An archive of articles and listserve postings of interest, mostly posted without commentary, linked to commentary at the Education Notes Online blog. Note that I do not endorse the points of views of all articles, but post them for reference purposes.
Due to a production error, the first published
version of this article was incomplete; this is the complete text. We
regret the error.
In recent weeks the debate over the future of public education in
America has flared up again, this time with the publication of the new
book "Class Warfare," by Steven Brill, the founder of American Lawyer
magazine. Brill's advocacy of "reform" has sparked different strands of
criticism from the New York Times, New York University's Diane Ravitch and the Nation's Dana Goldstein.
But behind the high-profile back and forth over specific policies
and prescriptions lies a story that has less to do with ideas than with
money, less to do with facts than with an ideological subtext that has
been quietly baked into the very terms of the national education
Like most education reporters today, Brill frames the issue in
simplistic, binary terms. On one side are self-interested teachers
unions who supposedly oppose fundamental changes to schools, not because
they care about students, but because they fear for their own job
security and wages, irrespective of kids. In this mythology, they are
pitted against an alliance of extraordinarily wealthy corporate elites
who, unlike the allegedly greedy unions, are said to act solely out of
the goodness of their hearts. We are told that this "reform" alliance of
everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the Walton family to leading hedge funders
spends huge amounts of money pushing for radical changes to public
schools because they suddenly decided that they care about destitute
children, and now want to see all kids get a great education.
The dominant narrative, in other words, explains the fight for the
future of education as a battle between the evil forces of myopic
selfishness (teachers) and the altruistic benevolence of noblesse oblige
(Wall Street). Such subjective framing has resulted in reporters,
pundits and politicians typically casting the "reformers'" arguments as
free of self-interest, and therefore more objective and credible than
This skewed viewpoint becomes clear in this excerpt of a C-Span
interview with Brill about "Class Warfare," in which Brill is talking
about a group called "Democrats for Education Reform" -- a group financed by major hedge fund managers:
"[The group] was created by a small group of frustrated education reformers ... They happen to be
well-to-do frustrated education reformers who were Democrats and they
had an epiphany ... And the epiphany they had was that the Democrats,
their party, their party that they thought stood for civil rights, were
the political party that was most in the way. And what frustrated them
was they consider education reform to be the civil rights issue of this era. And they really couldn't believe it was their party that was blocking their idea of reforms that are necessary.
So they describe it repeatedly ... as a sort of Nixon-to-China gambit
in which Democrats are going to reform the Democratic Party and they've
made lots of progress." (emphasis added)
Though self-billed as a work of objective journalism, Brill's book
reads like an overwrought ideological manifesto because -- like much of
the coverage of education -- it frames the debate in precisely these
As Brill and most other education correspondents tell it, those
most aggressively trying to privatize public schools and focus education
around standardized tests just "happen to be" Wall Streeters -- as if
that's merely a random, inconsequential coincidence. Somehow, we are to
assume that these same Wall Streeters who make millions off of "parasitic" investment schemes to leech public institutions for private profit couldn't have ulterior motives when it comes to public schools.
No, in the standard fairy tale sold as education journalism, these
"reformers" are presented as having had an honest, entirely altruistic
"epiphany" that led them to discover that "the reforms that are
necessary" (ie., only the policies Wall Street deems acceptable)
comprise "the civil rights issue of this era."
In this framing, millionaires and billionaires trying to eviscerate
traditional public education from their Manhattan office suites are the
new Martin Luther Kings -- even though the empiricaldata
tell us that their schemes to charter-ize and privatize schools have
been a systemic failure, often further disadvantaging the most
economically challenged students of all (one example: see Stanford's landmark study showing more than a third of kids whom reformers ushered into charter schools were educationally harmed by the move).
The truth, of course, is that for all the denialist agitprop to the
contrary, corporate education "reformers" are motivated by
self-interest, too. In a sense, these "reformers" are akin to the Bush
administration neoconservatives when it came to Iraq. Some of them
wanted to invade for oil, some wanted to invade to create a new sphere
of influence, some wanted to invade to further isolate Iran, and still
others wanted to invade to "spread democracy." But as Paul Wolfowitz
famously said, they "settled on the one issue that everyone could agree
on which was weapons of mass destruction" as the public rationale for
Same thing for those who fund corporate education "reform": they
have a lot of different self-interests, but they've settled on schools
as a political target that unifies them all.
