Reformed Charter School Ex-Lobbyist Spills The Beans
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Earlier today we looked at the de-evolution of the GOP into a party of willful ignorance, gross delusionalism and low educational attainment, populated by an easily-manipulated, grievance-fueled base without almost any capacity at all for critical thinking.
Valerie Strauss began a Washington Post piece on privatization of public education this morning by pointing to an older Post article by Joanne Barkan which began "When champions of market-based reform in the United States look at public education, they see two separate activities-- government funding education and government running schools. The first is okay with them; the second is not. Reformers want to replace their bête noire-- what they call the “monopoly of government-run schools”-- with freedom of choice in a competitive market dominated by privately run schools that get government subsidies." Strauss noted that "Today, that privatization movement is alive and pushing ahead, with Republican legislators in 16 states actively pushing bills to create or expand school vouchers and/or charter schools that are part of that movement."
No one ever likes to think-- let alone say aloud-- that a party so dependent on ignorant, uneducated and slow-witted voters, would naturally be eager, for its own self-preservation, to seek to destroy or disable robust public education. But that is exactly what conservatives have been doing for... forever, basically. Strauss presents an interview that Carol Burris, a former prizewinning principal and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group the Network for Public Education did recently with Charles Siler, a former school privatization lobbyist, who came to oppose the very thing he was working toward. Siler worked for two privatization organizations, including the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, where his job was to persuade legislators to pass laws that privatize public services, especially K-12 schooling. In the past, and again today, he has been clear: the playbook used by so-called "school choice" proponents has as an ultimate goal "to dismantle K-12 public schools."
BURRIS: Let’s get straight to the point. It is becoming more obvious that all of the voucher and charter expansion legislation we see this year is part of a larger mission being pushed by libertarian Republicans. First, am I right? And second, what is the ultimate goal?
SILER: There’s virtually no other initiative in the education space that’s a bigger priority for the right today than creating and expanding unaccountable, unrestricted, universal voucher programs. The easiest way to recognize this reality is to look at the incredible number of school voucher bills being pushed across state legislatures just this year.
They aren’t doing it because their constituents are demanding these programs. Voters continually reject voucher programs, and in any state where a public response is permitted, the wave of public opposition to these programs dwarfs the AstroTurfed support for them. They also fervently refuse to include any kind of measures to mitigate fraud, waste, abuse and lack of accountability in these voucher programs despite having evidence from established programs. But simply setting up voucher programs isn’t their ultimate goal; it’s just the current next step towards their ultimate goal.
Their ideal is a world with as minimal public infrastructure and investment as possible. They want the weakest and leanest government possible in order to protect the interests of a few wealthy individuals and families who want to protect their extraction of wealth from the rest of us. They see private wealth accumulation as a virtue signal because a person can only become wealthy by creating something of exceptional value for the public. In their world view, the more money someone has, the more moral life they've lived, and any attempt to take that money through taxation or other means is a moral issue.
That's why they work so diligently to undermine public infrastructure, whether that's public schools, public transportation, military spending, and even the carceral system.
They also work to undermine collective action in the form of unions, voting blocs, protests and more. To them, it’s equally immoral for a union to demand higher wages of a business owner as it is for voters to impose a higher minimum wage on business owners. The same people pushing for school privatization are the same ones pushing for voter suppression, and that’s why. They fear the power of people.
BURRIS: In many states, we see a multiplicity of voucher programs-- all functioning differently and all with different names. Why?
SILER: The hodgepodge of voucher and privatization programs is a result of their unpopularity. Since they are pushing an unpopular agenda across the country, each state presents different opportunities and challenges for school privatizers.
The programs have to have different names to create a sort of moving target. When advocating for voucher programs, I never used the term “voucher” because we knew it was already tainted and politically unpopular. That's why we called them Education Savings Accounts, or Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, and so on. We knew that the public didn't support our efforts, but there's also a sincere belief that the public doesn't truly understand what is best for them, so we have to trick them into buying what we're selling. So much of our outreach was obfuscation. I spent many phone calls with reporters trying to explain to them why our program wasn't a voucher program and shouldn't be labeled as such.
