Seattle Public Schools: Let’s Keep Our Drivers Happy

Guest post from Kristin King, who mostly blogs at

bus strike

Congratulations to the Seattle Public Schools bus drivers, who just won a historic 9 day strike! Drivers were striking in part for affordable healthcare, having rejected a contract that would have offered healthcare to only some drivers but at exorbitant prices–family coverage would cost $1,700 a month for people who earn $2,000 a month. According to the Teamsters,

The new agreement is an overwhelming victory for the group of more than 400 bus drivers. Most of them did not receive healthcare through their employer and did not have access to a reasonable retirement plan. All of that changes with the ratification of this agreement. The agreement provides quality healthcare at an affordable cost. It also provides the bus drivers with a Teamster pension plan . . .

This is a win for students too. Drivers with a better union contract are more likely to stay on the job and build up valuable experience, making buses safer, better disciplined, and more reliable.

Coincidentally, in the midst of the strike I saw a Facebook post from a friend who lives in another town, where the school district contracts out to a number of small companies that hire newcomers to the town and set them on routes with no training: “[The school bus was] 32 minutes late. It arrived 3 minutes AFTER his school day is supposed to start. The Boy hasn’t gotten to school on time ONCE this year so far, on the days he takes the bus.”

That’s unacceptable. When a district cuts corners on the cost of its school buses, it limits kids’ access to learning. Not necessarily every kid, though–just the kids who need the instructional time the most. Plain and simple, not every parent has the means to drive their kids to school.

So this agreement is a step in the right direction, but history tells us we’d better keep a close eye on the school district. Let’s take a look at our history to see how we got to the point of a nine-day strike in the first place, and how to stop it from happening again.

What led us to this point?

When I heard the drivers were going on strike, I thought to myself, “Yep, the district set themselves up for this one all right.” Back in May of 2011, the district was contracting with two companies: Petermann and First Student. Petermann drivers were unionized and more experienced. And the school board brought forward a proposal to discontinue the contract with the Petermann bus company. All the drivers would be laid off. They might get hired back on by First Student–at lower wages, of course.

I was outraged. My children’s bus driver, Nancy, had always been reliable, thoughtful, and responsive. Early on, I brought a bullying concern to her and she solved it right away. I hated to see this happen to her and to all the other drivers. So I wrote a letter to the school board and paid close attention the school board proceedings. Director Betty Patu expressed concerns that while the Petermann drivers were experienced and had a relationship with the kids, some of the newer bus drivers hadn’t been able to control the kids that they pick up. Director Shelley Carr had additional questions about a difference in quality, and Director Harium Martin-Morris raised a concern about the smaller buses that pick up special ed kids. He also thought it was inappropriate to get rid of all the unionized bus drivers.

The vote was close, but the board decided to discontinue Petermann. It was a way, board members said, to “keep the cuts out of the classroom.” They were wrong. Their decision kept the kids out of the classroom.

The following September, on the first day of school, our family waited anxiously at the bus stop for at least a half hour before giving up and driving to school. They were 25 minutes late on the day that’s supposed to set a good tone for the year. But our kids were luckier than the ones that kept waiting: the bus itself was delayed over an hour. This happened to families all over the district, and KUOW ran a program on it. The troubles got sorted out in a few weeks, mostly, but nobody ever got back that lost instructional time. Meanwhile there were other issues. First Student’s school bus routes were a mess, causing more delays. Some got fixed and some didn’t. For instance, the street in front of our house only has room for one vehicle, but buses would go down it from both the north and the south . . . blocking each other. That lasted all year.

Now it’s 2018 and the previously non-union First Student drivers have union representation, from the Teamsters. It turns out that the union-busting on the part of the school district was only a short-term cost-cutting measure. And the district still hasn’t learned an important lesson: going with the lowest bidder hurts the kids.

This strike was predictable

It turns out there’s a pattern. The school district throws everything into chaos by contracting with a cheaper company and bringing on inexperienced, nonunion drivers. Over time, drivers get experience and unionize. Rinse and repeat. This has been happening for decades, at least.

In 1995, 300 bus drivers went on strike over pensions and won.

But in 2002, the school board proposed to take the bus contract from Laidlaw, which was organized by the Teamsters Local 763, and give it to a company with nonunion drivers. The school board meeting then was eerily similar to the one I observed. Here’s a quote from an article in the Socialist Worker:

Speakers stressed both safety and union busting. “The link between inexperienced drivers and children’s safety cannot be underestimated,” said 763 organizer Sarah Luthens. “The top 200 drivers for Laidlaw average over 13 years of experience. The nonunion companies rely mostly on novice drivers. Those school board members who own a $30,000 SUV wouldn’t loan it out to inexperienced drivers, but they would entrust school children to them?”

