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Billionaires co-opt minority groups into campaign for education reform

Under the mantra of civil rights, billionaires such as Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers and the powerful corporate-funded lobby group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are using venture philanthropy and the political process to press for school reforms in the United States.

The ongoing Vergara law case in California in which nine students are suing the state over teacher tenure laws, is backed by Student Matters, a non-profit that has received donations from the Broad Foundation and the Walton Foundation, run by the Walton family that founded supermarket chain Wal-Mart.

The driver behind the case is a campaign to loosen labour rules in order to make it easier to fire “bad” teachers, under the argument that their presence discriminates against disadvantaged children. Opponents of the case argue that it is a blatant attempt to change the conversation from the realities of California’s divestment in education — the state is 46th in the nation in spending per student in 2010-11, and 50th in the number of students per teacher.

What these organisations and other others such as the the Koch brothersBradley FoundationHeritage FoundationStudents First and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education – all supposedly supporters of school reform – have as a common denominator is a vision of a profit-based market approach to education.

School vouchers are one of the primary education reform policy approaches pressed by the billionaires and the business lobby. Voucher programs, which provide public funding for students to attend private schools, have become more popular in the US in the past several decades.

Most existing school voucher programs in the US have been small-scale and targeted at low-income students, such as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, and the Washington DC program. But there has recently been a push to expand programs to include students from middle income families.

Notably, a small, but vocal cadre of civil rights advocates from US minority groups have allied with the billionaires and business lobby via groups such as the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), pushing for school vouchers and other neoliberal education reforms.

Have they been hoodwinked or led astray? It is understandable that minority groups are searching for alternatives to the status quo, as the US has a history of consistently and puposefully underserving students of colour. In fact, we still do. For example, one wealthy suburban district in Texas recently spent nearly $120m on a football stadium and performing arts centre, while poorer districts have struggled to afford adequately trained and certified teachers.

School reform advocates in the US are often a motley alliance between civil rights proponents whose primary focus is greater opportunity for historically underserved students of colour, and neo-liberals who desire to reduce the role of the state in public education and shift the education system towards a profit-making enterprise.

Vouchers aren’t the answer

In the case of vouchers, the long-term impact on civil rights is already known. A decade of peer-reviewed research in Chile has demonstrated that a voucher market has increased inequality for students living in poverty and closed public schools.

A voucher approach escalates inequality because capital rules the day. Test scores become negotiable capital in addition to hard currency. Students without this capital are denied access to attractive schools because there are other individuals in the market that are more desirable to schools.

School choice becomes exactly that in a voucher system — schools choose. So, if you are a proponent of school “choice” and interested in civil rights and equity —- vouchers will not help you realise your goals. But if you are a neoliberal, you are in business.

How can we conceive choice and education reform differently? If you don’t like the choices that have been forced upon you for decades, then you are going to want access to alternatives. Are vouchers the choice parents should have? Turns out that vouchers show very little promise in analyses of peer-reviewed research literature for improving student success or equity at large.

However, there are gold standard reforms in the peer-reviewed research literature that show at much more impact on student success than vouchers. These include full-day pre-kindergarten education. Underserved communities should have access to empirically-supported choices rather than ideological ones. Parents in Milwaukee and elsewhere should also be able to choose schools that are attractive and well-resourced like the private and public schools across the tracks or river or highway. Why don’t US high-poverty communities have these choices?

Pressure on public school funding

In Florida, Ohio, Arizona, Texas we have seen billions of dollars in fiscal cuts to schools while school vouchers, Teach For America, and charter schools are peddled by ALEC and the usual billionaire proponents as an alternative to the restoration of school funding for public schools.

In Texas and elsewhere, legislatures have used politics to force inadequate funding of US public schools while at the same time arguing that the schools are inadequate. The response from coalitions of citizens across the US has been a slew of lawsuits aimed at states over inadequate public funding to force politicians to respond.

Colin Powell once said, “If you break it you own it.” That’s the end game for these education “reformers” backed by billionaires and corporations. First, they seek to transfer the cost of education from the state budget to the family, household budget. Second, civil rights and equity are not their true priorities.

Instead these special interests are supporting vouchers and other neoliberal reforms contrary to the interests of students of colour. In doing so they will shift the US education system to maximise corporate profits, while limiting democratic control of public schools.

