When Republican Congressmen vote against higher nutrition standards for children’s school lunches, carrying out the wishes of “Big Ag” by making the tomato sauce on school lunch pizza the equivalent of a vegetable, we instantly know what that means. Public interests have been sold out again, and we the public have to rally our forces again to prevail.

“Big Ag” is shorthand for what decades of educating the nation’s eaters now understand: billion dollar agricultural interests farm food on a vast scale and deliver it to other multinational corporations that prepare and manufacture raw ingredients into processed food, with the accompanying lobbyists, think tanks, and advertisers to promote Big Ag’s interests to Congress and the consumer. “Pizza is a vegetable” only to the lawmakers who undercut laws and rewrite regulations to suit Big Ag corporations. The 99% — in this case, your child and mine — exists solely as a market that enriches the 1%.

Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Banks — all quick and memorable shorthand for an interconnected set of behemoth money interests that history has shown puts profit above the needs of people. But it doesn’t mean we the people will lose the war. Look at the ‘whole foods’ movement, which has given rise to locavores, organic gardening for individuals and on a larger scale, families and communities cooking together, and more interest in eating fresh produce and non-GMO foods. We need to bear this in mind as we create a ‘whole child’ movement that’s similarly oriented toward health and human connection, and rescue all the wonderful, priceless things about public education that have helped make this country truly rich — in imagination and ingenuity.

When it comes to public education in America, however, we don’t have the luxury of decades to build the case against 1% billionaire interests that view the nation’s schools as filled by a giant market of helpless, powerless, politically unconnected children, and not the bright, funny, quirky, amazing kids who’ll solve the problems of tomorrow and invent wondrous things we can only guess at today. We need to get up to speed NOW, because the hustle is on NOW, and very soon public education won’t be the gem of our democratic society any more, and neither will we recognize our wonderful republic. For example, in November of 2010, after purchasing an education technology company, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp announced that “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.” (Mind you, Murdoch’s FOX News is the only infotainment network that leaves its viewers demonstrably less informed — negatively intelligent — about current events than if they’d watched no tv at all.)

So I’m borrowing “Big Ed” to describe those moneyed interests and point out how we parents, educators, and students of all ages through college can fight back. Because the promise of an excellent, free public education through high school (or an affordable and very good public university education) is something that’s essential as DNA to our country in order for it to work the way it’s supposed to. We need people who can understand and solve complex problems, and come up with intelligent, creative solutions. We need to treasure — and nurture — the incredibly varied humanity  in our country, and grasp that similar to a healthy eco-system that’s biodiverse, our society and our economy flourish best when everyone is given the opportunity to shoot for the highest reaches of his or her own unique potential. And education is an essential part of that energetic, people-powered abundance. Our fellow Americans have always been our best natural resource, and this is all the more true when it comes to the nation’s youth. It’s how we literally put a man on the moon, and almost single-handedly created revolutionary industries in technology and entertainment. Public investment in a well-educated populace free to explore the boundaries of human ingenuity accomplished that. People in earlier generations we didn’t even know believed in us and had faith we’d do the right thing in the future to safeguard progress. But that chain of trust and faith in a sunnier tomorrow threatens to break. Right now, Big Ed directly threatens the ‘whole child’ movement, dumbing-down the vitality of our big, diverse nation, and relegates college students to decades of student loan servitude.

Who is “Big Ed”?

Meet “Big Ed” —

K-12 Astroturf Parent or Other Front Groups

Big Ed isn’t only Rupert Murdoch; it’s also who he funds, conservative self-described Democrat Michelle Rhee, for example, and Democrats for Education Reform who share the same agenda if not the same financial backers.

For another example of a billionaire-funded “grassroots” group, see Stand For Children, which flew high in its ability to fund Democratic and Republican campaigns in Illinois’ state legislature, but crashed and burned when Jonah Edelman boasted in a notorious video taped at a think tank-like retreat about how successfully Stand For Children pursued their privatizing agenda and tricked the Illinois teachers’ unions with strategic campaign donations to state representatives.

