Thanks to the generosity of billionaires with names like Gates and Walton, not to mention a growing roster of hedge fund managers, the United States is now home to an astonishing number of so-called education reform groups. But beneath the grandiose claims of standing for excellence and putting children and students first—not to mention the ubiquitous images of high achieving minority youngsters—lies a surprisingly lucrative agenda. Scratch the surface and you’ll find a whole lot of green behind the education reform movement—and it’s not grassroots.
1. Every group supports the exact same policy recommendations
These organizations have more in common than their slick, corporate-style websites. Virtually all of them support an identical set of policy recommendations. Replace public schools with privately managed charter schools—check. Make it easier to get rid of experienced teachers—check. Tie teacher pay and evaluation to student test scores—check. Coincidentally, these same policy recommendations just happen to be on the ALEC education wish list. And despite the new “accountability” gloss, many of these ideas date back decades to the “uncle” of school privatization himself: Milton Friedman.
2. Which all result in paying teachers less
The US spends upwards of $500 billion a year on K-12 education, which makes up some 20 percent of spending at the state level. The bulk of this spending goes to labor cost, which means that if those costs can be reduced, a whole lot of somebodies stand to make a whole lot of money. From merit pay for individual teachers to larger class sizes to the expanded reliance on short-term teachers, including Teach for America corps members, the standard education reform playbook always seems to reach the same goal: a cheaper teaching force.
3. The Walton Foundation is on speed dial
The Walton Family Foundation, which is run by heirs to the Walmart fortune and funded with Walmart profits, is committed to something called “infusing competitive pressure into America’s K-12 education system. They also do a pretty amazing job of infusing funds into education reform groups like StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, Teach for America, Democrats for Education Reform and dozens of others, to the tune of more than $158 million in 2012 alone.
4. They are obsessed with the achievement gap
No doubt you’ve heard that closing the achievement gap between white students and their minority counterparts is the civil rights issue of our time. In fact, the focus of most education reform groups on the achievement gap is so laser like that they never mention what happens to poor minority between the ages of one and six. Also unmentioned: the fate that awaits the now-college-bound student when he or she falls into the hands of one of the for-profit colleges that are feasting on minority communities like leeches.
5. They've never heard of income inequality
You'd never know it from the press releases and "studies" of the education reform world but the real gap that threatens our public education system isn't the achievement gap between white students and their minority counterparts but the income gap between the richest students and everyone else. But talking about income inequality and the skyrocketing increase in the percentage of very poor children can be just a little uncomfortable when your movement just happens to include a disproportionate number of billionaire hedge-fund managers.
6. Speaking of hedge fund managers. . .
Education reform is the second favorite cause of the hedge fund set these days. In fact, this billionaire boys club is so busy founding, running and funding assorted education reform organizations that it is amazing that there is time left over for cause number one: raking in dough.
7. Group has luxe headquarters and an ample budget
Let’s face it: closing the achievement gap is hard work and won’t come cheap. Especially since the leaders of the highest-profile education reform organizations are earning serious coin. From Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp to StudentsFirst chief Michelle Rhee, salaries start in the $300,000 range. Add in speaking fees (Rhee reportedly charges $35,000 a pop) and our reform leaders appear to be doing very well indeed).
8. Leaders claim to be life-long educators—after two years Teaching for America
The education reform movement is replete with leaders who are life-long educators, if by life-long you mean two years in Teach for America. In fact, a major goal of TFA, which has raised nearly $1 billion since 2006, is to groom leaders to “effect fundamental change” in education. In fact, a growing roster of leaders including Michelle Rhee, Louisiana’s John White and Tennessee’s Kevin Huffman are, at this very moment, busily enacting the policy goals described above.
9. Group claims to be grassroots but members are strangely elusive
Behind every education reform organization is a vast army of supporters of key civil rights causes like 'holding teachers accountable' for their students' test scores or bringing parent trigger legislation to a state near you. Or so that's what groups like StudentsFirst, which spent more than $630,000 on Change.org petitions in the past two years to rally support for causes like expanding charter schools and eliminating workplace protections for teachers, would have you believe. But those virtual supporters can prove as elusive in the flesh as moviegoers on the opening day of the faux parent-power bomb "Won't Back Down."
10. Leaders support rigid, “no excuses” schools for poor minority children—but would never send their own kids there.
Education reform groups may talk a good game about equality, but the reality is that these organizations increasingly advocate for two separate educational systems. Poor minority students get to choose from an ever expanding number of “no excuses” charter schools that feature a lengthy school day, lots of drill-and-kill test preparation and a rigid disciplinary culture. But would the leaders of the reform groups pushing for these charters ever send their own kids to schools like these? What do you think?
Jennifer C. Berkshire is a Massachusetts writer and public education advocate. She blogs at www.edushyster.com.