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Madison Prep Advances Right-Wing Attack on Public Schools

i Mar 12th No Comments by

“Vouchers are the Right’s wedge issue, carefully chosen to create divisions between the Democratic Party’s two strongest pillars: Blacks and public employee unions, most notably, teachers.”

By Allen Ruff | The controversy surrounding the move to create the Madison Preparatory Academy, an autonomous charter school for the city’s minority youth, continues to swirl. Proposing the charter as a way to improve the achievement and graduation rates for youth of color in the city’s secondary schools, the project’s advocates have primarily framed the issue as a local one. The failure to address the “achievement gap,” they argue, is the fault of the school board, the teachers, their union and Madison’s local “liberal establishment”. Similar arguments, coming from the proponents of “school reform” can be heard around the country. Why is that?

The Madison situation is certainly not unique. Urban school districts across the country face similar problems rooted in racial and class-based social inequality. Public education nationwide has become the target of a conservative-led offensive, a push to privatize public education. School boards, teachers and teachers’ unions have come increasingly under attack as a result.

There’s been a concerted effort, underway for years, not only to cut funding for public schools, but to channel school district revenues toward increasingly privatized voucher, independent charter and, more recently, virtual (online) schools. That assault, fueled by money coming from right wing foundations, has been spearheaded by various conservative think tanks, “education policy” fronts, and “school choice” charter school associations and education-for-profit promoters. (See ‘Some Players in Conservative Assault on Public Education’ below.)

At local levels, “edupreneurs” with eager eyes fixed on public school coffers have readily joined with sincere folks legitimately concerned with the plight of all the kids not being served to the fullest in underfunded schools. Anti-union, anti- tax, and anti-public school elements have added their support.

The movement’s think tanks have developed various “school reform” strategies. For example, in places where local administrations have resisted privatization efforts, conservatives have launched efforts to win control of school boards.

In various states including Wisconsin, right-wing legislators have recently introduced “charter school reform” bills calling for the creation of governor- appointed “charter school authorization boards” that eliminate local district say over who receives charters. Brick-and-mortar charter, voucher and virtual schools receiving the go ahead from such panels will operate without unions or oversight protections for teachers, support staff and students. Support for such schools will come from funds that previously had gone to local school districts.

Kaleem Caire on speaking at right-wing Cato Institute

The National and the Local Madison Prep’s main champion, Kaleem Caire, has provided a way of viewing the relationship between the national and local efforts. A Madison native, he left town following the completion of a UW undergraduate degree and several years of school–focused service to the community.

In 2000, he went to work for the Milwaukee-based Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a force behind the first successful school voucher effort in the country, co-founded by the former Milwaukee School Superintendent, Howard Fuller. The early BAEO was almost entirely funded by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a major backer of numerous right-wing initiatives. BAEO funding also came from the Walton Family Foundation (Wal- Mart) and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. (See “Some Players….” below.)

Caire became the first President and CEO of BAEO. Moving to the Washington D.C. area in November, 2000, he proceeded to expand the organization nationally as his school voucher activism in Washington brought him in contact with major institutional players in the conservative education reform movement.

NCPA and the Koch Connection

For example, he and the BAEO’s Howard Fuller co-authored Ten Myths about School Choice: Answering the Campaign against School Vouchers in 2001, published by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA). The book was well-received within conservative circles as Caire made presentations to various conservative groups such as the CATO Institute.

The NCPA is part of the State Policy Network, a grouping of national and local right-tilted think tanks. The State Policy Network is also affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which crafts right wing legislation for state legislatures. NCPA funding has come from a number of ultra conservative backers including Charles and David Koch.

In late 2002, Kaleem Caire left the BAEO to work for the American Education Reform Council (AERC), one of a number of closely related conservative “school choice” organizations. The AERC was also supported by Bradley and other right-wing, anti-union funders. Wal-Mart heir John Walton not only helped fund the AERC but was the organization’s president. Kaleem Caire’s associate, the BAEO’s Howard Fuller, sat on the AERC board.

Funding for the AERC also came from the group’s founder and early board member, Betsy DeVos. She went on to bankroll the American Federation for Children (AFC), a group dedicated to fully privatizing public education. The former state Republican Assembly leader, Scott Jensen, indicted for his role in the Wisconsin 2001 caucus scandal, is a “senior policy advisor” for the AFC.

NASCA and the Waltons

Kaleem Caire’s association with various conservative “school reform” outfits did not end in the mid-2000s.

For example, at a Madison School Board meeting in December, 2010, Caire stated that he had shown the Madison school district’s existing charter school policy to Greg Richmond, then President & CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and that Richmond was willing to help the Board rewrite it. The Madison Urban League sponsored a “charter schools seminar” featuring Richmond in November, 2011.