A third example is religious right funder and Michigan Republican activist Betsy DeVos’ organizations, All Children Matter and the equally innocuous-sounding American Federation for Children. All Children Matter skirted the law with its campaign donations:

the political action committee …was fined a record $5.2 million by the Ohio Elections Commission after being charged with illegally shifting money into the state to support candidates considered friendly to private-school ‘choice’ initiatives. It was also fined for political misconduct in Wisconsin, where the group’s 2006 campaigning violated campaign finance laws by expressly urging voters to cast ballots against legislative candidates who backed public education.

As a result of this illegal activity, All Children Matter morphed into Americans for Children and has continued its support of vouchers, charter schools with religious orientations or curriculum (in defiance of Constitutionally-guaranteed rights that protect religious pluralism), and anti-teacher’s union efforts.

StudentsFirst, Michele Rhee’s organization, has been criticized for being the thin edge of the wedge that promises “results”-oriented focus on student achievement and teacher quality, but in fact softens the beach for overreliance on standardized testing that yields outsized test company paydays. Jeff Bryant, writing at Campaign for America’s Future, calls this the “edu-bubble” — how it is that public, not-for-profit education could be commodified through test scores and then traded and speculated upon like jerry-rigged mortgage-backed securities. Bryant explains further:

Most of the money in education is tied-up in just two areas — physical plant and personnel. Those two expenditures alone account for well over 80 percent of what a typical school spends. But with no “revenue” to show in the other side of the balance sheet, venture capitalists were at a loss for how to make schools a matter of financial speculation.

Case in point, one notable edu-venture was Edison Schools which lost millions of dollars every year, showing a profit in just one quarter of the 10 years it was publically traded.

Then education reform advocates — either unwittingly or intentionally (does it matter?) –gave the venture crowd a huge gift by decreeing that student scores on standardized tests would define the learning “output” that schools would be accountable for. And all of a sudden everything monetarily related to schools — operations budgets, teacher salaries, classroom costs, government funds, grant money — could be related to a test score output.

This in effect turned student learning — and by extension, the students themselves — into a commodity that could be speculated on. Now that edu-venturists had something they could put on the other side of the balance sheet, they could now “flip” student test scores into a speculative market. And all sorts of “reform” schemes and start-ups — from starting charter schools to lowering teacher salaries to closing schools — could be rationalized on the basis of test scores.

In the 21 states where districts have adopted “value-added assessment,” teacher careers now balance upon whether children do well on a standardized test. Principals are now roped into the high-stakes testing game, as they build their careers one layer away from the shifting sands of test scores that entrap teachers. Both principals and teachers collude in “erase to the top” scandals where money incentivizes adults for good performance and pizza parties incentivize kids for using the process of elimination to test well.

Bryant, and Jonathan Keller, who developed this idea of the commodification of public education through reformers’ semi-religious faith in quantitative measures, both point out that cheating scandals are the symptom of and not the exception to, a system that rewards all the wrong things:

Weak but clever educators will inevitably find ways to game the system, sometimes by cheating, but more often by coming close, but not stepping over the line: Educators could turn their courses into nothing but test-prep machines; they could refuse to collaborate with colleagues; they could curry favor with students to encourage better results; or take other steps we can’t imagine. Many of these weaker teachers, even short of cheating, might well end up with excellent “value added” scores, while stronger teachers who are honest and don’t play the sharp game end up looking bad.

Where could this lead? Schools could become little more than test-preparation institutes, ignoring subjects and skills that are not assessed, with faculty members who resent and distrust one another. Meanwhile, many honest and dutiful teachers will go down in flames.

The terrible loss for the nation’s children is that they have no say, nor a vote, in how these policies will play out. They must simply depend on adults who care about public education — who remember clearly the days when a low-stakes standardized test had its place, and then you went back to actually learning something — to use the democratic political process to set the system right.