The school district ended up contracting with two non-unionized companies, Durham and First Student.

In 2007, by the way, Laidlaw merged with FirstGroup, raising antitrust concerns. These were settled with a consent decree stipulating that other contracting companies would have access to many districts, including Seattle.

That brings us back to 2011, when the school district cancelled its contract with Petermann.

And from there, to 2017, when the Seattle school board decided which contracting company to use. It turns out, according to a December 16th school board action report, that FirstStudent was the only one to apply. How on earth did it end up with a monopoly? Oh, right. Seattle cancelled its contract with Petermann.

So you might think the school district didn’t have much choice, but it turns out they did have the opportunity to expand medical coverage. This from the action report:

The District requested pricing to gauge the cost of extending health care benefits to those drivers who work less than 30 but more than 20 hours per week. Unfortunately, the pass through cost for the District to broaden First Student’s bus driver participation in healthcare coverage is cost prohibitive, especially when the District is facing a $74 million dollar shortfall. Expanding bus driver health care coverage would increase this contract by $1.7 million annually and not recommended.

In hindsight, that was a mistake, and it cost our students.

Race you to the bottom!

Back to my friend’s story, with her son that has been late every single time he takes the bus–that’s what our district is going to get if it keeps chasing bargain-basement prices. Let’s not do that.

Who’s to blame here?

The strikers were picketing First Student, as well they should. This is not the first time First Student has given school bus drivers a raw deal. They should know better.

Beyond First Student, though, the school district is responsible. It’s the district’s job to secure the funding needed and to spend it appropriately. Since the funding comes from the state, the district should be telling the state when it hasn’t got enough money to pay its bus drivers.

The state is even more responsible. Bus service is part of the McCleary lawsuit because it is considered integral to basic education. After all, if a child can’t get to school, they can’t access education. As the cost of living goes up–including medical expenses–and the number of students increase, the district is going to need more and more money. Instead it’s getting less. From the same school board report I mentioned above:

The State uses a reimbursement formula that pays out the lesser of the previous year’s actual or current year projected costs.

So if the district is negotiating a contract that’s more expensive than the previous one, the state won’t pay the difference. That’s a lot of pressure to keep costs low. On the other hand, in theory, if the district secures the funding for one year, that funding will carry over for the next. So in the long term, it’s fiscally irresponsible.

Enough is enough!

What to do now

Now’s the time to celebrate our bus drivers’ win. But let’s also prepare for the next time the school district tries to cut costs on bus service. When this contract expires, we’ll be watching.

Let’s keep the district honest.


Is it Research – or Propaganda?


This article was published four years ago on this site but needs to see the light of day again.

-Dora Taylor

There’s a lot of brand new education research coming out nowadays, and it’s telling our policymakers that privatization is good for education. Class sizes are going up? That’s okay, because research shows that class size has little impact on student learning. Charter schools are competing with your neighborhood schools? Hey, many of them outperform public schools!

And this is good research. Great research. In fact, it’s the best research money can buy. Big money, I mean. Corporate money.

How do they buy it? Through right-wing think tanks. Corporations fund think tanks, and the think tanks employ researchers, and then the researchers wrangle leadership roles in strategically placed research centers, which – like schools – are being privatized.

This article takes a quick look at a few right-wing think tanks and how they’re steering education policy in just one city – Seattle, Washington. If you want to delve deeper into the topic of think tank propaganda, visit or

What Are Think Tanks?

Think tanks are organizations that produce propaganda posing as legitimate research for the benefit of their funders – generally, corporations and billionaires. Some of them were founded decades ago by pro-corporate leaders in partnership with millionaires and corporations. They were created for a specific purpose, such as to battle the “communist menace” after World War II or to help out the tobacco industry. Other think tanks have been founded more recently, by people such as the Koch Brothers.

This article will touch on just three: the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Fordham Institute.

American Enterprise Institute

The American Enterprise Institute is a pro-business, conservative think tank that puts profits before people. It was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders.

It has a rather spotty past — in the 1980s, it mounted a propaganda campaign for the tobacco industry, and in 2007, it came under fire for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warning.

In the field of education, AEI scholar Charles Murray drew fire for his book The Bell Curve, which used pseudo-scientific methods to argue that intelligence differs inherently across the races. Another prominent researcher is Frederick Hess, a pundit who argues against spending more money on schools and for laying off teachers and raising class sizes. Finally, closely affiliated to the American Enterprise Institute is Dan Goldhaber, a member of the AEI Future of American Education working group, which is actively working to privatize education.