These same billionaire “reformers” have co-opted the equity discourse by offering a carrot to minority groups. This can sometimes be in the form of millions of dollars as in the case of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. But all this hides the inequity that profit-based approaches to education foment.

See also: Beware of Education Reformers Who Co-Opt the Language of the Civil Rights Movement and Key flaw in market-based school reform: a misunderstanding of the civil rights struggle

This blog first appeared here on The Conversation. The Conversation UK is an independent news and commentary website produced by “academics and journalists in collaboration, sourcing news, commentary and the latest research from the academic community.” Conversation_webThe website, connects a team of professional journalists with academic authors to “unlock their expertise, apply it to topical issues, and make it available to the public.”

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About Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig (705 Articles)
Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

7 Comments on Billionaires co-opt minority groups into campaign for education reform

  1. Sleepless in Seattly // March 14, 2014 at 7:59 am // Reply

    Many of us are becoming conspiracy theorists for good reason:

    Just as trauma is passed down in families, so is EVIL. It is most apparent in those highly Narcissistic families whose history is based on power and greed. For example, take a good look at the Bush family back to Prescott Bush, and his efforts to fuel the Nazi war machine. Take a good look at ex-President George Bush’s immoral leadership. Take a good look now at Jeb Bush’s efforts to gain power and political support in the trough of the Educational Industrial Complex.

    The hidden agenda of this education reform movement has roots in the eugenics movement in the US which became a model for that in Germany prior to WWII. The curriculum of Common Core is not based on sound educational philosophy or knowledge of children’s developmental needs, it is based on power and greed. It is based on control, and creating the slave workers of the future totalitarian regime. It is a poisonous pedagogy.

    The “Christian Right” conditions children not to think for themselves, but to accept and believe what they are told. They are conditioned to believe whatever their “Christian Authoritarian Leader” tells them to believe, no matter how ridiculous or absurd that leader’s interpretation of the bible may be. They are conditioned to become obedient “sheep”, without recognizing whether the authority is abusive or insane. That is the hallmark of the Common Core – It creates children and adults who are not able to use scientific thinking, or higher level thinking skills to perceive reality in their environment.

    We are allowing our children to be conditioned in a system that is leading them down a path that is the educational political version of “Jim Jones”. This is not a result of one political party, it is not partisan, it is the overall conformity that has been conditioned into our children via the increasingly authoritarian pedagogy in public education and US politics for several decades since WWII. It has now reached a level of destruction of the mental health of the nation’s children, while the general population looks on like helplessness bystanders.

    As parents who have first hand observation of the environment and curriculum of Common Core, we can see that it is age inappropriate and creates chronic stress for our children, as well as for the teachers. If we put on our “thinking caps”, we can see this is permanent psychological damage being done to our children. However, “we” are now the sheep. Those 1% with all the money and power in this country are in control.

    The destruction to our nation’s children from the educational reform disaster that is Common Core is beyond any other disaster our nation has ever faced. It is the manifestation of Nikita Khrushchev’s prediction in a speech given at the UN during the early years of the cold war:

    “America will fall without a shot being fired. It will fall from within.”

    Our best hope is to dismantle the toxic Common Core education reform movement and save our children from being turned into inhuman Nazis. We must give our children a safe and nurturing environment that will allow them to become strong leaders with empathy, not robots. It is our only hope to preserve their humanity and the future of our democracy.


  2. Reblogged this on Teachers in and commented:
    When billionaires are behind the corporate reform movement that is undermining public education is there hope that we can save public education?


  3. Monty J. Thornburg, Ph.D. // March 10, 2014 at 7:27 am // Reply

    Julian: There’s both a “direct” influence from the billionaires themselves and an equally, and more insidious and “indirect” effect that has grown using the language of “reform” that’s too often found in the board, and administrative meeting rooms of public schools.

    This language and “attitude” too often blocks or “silences” honest “critique” with respect to the vision, mission and goals of public schools and their relationship to the larger society.

    The direct financial assistance of mega foundations to influence state charter school associations for example, such as here in CA, has effectively silenced even the most ardent supporters of minority rights and public schools when it comes to examining the role of using tax dollars for privatized educational schemes.

    See for example:


  4. inspireteaching001123 // March 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm // Reply

    Reblogged this on Inspire Teaching.


  5. EduShyster has a good column by Camden, New Jersey teacher Keith Benson who describes how ethnicity is being used in Camden to divide the community.

    “Greetings from Scamden, NJ”


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