Online Learning Companies

Read this investigative piece by Lee Fang in The Nation now — “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools.”  The Nation piece details how both Democrats and Republicans are uniting to sell “virtual learning” as the next whiz-bang innovation in K-12 education by donating to the campaigns of members of Congress, state legislators, and school board members who’ll pass laws and make decisions to serve their agenda. “Online education” — with no real definition of what this means — is marketed by CEOs of Dell Computer and Microsoft with support by right-wing funders who’ve always sought to eliminate public education. Like the middle-aged white male Forbes columnist who thought all impoverished African American children needed to do was pull themselves up by their free library wifi digital bootstraps, this kind of mushy-headed belief in a-contextual, high-tech solutions alone has enabled many otherwise sane Democrats to ally with the religious right in the name of privatization.

A recent Washington Post article that supports Fang’s reporting describes how

K12[.com] has hired lobbyists from Boise to Boston and backed political candidates who support school choice in general and virtual education in particular. From 2004 to 2010, K12 gave about $500,000 in direct contributions to state politicians across the country, with three-quarters going to Republicans, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

If it were a school district, K12 would rank among the 30 largest of the nation’s 1,500 districts. The company, which began in two states a decade ago, now teaches about 95,000 students in virtual schools in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

It’s a promising business. In the past fiscal year, K12 had revenue of $522 million — a 36 percent increase from the prior year, according to securities filings. Its net income after a series of acquisitions was $12.8 million. [CEO Ron] Packard earned $2.6 million in total compensation.

Packard, 48, took a roundabout route to education. A former Goldman Sachs banker, he was working as a consultant with McKinsey and Co. when he got a call from Michael Milken, the financier who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990 and later became a philanthropist partly focused on education.

And as Fang found, right-wing funders like David and Fred Koch (the purse strings behind the Tea Party) donate to “non-profit” groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). (Later investigative reports revealed that the so-called “liberal” Gates Foundation also donates to unabashedly right-wing ALEC, after having drifted from a liberalish initial approach in grantgiving.) ALEC’s main function is to ensure that boilerplate bills favoring the interests of the 1% and the corporations they run spread from state to state with maximum ease and speed. No state is safe; even states with a majority Democratic state legislature and a Democratic governor can be held hostage by a GOP/Grover Norquist-dictated “no taxes ever” pledge. (See the “California Bill of Online Education Rights” that some are trying to pass as a ballot initiative.)

Yet online education’s merits are far from proven. The same Washington Post article highlights deep misgivings education researchers have regarding online education, especially as it relates to the very young. Figures from student graduation rates in the piece merited a closer look, where K12.com executives were unable to explain away the same poor student performance that brick and mortar public schools receive excoriating reviews for:

At the Colorado Virtual Academy, which is managed by K12 and has more than 5,000 students, the on-time graduation rate was 12 percent in 2010, compared with 72 percent statewide.

That same year, K12’s Ohio Virtual Academy — whose enrollment tops 9,000 — had a 30 percent on-time graduation rate, compared with a state average of 78 percent.

Here’s how K12 chief executive Ron Packard explained the low performance figures in an interview earlier this month:

“As we grow, we’re getting more and more kids who are coming to us behind grade level. We’re talking two, three years behind grade level. …

“Now, if you’ve got a kid who’s in 6th grade, who’s three years behind grade level, that means his rate of learning is a half-year per year. If we are able to double that so that he’s progressing one year each year, we’ve doubled his learning rate. That’s phenomenal progress. But guess what? He’s still behind. And that kid will never catch up.”

So “virtual homeschooling charter schools” are to be praised for helping kids to the same degree or less as brick and mortar schools considered failing, but brick and mortar neighborhood schools with the same dismal achievement rate must be closed? What if rural schools, as in the California example, are not denying students access to college-prep classes as framed by the so-called “Student Bill of Rights” people, but explanations for underenrollment lie in scheduling and lack of academic preparation in the elementary and middle grades? How does online course access for rural high schools address these issues, and why would a law be needed to require it?

Why the double standard? Aside from the fact that virtual homeschooling charter schools are more profitable to private interests than public schools who do their best with the same struggling student?