Hoover Institution

The Hoover Institution is a public policy think tank that was founded in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, before he became president. It is extremely conservative and supports privatization of social services, deregulation of industry, school vouchers, tax cuts for the rich, and various other policies that also put profits before people. In exchange, corporations fund it well.

Its Senior Fellows include high-profile conservatives such as Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, and economist Milton Friedman. Friedman was an advisor to the dictator Pinochet and was in favor of deregulating and privatizing everything under the sun. In the field of education, one of its Visiting Fellows is Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush, who at the time supported vouchers.

Currently, the education efforts of the Hoover Institution are coordinated through the Koret Task Force. Some of the task force members are Chester Finn, Eric Hanushek, and Paul T. Hill.

Fordham Institute

The Fordham Institute is a conservative think tank that focuses on education under the direction of the Hoover Institution’s Senior Fellow Chester E. Finn. It puts out an online magazine, Education Next, which sings the praises of everything from charter schools to standardized testing and changes to “human capital” policies.

The Researchers

Think tanks employ researchers, who have gained prominent positions in public policy and make powerful voices in education debates. Here are a few major researchers and the projects they have taken on:

Eric Hanushek is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He publishes articles about education policy, but his main focus is economics. He was the first researcher to attempt to measure “teacher effectiveness” using “value added” methods – that is, the gain in student learning as measured by standardized tests.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, the chairman of the Koret Task Force, and the president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He also publishes for Education Next.

Paul T. Hill is a member of the Koret Task Force, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and a professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He promotes charter schools as well as vouchers and “school choice” – that is, encouraging schools to compete with one another.

Frederick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He has written numerous books about education and has a column at the Education Week blog. He is also a codirector of the AEI’s Future of American Education project, a working group of twenty privatization-friendly researchers around the country, with the goal of finding and promoting original privatization research.

Dan Goldhaber is on the task force of the AEI’s Future of American Education project. He also happens to be the Director of the Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR) and a professor at the University of Washington. He is also a scholar at the Urban Institute. He focuses on “human capital policies” that affect teachers.

The Research Centers

Through their researchers, think tanks have come to have influence over a few key research centers. Think tank researchers from the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution lead the federally funded Urban Institute and CALDER Center. They also lead the locally funded Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR).

Meanwhile, the Fordham Institute, along with the Hoover Institution, funds the journal Education Next, where much of the research is publicized.

The figure below shows the relationship between think tanks, the research centers, and Education Next.

The CALDER Center

The National Center of Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) is a federally funded research organization that has a number of think tankers in management, on the advisory board, or working as independent researchers — Eric Hanushek and Paul Hill from the Hoover Institute and Frederick Hess and Dan Goldhaber from the American Enterprise Institute.

CALDER puts out working papers and policy briefs that have been widely cited and used to shape federal, state, and local policy. The working papers contain a disclaimer that they are for discussion purposes and have not gone through formal review. This means that the research results are only educated guesses. However, the privatization industry has made great use of them, referring to them with no mention of the disclaimer or the lack of peer review.

CALDER has “state partners” in several states. These partners are researchers that just happen to also lead other research organizations, which take funding from both public and private sources. The Washington State partner Dan Goldhaber, for instance, runs the industry-funded Center for Education Data and Research.

Center for Education Data and Research

The Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR) is a research organization in Seattle funded by a hybrid of governmental and corporate sources. It researches charter schools, vouchers, “human capital” policies, and high-stakes standardized testing. Some of its research uses quasi-experimental or case-study approaches, but the press releases and policy papers it puts out don’t disclose that. It is directed by Dan Goldhaber.

Center on Reinventing Public Education

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a research organization in Seattle, is funded by foundations and businesses, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the owners of Walmart. It promotes “alternatives of financing and governing public education” – that is, privatization. It supports standardized testing, “value-added,” charter schools, and pay cuts for teachers. Its director, Paul T. Hill, is also a member of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force.

Reporting on the Research

Education Next is a journal sponsored by the Hoover Institution, the Fordham Institute, and also the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Education Policy and Governance. Its editorial board is comprised of the members of the Koret Task Force – including, for example, Eric Hanushek and Paul T. Hill. And it has regular contributors from both the Hoover Institution (Chester E. Finn) and the American Enterprise Institute (Frederick Hess).

It’s a mouthpiece, then, for all three of the think tanks mentioned in this article!

Taking an Active Role

Think tanks and associated research centers are actively shaping education policy, steering it toward privatization. Researchers not only write policy briefs and host conferences for public officials, but they also end up in positions of power and use those positions to enact changes.

For example, a former researcher at CRPE, Bree Dusseault, is now an executive director of Seattle Public Schools. She recently drew fire for terminating a popular principal at Ingraham High, despite an outpouring of community support for the principal.

