alluded to many times in my posts: “The assessment and accountability regime has become not only a cottage industry but a military industrial complex.”  This statement was uttered by the outgoing Education Commissioner for the State of Texas!  I have referred to this behemoth as the Education Industrial Complex in the past.

Watch the video, pass it around to your teacher friends, let us HOPE this trend spreads.  Let’s do MORE than hope, let’s be active in helping it spread.  I am doing my part with this blog…pass it around…let’s get people involved!

Texas, the birthplace of the national movement toward high-stakes testing of public school children, is in retreat. Members of the Legislature are lining up to file bills designed to lessen the role of the latest high-stakes testing scheme in determining what grades students get and whether they graduate.

At least four Republican state senators have filed bills, as has Democratic Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and Rep. Mike Villarreal of San Antonio.

This comes after more than two-thirds of the state’s 1,200 school boards have passed resolutions balking at the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR tests.

The revolt was given a huge boost last January when Education Commissioner Robert Scott, having decided to step down after five years as commissioner, decided to follow the old Arab proverb: He who would speak the truth must first have one foot in the stirrup.

Scott, a longtime supporter of high-stakes testing, told a gathering of educators that we have “reached a point now of having this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak.”

He added: “The assessment and accountability regime has become not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex.”

He got that right. Texas’s current 5-year contract with testing giant Pearson to develop and analyze our tests is worth nearly half a billion dollars. They have six lobbyists in Austin to keep the funds flowing.

Yet when the Legislature a few years ago said it wanted the tests to tell us not only how students were doing, but how much they improved from the previous year, Pearson was unable to do so. Instead, they came up with a scheme, called the Texas Projection Measure, that was so convoluted that students could get zero on some tests and still be counted as passing.

The Projection Measure was so silly that it was killed — after some school districts awarded bonuses based on its badly flawed projections.

But there has always been silliness in Texas’ march toward school accountability. It began with the first measurement of teacher skills. Back in the mid-1980s, school administrators were required to give teachers several weeks’ notice that on a particular day they would sit in the classroom and rate the teacher’s performance according to a standardized lengthy check list.

Did they speak clearly? Did they make eye-contact with the students? Did they call on a variety of students? And on and on. Left off the check list: Were the students learning? The result: Our students still weren’t succeeding, but all our teachers were above average.

So we started testing students with tests such as TAAS and TAKS and now STAAR. Every half dozen years or so, however, the test had to be changed.

The official line was that it was to ramp up expectations. But there was also this simple fact: Teachers, under heavy pressure from principals under pressure, were teaching the test more effectively every year. This was demonstrated by the predictably low performance the first year of every new test.

Last year, STAAR’s first year, students were given passing grades in some tests for getting fewer than half the answers right. For the first time writing was tested, and nearly 40 percent didn’t pass the very basic test.

And after 20 years of high-stakes testing, fewer than half of Texas’s graduating students are ready for college, according to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Nobody should pine for the days before high-stakes testing, when some schools in poor areas had such low expectations that they didn’t offer algebra. But the high-stakes question for the Legislature is this: If this system of accountability isn’t helping get the results we want, shouldn’t we try something else? 

This column first appeared as the “Last Word” on KLRN’s “Texas Week with Rick Casey.” The program appears Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

The 411 on “Reform” Groups

I have written before about Leonie Haimson, I have also linked to sites that she is associated with on my main page; Class Size Matters and Parents Across America.  In this post below, Mrs. Haimson lays out a fantastic framework with regard to the corporate reform movement.  This work is important because it coalesces information on those who are looking to circumnavigate our public education system in favor of lining their pockets with public funds.

If you are a teacher, or a concerned parent, this is an important post to read and understand.  For example: I am very well aware of many of the “reform” groups, from Eli Broad to Bill Gates to Michelle Rhee to Whitney Tilson, I have written about all of them.  But, if you look at the spreadsheet at the end of Mrs. Haimson’s commentary you will find FAR MORE groups than you imagined exist, at least I did.

Another interesting bit of information that came to light through Mrs. Haimson’s (and her group’s) work is the use of buzz-words, continually using choice (and I am sure poll tested) phrases to attempt to legitimize and strengthen their message.  This tactic has been successfully used over and over again by politicians of every stripe, recently the major culprit in this semi-brainwashing strategy is Frank Luntz…the resident word-smither for the Republican Party (you always see him and his fake wig on Fox News).  When you think about what is going on with regard to public education you see a set of individuals who are becoming wealthy (Rhee and others) at the expense of teachers, students, and an American institution (our public schools).  Saving our schools is a worthy cause we ALL should be involved in!