Investigative reporter Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones highlighted former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s role in privatizing education in her article “Jeb Bush’s Cyber Attack on Schools.” I encourage you to read this carefully as well. Jeb Bush has been savvy enough to put old GOP wine in new, profiteering bottles:

…beneath the [bipartisan reform] rhetoric, the online-education push is also part of a larger agenda that closely aligns with the GOP’s national strategy: It siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies (including those that are supporting Bush’s initiative). And it undercuts public employees, their unions, and the Democratic base. In the guise of a technocratic policy initiative, it delivers a political trifecta—and a big windfall for Bush’s corporate backers.

Alex Molnar, the director of publications at the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, says these policy prescriptions are part of a corporate-driven agenda to access public education funds. “These folks talk about a free market,” he says, “but they couldn’t exist without taxpayer dollars. There is a limited audience for this. You have to get policymakers to force people into it.”

To that end, you have to get policymakers to buy in—and that’s the area where Bush has excelled. Bennet Ratcliff, a political consultant who once produced ads for Bill Clinton and now does PR work for Bush’s foundation, says Digital Learning Now is all about “advocating for policies in the states and in districts that would promote digital learning. For instance, it could be talking to boards of education, it could be talking to state chiefs, it could be talking to governors, district [superintendents], legislators.” None of this, he hastens to add, constitutes lobbying: “I do need to be very clear about that. This is an advocacy and education effort about digital learning. What we are not doing is lobbying.” When I asked him who was actually doing the talking, he replied, “Elves.”

The elves scored their first legislative coup in March, when Utah’s Legislature passed a bill, based almost entirely on the Digital Learning Now blueprint, that provides more opportunity for high school students to take online courses. A few months earlier, Bush had visited Utah to make the case for virtual schools to state legislators and to address Gov. Gary Herbert’s Education Excellence Commission.

Here’s how it works:

  • drastic cuts to state budgets in the name of “austerity”
  • GOP state legislators  who sign the Grover Norquist “no taxes ever” pledge ensure “austerity” becomes a man-made reality
  • mass firings of teachers due to “austerity-driven” budget cuts
  • attacks on teachers using misinformation that stokes public envy of teacher pensions
  • attacks on teachers’ unions
  • the problem of rising class sizes “solved” by more computers in the classroom
  • “online education” pitched as a solution for rural education instead of hiring more teachers or creating partnerships with local community colleges to offer advanced classes to high schoolers

VOILA! You’ve created a market where there was none. Computers will now take over where humans used to teach. And they won’t ask for due process, small class sizes, or rebel when given crummy work sheets to hand out, or question the value of standardized tests.

Philanthropic Foundations That Serve Corporate Agendas

When the Gates Foundation funds research that favors the implementation of more computers, software, and online learning technology that Microsoft Corporation manufactures and sells to schools, the philanthropic arm legitimates and helps create a market for the corporation’s products.

Philanthropic activities by foundations are supposed to have a non-profit social good as their purpose. When philanthropic activities like research or funding of pilot programs serves the parent corporation’s interests, and the Gates Foundation engages in public relations perception management with the creation of astroturf groups that appear to be independent — this seems like an abuse of a 501c3 organization’s acceptable advocacy. How is this any different than a tax-exempt subsidy for lobbying and/or public relations services?

The Gates Foundation is but one such foundation closely tied with a technology company that has a heavyweight philanthropic presence to help it create a market. Like a black hole, the Gates Foundation warps time and space and sucks light into the policy priorities it deems important, deforming the direction money flows from other, smaller foundations around it. Several Gates Foundation alumni and appointees to the Obama administration Department of Education had to be given waivers that otherwise prohibited lobbyists and others from serving in government. One critic of the system says, “’It’s sort of influence-peddling writ large,’ said Richard L. Brodsky, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning research organization Demos and a former New York State assemblyman. ‘The notion that the society is better served by the super-rich exercising their charitable instincts is in the end anti-democratic.’”

