The One Percent and the Future of Our Public Schools

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I possess the ability to recognize trends and movements before they become popular. Since I’ve combined this ability with an almost total absence of business sense, I am no better off financially than had I remained blissfully clueless about the future.

Not too long ago, though, I wrote about the threats to the continuation of public education as we know it. In my mind, this required none of my “see into the future” skills. It was simply a flash of the blindingly obvious… the system of public education as we know it is under attack. In the movie “Other People’s Money”, Danny DiVito explains to people who are angry that their major source of employment has been sold and will be closing, that they are victims of ignoring change. He likens their situation to that of a buggy whip company at the beginning of the automobile era and suggests. “The Atlas Buggy Whip Company made the best God***n buggy whips they had ever made on the day they closed.”

Building on this, I wrote that we were complicit in our dilemma by too frequently resisting change with the same vigor as a buggy whip company, with the possibility of a predictably similar result. I imagine that that post might not have been my most popular. This might be considered “Take 2”.

This morning, Jan Resseger wrote, “Koch Network Plans 2018 Investment Across States to Promote Privatization of Education”.

I urge you to read the entire post (with all of Jan’s links) here.. Because I see this (remember my future telling skills) as a major issue for all of us involved and/or passionate about the importance of a vibrant and effective system of public education I’ll offer some highlights here for your consideration. Should you think that this is a “cry wolf” message, please note that as of right now Republicans have total control of government in 26 states. This is not about which party has such control. It is about the realization that one party had the plan and the resources to accomplish this and there is no reason to think that their efforts will be less well organized as they turn their attention to the privatization of our schools.

The Plan

From Jan’s post… “Here’s how political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Peterson describe the influence of the Koch Brothers in American Amnesia, their 2016 book about the essential role of government for balancing the power of private interests.”

The… array of Koch-related organizations was no Rube Goldberg machine. It was more like an offshore holding company, designed to shield donors and to make it all but impossible to determine whether money designated for ‘social welfare purposes’– exempt from campaign finance rules – found its way into the electoral politics… they built a rich peoples movement. Beginning in 2003, Charles began to form a social network that could intervene in politics on a grand scale. (American Amnesia, pp 234 – 235)

Jan notes that this weekend, the Koch brothers convened their top givers, their Seminar Network at a retreat. She adds a description from Associated Press Reporter, Steve Peoples

The Koch Networks chief lieutenants renewed their vows this weekend to spend up to $400 million on politics and policy to shape November’s midterm elections nationwide. That’s more than the combined resources spent by the Republican national committee, the National Rifle Association, and the Chamber of Commerce in the 2016 election cycle. The 550 people who were present at last weekend’s gathering of the Koch Seminar Network have pledged at least $100,000 to the Koch’s network this year.

Jan goes on to focus on the educational agenda, stating that “public education policy will be the primary target of the Koch-driven political work. She cites  piece from yesterday’s Washington Post in which James Hohmann explains how the Koch’s plan to “fundamentally transform America’s education system”.

Changing the education system as we know it was a central focus of a three- day donor seminar that wrapped up late last night at a resort here in the desert outside Palm Springs… Leaders of the network dreamed of disrupting the status quo, customizing learning and breaking the teacher unions.

One initial priority is expanding educational savings accounts and developing technologies that would let parents pick and choose private classes or tutors for their kids the same way people shop on Amazon. They envision making it easy for families to join together to start their own ‘micro-schools’ as a new alternative to the public school system.

These people are serious! Not only are they serious but they have an exceptional track record of accomplishment. Take a look at the two maps I’ve included.

IMG_2076 (1)

Pre-2010 –

IMG_2075 (1)

2016 –

They represent the changes in control of state governments from 2010 to the present. This change in control of state government was, like the new targeting of public education, one of the Koch’s highest profile targets after 2010. The changes are striking. From a pre-2010 map in which what is known as a “trifecta” of control (governor, senate, and house) was split 17 blue and 10 red, the 2016 map reveals 11 blue and 26 red. The change in control is dramatic and equally dramatic has been the change in the nature of the state priorities (and, not coincidentally, a state’s receptivity to programs involving some form of school choice – charters, vouchers, scholarships, tax credits, etc.).