At the end of the day, the multiplicity you see is a direct result of the unpopularity of vouchers, but make no mistake, they all have the same purpose: To undo public education-- not only the institution but also the public funding of schools.
BURRIS: We are now seeing charter expansion legislation paired with voucher legislation. How do charter schools fit into the agenda?
SILER: Charter schools are part of the incremental march towards full privatization. Sometimes charter schools are part of the hook for large donors. A number of wealthy privatization financiers have become part of the movement by funding large grants and other programs for charter schools.
Also, charter schools can be set up in a number of different ways depending on the local political climate, all while starting the shift of public funds into private investments. Charter schools also help garner the support of White voters as charters often find creative ways to discriminate against students of color, increasing segregation. Charters create a number of loopholes in the public education space, from financial and academic accountability to legal protections for marginalized students, which begin to normalize those problems for the general public. In many ways, charter schools are the gateway to total public school dismantling.
BURRIS: What were some of the tricks of the trade, so to speak. Were there certain individuals you searched out to carry the message?
SILER: We would seek out people with sympathetic stories, families or individuals with sincere struggles. The goal was to find people with whom the general public could empathize.
When Florida's voucher program faced a lawsuit by the teachers union there in 2014, I flew to meet with a handful of families who had children with disabilities to create a video series promoting the value of the voucher program. I met with a single mom whose daughter had Down syndrome and needed highly individualized care and therapy. I met with a home-school mom who taught her five kids, but one had severe autism, and she struggled to meet his needs on her own. I met with other families hoping to enroll their kids in special schools that focused on their kids' specific needs. These people were part of the campaign's public face around the legal defense of the voucher program.
Also, if we could ever find minority families willing to speak up about their struggles and desires for school privatization, we'd work to put their faces in as many places as possible. It's one reason privatization advocates focused so heavily on promoting vouchers within the Navajo community recently in a bid to leverage their tribal identity to expand their state's voucher program. In many ways, there's an emphasis on playing identity politics to subvert actual equity efforts, especially when it comes to privatization.
BURRIS: Why is it that many voucher programs start small-- with children with disabilities or with military families?
SILER: It goes back to the unpopularity of these voucher and privatization programs, not just with the public but also with many lawmakers. If possible, privatization advocates would completely dismantle public schools tomorrow, but they don’t have the political leverage to achieve that right now, so they have to engage in incrementalism. Just this year, we’ve seen pushes to pass expansive, universal voucher programs in some states, showing that privatizers will abandon elements of incrementalism when they think they have an opportunity.
So, when they can't pull that off, they choose a population they think will be politically unassailable, like children with disabilities or kids in foster care. The idea is that by presenting a small program focused on a small group of vulnerable students, it will be difficult for pro-public education advocates to be directly critical of the programs. It's a “human shield” strategy so they can get any aspect of the program started as it's almost always politically easier to expand something than it is to establish something new. And that's why these voucher programs never stay focused on their original population. They are continually expanding eligibility to more and more students, sometimes at the expense of the initial group of kids the program was established for.
BURRIS: Who are the major funders of the so-called school choice movement, and why are they hostile to public education?
SILER: I can’t speak about specific funders or donors who haven’t been identified already in a public way, but some are pretty obvious. Former secretary of education Betsy DeVos has made dismantling public schools part of her life’s work, and through the DeVos Family Foundation, she funds privatization efforts across the country. Her work as a financier likely has done and will do more damage to public schools than her entire tenure with the Trump administration.
The heirs of the Walmart fortune, the Walton family, also funds privatization across the country-- especially charter schools. The Koch Foundation is probably the most publicly villainized supporters of dismantling public schools, and in many ways, there wouldn’t be such a vast network of pro-privatization advocates had it not been for the tireless support of Charles and David Koch. There’s also the Bradley Foundation, which contributes to numerous conservative groups and is also a financial driver of school privatization.
But it's not just billionaires. It's also local businesses funding privatization efforts, either through donations made by their owners or investments into state and local chambers of commerce. It's individuals, small donors, too. But they really aren't sufficient to make the entire machine, the industry of school privatization, function. It truly takes the massive investment of the exceptionally wealthy to drive the privatization agenda.