Like the Gates Foundation, the Dell Foundation is another that gives in accord with its business interests. The Broad Foundation is also involved in training school superintendents who are presumably aligned with the privatizing goals of Eli Broad himself. This money, totalling $4 billion out of some $600 billion in all fifty states that taxpayers spend on public education, might seem like a drop in the bucket, but it has disproportionate impact. And it creates dependency on philanthropy and erodes public belief that public dollars, accountable to public officials, should be spent on the nation’s schools. Says Michael Redell, of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teacher’s College, NY:

That’s not the way we should be supporting our system of public education, to depend on outbursts of altruism from publicly-spirited individuals. It’s a public responsibility and should be supported that way.

In an environment where percentage of state funding to “public Ivies” has dwindled from 20-40% down to 7-11%, and in California, about $18 billion has been cut from K-12 education in the past four years, this creates enormous vulnerability to market forces. From the perspective of privatizers and billionaire philanthropists, this is a feature, not a bug.

Look, for example, at how philanthropists were able to “buy” (subsidize) 13 research fellows who advise the NY State Board of Regents on testing and other education policy for the state:

Those donors include Bill Gates ($892,000), who is leading the charge to evaluate teachers, principals and schools using students’ test scores; the National Association of Charter School Authorizers ($50,000) and the Robbins Foundation ($500,000), which finance charter expansion; and the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation ($500,000), whose mission statement includes advancing “Mayor Bloomberg’s school reform agenda.”

Look also at how the non-profit foundations of textbook/testing companies use junkets and other extracurricular carrots to motivate public officials to award lucrative contracts to the same companies — a report in the NYT highlights how Pearson, a multinational textbook/testing company, holds contracts in seven of the ten states where the Pearson Foundation has wined and dined state education commissioners. From the same story: “Mr. Jennings of the Center on Education Policy says there needs to be more of a wall between test companies and state officials. ‘We shouldn’t let these companies — that make tests, textbooks, curriculum materials — buy the loyalty of educators the way the drug companies have bought the loyalty of doctors,’ he said.” (Remind you of Big Pharma?)

What’s terrible is that ordinarily liberal-minded high-tech executives are so eagerly allying with right-wing and religious right funders of public school privatization like Betsy DeVos (former CEO of Blackwater Erik Prince’s sister), David Brennan (White Hat Charters), and the ultra-conservative Walton family (Wal*Mart), and the previously mentioned Jeb Bush. Predatory profiteering isn’t limited to one political party.

Charter School Management “Franchises” Set Up McSchools

The charter school movement started with two goals in mind: 1) to allow for creative experiments in school structures, curriculum, and teaching, the best of which would then be folded back into regular public schools; and 2) to allow for more experiments in local control of schools. In the majority of cases, charters have strayed far from both original impulses.

There is no consortium, program, ongoing conference, institute, or local/state/federal government entity to evaluate charter school innovation and then fold those insights back into existing local schools. This is in direct violation of the language used to approve much charter legislation that enabled their inception — it’s a broken promise.

Second, local neighborhood charters started by parents, teachers, and community members with exciting new ideas for public education have now been overshadowed by large, multi-state charter chains. Like a McDonald’s franchise, these charter chains are often the opposite of locally-grown and community administered.

Here’s how it works:

Textbook/Curriculum/Testing Companies

Consolidation of textbook publishers and companies that provided other curriculum materials, and mergers with testing companies, have created what one longtime parent activist calls the “self-licking ice cream cone.”

Here, the must-read is this investigative Texas Observer article, “Education, Inc.: How Private Companies Are Profiting From Texas Public Schools.” See how completely the tentacles of Pearson, the UK textbook publisher/testing/remedial and prep conglomerate, reach deep into the heart of Texas public schools:

Pearson, one of the giants of the for-profit industry that looms over public education, produces just about every product a student, teacher or school administrator in Texas might need. From textbooks to data management, professional development programs to testing systems, Pearson has it all—and all of it has a price. For statewide testing in Texas alone, the company holds a five-year contract worth nearly $500 million to create and administer exams. If students should fail those tests, Pearson offers a series of remedial-learning products to help them pass. Meanwhile, kids are likely to use textbooks from Pearson-owned publishing houses like Prentice Hall and Pearson Longman. Students who want to take virtual classes may well find themselves in a course subcontracted to Pearson. And if the student drops out, Pearson partners with the American Council on Education to offer the GED exam for a profit.