Many parents, teachers and concerned citizens are confused by the superabundance of well-funded advocacy organizations, consulting companies, and research groups promoting the corporate education reform agenda. These groups adopt a free-market approach to education reform by expanding privatization through charters, vouchers and online learning, judging schools and teachers through standardized test scores, and advocate for the Common Core standards. In order to be helpful, we have prepared a list of such organizations, along with their prominent staff, boards and funders, many of whom are interlocking. Many of these groups are the beneficiaries of the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations.

This is a working document, and if you see an organization mistakenly included here, or you have suggestions for other changes, please email us at info@classsizematters.org with your comments.

One can also tell if an organization is allied with the corporate reform movement by its rhetoric. For example, the use of such buzzwords as “transformational”, “catalytic”, “innovative”, “great teachers”, “bold”, “game changer”, “effective”, “entrepreneurial”, “differentiated instruction”, “personalized learning”, “economies of scale”, “informational text”, “instructional efficiency”, “college and career ready”, and/or the term “disruptive” used in a positive sense provide clues that the organization or individual is associated with the corporate reform movement.

Other evidence of such an alignment may be if an organization uses “Children First ” or “Students First” or “Kids First” in its title, along with a claim that they represent the interests of children rather than adults (i.e. teachers); or if they have the propensity to attack anyone who disagrees with their policy agenda as defending the status quo. Also indicative of corporate reform leanings is stating that “education is the civil rights issue of our time” and/or the tendency to use the word “crappy” (a descriptor used frequently by Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst and Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform.)

The use of the above buzzwords is replete, for example, in this recent press release from the Pahara Institute, an organization funded by the Gates Foundation. The Institute announces that they are awarding salary enhancements to a long list of “fellows”, including Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, James Merriman of the NY Charter Center and Joel Rose of the New Classrooms (formerly the School of One), who head corporate reform organizations included in our list. The Pahara press release uses the word “reform” nine times, “transformational” six times; “entrepreneurial” four times, and the word “bold” twice, in a little over two pages.

Another good example of the rhetoric of corporate reform is this memo from the Broad Foundation, proposing a new program to highlight their cadre of “change agents”, who will “accelerate” the pace of “disruptive” and “transformational” changewho are “bold, visionary leaders with a proven history of breakthrough reforms” and an “aggressive reform agenda”, including “entrepreneurial founders and CEOs of revolutionary CMOs [charter management organizations] or non-profits.”

Yet another example of this overheated but essentially empty rhetoric is a report hyping the Rocketship chain of charters: “Rocketship’s differentiated staffing model offers further opportunity for transformative innovation.” Here transformative innovation appears to mean parking kids in front of computers for two hours per day to save money on staffing.

Often this agenda offers a simplistic, yet strangely contradictory set of positions:

  • Teacher quality is paramount, and yet schools should be able to get rid of experienced teachers in favor of Teach for America recruits with five weeks of training, most of whom will last only two years.
  • There is a need for differentiated instruction so each child can receive individualized feedback, but the smaller classes that might make this possible should not be considered, and instead, class sizes should be increased to save money and to create greater “efficiencies.”
  • Personalized learning will instead be achieved through software programs and online learning, though real personal contact will be lessened or entirely taken out of the equation.
  • Schools must adopt the Common Core standards to encourage higher order critical thinking and writing, but their success in reaching these goals will be measured through standardized tests taken and scored by computers.
  • Districts should lengthen the school day or school year, but they should also lessen the emphasis on “seat time” to allow students to get through school more quickly.
  • For traditional public schools, there is a need for standardization, including prescribing 50-70 percent “informational text” in assigned reading; at the same time, deregulation through the proliferation of autonomous and privately managed charter or voucher schools should occur, with little or no rules attached.
  • Parental “choice” is encouraged, by expanding the charters and voucher sector, but when hundreds or even thousands of parents vehemently protest the closing of their neighborhood public schools, or demand smaller classes, their choices are ignored or rejected with the claim that they are not educated enough to understand what’s at stake.
  • Teachers should be “empowered” through online learning, and the profession should be “elevated” and “respected”; but when teachers overwhelming oppose merit pay, the use of test scores in evaluation systems, or insist that the best way to improve their effectiveness and actually “empower” them would be to reduce class size, their views are cast aside.

If you have more examples of corporate reform rhetoric or systemic contradictions, please leave them in comment section below. Please also take a look at our corporate reform spreadsheet, offer your observations, and let us know if we should make changes by emailing us at info@classsizematters.org. Thanks!

