The last week of every January, right-wing groups like Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity promote “National School Choice Week” (NSCW). Unlike other commemorative national weeks or months — such as Black History Month or Pride Month — NSCW did not emerge from an organic grassroots movement. Though touting a misleading notion of equal access to education, its billionaire-backed policy agenda pulls money away from universal public schools.
National School Choice Week is the pet project of a superrich family, the Gleasons, whose fortune dates back to 1865 when William Gleason created a machine shop to make gears in Rochester, New York. By 1999, the business was valued at $332 million. As of March 2022, a 501(c)(3) private foundation funded by that industrial fortune, the Gleason Family Foundation, had net assets of nearly $140 million on hand. Its primary activity is promoting National School Choice Week.
Since 2008, the foundation has been paying Gleason’s great-great granddaughter, Tracy Gleason, to be its president. In 2022, with the approval of the family-dominated board, Gleason, an heir to her family’s industrial fortune, paid herself $586,167 in total compensation for overseeing the foundation. Her spouse, Jeffery Robinson, who spent an average of 30 minutes a week on the foundation, received $42,000 that year, about the same amount as four other board members. That is only $844 less than the average starting salary for a full-time public school teacher in 2023. Gleason’s executive assistant receives total annual compensation of more than $176,000, about four times the average pay for a new full-time teacher.
Overseeing a family foundation devoted to peddling “school choice” is apparently pretty lucrative.
“School choice,” or efforts to funnel public tax dollars to privately managed alternatives to public schools via vouchers or other means, began as a way for white supremacist parents to avoid the racial integration of schools following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954 against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. The Gleason family’s charitable foundation is said to have been launched in the 1950s, but publicly available records do not show when it started funding school choice, which appears to be more recent.
In its oldest IRS forms available online, the Gleason Family Foundation reported no income or assets in 2006 and 2007. It was then infused with nearly $170 million in 2008, when it spent $4.8 million on grants, giving nearly a million to groups pushing school privatization, as well as to individual — largely privately managed — schools. It stated then that “most new grants awarded relate to improving public schools.”
Studies show that the school choice policies can increase racial segregation and widen inequality, while generally failing to improve outcomes for students. In contrast to the underserved communities they often target, many of the organizations promoting school privatization schemes are backed by individuals who have vast expendable generational wealth to influence public policy.
At a rare public speech at a gala for the Center for Education Reform, a major beneficiary of the Gleason Foundation, Tracy Gleason explained the mindset of the foundation she is using to inject tens of millions of dollars into glossy PR campaigns: “It’s not enough to be right,” she said, adding, “We actually have to sell the notion of school choice … and bring everyone around to our way of thinking.”
Publicly available records do not indicate if Tracy Gleason attended private prep schools or public schools before enrolling at Princeton University to study French. There is nothing in her job history before her role directing money to groups trying to move money out of public schools that indicates any formal training in education policy or the methods of teaching children with different learning needs or styles.
National School Choice Week: A Top-Down Endeavor
Gleason’s foundation has spent nearly $58 million to promote National School Choice Week events since the week of celebration was launched in 2011. No other foundation appears to have spent nearly as much as Gleason.
How it promotes the event through various nonprofit and for-profit vehicles is curious, however.
According to the Gleason Family Foundation’s most recent IRS filing, between mid-2021 and mid-2022, it gave nearly $14.5 million to another nonprofit private foundation called the “National School Choice Awareness Foundation Inc.” (NSCAF) — that new group’s entire budget. The NSCAF, which initially listed its website as schoolchoiceweek.org, is chaired by Andrew Campanella, who reported no pay from it in that period. Tracy Gleason sits on NSCAF’s three-person board alongside Campanella.
In that same period, the Gleason Family Foundation also paid a contractor called “NSCW Management, Inc.” more than $3.5 million for “project consulting and expenses.” That for-profit firm was run by Campanella and does not publicly disclose how it spent those charitable funds or how much Campanella paid himself or others. Between 2013 and 2021, the Gleason Family Foundation paid an additional $16,583,234 combined to NSCW Management, Inc. and three other for-profit entities tied to Campanella. He is listed as a registered agent for two of these entities, which are fictitious names for his LLCs. The third one is not listed as a fictitious or legal name for any entity in the Florida Division of Corporations database, but shares an address with the other two firms on the Gleason filings.
In 2023, NSCAF reported paying Campanella $330,000 in total compensation, including a $10,000 expense account, out of its revenue of $9.3 million. NSCAF spent $450,000 promoting National School Choice Week, including several grants to state-level right-wing “parental rights” groups.
For example, NSCAF’s largest grant of $32,000 was given to a group called “My SC Education.” My SC Education’s most recently available IRS filings had only three names listed, two of which have connections to the State Policy Network, a group of state policy shops that promote privatizing public schools. Ellen Weaver, the listed chair of My SC Education, formerly worked for the State Policy Network group, Palmetto Promise Institute (PPI), and is currently South Carolina’s superintendent of education. PPI staffer Oran Smith is also listed as a member on the filing. PPI gave My SC Education $22,000 in 2022, according to IRS filings. My SC Education also received funding from Koch’s yes. every kid. in 2020 and $100,000 from Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children (AFC) that same year. (Campanella previously worked for AFC.)
The bulk of NSCAF’s funding has been spent on contractors, most of whom were not required to be disclosed under the IRS 990 form. It described its activities as reaching nearly 4 million parents with its materials about school choice, including more than 100,000 visitors to its Spanish-language hub of materials. It also stated that it partnered with more than 24,000 schools to promote National School Choice Week.
Notably, Campanella’s NSCAF received $450,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, which was infused with money from the Walmart fortune, and which has long sought to move public money for public schools into other types of educational enterprises. NSCAF also received almost $100,000 from billionaire Charles Koch’s Stand Together Trust. As Lisa Graves from True North Research has documented, Koch began pushing for privatizing public schools in 1970 through his Center for Independent Education, which even assailed compulsory schooling with a book called The 12-Year Sentence, featuring a mug shot of an elementary school child.
NSCAF also gave money to Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) to support “education awareness events.” Numerous announcements by AFP’s state and local arms echo claims about the glories of school choice.
In 2019, Koch’s nonprofit empire funded two new initiatives focused on dismantling K-12 public education: “yes. every kid.,” which pushes private school voucher and charter school programs, and “4.0,” which financially supports “alternative approaches” to public schools.
NSCAF’s most recent filing reveals that it also gave money to the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF).
The IWF, a 501(c)(3) group, and its sister organization, Independent Women’s Voice, a 501(c)(4), are pay-to-play groups that use their “independent” branding to aid their funders in their wish lists. IWF has received funding from those targeting public schools, such as Koch, Leonard Leo, the Bradley Foundation (which itself helped establish Milwaukee’s school voucher program and funded lawsuits to expand the use of public tax dollars to subsidize religious private schools) — and now the NSCAF.
IWF has also received funds from AFC, the 501(c)(4) of the DeVos family’s Alliance for School Choice. As secretary of education under Trump, Betsy DeVos criticized public schools and pitched a federal private school voucher program. IWF/V awarded Betsy Devos — who is on record saying, “I personally think the Department of Education should not exist” — their made-up “Woman of Valor” award for the pivotal role she played in pushing an anti-public school agenda. AFC has also received funding from the Gleason Foundation, as has IWF.
IWF/V has also received approximately $6.8 million from Leonard Leo’s network over the years. Politico recently exposed how Christian nationalists, funded by Leo’s dark money network, are working to publicly fund a Christian school in Oklahoma.
In 2022, IWF launched its “Education Freedom” Center (IWF-EFC), which is used to push the group’s anti-public school, pro-school privatization content. IWF-EFC is run by Ginny Gentles, who was previously a senior political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. Gentles led Florida’s schools privatization programs, formed her own school privatization consulting firm in 2017, and is listed as a “senior advisor” for DeVos’s AFC.
What Else Has Gleason Funded?
In addition to National School Choice Week-specific funding, according to a tabulation by True North Research, the Gleason Family Foundation also gave almost $31 million between 2011 and 2022 to right-wing dark money groups with a major focus on attacking public schools, or to groups pushing education outside of public schools.
For example, it has contributed over $5.3 million to the Institute for Justice, a far right law firm seeded by Koch money that litigated the Carson v. Makin case in 2022, which ruled that the state’s tax dollars must fund religious schools through its tuition reimbursement program. Other Koch-tied school privatization groups funded extensively by the Gleason Foundation between 2011 and 2021 include the Cato Institute ($820,000), the Goldwater Institute ($815,000), the Manhattan Institute ($925,000), the Heritage Foundation ($1.325 million) and the Center for Education Reform ($1 million).
It has also given at least $775,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pay-to-play group that has long been funded by the Koch fortune and whose corporate board has included a Koch Industries lawyer for more than three decades now. Through ALEC, corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on so-called model bills to attack public schools and teachers (as well as on other issues) without the press or public present.
The Gleason Family Foundation has specifically been credited by ALEC for funding its annual “report card” on public schools, which is now called “The ALEC Index of State Education Freedom: A 50-State Guide to Parental Empowerment.” Under its special math, ALEC ranks Florida the number one place for K-12 schools in the country, a claim touted by Gov. Ron DeSantis, even though the analysis of school quality by Education Week, a far more credible source, gave Florida an overall grade of “C” after examining students’ chances of success and school financing (which it gave Florida a D+ in, nearly failing). Meanwhile ALEC’s cooked-up index ranks Massachusetts dead last, 50th, even though it is routinely recognized for having the highest quality and best performing K-12 schools in the nation.
Since 2011, the Gleason Family Foundation has also given more than $5.6 million to the “Education Action Group Foundation,” which the right-wing Bradley Foundation has also funded. A grant proposal to the Bradley Foundation made explicit the group’s goal of undermining teachers’ unions while promoting the “school choice” agenda.
Gleason has also given $1.2 million to the anti-labor National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, where Stefan Gleason served as vice president from 1999-2010. At least part of this funding was used for a “Teacher’s Union Initiative.”
Gleason has also given more than $3.8 million to EdChoice, formerly the “Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice,” which was launched by economist and right-wing hero Milton Friedman, who began publicly assailing the idea of public schools the year after Brown v. Board of Education was issued by the Supreme Court barring racial segregation. (The Friedmans personally bestowed Lisa G. Keegan, chair of the Gleason Foundation’s board and NSCAF director, with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation Award for Leadership in Educational Choice in 1999.)
The language of “choice” around schools may be alluring in its simplicity. But don’t let “National School Choice Week” fool you. Behind the banners extolling the virtues of vouchers, charter schools, homeschooling and other privately managed schooling options, a small group of wealthy heirs is using their vast sums to undermine support for public schools and the vital role they have played in our culture and economy.
It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.
We have 2 days to raise the $30,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?
We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!