In some cases, the only part of education that remains public is the school itself. Nearly every other aspect of educating children—exams, textbooks, online classes, even teacher certification—is now provided by for-profit companies.

The entire article is well worth the read. Remember the “self-licking ice cream cone” that my parent activist friend called this self-perpetuating cycle? What’s the point of having competitive bidding for lucrative state education contracts if the consolidation of testing/textbook/prep companies has already occurred and become a monopoly? Then it’s a simple matter of dealing with the textbook arm of the octopus while another contract’s signed with the standardized test arm of the same octopus. Can an underfunded and understaffed state agency, which is not all that motivated to protect public education (or they wouldn’t have the annual religious fundamentalist debacle over textbooks that lands Texas in the news), really be the watchdog over this process, especially if the revolving door for Texas Education Agency staffers lands them right in Pearson’s arms after a brief period of service in the public sector?

I don’t mean to pick on Texas, but they are the second largest textbook market and what gets written to their standards can end up in a Maine classroom, whether Maine teachers like it or not.

And here’s what $5 billion in lobbyists achieve:

This legislative session, [Texas] lawmakers cut an unprecedented $5 billion from public education, including funding for a variety of programs to help struggling students improve their performance on state tests. Despite the cuts, Pearson’s funding streams remain largely intact. [emphasis mine]

This imbalance in the allocation of taxpayer money — steady declines in money that goes to the classroom but rising bottom lines for test, textbook and other corporations in the business of education — is no doubt repeated around the country. Lest you need reminding, testing is not teaching and classrooms, not testing week, are where the kids learn. Isn’t there something deeply wrong when multinational corporations are insulated from “austerity” but teachers and kids must experience the full brunt with cuts  to core staff, classes, and transportation to school?

How it works:

  • No Child Left Behind creates a teach-to-the-test regime
  • test companies ramp up offerings and enjoy record quarterly profits since NCLB’s passage since every school must now show “Adequate Yearly Progress”
  • conservative Democrats enamored of technocratic “ed reform” demand that teacher performance be predicated on student standardized tests scores
  • major urban school super-districts (DC, Atlanta, NYC) offer incentives to principals and teachers to push students to achieve high test scores (the result of the skewed incentive system is massive systemwide cheating as opposed to widespread student improvement in test scores)
  • test scores are used to fire “underperforming” teachers using flawed evaluation criteria
  • Common Core Standards, with the potential for increasing the need for standardized testing in even more subject areas, could prove the biggest benefit of all to testing companies
  • charter schools launched by curriculum and textbook companies conveniently and self-servingly use only their own materials, restricting what teachers can teach and what students will learn
  • the demand for high standardized test scores feeds the secondary “prep” market
  • anemic curriculum watered-down and narrowed by NCLB mandates, and “austerity”-driven cuts from decreased state aid eliminate gifted and talented materials, driving parents to supplement at private “prep” classes
  • public schools forced to cut music, theatre, art, science, history and other “extras” that previous generations enjoyed as part of a free, great public school education drives families to private and charter schools, virtual solutions like K12.com (no connection to K12NewsNetwork.com) and to private classes
  • there’s more and more talk of “accountability” which leads to more tests issued and greater dependence on data-driven teaching
  • companies start highly profitable alternative teacher credentialing programs that are completely online with little oversight of work actually completed or a person to engage the teacher on the subject matter

Click on the image of the map to use The Nation‘s tool that summarizes how education profiteers have encroached upon public education:

Click through to explore The Nation's interactive tool




Student Loans/For-Profit Private Colleges:

If online learning for K-12 is highly profitable because “online homeschooling charters” eliminate the teacher and supply $1500 worth of computer and lesson plans in exchange for $5,000-$10,000 of state education funding that follows the student, then the higher ed equivalent is the for-profit private college which also purports to provide college courses at the student’s convenience. Like K-12 online learning, there’s no research supporting the notion that online learning is even equal in quality to in-person teaching. Perhaps 18 year olds and up, including mid-career returning students, can be trusted to discern what’s of value and what’s not, and higher education is elective as opposed to mandatory K-10 or K-12 education, but even so, many older students or military families seeking flexible hours promised by online learning gravitate to low-quality for-profit distance learning diploma mills. They’re pressured by boiler-room salesmen into signing up for shady loans and receive class credits they can’t transfer to real colleges and degrees that are useless on the job market.

Many students have become trapped by skyrocketing debt burdens from attending both online for-profit colleges and reputable bricks and mortar colleges where tuition increases have vastly outpaced inflation. College loan defaults are at their highest level in decades.

DEFAULT – The Student Loan Documentary from Default: the Student Loan Docume on Vimeo.

And young veterans and military families seeking portable higher ed have spent GI Bill dollars on online for-profit higher education that’s turned out to be a total ripoff.


#OccupyBigEd — What You Can Do

What all of these con jobs have in common is moneyed interests

1) refusing to contribute to the common good through taxes and deliberately underfunding public education to create “demand” for their products, privatized schooling — an often inferior “product” offered at greater expense

2) trying to siphon off as much taxpayer money as possible to their largely unproven McSchools and McTests that have not shown they deliver much real educational benefit

When college students and their families or veterans and military families have depleted borrowed money and are left with no public infrastructure and no jobs with which to repay debt, when children have had all the inborn curiosity and sense of exploration pummeled out of them and only the elite receive stimulating, thought-provoking educations, the 1% who profit from all this will move on from the rubble and find another arena to exploit. We will not have public schools left where children learn how to become citizens and neighbors. We won’t have state universities and colleges that are truly publicly-funded and carry out the mission to educate the residents of that state, feeding its prosperity and enabling a new generation of people to secure an affordable, high-quality education.

Unless — here’s where we come in. We must fight for our children’s futures. We must insist that public education be fully funded, that young people embarking on a college education don’t start life courting bankruptcy or saddled with debt that steals their dreams. We must #OccupyBigEd, and fight it tooth and nail.

1) Fully & equitably fund public education, including higher ed. This means taxing corporations at the state and federal level. This also means taxes on millionaires in every state. Revenue must support education, which is public investment in the future. The middle class has stepped up time and again through regressive sales taxes and community-based parcel taxes while some corporations flaunt the fact that they paid little to no federal tax and some top earners in each state would rather pay money to lobby once against millionaire taxes than pay what they owe every year. It is unacceptable for more be spent on prisons than education.

2) Reject “no taxes ever” pledges and candidates for public office who sign them.

3) Roll back the data-driven, testing regime. This requires serious attention to No Child Left Behind, preferably before House Republicans rush through a partisan bill with more of the same. Demand that data zealots take their own tests and see if they pass. If they don’t, why listen to them? Instead, demand high-quality assessments that require students to show what they know, whether through portfolios of work, public presentations, or performances.

4) Reject voucher bills, even if they’re renamed “scholarships.”

5) Limit charter school expansion. Would you rather volunteer to make your existing neighborhood public school great, or would you rather volunteer hours to create, launch, and administer a charter and fundraise to pay for high overhead that includes bloated charter management organization salaries? So long as funding for charter school facilities lags charter school creation, there will continue to be battles over co-location and school sites. It’s not enough to simply draw up the papers — facilities matter. State and local funding for school building construction has not kept pace, making indiscriminate charter expansion an unfunded mandate.

5a) Severely restrict online education “requirements,” often couched as online charters. If on the internet, as the old saying goes, “no one knows if you’re a dog,” how will anyone be able to verify if your virtual dog ate your virtual homework?

6) For every charter school billionaire philanthropists fund, they must put an equivalent amount toward also funding mechanisms by which innovations can be streamlined back into existing neighborhood public schools. It is the responsibility of charter schools to do this.