In another example, recommendations from a Fordham Institution report on “human capital” mysteriously found its way into the Seattle teachers’ contract midway through negotiations. The National Council on Teacher Quality, which is funded by the Fordham Institute and has the president of the Fordham Institute on its board of directors, actually sat down with the district and the union to give its recommendations – as if it deserved a place at the table!

What Can We Do?

What can we do to counter the influence of think tanks? Plenty. To name a few:

1. Go back to the basics

Those of us who had a quality public education learned how to evaluate sources in elementary school. Put that knowledge to work! Whenever you see that sneaky little phrase “research shows,” ask some impertinent questions. Which research exactly? What was the source? Who funded it? What do the other studies say?

2. Call a rose a rose

Think tankers have been spreading “glittering generalities” to cover up their nasty privatization and deregulation policies. Don’t fall into the trap of arguing using their terms. For example, “school choice” = vouchers, charter schools, and private schools. “Effective teachers” = teaching to the test. “Accountability” = high stakes testing and school closures.

3. Confront our policymakers

Our policymakers are listening to the think tankers. Fancy full-color policy briefs come at them from every direction. It’s nothing but advertising, but they don’t seem to know that. Who knows, maybe they went to a private school and missed out on that quality public education? Confront them. Ask them why they’re so in love with conservative think tanks. Do they have a secret privatization agenda too, or were they just duped?

4. Spread the word

Spreading the word person-to-person really works. The more people understand what’s really going on, the more people will be calling their school board members, writing letters to the editor, posting on blogs, contacting the media, and just generally raising a ruckus.

5. Organize locally

Last but not least, organize locally. It works. When Bree Dusseault tried to fire Ingraham’s principal, the school community organized and spoke out loud and clear. The result? The interim superintendent backed down and reversed the decision.

Local think tanker Paul T. Hill was not pleased. “It kind of gives a blueprint for resistance,” he told the Seattle Times.



Charter Schools and Constitutional Rights

Quiz time! Are charter schools allowed to violate students’ civil rights?

  • A. Yes
  • B. No
  • C. Some
  • D. We don’t know yet

The correct answer is “D – we don’t know yet.” Why? Because lawsuits over civil rights violations are being decided different ways. The key question is whether charter school management organizations count as “state agents” — that is, acting on behalf of a government body.

You might think it’s a straightforward question, but it’s not. Federal law is inconsistent. Some courts have decided that both for-profit and nonprofit management organizations, as private contractors, are not state agents and do not have to grant students and teachers the same constitutional rights.

Other courts have found that they are state agents.

Part of the reason for these different opinions is that charter school setups vary between states and even between school districts in the same state. Another part is that charter schools are seen as separate from charter school management organizations. Even when a school is considered public, the management organization is private.

It gets even trickier. In Caviness vs. Horizon Community Learning (filed in Jan 2010), the 9th Circuit Court found that charter schools are “state actors” in some respects but not in others — even if they are designated as “public schools” by state law. The decision pointed out that “a private entity may be designated a state actor for some purposes but still function as a private actor in other respects.” (p.75) So some constitutional protections apply and others don’t.

What’s at stake are the civil rights of our children, including:

the Due Process clause, which requires due process when expelling students or firing employees;

the Equal Protection Clause, which protects against discrimination based on race, gender, or other factors;

and the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, which together provide for the separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion.

And some charter school advocates are fighting a legal battle to make sure that charter school companies are exempted from lawsuits over violations of these rights. In an article written for the University of Detroit Mercy Law Review, “Charter Schools: Are For Profit Companies Contracting for State Actor Status?”  Bradley T. French writes, “the essence of charter school success comes from privatization of their operation. . . While they may be given initial authority and some funding by the states, they are managed by private charter school management companies.”  French argues that because charter school management companies are private contractors, they are not state agents. This debate is ongoing.

We have to keep a close eye on this. There is a debate raging between people who are for and against charters. But beyond that simple yes-no question are complexities that could have serious consequences. When charter school legislation comes up in the state of Washington, we need to examine it closely, or else we risk the sacrifice of our children’s constitutional rights.

So let’s get informed.

More to explore:

Article about the Caviness vs. Horizon Community Learning Center decision

Full text of Caviness vs. Horizon Community Learning Center

Bradley T. French, “Charter Schools: Are For Profit Companies Contracting for State Actor Status?” University of Detroit Mercy Law Review, vol 83:251, 2006.

Maren Hulden, “Charting a Course to State Action: Charter Schools and § 1983,” Columbia Law Review, Vol. 111:1244, 2011.


