A Look at Some of the Driving Forces behind the School Reform Movement and the Effort to Privatize Public Education

SchoolRoom1By Elaine Magliaro

NOTE: I originally posted this article at Res Ipsa Loquitor on March 3, 2013. Having worked as a public school teacher for well over three decades, I became concerned about the “school reform” movement—which brought us the mania for the high-stakes testing of children and the push for charter schools and school vouchers—back in the 1990s. Since I retired from teaching in 2004, I have watched the ever-increasing attempts by “school reformers”—moneyed interests and politicians—to vilify public school educators and to paint all public schools in our country as failures. The school reformers’ goal is the privatization of our public schools. Members of our mainstream media have been willing accomplices in their effort.


In recent years, we have heard and read a lot about the failure of public schools in the United States. “Our schools are failing” has almost become a mantra with members of the media, many of our politicians, and the advocates of school reform. I have seen few people who have questioned the assertions made by the media, elected officials, and school reformers that schools in this country are not adequately educating our youth and that our educational system is a total and abject failure.

Many of those who criticize our public education system offer charter schools and the privatization of public schools as solutions to the “education problem” in this country.

I’m a retired public school educator. I have known and am friends with many current and former public school teachers. I know that there are many fine classroom practitioners working in our public schools today…and many excellent schools where our children receive a quality education. I am aware that there are also many schools where children may not be receiving the highest quality education. (What often go unmentioned in the media are the real reasons—including poverty—why some schools in this country may be failing.)

One problem with the “our schools are failing” mantra—as I see it—is that all our schools are lumped together in one basket labeled “failing.” How did this come to be? Do we Americans really believe that NO public schools in this country provide their students with an adequate education? Do we believe that all schools need to be reformed? If not, do we believe that even the schools which are actually doing an estimable job of educating their students need to be reformed?

I think it is time we start taking a good look at the individuals and organizations that are behind the push to establish thousands of charter schools and to use taxpayer money to fund private and religious schools as the means of raising the quality of education in this country.

ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council)

Last May, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote the following about one group that has been driving the school reform movement:

Since the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of many states, there has been an explosion of legislation advancing privatization of public schools and stripping teachers of job protections and collective bargaining rights. Even some Democratic governors, seeing the strong rightward drift of our politics, have jumped on the right-wing bandwagon, seeking to remove any protection for academic freedom from public school teachers.

This outburst of anti-public school, anti-teacher legislation is no accident. It is the work of a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Founded in 1973, ALEC is an organization of nearly 2,000 conservative state legislators. Its hallmark is promotion of privatization and corporate interests in every sphere, not only education, but healthcare, the environment, the economy, voting laws, public safety, etc. It drafts model legislation that conservative legislators take back to their states and introduce as their own “reform” ideas. ALEC is the guiding force behind state-level efforts to privatize public education and to turn teachers into at-will employees who may be fired for any reason. The ALEC agenda is today the “reform” agenda for education.

Ravitch continued:

A recent article in the Newark Star-Ledger showed how closely New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “reform” legislation is modeled on ALEC’s work in education. Wherever you see states expanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of privatization, wherever you see states lowering standards for entry into the teaching profession, wherever you see states opening up new opportunities for profit-making entities, wherever you see the expansion of for-profit online charter schools, you are likely to find legislation that echoes the ALEC model.

ALEC has been leading the privatization movement for nearly 40 years, but the only thing new is the attention it is getting, and the fact that many of its ideas are now being enacted. Just last week, the Michigan House of Representatives expanded the number of cyber charters that may operate in the state, even though the academic results for such online schools are dismal.

ALEC Exposed provides a wealth of information about how—through ALEC—“corporations, ideologues, and their politician allies voted to spend public tax dollars to subsidize private K-12 education and attack professional teachers and teachers’ unions…” (You can find the information in Privatizing Public Education, Higher Ed Policy, and Teachers–the ALEC report prepared by The Center for American Democracy.)

Michelle Rhee and StudentsFirst

MichelleRhee3In addition to ALEC, there is another organization called StudentsFirst that has been helping to spearhead the effort to “reform” our public schools. According to Stephanie Simon, Michelle Rhee, founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, has “emerged as the leader of an unlikely coalition of politicians, philanthropists, financiers and entrepreneurs who believe the nation’s $500 billion-a-year public education system needs a massive overhaul.” Simon added that Rhee, the former chancellor of the D.C. public schools, “has vowed to raise $1 billion” for StudentsFirst, and “forever break the hold of teachers unions on education policy.”

Simon continued:

StudentsFirst has its own political action committee (PAC), its own SuperPAC, and a staff of 75, including a cadre of seasoned lobbyists Rhee sends from state to state as political battles heat up. She has flooded the airwaves with TV and radio ads in a half dozen states weighing new policies on charter schools, teacher assessment and other hot-button issues.

To her supporters, Rhee is a once-in-a-generation leader who has the smarts and the star power to make a difference on one of the nation’s most intractable public policy issues.