Jan provides a quick explanation of education savings accounts, using as an example a program championed by Douglas Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor – the Education Empowerment Accounts. Jan points out that these are… “a kind of Neo-voucher – a debit card made up of public tax dollars that parents who have removed their children from public schools can use to pay for private tuition, online programs, special services for disabled children an and materials for homeschooling. In such plans parents are free to patch together the programming they believe will educate their children.”

Since the funds for such accounts come from a state’s public education budget, such expansive privatization programs have created significant drains on the public share of state education funding and have reeked havoc with the public school systems in urban centers where such programs have been implemented as solutions to “failing”schools.

In responding to questions about why the Koch Network feels so strongly about targeting the nation’s public school system, Jan relies on the work of Gordon Lafer who in his 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, explains why public education policy is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats.

At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact they have each made this a top legislative priority. The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states – thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the largest employer–thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wages and benefits standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education – So much so that every major investment Bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K– 12 education are in order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government. (The One Percent Solution, pp.128-129)

A Response

I see a need for both a short and longer-term strategy/response.

In the short term…

  • We need to arm ourselves with solid and accurate information about the implications of finding solutions to education problems by leaving the system, especially when that “leaving” involves the movement of funding resources away from the school. Jan has shared numerous posts dealing with the financial implications of various choice program that provide a solid foundation and understanding of school finance and its relationship to choice options.
  • We need to be proactive in informing our local publics about the differences between “reforms” organized around the realization of ideological agendas – i.e., the “benefits” of small government and solutions posed by privatization, commoditization of education, etc. – and necessary efforts to move our educational practices to a more student centered focus on learning.
  • Closely related to such “necessary efforts” is the abandonment of policies and practices that exist only because they have always existed.

The longer-term

  • We must co-opt the choice conversation with a commitment to providing greater choice within the public school system. There is no reason that we cannot offer opportunities for learning which extend beyond the walls of the school, beyond the traditional measures of grades and seat time, beyond the things that leave too many students disengaged and, therefore, receptive to alternatives based on their own less than fond memories of school and schooling.
  • We need to tell our stories – In virtually all of the schools that I visited during my days as a coach/consultant, regardless of the quality of the overall program, I saw examples of greatness. Most frequently I heard them in comments from students.
    • In a struggling school with terrible student academic performance, an 11th grade girl told me that, as a struggling young mother she came to school because she felt loved and accepted by all of her teachers.
    • Another young lady in a rural school told me, “The teachers here are annoying. They won’t let me fail.”
    • A principal in a poor school in Kentucky shared a belief that it was OK to lie to kids and convinced them that they could break the Guinness World Book record for the longest conga line by beating a non-existent school in Samoa. They did and he cried.
    • A principal I’ve come to know and admire is a “kid whisperer”, dispensing hugs and direction with no regard for her schedule.
    • I asked a young man in a school that was created to increase the number of Hispanic children who would go to and complete college where he was going to go to college. His teacher told me, “He won’t tell you.” When I asked, “Why not?” He explained… “We have a tradition for our graduation that each senior comes to the stage, accepts their diploma and announces their selection and their aid package, all 100% of them. There’s not a dry eye in the building.”

I can disagree deeply with the agenda proposed and engineered by the One Percent that Lafer refers to (and I do), but I gain nothing by trashing them and their beliefs. I gain by making their agenda unnecessary, by having the parents in our community confident that we are, in fact, the only choice.

We need to tell our stories. I know we have them. I’m confident we can create more. We need to make our communities aware of all the reasons they can’t not send their kids to us. Tell more stories. Make more stories.

Be well

2 thoughts on “The One Percent and the Future of Our Public Schools

  1. We have to get to the leadership of the Education Associations with these messages. They’re thinking and approaches have to shift and trickle down to the local associations. s


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