CalSTRS: Needs More Funding

Interesting article about CalSTRS pension funds.  If you are a teacher in California you might want to take notice.  CasSTRS is dangerously underfunded at this time.  A turnaround in their investments could fix this, but if their current portfolio does not do well, it will mean a hike in contributions by members…

A CalSTRS draft report says combined contributions by teachers, school districts and the state would have to rise 15% a year over the next three decades to close the retirement system’s $64 billion funding gap.

 The $157.8 billion California State Teachers’ Retirement System, West Sacramento, which has a 69% funding level, would deplete its assets by 2046 if there were no contribution increase, the report says.

The 15% hike would bring the retirement system to a 100% funding level, “an optimal goal,” the report says. But it also suggests other options, such as a 12.1% hike, to bring the system to an 80% funding level, the level at which plans are considered to be in healthy financial shape.

Another “more modest outcome” the report suggests, would be to set contribution rates to ensure the fund would be able to pay benefits due each year, which would require a 9.5% increase.

Currently, school teachers pay 8% of salary, school districts pay 8.25% of payroll and the state contributes around 5.3% of payroll and inflation costs. The Legislature must approve any change to the formula.

The final report, required by the Legislature, is due Feb. 15. The CalSTRS board is scheduled to discuss the draft at its Feb. 8 meeting to determine whether any modifications should be made before it is submitted to state lawmakers.

More about ALEC: the American Legislative Exchange Council

I have written before about this ALEC.  They are basically a right-wing think tank which churns out ready-packaged legislation to Republicans in state and federal elected positions.  There is no doubt that they are working to undermine both teacher protections, and the public school system in general.

Please read this fantastic post by Julie Underwood and Julie Mead.  It should be alarming to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention.  I have been paying attention and I have been trying to inform my readers about ALEC for a long time now.  Please take the time to read this if you are a teacher, and share it with your colleagues.  This organization is bent on breaking the foundations of our education system as we know it!

This is how public education dollars get co-opted (stolen) to line the pockets of wealthy private education corporate interests, it is shameful and a travesty!  It needs to be uncovered and stopped!

A Smart ALEC Threatens Public Education

Coordinated efforts to introduce model legislation aimed at defunding and dismantling public schools is the signature work of this conservative organization.

By Julie Underwood and Julie F. Mead, Phi Delta Kappan
Article Tools
A legislative contagion seemed to sweep across the Midwest during the early months of 2011. First, Wisconsin legislators wanted to strip public employees of the right to bargain. Then, Indiana legislators got into the act. Then, it was Ohio. In each case, Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures had introduced substantially similar bills that sought sweeping changes to each state’s collective bargaining statutes and various school funding provisions.

What was going on? How could elected officials in multiple states suddenly introduce essentially the same legislation?

The answer: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Its self-described legislative approach to education reads:

Across the country for the past two decades, education reform efforts have popped up in legislatures at different times in different places. As a result, teachers’ unions have been playing something akin to “whack-a-mole”—you know the game—striking down as many education reform efforts as possible. Many times, the unions successfully “whack” the “mole,” i.e., the reform legislation. Sometimes, however, they miss. If all the moles pop up at once, there is no way the person with the mallet can get them all. Introduce comprehensive reform packages. (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 108)

ALEC’s own “whack-a-mole” strategy also reveals the group’s ultimate goal. Every gardener who has ever had to deal with a mole knows that the animals undermine and ultimately destroy a garden. ALEC’s positions on various education issues make it clear that the organization seeks to undermine public education by systematically defunding and ultimately destroying public education as we know it.

What is ALEC?

Technically, ALEC is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. It describes itself as a nonpartisan membership organization for those who share a common belief in “limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty.”

More than 2,000 state lawmakers pay ALEC $100 for a two-year membership. While listed as nonpartisan, ALEC’s members definitely skew to the conservative end of the political spectrum. For example, of the 114 listed members of the group’s Education Task Force, 108 are Republicans, and only six are Democrats.

Corporations, foundations, and “think tanks” can join ALEC, too. They pay up to $25,000 in yearly dues and can spend more to sponsor the council’s meetings. Corporate members can also donate to each state’s scholarship fund, which reimburses legislators who travel to meetings. The scholarships can exceed the amount of a legislator’s dues. Corporate members also can pay from $3,000 to $10,000 for a seat on a task force.

ALEC operates through nine task forces, each cochaired by a corporate member and a legislative member. Task forces are divided by subject and bring together conservative policy makers with corporate leaders to develop model legislation. In order for a proposal to become model legislation, both the public and private sides of the committee must agree—granting considerable power to the corporate side. Elected officials then take the model bills back to their states to introduce them as their own. Only legislators who are members may access the model legislation. It is a very efficient mechanism for corporations to exercise political power—and they have.