But critics say Rhee risks destroying the very public schools she aims to save by forging alliances with political conservatives, evangelical groups and business interests that favor turning a large chunk of public education over to the private sector. She won’t disclose her donors, but public records indicate that they include billionaire financiers and wealthy foundations.

In January the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign published its review of Rhee’s StudentsFirst State Policy Report Card for 2013:

Here’s an excerpt from the summary of the campaign’s review:

On Monday, the pro-privatization education group StudentsFirst, led by former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, released a State Policy Report Card, ranking states and giving each a letter grade based on their implementation of a slew of education reform policies. Rather than focus on issues facing students and families, particularly those affected by unequal access to school resources, the policy benchmarks in the new report reveal StudentsFirst’s obsession with charter schools and de-professionalizing the teaching profession. The report pushes policies that are either untested or disproven — but happen to be welcome in the halls of right-wing think tanks and politicians.

The National Opportunity to Learn Campaign listed five reasons why the StudentsFrirst Report Card is “a veritable wish list for privatization advocates and a recipe for failure for everyone else”:

  1. Ironically, It Ignores The Needs of Students
  2. It Opposes Personalized and Student-Centered Learning
  3. It Argues That We Don’t Have Enough Quality Teachers… While Advocating That We Lower the Bar for Teacher Preparation
  4. It Continues the Disastrous High-Stakes Testing Drumbeat
  5. It Advocates “Equal Funding” and “Equitable Access” for Charter Corporations and Private Schools, Not Students

Edited to add: Michelle Rhee stepped down as CEO of StudentsFirst recently. She has been replaced by Jim Blew.

The DeVos Family

In May of 2011, Rachel Tabachnick wrote an article for AlterNet about the DeVos family, a wealthy family that has “remained largely under the radar, while leading a stealth assault on America’s schools” that has the “potential to do away with public education as we know it.”

Quoting Tabachnick:

Vouchers have always been a staple of the right-wing agenda. Like previous efforts, this most recent push for vouchers is led by a network of conservative think tanks, PACs, Religious Right groups and wealthy conservative donors. But “school choice,” as they euphemistically paint vouchers, is merely a means to an end. Their ultimate goal is the total elimination of our public education system.

The decades-long campaign to end public education is propelled by the super-wealthy, right-wing DeVos family. Betsy Prince DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the notorious private military contractor Blackwater USA (now Xe), and wife of Dick DeVos, son of the co-founder of Amway, the multi-tiered home products business.

According to Tabachnick, the Devoses, who are big contributors to the Republican Party, spent millions of dollars “promoting the failed voucher initiative in Michigan in 2000.”  Following that defeat, Tabachnick claims that the family decided to alter its strategy.


Instead of taking the issue directly to voters, they would support bills for vouchers in state legislatures. In 2002 Dick DeVos gave a speech on school choice at the Heritage Foundation. After an introduction by former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett, DeVos described a system of “rewards and consequences” to pressure state politicians to support vouchers. “That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible,” stated DeVos. He described how his wife Betsy was putting these ideas into practice in their home state of Michigan and claimed this effort has reduced the number of anti-school choice Republicans from six to two. The millions raised from the wealthy pro-privatization contributors would be used to finance campaigns of voucher supporters and purchase ads attacking opposing candidates.

Dick DeVos advocates “stealth” strategy, Heritage Foundation, December 3, 2002


Last April, Daniel Denvir wrote an article for City Paper about the push for a school voucher program in the state of Pennsylvania. He said that names on the fliers of “legislative hopefuls” sounded like the names of “homegrown” candidates. He said that a “different picture” emerged when one followed the money:

that of a statewide campaign, funded by wealthy donors, to stack the Pennsylvania primary battles on April 24 in favor of those supporting school vouchers, which allocate taxpayer funds for private and religious school tuition. The pro-voucher political action committee (PAC) Students First — funded by Pennsylvania hedge-fund managers and American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C., pro-voucher group headed by Amway heiress and major right-wing donor Betsy DeVos — emerged on the state’s political scene with a bang for the 2010 elections. And they are back to spend big in 2012.

Lawrence Feinberg, co-chairman of the anti-voucher Keystone State Education Coalition, said, “I see a move by essentially a handful of very wealthy people who want to privatize public education for a wide variety of reasons. Not the least of which has to do with crushing labor unions, but they also want tax dollars going to private and religious schools.”

School Reform and The Profit Motive

In his Salon article The Bait and Switch of School “Reform,” David Sirota writes about the profit motive behind some of the reforms being advocated by “Big Money” interests.


As the Texas Observer  recently reported in its exposé of one school-focused mega-corporation, “in the past two decades, an education-reform movement has swept the country, pushing for more standardized testing and accountability and for more alternatives to the traditional classroom — most of it supplied by private companies.”

A straightforward example of how this part of the profit-making scheme works arose just a few months ago in New York City. There, Rupert Murdoch dumped $1 million into a corporate “reform” movement pushing to both implement more standardized testing and divert money for education fundamentals (hiring teachers, buying textbooks, maintaining school buildings, etc.) into testing-assessment technology. At the same time, Murdoch was buying an educational technology company called Wireless Generation, which had just signed a lucrative contract with New York City’s school system (a sweetheart deal inked by New York City school official Joel Klein, who immediately went to work for Murdoch.