7) Pass the Charter Schools Transparency and Good Governance Act to make financial auditing of public money that supports charters consistently open and accessible across all fifty states.

8 ) Support and elect local school board candidates who fully support existing public schools and are not part of the “ed reform” agenda, nor do they accept donations from “ed reform” organizations or individuals.

9) Demand a moratorium on raises for high-level administrative staff at state universities during a time of budget cuts.

10) Enact student loan forgiveness programs.

11) Demand resignation of university officials that ordered, allowed, permitted, or excused the use of excessive police force on students peaceably demonstrating free speech. This is unacceptable in an institution of higher learning whose core purpose is free intellectual inquiry.

12) Reconstitute the Regents of any public university so that no members of the 1% can have investments or run companies that profit from higher ed; enforce strict standards governing conflict of interest. (I.e., the Richard Blum rule.)

13) Force the Regents to prominently report to the public the status of university investments, including disclosures of possible conflicts of interest, and re-balance university investment portfolios away from risky private equity and toward safer long-term investments. Criminalize self-dealing.

14) Increase the number of faculty and student-elected members of the Board of Regents.

15) Bring the UC system back to its core mission as articulated in the Master Plan. Require that state assembly and state senators uphold, ratify, and vote in support of the Master Plan. Where this is relevant for all other state university systems, update and reconnect the state legislature with the equivalent Master Plan mission of affordable, high-quality education to all residents of the state.

16) Shut down for-profit online colleges that cannot document graduation, attrition, and job placement rates, have fly-by-night accreditation, and exist primarily as Pell grant money-laundering outfits. These “subprime” colleges flourish when inexpensive community colleges cut back on courses and for-profit colleges prey upon unsuspecting students who don’t realize that the increased cost for a poor-quality degree isn’t worth the debt.

17) Revisit the “90-10 rule” and demand that the Obama administration stand up to the for-profit education industry even if it means pissing off Democratic lobbyists and donors.

I cherish the public education I received, and that I incurred only a little bit of debt in pursuing it. This was an incredible gift given to me by strangers who came before me, and now it’s my turn to pass it on. I want the same golden opportunities for young people today and for the smallest children coming up behind them that I had. No less.

Start small, with your local school. Make sure people who have children who attend local public schools and have a direct stake in the system are elected to school boards. People want good schools — in case of a disaster that’s very often where we come together to make sure the community’s children are safe. Well, there isn’t an earthquake or hurricane driving us to the local public school — this time the disaster is what the 1% is doing to public education. We need to gather at our public schools and help them resist “free market” imperatives by keeping them free, funded, excellent, and relevant.

Put money into schools. There is no civilization unless we all chip in; schools aren’t an expense, but the biggest investment we make in the future. Support teachers. Good, experienced ones are a key part of the community, they help shape your children’s abilities, they sometimes see your children for more hours of the day than you do, and incidentally, they keep your property values solid.

Fight back against the “austerity” hawks, the “no taxes ever” people, and the idea that “Big Ed” can profit but money that goes directly to the classroom must be cut. We have to flip those priorities so that instead, classroom teaching and learning are paramount. De-fund the privatizers — shift demand away from test-driven education and make hedge fund billionaires pay taxes through their businesses and in personal income taxes that support public education before they dabble in “ed reform.”

Did you know that even as high-tech wealth goes to push charter chains, some of those same people resisted a millionaire’s tax in Washington state that would’ve funded public education? Jeff Bezos personally gave $100,000 to anti-Prop 1098 efforts that would’ve taxed Washington state millionaires. And they also gave to school board candidates who support their charter expansion agenda. At least Amazon.com, which has exploited a loophole preventing it from having to pay state sales tax on purchases made through its online store, will no longer be de-funding states around the country as of this coming fall, 2012.

Equality of opportunity if not equality of circumstance — this is a bedrock value our country was founded on. An excellent public education — universally accessible — is key to our uplift. If we let this slip away, we won’t recognize who we are or what we’ve become after the 1% are done.


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