ALEC in Tennessee

Recent legislation in Tennessee provides a vivid example. ALEC created and provided members its model Virtual Public Schools Act. Two large for-profit corporate providers of virtual education, Connections Academy and K-12 Inc., had heavy involvement with the model bill’s creation. Mickey Revenaugh, a lobbyist for Connections Academy, was the corporate chair of ALEC’s Education Task Force and Lisa Gillis, with K-12 Inc., chaired its special needs education subcommittee that created the bill. Tennessee’s State Rep. Harry Brooks and State Sen. Dolores Gresham, both ALEC Education Task Force members, introduced the bill to their respective houses nearly verbatim, even using the same title. For example, the following passage forms the preamble of the adopted statute. Underlined portions were taken directly from ALEC’s model.

• WHEREAS, meeting the educational needs of children in our state’s schools is of the greatest importance to the future welfare of Tennessee; and

• WHEREAS, closing the achievement gap between high-performing students, including the gap between minority and nonminority students and between economically disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers, is a significant and present challenge; and

• WHEREAS, providing a broader range of educational options to parents and utilizing existing resources, along with technology, may help students in our state improve their academic achievement; and

• WHEREAS, many of our school districts currently lack the capacity to provide other public school choices for students whose schools are low performing; now, therefore

• The purpose of this part is to provide an LEA with an alternative choice to offeradditional educational resources in an effort to improve academic achievement. (Virtual Public Schools Act, 2011).

The bill passed both houses on a party-line vote on June 16, 2011. Shortly thereafter, K-12 Inc.—one of the creators of the model legislation—won a no-bid contract from Union County School District to create the Tennessee Virtual Academy and will receive about $5,300 per student from the state for the 2011-12 school year (Humphrey, 2011). Connections Academy does not yet offer a virtual school in Tennessee, but its web site reports that it “is actively working with parent groups, education officials, and others to launch a school in this state.”

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that about 2,000 students applied for enrollment in the Tennessee Virtual Academy for fall 2011. Recent reports raise concerns that the program’s popularity with home schoolers may “drain taxpayer funds” while enriching the corporation actively and aggressively recruiting students to enroll (Locker, 2011). Locker also reports that “K-12 Inc. compensated its CEO more than $2.6 million last year, its chief financial officer more than $1.7 million, and other top executives several hundred thousand dollars each, according to its latest annual report to shareholders.”

ALEC on Education

ALEC’s success in Tennessee is by no means its only incursion into state education policy. ALEC’s interest in education is ambitious and multifaceted, and includes promoting dozens of model acts to its legislative members (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010). Proposed bills seek to influence teacher certification, teacher evaluation, collective bargaining, curriculum, funding, special education, student assessment, and numerous other education and education-related issues. Common throughout the bills are proposals to decrease local control of schools by democratically elected school boards while increasing access to all facets of education by private entities and corporations. ALEC’s outlined agenda is to:

Introduce market factors into schools, particularly the teaching profession (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 82) to be carried out through model legislation such as Alternative Certification Act, Great Teachers and Leaders Act, National Teacher Certification Fairness Act, Public School Union Release Time Act, School Collective Bargaining Agreement Sunshine Act, and Teacher Choice Compensation Act. There’s also a set of proposals (Public School Financial Transparency Act; School Board Freedom to Contract Act) that encourage school districts to outsource their auxiliary services.

• Privatize education through vouchers, charters, and tax incentives (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 87) to be carried out through model legislation such as Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Great Schools Tax Credit, Military Family Scholarship Program Act, Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act, Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act (means-tested eligibility), Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act (universal eligibility), Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act (universal eligibility, means-tested scholarship amount), Parental Choice Scholarship Tax Credit Accountability Act, Education Enterprise Zone Act, Smart Start Scholarship Program, Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, Family Education Savings Account Act, Parental Rights Act, Resolution Supporting Private Scholarship Tax Credits, Autism Scholarship Program Act, and Family Education Tax Credit Program Act.

• Increase student testing and reporting (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 93) to be carried out through model legislation such as Resolution Supporting the Principles of No Child Left Behind Act, Student Right to Learn Act, Education Accountability Act, Longitudinal Student Growth Act, One to One Reading Improvement Act, and Resolution on Nonverified Science Curriculum Funding.

• Reduce the influence of or eliminate local school districts and school boards (Ladner, LeFevre, & Lips, 2010, p. 96) to be carried out through model legislation such as Charter Schools Act, Innovation Schools and School Districts Act, Open Enrollment Act, Virtual Public Schools Act, and Next Generation Charter Schools Act.