Do We Respect Seattle Teachers?

Seattle’s public schools sure have been through a lot in the 2010-2011 school year. On top of the multimillion dollar scandals and the firing of superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, we saw funding cuts from the legislature that has decimated our classroom teachers and classroom supports and caused serious overcrowding at Garfield High School and other schools, which meant that some students had to go without teachers or classrooms for part of the year. At Lowell, overcrowding has brought a need for more classrooms, and I have heard that the district plans to take away space from developmental preschool and toileting facilities.

But something else is happening that many parents may not realize: above and beyond funding problems, teachers are being hit hard with a loss of respect. One culprit is the movie Waiting for Superman, which in highlighting “bad teachers” has brought widespread disrespect to all teachers, in every school, regardless of quality.

This hit home hard to me recently at a party. I was deep in conversation with a middle school teacher who has been working 60-80 hour work weeks all year. Somebody came into the room, heard the word “teaching,” and launched into a discussion about the movie Waiting for Superman and this problem of “bad teachers.” I stuck up for her and helped her try to refute some of the flawed arguments, but we didn’t get through. I could see the teacher’s blood boiling as she tried to maintain her composure, finally leaving the house in order to avoid spilling all her year’s frustrations all over this well-meaning but misinformed guest.

Guess what, everybody? If we focus on “bad teachers” we are going to get bad teachers. Because our good teachers are going to quit. They’re already overworked. They are facing layoffs even though the numbers of students in our district are going up. They are losing the ability to control what they teach. And on top of all that, they are losing respect.

Don’t take my word for it, ask a teacher. Seattle is full of teachers. Some of your best friends are teachers.

Paired with this loss of respect are efforts to de-professionalize teachers in Seattle, efforts that will do material harm to teachers and the teaching profession. And this is terrible for our children. Here are just a few things that happened this year:

  • Ex-superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson tried to ram through a proposal to tie teacher evaluations to the results of standardized tests – a measure that would increase “teaching to the test.”
  • The state legislature tried to pass law after law that would erode seniority, even though teachers improve greatly over the first five years of teaching, and most especially in their first year.
  • The district laid off teachers, even though we will see an increase in enrollment next year.
  • The district also signed a deal with Teach for America to bring in teachers with five weeks of training to address “shortages,” despite the fact that there were 18,668 applications for 766 positions last year.

This doesn’t just hurt teachers. This attacks teaching as a profession. Could we, instead of spending all our efforts blaming bad teachers, ask what quality teaching looks like, and see how we can support it? Looking broadly at “teaching” instead of narrowly at “teachers” gives us the big picture that we need in order to work for real reforms in education, like:

  • Quality teacher preparation. (By the way, the UW College of Education is ninth in the nation.)
  • National Board certification, which came about as a result of teachers wanting to set clear standards for quality.
  • Experience. Teachers improve over time for the first five years. The first year, especially, is a struggle.
  • A manageable workload.
  • Classroom supports like aides and tutors and counselors.
  • Relationships built in the school community and the classroom.
  • Excellent curriculum and the flexibility to adapt it to the needs of the students.
  • Clear standards that teachers, parents, and students can all understand.
  • Funding for school supplies such as markers and scissors. (Ask a parent who pays for these.)
  • Placement in the right classroom, because a poor fit makes for poor teaching even if the teacher is great!

These are all factors that directly impact teachers’ ability to do their jobs, but right now our education system is being privatized, and many of these factors are coming under attack.

Can teachers defend their profession? Yes, to an extent, but remember, they’re overworked already! We need to give them our support, and we need to keep a close and critical eye on what is happening district-wide, statewide, and nationally.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t take my word for this. Ask a teacher. Let them know beforehand that you won’t jump all over them but honestly want their opinion. Listen nicely and don’t argue! And above all, let them know you support them. Every little bit helps!


"Honor Teachers" bumper sticker

The Big Picture: Privatizing Education, Part 3

By Kristin

The “education reform” sweeping the nation right now isn’t reform at all. It’s privatization and deregulation. Part One of this three-part article explained what privatization is and who’s benefiting: billionaires and corporations. Part Two explained how they’re getting power: using nonprofits and leveraging public funding. This part shows how the process of privatization works and how it can be stopped!

How Are the Rich and Powerful Privatizing Education?

The process by which our education system is becoming privatized is fairly complicated and includes a number of different parties acting in different ways and for different reasons. Some are explicitly calling for privatization and underfunding of schools. Others are working toward privatization secretly, and still others have been tricked into working toward privatization. So you can’t always pick one person or organization and say, “They want privatization!” But if we understand privatization as a system, we can look at a particular activity and say, “Yes, that is contributing to privatization.”

The groundwork for privatization was laid decades ago. To get a sense for how privatization works over the long term, let’s go back to Brown vs. the Board of Education. That’s when the Supreme Court said that all Black children could attend the same public schools as white children. Some people celebrated that momentous decision, but others immediately took their children out of the public school system and began advocating for private schools, charter schools, school choice, and vouchers. Right then and there, public education found a potent enemy, one that’s been working against it both openly and secretly ever since.

Now let’s step ahead a couple of decades to the year No Child Left Behind was passed. What was that all about, anyway? Who, besides President Bush, wanted it? And why, if the stated goal was to support struggling students and schools, did it punish them with high-stakes testing and school closures? And why, if the stated goal was to help schools, did Bush cut funding by enacting tax cuts for the rich?

Figure 2 shows how, after desegregation, the rich and powerful have been laying the groundwork for privatized schools. They have used private funding and vouchers to strengthen charter and public schools. At the same time, they have been using tax and funding cuts, as well as No Child Left Behind, to weaken schools.

Figure 2: Laying the Groundwork for Privatized Schools

In the years since the enactment of No Child Left Behind, billionaires and corporations have continued to stack the deck against public schools by underfunding public schools and funding private and charter schools. Some charter schools are heavily showcased and then promoted as charter school successes; but this is a “bait-and-switch” tactic, because such money wouldn’t be available to every school after privatization.

At the same time, billionaires and corporations have been funding propaganda in support of private schools through mass media PR, grants to nonprofits, and faulty think tank research. This propaganda encourages legislation that deregulates schools, allowing charter and public schools to break into new markets.

The number of charter schools in the United States has been increasing, and legislation allowing them has been introduced in most states. Wherever they appear, they begin to drain resources (students and per-student funding) from public schools, gradually replacing public schools. As they become more powerful and gain more public and private funding, they can keep the ball running all by themselves, joining with billionaires to market the concept of charter schools and lobby for charter-friendly legislation.

Add Charters, De-professionalize Teaching, and Impose High-Stakes Testing

But even with the heavy lifting of billionaires and corporations, charter schools can’t compete with public schools unless they’re cheaper or look better. That’s where two other two aspects of privatization come in: the de-professionalization of teaching and the imposition of high-stakes testing. Figure 3 shows how they work together to strengthen each other.

Figure 3 The Big Three: Charters, Testing, De-professionalized Teaching

The de-professionalization of teaching leads to the availability of less expensive teachers who have less power in the workforce. Such teachers can staff charter schools more cheaply and are more willing to “teach to the test.” Teaching to the test also means that charter schools can use prepackaged curriculum that requires no professional input from the teacher. Billionaires and corporations are de-professionalizing teaching in several different ways:

  • Deregulating teaching by attacking National Board certification and proposing “alternative” forms of certification
  • Attacking the rights of teachers to bargain collectively, which reduces their democratic voice in the workplace
  • Attacking teacher seniority.

“Alternative,” or weakened forms of certification, pave the way for poor-quality teacher training programs. More rigorous teacher training programs do exist, but they are showcased in a “bait-and-switch”that justifies legislation allowing alternative certification. This lays the groundwork for teachers who have received as little as five weeks of training, such as Teach for America, to lead a high-need classroom all by themselves.

Charter schools use these fast-track and five-week programs to cut labor costs. This forces public schools to consider them as well. At the same time as competition is established between fast-track and National Board-certified teachers, legislation is introduced that attacks seniority rights and propaganda is introduced that magnifies public frustration with “bad teachers” who are said to be protected by the union. Legislation and propaganda also attacks teacher’s rights to bargain collectively, which for decades has been safeguarding teaching as a profession and giving teachers a democratic voice in the workplace.

As charter schools and fast-track teacher preparation programs have gained ground, they’ve been able to more cheaply educate, or at least warehouse, children. This creates a false impression that schools need less money, which leads to further underfunding of schools. The underfunded schools then look bad in comparison to the charter schools. And when competition is encouraged between schools, public schools lose students and the funding that goes with them.

High-stakes standardized testing adds its own influence to the mix. Since the days of No Child Left Behind, high-stakes standardized testing has been punishing struggling schools and students. Although standardized testing has the potential to identify areas needing improvement, adding a high-stakes component undermines that potential and intensifies competition between schools. Using test scores to measure schools also opens the door for a misuse of statistics.

Race to the Top and various state initiatives go beyond NCLB and punish teachers and principals for student performance. They also provide an excuse to fire experienced, National Board-certified teachers, which opens slots for inexperienced teachers.

Finally, forcing schools and teachers to compete for less and less funding weakens charter schools and public schools alike. But there’s one important difference. When a school is forced to close, billionaires and corporations are ready to step in and support a new charter school. They don’t support new public schools. Sometimes public funding isn’t even provided equally. Thus, competition between schools leads to more and more charter schools. The same is true of teachers. When teachers are fired, underfunded districts have an enormous pressure to hire inexperienced, fast-track teachers. That’s why the number of charter schools and fast-track teachers in the United States has been increasing.

How to Stop Privatization

This article provided an overview of privatization, but that’s only the first step. The framework built here is not meant to be used on its own, but to give some context that will allow a concrete understanding of how real people and organizations are affected, right down to the level of the classroom. That is a project all on its own. The good news is that anybody with a keyboard and a healthy dose of skepticism and a computer can help fill in the blanks.

For starters, whenever a nonprofit or grassroots groups ask you to “help” public education, look at who is funding them and who is on the board of directors. Consider what strings may be attached.

Also watch out for propaganda, especially when it involves “glittering generalities” such as “education reform” or “effective teaching” — terms that may have very different meanings to you than to the person using them.

Finally, watch government activity at the federal, state, local, and district levels. Whenever legislation is introduced and whenever the school district proposes a new policy, could it be used to promote privatization?

It’s helpful for one person to understand privatization in a concrete sense, but it’s not nearly enough. Large numbers of people need to understand it, too. To some extent, people have only gone along with privatization because they’ve been tricked and lied to. And that’s where we can effect change: by informing ourselves and then sharing our knowledge with our friends and neighbors.

Remember: in a democracy, it’s the people who dictate public policy. Simply put, we outnumber billionaires. If we work together as a community, we can stop privatization, reverse course, and head toward the dream of fully funded, democratically controlled schools for all.

The Big Picture: Privatizing Education, Part 2

by Kristin

The “education reform” sweeping the nation right now isn’t reform at all. It’s privatization and deregulation. Part One explained privatization and deregulation and explored the billionaires and corporations pushing for it. This section explains the strategy they’re using: using nonprofits. Part Three will show how the different aspects of “education reform” work together as a process — and how it can be stopped!

How Do They Get Power?

Billionaires and corporations exert their influence and push for privatization using a myriad of strategies, some obvious and some not. They can directly lobby the state and federal government for change. Through ownership of mass media, they can also put out PR in favor of privatization and deregulation, thereby swaying public officials and voters. Those strategies are fairly obvious.

But some of the ways that billionaires and corporations exert their influence are not so obvious. In fact, they’re deliberately hidden. The rich and powerful use a variety of strategies to influence the government (at the federal, state, local, district, and school level) and the general public. Then they hide those strategies and their influence by acting through a nonprofit or grassroots group, which they have either created out of thin air or manipulated using a grant with strings attached. The nonprofit or grassroots group then manipulates the government and the general public.

Figure 1 shows how this influence works to divert the public from its goal of improving and fully funding schools to the corporate goals of privatizing and deregulating them.

This strategy is as effective as it is despicable, because it takes advantage of our quite reasonable expectation that nonprofits work for the greater good and this influence works to divert the public from its goal of improving and fully funding schools to the corporate goals of privatizing and deregulating them.

How Billionaires and Corporations Influence the Public

Billionaires and corporations direct the activities of nonprofits and grassroots groups through philanthropic foundations. For example, the family that owns WalMart has the Walton Family Foundation, Bill Gates has the Gates Foundation, and the owner of the Gap has the Fisher Foundation. These foundations can then create or fund a nonprofit and then influence that nonprofit by making grants with strings attached or buying a seat on the board of directors. Then they use that nonprofit to push, tax-free, for policy changes. Foundations and nonprofits can also create astroturf (fake grassroots) groups that urge their constituency to lobby for policy changes.

Even worse, foundations and nonprofits contribute to existing, trusted nonprofits and grassroots groups, encouraging the group to participate in one small, innocuous-seeming “Trojan horse” activity that pushes for privatization without the members of that group knowing how the activity contributes to the bigger picture. For instance, a push to deregulate teaching can be sneaked into legitimate efforts to improve teaching.

This isn’t just hypothetical. There is direct evidence that this is currently happening in many different nonprofits and grassroots groups. Through foundations, billionaires and corporations are pushing for privatization and deregulation by:

  • lobbying and making campaign contributions
  • distributing propaganda through mass media and think tanks
  • making grants to federal, state, and local government agencies

A few examples of their activities are:

Taken together, these activities and others like them work together in order to build a larger process of privatization.

Part Three of this three-part article will show how the different aspects of “education reform” work together as a process — and how it can be stopped!

The Big Picture: Privatizing Education (Part One of Three)

The Big Picture: Privatizing Education (Part One of Three)
By Kristin

The  “education reform” sweeping the nation right now isn’t reform at all. It’s privatization and deregulation. This three-part article explains what privatization is and who benefits from it. The forthcoming Part Two will explain the strategy being used, and Part Three will show how the different aspects of  “education reform” work together as a process — and how it can be stopped!

Part One: An Introduction to Privatization
Since the 1800s, public education has been free and available to everyone. It held the promise that allowed people to strive for equal education and equal opportunity for everyone. But there is now a strong push to privatize every element of our public education system, including our schools, teachers, and curriculum. By the time my children graduate high school, will it still be universally available? Will it even be called “public education” any more?

The parents, teachers, and students who support public education can fight privatization through widespread, coordinated, and sustained opposition.

But there’s one big obstacle standing in the way of this opposition: the process is big, complicated, and sneaky. It involves a lot of money going a lot of different places – including but not limited to, lobbying dollars, propaganda in the mass media, and “astroturf”, fake grassroots groups – and supporting a lot of seemingly unrelated education policies.
To fight privatization, we need a holistic understanding of the process. To that end, this article provides a short overview of the privatization efforts currently underway, who’s behind them, and how the privatization process works. The results may surprise you!

What is Privatization?
Privatization is a process of shifting the ownership and management of public services from the public sector (the state or government) to the private sector (businesses that operate for a private profit and privately funded nonprofits). Proponents claim that by encouraging competition, privatization can improve the efficiency of public services. But there can be serious drawbacks. For instance, before fire departments were publicly run, groups of firefighters sometimes set fires just to earn money by putting them out!

Another drawback is that privatization also takes away democratic public control of our public services. If government officials mismanage public services, we can vote them out of office. But when private corporations mismanage them, we can’t. Only the shareholders have the power to fire the CEOs. Even worse, privatization undermines the basic fabric of our democracy for years to come by putting rote learning ahead of critical thinking.

Yet another drawback is that privatization opens the door for deregulation, which is the lifting of restrictions that provide for health, safety, and quality control. Whenever a private corporation runs an industry, it has a strong financial incentive to lobby the government to deregulate. Recent examples include the deregulation of the mortgage industry, which led to our current financial crisis, and the deregulation of the oil industry, which led to the catastrophic Deepwater oil spill.

A final drawback is that privatized and deregulated schools are neither required nor expected to create equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. That’s why the UCLA has reported that charter schools are increasing segregation in the United States.

Charter schools can also do an “end run” around requirements to provide special education for high-need students. They can serve a special few while ignoring the greater good.

Despite these drawbacks, the rich and powerful have been pushing for privatization of a wide number of public services, such as public utilities, national parks, universities, and even social security. The push to privatize public education has been going on for decades and includes school choice, vouchers, charter schools, the privatization of curriculum, and more. There are also efforts underway to deregulate schools and teaching, replacing protections with the illusion of quality control through standardized testing.

Who Benefits from Privatization?
The business that takes over the public service benefits directly from privatization. Billionaires and large corporations also benefit, if it means the government will cut taxes for the rich. Politicians and bureaucrats with connections also benefit through kickbacks.

Who’s Pushing for Privatization?
Billionaires (such as the Walton family, the Koch brothers, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Eli and Blythe Broad) and corporations are pushing heavily for the privatization of education and other services, both for financial reasons and ideological ones.
From the point of view of billionaires, the free market is ideal. It made them rich, after all. To the extent that they want to improve education, they want to remake the system in the image of a corporation, with top-down management, competition, decreased spending, and a focus on results. Of course, the view from the top is nothing like the view from the bottom. How can billionaires who have never gone through the public education system have any idea of the challenges that teachers and students actually face?
As for corporations, they don’t “want” anything in particular. They can’t; they’re not human beings. They are essentially machines whose primary goal is to maximize profits. To further that goal, corporations have an interest in lowering taxes. They also have an interest in directly controlling exactly what is taught to tomorrow’s workforce. They do not have a need for equal opportunity in education, because not all workers in tomorrow’s economy need to think for themselves or to read beyond basic literacy.
Finally, there are companies that simply profit off education, taking taxpayer and grant dollars to produce a product. This includes charter schools, teacher preparation programs, online learning systems, standardized tests, and test prep curriculum. Privatization helps them because it creates new markets. Opening a charter school, for instance, means that brand new teachers can be hired and brand new curriculum can be sold. (Of course, this also means that existing teachers must be fired and curriculum thrown away.)

Next up:
Part Two of this three-part article will continue by explaining the strategy that billionaires are using to push for privatization and deregulation: using nonprofits.