NACSA also receives funding from the Walton Foundation, to the tune of more than $1.8 million in 2010 alone. The group has been an affiliate of ALEC’s Education Task Force, the body that designed the “charter school reform” model legislation similar to that currently pending in Wisconsin. Richmond is currently chair of the Illinois State Charter School Commission, created by an Illinois law enacted in 2011. Distinct from the Illinois State Board of Education, the Commission now has the authority to approve charter school proposals already turned down by local school districts.

Right-wing Wedge Issue

Reporting on the BAEO and related efforts in the early 2000s, the highly critical Black Commentator argued that the voucher movement was a “wedge issue”:

“Vouchers are the Right’s wedge issue, carefully chosen to create divisions between the Democratic Party’s two strongest pillars: Blacks and public employee unions, most notably, teachers.”

“The very people who wage relentless war against the public schools wave vouchers under the noses of the poor, knowing full well that private schools cannot possibly meet the needs of the vast bulk of Black children.”

“Their strategy is to sow dissension in Black and progressive ranks…”

Another Commentator piece from 2003 observed that:

“Two major forces stand in the way of wholesale corporate raiding of public education: Black leadership and organized labor, primarily teachers unions.” “The voucher offensive is designed to crush both.” “It goes without saying that privatization will decimate the unions. The Black leadership problem is almost as straightforward. The current crop of African-American office holders must either be made to submit – that is, break with the unions – or be replaced.”

Understanding such dynamics, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution in opposition to charter schools at its 2010 national convention.

The “school choice” movement certainly has had a base of community support among those legitimately concerned with the state of urban schools. That grass roots concern, while providing popular backing for the cause, has neither led nor propelled it, however.

The primary push for the expansion of voucher, charter and virtual schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere has been headed in large part by educational entrepreneurs and privatizers, as well as corporate conservatives eager to further cripple teachers’ and other public sector unions.

From the start, the Madison Prep proposals called for a “non-instrumentality” charter school – a self-administered, non-union school largely exempt from Madison Metropolitan School District oversight that would nevertheless draw millions of dollars from an already tight school budget.

The Academy is viewed by its initiators as an “experiment” to be extended throughout the district. Approved by either a newly elected school board or through new state chartering authority, the project would actually contribute to the ongoing assault on public education for all and the public sector workers.

Allen Ruff is a Madison-based US historian, investigative researcher and long-time social activist.

Some Players in Conservative Assault on Public Education

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

Besides “education reform” efforts, this Milwaukee-based “philanthropy” has been a major backer of numerous anti-labor, anti-affirmative action, and other right-wing initiatives. Bradley has long supported organizations and individuals that promote deregulation of business, the rollback of virtually all social welfare programs, and the privatization of prisons.

The Bradley Foundation provided nearly $1 million to researcher Charles Murray, co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve which claimed a genetic causation for the supposed intellectual inferiority of African-Americans.

Harry Bradley was a charter member of the far right-wing John Birch Society, alongside Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries billionaires, Charles and David Koch.

The Walton Family Foundation

This “philanthropic” offshoot of the Wal-Mart fortune devotes a significant portion of its holdings to boosting conservative political candidates and a conservative social agenda centered on the privatization of public education. It also bankrolls a number of right-wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and groups like Americans for Tax Reform.

The Milton & Rose Freidman Foundation

This foundation’s money came primarily from the fortunes of the free market economist Milton Friedman, long-time enemy of public sector unionism and state “intervention” in the economy. In 1995 he argued that, “The privatization of schooling would produce a new, highly active and profitable private industry…” and that, “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system …” The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which, in cooperation with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been a key designer of “school choice model legislation.”

Betsy Devos

Devos and her husband Dick, heir to the Amway fortune, are recognized as top national contributors to the GOP, free market policy institutes, and Religious Right organizations. The duo has also been credited with helping to finance the 2010 Citizens United case before the Supreme Court which ultimately recognized the “personhood” of large corporations. In 2011, the Devos- bankrolled American Federation for Children ran ads to defend Wisconsin Republicans facing recall votes, and hosted an event honoring Governor Scott Walker for his support for school vouchers.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)’s Education Task Force

Members of the ETF wrote the “Charter Schools Act” and “Next Generation Charter Schools” – the “model legislation” basis for governor-appointed “charter school authorizing boards.” The ETF’s “private sector chair,” Mickey Revenaugh, was co-founder of Connections Academy, the Baltimore-based private developer of virtual charter schools.

National Center for Policy Analysis

People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, describes the NCPA as “a right wing think tank with programs devoted to privatization of Social Security and Medicare, health care, criminal justice, environment, education, and welfare.” Major NCPA funding has also come from ultra conservative backers including the Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation. Its list of contributors includes Charles and David Koch.

American Education Reform Council

The AERC in the early 2000s spent millions of dollars on school voucher “issue ads” and played an important role in anti-affirmative action initiatives in California and Washington State. Its lobbying wing, the American Education Reform Foundation (AERF), has worked to influence the political process in Wisconsin and elsewhere.



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