ALEC’s Special Interest in Privatization

While ALEC’s forays into education policy are broad, privatization of public education has been a long-standing ALEC objective. As early as 1985, ALEC’s motivation for privatization was made clear (Barrett, 1985).

In response, ALEC offered model legislation to “foster educational freedom and quality” through privatization (Barrett, 1985, p. 8). Privatization takes multiple forms: vouchers, tax incentives for sending children to private schools, and charter schools operated by for-profit entities.

Today, ALEC calls this approach “choice” and renames vouchers “scholarships,” but its aim is clear: Defund and dismantle public schools. While many other right-wing organizations support this agenda, ALEC is the mechanism for implementing it through its many pieces of model legislation that propose legislative methods for defunding public schools, particularly low-income, urban schools.

The motivation for dismantling the public education system—creating a system where schools do not provide for everyone—is ideological, and it is motivated by profit. The corporate members on ALEC’s education task force include representatives from the Friedman Foundation, Goldwater Institute, Evergreen Education Group, Washington Policy Center, and corporations providing education services such as Sylvan Learning and K-12, Inc. All stand to benefit from public funding sent in their direction.

The first large-scale voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, was enacted in 1990. Although the Milwaukee voucher program had the backing of leaders from other philosophic camps, including Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and current board member of Black Alliance for Educational Options, the legislation was modeled after the rubric ALEC provided in its 1985 Education Source Book. ALEC’s hand in this program continues. In 2011, one of the ultimately defeated amendments to the Milwaukee program proposed removing all income requirements for participating students, a proposal laid out in ALEC’s Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act (universal eligibility) and a step toward a full-scale state voucher program.

In fact, to help states advance school choice without running afoul of state constitutional limitations, ALEC published School Choice and State Constitutions (Komer & Neily, 2007) to provide a state-by-state analysis and promote programs tailored to foster privatization. Since then, a number of states have adopted the ALEC recommendations. For example:

• Arizona: Vouchers for foster children, special education vouchers, and tax credits;

• Indiana: Means-tested vouchers, special education vouchers, tax deductions for private school tuition and home-schooling expenses, and tax credits;

• Georgia: Special education vouchers and the newer ALEC proposal—tax incentives for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations;

• Louisiana: Tax deductions for private school tuition and home-schooling expenses, means-tested vouchers, special education vouchers; and

• Oklahoma: Tax credits, special education vouchers, and the newer ALEC proposal—the tax incentives for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations.

By elevating parental choice over all other values, the ALEC push for privatization supports schools that can be segregated by academic ability and disability, ethnicity, economics, language, and culture. They would be the natural outgrowth of parents’ unfettered choices in a free-market system. Increased racial isolation would likely result, exacerbating current trends toward resegregation (Orfield & Lee, 2007). In addition, as seen in Tennessee, a fully realized ALEC agenda would undoubtedly result in more public education dollars bolstering the balance sheets of for-profit education vendors.

Identifying ALEC’s Influence

Returning to the protests that rocked our state and others, it became clear that ALEC had significant influence on the contested provisions. As Rogers and Dresser (2011) document, proposals in Wisconsin and other states were drawn from several ALEC legislative models, including the “Right to Work Act [that] eliminates employee obligation to pay the costs of collective bargaining; the Public Employee Freedom Act [that] bars almost any action to induce it; the Public Employer Payroll Deduction Act [that] bars automatic dues collection; [and] the Voluntary Contribution Act [that] bars the use of dues for political activity.”

Does ALEC’s Influence Build or Undermine Democracy?

Whether you believe that ALEC has the issues right or wrong, the organization clearly wields considerable power and influence over state education policy. But perhaps by boldly sending so many “moles” to legislative surfaces all at once, ALEC has permitted those concerned with the influence of corporate interests on public education to awaken to its strategy. From now on, champions of public education have a new set of questions to ask whenever legislation is introduced:

• Is the sponsor a member of ALEC?

• Does the bill borrow from ALEC model legislation?

• What corporations had a hand in drafting the legislation?

• What interests would benefit or even profit from its passage?

Ultimately, however, the most important question we must all ask is whether ALEC’s influence builds or undermines democracy.

Certain public institutions—courts, legislatures, fire protection, police departments, and yes, schools—must remain public to serve a democratic society. Through public education we have expressed and expanded our shared public values. As Benjamin Barber (1997) states, “Public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity” (p. 22).

What happens to our democracy when we return to an educational system where access is defined by corporate interest and divided by class, language, ability, race, and religion? In a push to free-market education, who pays in the end?

%d bloggers like this: