Who’s Influencing Public Education Policy Part II

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Education is a billion dollar industry and if corporations are to make the money off these cash cows they must create an economic pipeline to redirect public funding to private enterprises via destructive public education policy. Diane Ravitch, noted scholar, policy analyst and former Secretary of Education for the Bush Administration highlights frequently via her Blog that this is the agenda of corporate enterprise and special interest groups across the country. However, we’re seeing it played out in Michigan with Detroit as the laboratory for how far the 1% can go before education professionals, advocates, and labor will unite. This is not a separate fight; their agenda is calculated and designed to simultaneously dismantle public education and weaken unions.

While the clock ran out on Michigan’s 2012 lame duck legislatures’ goal of completely privatizing public education with Governor Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA) legislation, they opened the flood gate to advance anti-labor laws throughout the United States with the recent passage of Right to Work-For Less legislation (RTW). Political pundits have noted the potential domino effect for RTW development in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, California, New York and Illinois. This should be a clarion call to all ranks and organizers in labor that we cannot remain quite while the pirates of public education pillage through our cities, leaving many youth vulnerable to what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) highlights as the Pipeline to Prison.

So who’s pulling the trigger or writing the checks to advance policy seeking to privatize education? According to a study conducted by the University of Georgia and Kronley & Associates, America’s academic crisis is attracting enormous impact investments. During 2000-2008, thirty philanthropic organizations contributed a total of $500 million towards education. While these contributions can help to offset the various deficits that educational institutions face, they often come with a caveat which does not always translate into higher academic achievement. In the October 2011 Governing Magazine “Billionaires in the Classroom” article, Alan Greenblatt pointed out that while previously many philanthropic organizations made social impact investments simply as “Do-Gooders”; now many of them have a clear agendas and the funding is used to rally allies. He points out that the Gates Foundation, a relatively philanthropic newcomer, spends $400 million annually on education reform and is the primary force responsible for national common core standards. Diane Ravitch points out that the potential profits resulting from their efforts would yield multimillion dollar returns for corporate enterprise receiving contracts for implementation with no proof that it would improve academic outcomes. However, Gates successfully leveraged the enlistment of 45 states to move this policy forward.

While the majority of philanthropic investments in education are not ill intended; the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy conveys that the educational crisis persists as impact investments have not yielded a fraction of the intended return. If the agenda is to truly transform education, one must ask, why are they not making impact? Education advocates recognize that there is a dire need for policy makers and philanthropists to foster community engagement partnerships with education professionals and advocacy groups as this is not the norm. National and local education advocacy groups maintain a measure of influence towards leveraging support for research based education policy. However, in isolation, they are often outspent by philanthropic or corporate special interest groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), with misguided right-wing agendas seeking to privatize and outsource the billion dollar industry of education, under the guise of education reform.

Michigan has its share of philanthropic supporters influencing school redesign, education policy, turnaround schools and governance models. However, their flawed methodology is often met with community resistance, as “community” is the missing component in many of their campaigns. The Skillman Foundation, Excellent Schools Detroit, New Detroit, United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Detroit Parent Network operate within a tight nucleus with an expressed goal of transforming low performing schools into great schools and providing parents with greater choices. While their stated mission is honorable, the underlying agenda is questionable. Their collective failed attempts at advancing mayoral control, close involvement with Emergency Financial Managers and Emergency Managers, Robert Bobb, and Roy Roberts, and the development of Governor Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority (EAA), and an analysis of their annual reports seems more closely aligned with an agenda for the privatization not transformation of public education. We’ll have to closely watch the Oxford Foundation advancing the EAA and #OneToughNerd’s Anytime, Anywhere, Any place education model. But in all honesty we have to ask, “Does their efforts translate into improving Detroit’s low performing schools?”

Education reform strategists say that they are seeking accountability; United Way of Southeastern Michigan received a historical $27 million investment by General Motors in December of 2010 for their Turnaround Schools initiative. Two years out, you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the academic outcome data of Cody, Osborne, or Henry Ford High Schools that they have been turned around. Beyond purchased magazine space and media promos, I’m not certain that the investment has yielded the return that GM’s leadership so passionately hoped for. With state control eclipsing community, parental, and school board involvement in Detroit Public Schools for 10 of the last 13 years with E(F)M’s beginning with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, what has impeded their agenda for change?

With a new legislature, a new Emergency Manager Law (Public Act 436), effective March 27, 2013, coupled with Governor Snyder’s education agenda in stark contrast to Michigan’s citizens, we have to wonder: Who’s really guiding public education policy? DPS has lost millions under state appointed E(F)M’s with no transparency of accounting; yet the children remain trapped in a cycle of academic tug-o-war and Michigan taxpayers on the hook for greater debt. Judge Annette Barry’s awaited decision on February 20, 2013, for bifurcated authority as outlined by Judge John Murphy in August of 2012 and Judge Wendy Baxter’s decision under Public Act 72, may already be too little too late. Perhaps the recently announced federal probe of DPS by the Office of Civil Rights, during the state’s takeover will serve as a catalyst for justice, or the convening of civil rights activist in Washington on January 29, 2013 via their Title VI complaint. Maybe it will take the changing of the guards for Michigan’s Democratic Party leader during the Democratic Convention, Saturday, February 23, 2013 at Cobo Hall to ignite a demand for better. Either way, until we stand united, education advocates and all ranks of labor, we will continue to lose this battle for liberty, freedom, and the opportunity for all of Michigan’s children to receive a free and appropriate education.