Such shenanigans are increasingly commonplace throughout America, resulting in a revenue jackpot for testing companies and high tech firms, even though many of their products have not objectively improved student achievement.

At the same time, major banks are reaping a windfall from “reformers’” successful efforts to take public money out of public schools and put it into privately administered charter schools. As the New York Daily News recently reported:

“Wealthy investors and major banks have been making windfall profits by using a little-known federal tax break to finance new charter-school construction. The program, the New Markets Tax Credit, is so lucrative that a lender who uses it can almost double his money in seven years…

“The credit can even be piggybacked on other tax breaks for historic preservation or job creation. By combining the various credits with the interest from the loan itself, a lender can almost double his investment over the seven-year period.

“No wonder JPMorgan Chase announced this week it was creating a new $325 million pool to invest in charter schools and take advantage of the New Markets Tax Credit.”



Ravitch: A primer on the group driving school reform (Washington Post)

Activist targeting schools, backed by big bucks (Reuters)

5 Ways Michelle Rhee’s Report Puts Students Last (National Opportunity to Learn Campaign)

The DeVos Family: Meet the Super-Wealthy Right-Wingers Working With the Religious Right to Kill Public Education (AlterNet)

Right-Wing Campaign to Privatize Public Ed Takes Hold in Pennsylvania (AlterNet)

Big corporate money in support of school vouchers hits primary races statewide. Will it tip the scales in Philly? (City Paper)

The bait and switch of school “reform” (Salon)

The Deep Pockets Behind Education Reform (Forbes)

Privatizing Public Education, Higher Ed Policy, and Teachers (The Center for American Democracy)


FURTHER READING (Flowers for Socrates)

Why Are Campbell Brown, David Boies, Robert Gibbs, Hedge Fund Managers, and Other Wealthy Elites Going after Public School Teachers and Their Right to Due Process?, PART I

Why Are Campbell Brown, David Boies, Robert Gibbs, Hedge Fund Managers, and Other Wealthy Elites Going after Public School Teachers and Their Right to Due Process? Part II: David Boies, Star Lawyer and School Reformer

Who the F*ck is Dan Loeb and How Is He Connected to Teacher Pensions and School Reformers?

Is Campbell Brown the New Michelle Rhee of School Reform?

Charter Schools and The Profit Motive

Public Schools for Sale?: Diane Ravitch Talks with Bill Moyers about the Privatization of Public Education

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7 Responses to A Look at Some of the Driving Forces behind the School Reform Movement and the Effort to Privatize Public Education

  1. Anonymously Yours says:

    Since the republicans have taken control, the public education system has been designed to fail. Why, some with altruist motives inspired change. Then those that realize just how much money was at steak decided that they wanted a piece of the pie. As the pie was originally small, they have devised ways to gain a bigger piece without oversight.

    I worked for MEA, one of the pieces of the pie that the greedy couldn’t get was the great insurance provided to union members. So as experience has taught, money is the motivating factor behind the change in Michigan.

    The DeVos money comes from AmWay they have billions to spend on anything they want. They along with the heritage foundation has used failing schools as the reason for change. And when you cut off the main source of funding from the state, you are going to create failing schools. So the story goes on and on.

    On interesting thing that the DeVos family did was to obtain a GOP centered Supreme Court in Michigan. This happened because of the education and voucher issues. But the main concern of the DeVos and others similarly situated own large chucks of pristine coastlines in the state.

    They wanted to and erected barriers that prevented people the ability to walk on the open beaches. The law was and still is that the public has the right of egress on any coastline in the state of Michigan. A number of suit were filed to get the barriers removed. They would not budge. There were more than just the DeVos’ that did this. It went through the legal system and at the time there weren’t enough bought and paid for judges so they lost and the public has a right of egress across all public beaches in Michigan. The U.S. Sct didn’t act on the appeal I believe and the Sierra Club sponsored suit won.

    Today if the same suit were brought, the people of the state of Michigan would lose. They have since had almost every member of the court replaced with GOP members.

    Excellent article Elaine.

  2. bigfatmike says:

    Decades ago charter schools seem to hold the promise of innovation unburdened by bureaucracy. That does not seem to have happened.

    The evidence suggests charter schools have been captured as cash cows for corporations and turned into bludgeons to bust teacher unions.

    I have never understood the stampede to frequent, standardized testing of all students. There is no benefit from testing for itself. Testing can illuminate the situation in the schools. But you don’t need to test every student to measure the effectiveness of instruction. Frequent tests of every student are just one more way to distribute public school funds to corporations.

    Yet we do little to decrease class size, ignore teacher preparation and retention, and reduce pay and benefits.

    Can you imagine a consultant who would advise corporations to decrease services to customers, attract better employees by decreasing pay to all levels of employees, and encourage employee turnover? Well… it works for public education.

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  4. buckaroo says:

    I think we should see where our legislators – from the President on down – send their children.
    They who claim to know – they should be the example. We should not have to listen to: “Don’t do as I do – only do as I say.” Would you not agree ?

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