Their hostility to public education is best described as being the nexus of three parts. First, they want to minimize any government spending whatsoever, and public education is one of the largest line items in any state budget. Getting rid of public education spending would massively reduce the tax burden on wealthy individuals at the state level.
Public schools are also incredibly popular, and they don’t want the general public to view public institutions as effective or popular. It’s why they’ve driven a false narrative about “failing schools” for decades now, and it’s also why they continually attack Social Security, Medicare, public pensions, public transportation and more because they know it’s impossible to get people to share their vision for limited government when people have so many positive experiences with government programs. And lastly, it’s about diminishing collective power. Taking down public schools also means taking down teachers unions, PTOs, local school boards and all the other ways those of us who aren’t exceptionally wealthy come together to push for collective investment in our communities.
Public schools and the communities around them represent the kind of togetherness privatization advocates despise.
"There may be well-meaning elected officials in Washington and state capitals who think charters and vouchers are about helping disadvantaged students," concluded Strauss. "And no doubt some families have enjoyed choice. But every bill that passes and every program funded furthers the agenda of the radical libertarian right and Betsy DeVos. They know what their endgame is, and they are rapidly making progress."
Several of the 2022 congressional candidates have platforms that include strong planks regarding public education, like Shervin Aazami in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. "While our public education system suffers from chronic underfunding and worsening racial segregation in our schools," he told me this morning, "many charter schools are running K-12 education like a business. Charter schools take taxpayer money without the taxpayer accountability. They can set their own curriculums, are not required to disclose their board members, and have significant flexibility when it comes to spending public monies. Again and again we hear about disturbing financial mismanagement & embezzlement allegations against charter school administrators. Public education should not be a business enterprise. Period. Our campaign is focused on rebuilding our crumbling K-12 public education system. We need universal pre-K and early childhood education. We need to ensure every student has full internet access as a public utility. We need to quadruple funding for Title I schools. We need a federal pension for our teachers. My opponent, Brad Sherman, never talks about the failures of our public education system. He’s silent on the issues that matter. It’s absurd."
Northern Virginia progressive Ally Dalsimer is not a fan of charter schools. This afternoon she told me that "While some studies have shown that kids in charters do better, deeper dives reveal that may be because they often take the top achievers away from public schools-- meaning the few studies that have shown benefits may be flawed. Overall, studies suggest that charter schools have been plagued with corruption, poor results, and terrible pay and working conditions for teachers. Worse, they take scarce resources away from public schools, many of which are already under-funded. If we truly want to help educate our kids, we need to fully fund and resource schools beginning by de-coupling real estate taxes from school budgets. We also need to invest in teacher training, improve educator and support staff pay, provide universal high-quality pre-K to all kids, and implement dynamic educational strategies that make learning fun and relevant. For example, you can have kids learn about money and how percentages work by using a class exercise involving ordering and paying for a meal at a restaurant given a limited budget. Personally, I believe education and especially early education has been chronically ignored and underfunded since the 80s when Reagan announced that funding for after-school programs in urban areas was unnecessary and ketchup counted as a vegetable."
UPDATE-- Jason Call:
"As someone who was in education for almost 20 years teaching high school math, having been a education union activist, doing research on education spending and testifying on education issues in the state legislature, I have seen firsthand how much of a moneymaker education is for publishing and software companies. I have no problem with having good materials, of course, or paying for them-- what I worry about is ‘philanthropists’ like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg being point on determining the direction of education policy. I routinely say that there’s no such thing as a billionaire philanthropist. Anyone with that much money is looking to invest in education rather than improve education, so naturally their proposed solutions involve more of their own products. At least in public schools there is some oversight at the community level with elected school boards and an elected state superintendent. Charter schools take public money and have very limited oversight. What they often present as innovation turns into a boondoggle for local communities that vendors are able to take advantage of. Washington State had a legislative ban on charters until 2012, but at least charters here are heavily regulate by a state agency. The move to charters in any jurisdiction is often accompanied by a lot of campaign funding from private interests and corporate PACs and Washington was no different. Ultimately we should keep public money in public schools with public oversight, and we need to have education policy developed by people with background in education theory and actual classroom teaching. Leave policy to the pros and not the profiteers. And-- we need more teachers in Congress and state legislatures."