So, then, what are those self-interests? Here are three of the
biggest ones that go almost entirely unmentioned in the ongoing coverage
of the education "reform" debate. Self-Interest No. 1: Pure Profit
First and foremost, there's a ton of money to be made in the education "reforms" that Big Money interests are advocating.
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
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.
On top of this, "reformers'" initiatives to divert public school money into voucher schemes -- which data show have failed to produce better student achievement -- means potentially huge revenues for the burgeoning for-profit private school industry, an industry that "has fascinated Wall Street for more than a decade," reports PBS Frontline.
The bottom line is clear: In attempting to change the mission of
public education from one focused on educating kids to one focused on
generating private profit, corporate leaders in the "reform" movement
are pursuing a shrewd investment strategy. Millions of dollars go into
campaign contributions and propaganda outfits that push "reform," and,
if successful, those "reforms" guarantee Wall Street and their
investment vehicles much bigger returns for the long haul.
In light of all the money that's already being made off such
"reforms" (and that could be made in the future), pretending that
businesspeople who make their living on such transactions are not
applying their business strategies to education is to promote the
fallacy that the entire financial industry is merely a charitable
endeavor. Self-Interest No. 2: Changing the Subject From Poverty and Inequality
Inconvenient as it is to corporate education "reformers," the
well-proven fact is that poverty -- not teacher quality, union density
or school structure -- is the primary driver of student achievement. We
can see this most easily in two sets of data.
First, as the Nation
magazine reports, "The research consensus has been clear and unchanging
for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent
of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account
for about 60 percent." Second, as Dissent
magazine notes in its examination of U.S. Department of Education data,
American students at low poverty schools consistently score near the
top on international tests. Indeed, U.S. students in public schools with
a poverty rate of less than 10 percent "outperformed students in all
eight participating nations whose reported poverty rates fall below 10
The reason America's overall scores on such tests are far lower is
because high poverty schools produce far worse results -- and as the
most economically unequal society in the industrialized world, we have
far more poverty than our competitors, bringing down our overall scores
accordingly. Predictably, as economic inequality and poverty have spiked in America during the Great Recession, those poverty-fueled education problems have gotten even worse.
This reality obviously represents a problem for the growing ranks
of economically struggling Americans. More and more citizens simply
cannot afford to live in rich neighborhoods that benefit from a
property-tax-based education financing system which has created gated
communities out of school districts. As documented in a new study by the University of Kansas,
this system allows wealthy enclaves to disproportionately target their
tax revenue to their own public schools and "hoard" public monies -- all
while other schools in low-income areas are starved for resources.
This structure is hugely beneficial to the super-rich -- but the
poverty question poses a potential political problem for them. As the New York Times
recently put it, if America realizes that "a substantial part of the
problem (is) poverty and not bad teachers, the question would be why
people like (Wall Streeters) are allowed to make so much when others
have so little."
That question, if it became central in our political discourse,
would potentially lead the growing ranks of economically struggling
Americans to start demanding governmental policies that address wealth
inequality and its consequences -- policies such as re-regulating Wall
Street, raising taxes on millionaires, eliminating tax policies that
allow revenue hoarding, and targeting disproportionately more public
funds at schools in high-poverty areas rather than at schools in wealthy
But, then, those policies are precisely the ones that offend and
threaten rich people. So the wealthiest and most politically astute
among them have constructed front groups like "Democrats for Education
Reform" to press a message of education "reform" that seeks to change
the subject from poverty altogether. Their message basically says that
the major problem in America is not the fact that our public policies
are helping make more citizens poor, nor the fact that the same economic
structure that allows the Walton family to own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the whole nation has one in five kids living in poverty.
No, reformers give us what I've previously called the "Great Education Myth," telling America that the real
problem is supposedly the schools -- and that if we just make radical
and empirically unproven school changes then everything will supposedly
be great. And, tellingly, the "reformers'" specific policy prescriptions
tend only to be those changes that don't ask rich people to share in
Thus, for instance, the "reformers" push to tear up teachers union
contracts and demonize the structure of public schools, rather than,
say, initiating a discussion about raising more revenue for schools most
in need. Seeking to avoid any larger debate about raising taxes on the
wealthy to pay for such new education investment, they float their
favorite one liner about how we "can't throw money at the problem," even
though many of the schools with the biggest challenges need more
resources to combat poverty.
You don't have to believe me to know that the need is there; just
listen to the corporate education "reformers'" own much-celebrated hero,
Harlem Children’s Zone's Geoffrey Canada, who insists schools in
high-poverty areas "can’t succeed ... without substantially increased
investments in wraparound social services," reports the New York Times.
