National School Choice Week: Know the Players and the Funders

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January 27, 2014; Washington Free Beacon

Every day, there is a staged event in New York City: the ringing of the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. On Monday, the bell-ringing entourage was a dozen or so children from the Newark Prep Charter School—managed by the for-profit K12, Inc. (which is traded on the NYSE)—to announce the beginning of National School Choice Week.

It would be difficult to conjure a more emblematic picture for the start of a week dedicated by school privatizers to the concept of generating alternatives to traditional public schools. Many of the most fervent supporters of school choice, including the private management of public charter schools, are Wall Street investors, both Republican and Democratic in their political leanings.

School choice advocates promote more than charter schools along the lines of K12’s inventory. They also like vouchers to allow kids to go to private schools, celebrating, for example, the 20,000 pupils in Indiana who got vouchers to attend private school in 2013, a 16 percent increase over the previous year.

Leaders of both political parties who can agree on almost nothing find a lot of common interests in school choice. For example, the kickoff of National School Choice Week in Texas got the support of a truly political odd couple, Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Nonetheless, despite the involvement of liberal Democrats like Lee, who organized this nationwide gathering, National School Choice Week, though it bills itself and its programs as nonpartisan and nonpolitical, has a distinctly conservative list of partner organizations listed on its website. Their funders and board members reveal the political leanings of the school choice partners:

The American Federation for Children: The board chair is noted Republican campaign financier and bundler Betsy DeVos.

The Association of American Educators: Top funders have been the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Jacquelin Hume Foundation, and the Daniels Fund.

Black Alliance for Educational Options: Several million dollars have gone to BAEO from the Walton Family Foundation over the years, plus additional conservative funders such as Walton, Bradley, Hume, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. But they also got a huge $4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2003, and grant support from ostensibly mainstream and liberal funders such as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (the Arnolds are known Democratic political donors), the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the William Penn Foundation (whose prior executive director was closely associated with a Philadelphia inner city charter school), and, in recent years, the Foundation to Promote Open Society.

Children’s Scholarship Fund: Founded by John T. Walton of the Walton family and New York investor Ted Forstmann to provide scholarships for children to attend private schools, the organization’s advisory board is a bipartisan potpourri of business and political luminaries, such as Henry Cisneros (former Secretary of HUD), Andrew Young (civil rights leader and former UN ambassador), Trent Lott (former Mississippi senator), Henry Kissinger, Julian Robertson (Tiger Management), Dick DeVos, and Stedman Graham (Oprah Winfrey’s social partner). In eight grants made between 2003 and 2011, which are viewable on the Foundation Center’s online directory, the Walton Family Foundation gave the Children’s Scholarship Fund over $183.5 million.

Choice Media: Self-described as a “non-profit education news service…[whose] mission is to expose America’s high-cost, low-performing schools, while highlighting successes where they occur and pointing the way to a more hopeful tomorrow,” Choice Media’s claim to fame is a documentary called The Cartel, examining “the nature and extent of corruption in public education…[the] powerful, entrenched and self-serving cartel…behind every dropout factory”

Education Reform Now: With over $2 million from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation between 2010 and 2011, even more from the Walton Family Foundation, and $1.5 million from the Starr Foundation (chaired by Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former CEO of AIG), and governed by a board comprised of a number of private equity CEOs, the organization purports to add a “left-leaning voice” in support of education reform.

Families Empowered: Helping families navigate options in school choice, Families Empowered got its largest grant from the Walton Family Foundation in 2011.

Foundation for Excellence in Education: With well over $3 million from the Walton Family Foundation between 2009 and 2011, and over $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this group promotes school choice and standardized testing to improve educational outcomes, under the leadership of board president, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Among the other partners are Michelle Rhee’s Students First; the KIPP Foundation (the charter school operator); the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm; the Center for Education Reform, with Channel One founder Chris Whittle on its board; and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by Nobel Prize winning conservative economist Milton Friedman along with former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and former Indiana Lt. Governor John Mutz, who served as president of the Lilly Endowment from 1989 to 1993 and, more recently, was chairman of the Lumina Foundation for Education.

These and other National School Choice Week partners comprise a powerful and well-funded interest group supporting charter schools, vouchers, and high-stakes school testing. When the young, yellow scarf–wearing kids from the Newark Prep Charter School rang the opening bell at the Exchange, they were looking at an array of well-heeled supporters of the movement.—Rick Cohen

  • Michael

    Good for them and thanks for sharing the lists of organizations. More school choice is needed!

  • Sharon Charters

    I think its a very sad day when a country which was founded on principles of democracy gives up on its public education system. Would be interesting to see what the public education system could be if all of these resources were put toward strengthening it rather than replacing it.