But since those are investments that probably require tax increases,
they aren't the thrust of the corporate "reform" movement's agenda.
In the bait-and-switch of the "Great Education Myth," then, the
corporate "reformers" get to pretend that they care about poor people
and brag that they are benevolently leading "the civil rights issue of
this era," when what they are really doing is making sure America
doesn't talk about the macroeconomic policies that make Wall Streeters
so much money, and impoverish so many others in the process. Self-interest No. 3: New Front in the War on Unions
Today, unions are one of the last -- and, unfortunately, weakening
-- obstacles to corporations' having complete control of the American
political system. Whenever there is a fight over economics in particular
-- whenever a Wall Street-backed tax, deregulation, Social Security
privatization or trade bill comes down the pike -- it is the labor
movement that comprises the bulk of the political opposition. Therefore,
crushing unions in general has been an overarching goal of the
corporate elite, and one way to crush unions is through education policy
that undermines one of the largest subsets of the labor movement:
Looked at through this prism, we see a key reason that education
"reformers" are not satisfied with merely finding common policy ground
with unions on points of potential consensus. They don't want any
agreement with unions because the underlying goal is to destroy those
unions entirely. Hence, "reformers" are increasingly focused on
promoting union-free charter schools and diverting public school money
into union-free private schools as a means of crippling the labor
movement as a whole.
To know this truth is to know that the Walton family of Wal-Mart
fame is now one of the biggest financial forces in the education
"reform" movement. As the single most anti-union force in contemporary
American society, the family now annually holds out a huge wad of
Wal-Mart cash as a hard-to-resist enticement for cities to divert public
school money exclusively into union-free charter schools or union-free
"innovation" schools. Essentially, the money is offered, but on the
condition that policymakers put it into education initiatives that
undermine teachers unions.
While the foundation publicly insists it is looking only to help
kids excel, union busting -- not student achievement -- is clearly what
drives the Walton family's education activism. As but one example
proving that motive, consider that just five days after news broke that
Los Angeles' traditional public schools are outperforming charter schools, the Walton family announced
it is dumping a massive new tranche of Wal-Mart cash into a plan to
expand the city's charter schools. If the family was truly focused on
helping kids, it would have put that money into traditional public
schools that were showing success. Instead, the money went to the union
busters, student achievement be damned.
Brill epitomizes how that motive has been ignored by establishment
reporters covering education. After spending years reporting a massive
tome on the education debate, he told the New York Times
with a straight face that "I didn’t see it as the rich versus the union
guys," as if schools' being an arena for the age-old battle between
capital and labor is so preposterous, it didn't even cross his mind.
Brill may be telling the truth here, because corporate education
"reformers" are so ubiquitously branded as disinterested altruists, that
any other motive probably never did cross his mind, just like it never
crosses most other reporters' mind. But just because the union-busting
part of the story isn't being told, doesn't mean it isn't a key
objective of the "reform" movement.
None of this is to argue that teachers unions don't act out of
self-interest. They do. The point, though, is that they do not have a
monopoly on self-interest in the education debate. As the modern-day
version of what Franklin Roosevelt would call "organized money," the
underwriters of the corporate education "reform" movement are just as
motivated by their own self-interest. It's just a different portfolio of
For Americans looking for credible voices in the confusing
education debate, the question, then, is simple: Which self-interest is more aligned with improving schools for our kids?
Teachers unions' self-interest means advocating for better teacher
salaries and job security -- an agenda item that would, among other
things, allow the teaching profession (as in other nations) to
financially compete for society's "best and brightest" and in the
process help kids. The unions' self-interest also means advocating for
decent workplace facilities, which undeniably benefits not only the
teacher, but also students. And it means pressing for curricular
latitude that doesn't force educators to teach to a standardized test, a
notion that would help actually educate students to think critically,
rather than train them to be test-taking robots.
Corporate education "reformers'" self-interest, by contrast, means
advocating for policies that help private corporations profit off of
public schools, diverting public attention from an anti-poverty economic
agenda, and busting unions that prevent total oligarchical control of
America's political system. In short, it's about the profit, stupid.
Neither side's self-interest is perfectly aligned with the goal of
bettering our education system. But one side is clearly far more aligned
with that goal than the other.
David Sirota is a best-selling author of the
new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In
Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at
firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his
website at www.davidsirota.com. More: David Sirota