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“These local, grassroots organizations have wonderful avenues into their communities and these grants will ensure that parents know about their options under the law,” says Education Secretary Rod Paige, $1.3 million check in hand. “There is no more powerful force in education reform than an informed parent with options."

Then Paige shakes the hands of the public education wrecking crew. The “grassroots organizations” he praised at an October grant-making event are inventions of rich, Hard Right foundations. The “education reform” Paige referred to is vouchers for private schools. And the $1.3 million federal subsidy pays for propaganda aimed at privatizing public education – part of $77.76 million diverted from the national school budget to bolster the illusion of a grass roots voucher “movement” that never before existed.

Printer friendly version of Right-Wing Vouchermobile cartoon

While the administration starves its own No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation and disrupts local school districts through non-funded mandates, voucher advocates are lavished with taxpayer dollars to discredit the very concept of public education. Bush’s Education Department, infested with rightwing ideologues, now serves as headquarters and paymaster for the public schools’ fiercest enemies.

“Over the past three years, more than $75 million in federal education funding has been diverted to just a handful of private, pro-voucher advocacy groups,” said People for the American Way (PFAW) in its mid-November report, “Funding a Movement: U.S. Department of Education Pours Millions into Groups Advocating School Vouchers and Education Privatization.” “This torrent of public funding appears to benefit and strengthen the advocacy infrastructures created by a network of right-wing foundations dedicated to the privatization of education.”

In plain language, the grants underwrite the salaries and expenses of a growing cadre of political operatives initially assembled by Republican fat cats in the late Nineties.  The Bradley and Walton Foundations (Wal-Mart) spent at least $2 million to create the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the African American wing of the phony voucher “movement.”  As reported in its inaugural issue (see “Fruit of the Poisoned Tree,” April 5, 2002), during its first year of existence the BAEO had “no life independent of Bradley and its wicked sister, the Walton Foundation.”  The new – and newly-rich – organization spent substantially more than $4 million on a voucher propaganda media blitz in 2001, based on figures compiled by PFAW

Deep Pockets Paige

Education Secretary Rod Paige is the BAEO’s new Sugar Daddy. During the past two years, the Bush administration has provided the Black front group $1.1 million to “actively support parent choice to empower families and increase education options for black children” – buzzwords for voucher advocacy at taxpayer expense.

Voucher front groups have popped up like mushrooms since Bush opened the public vaults. Joining the BAEO on Rod Paige’s payroll was the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options (CREO, in the Spanish acronym), commissioned to perform the same propaganda mission as the BAEO among Hispanics. CREO was invented in the summer of 2001, but didn’t hold an official meeting until October 2002 – just in time to get ready for the federal bonanza. CREO emerged from the same rightwing foundation matrix as BAEO, as did the Greater Education Opportunities (GEO) Foundation, recipient of Rod Paige’s third October 9 payoff for political services rendered.

As the People for the American Way report suggests, the feds are paying the infrastructure costs to grow the rich foundations’ phony “movement.”  “GEO will use the grant for parent outreach programs in Denver and Gary, Indiana,” the Education Department press release reads, “with a goal of increasing both parents' knowledge of the education options available under No Child Left Behind and the number of providers of supplemental academic services. The project features a ‘direct to the people’ media campaign, a toll-free 800 number and a website to provide additional access to NCLB information and state-specific services for families.” The release notes that GEO “has commitments from private foundations to provide additional funding for the project” – the same rightwing moneybags that have nurtured the GEO’s voucher mission since its formation in 1998.

It is impossible to distinguish between these groups’ Hard Right foundation-inspired political activities and the mandates of the federal grants. “[S]ince many of the organizations benefiting from Department of Education grants have a pro-voucher or education privatization ideology,” the PFAW report concludes, “there is no way of knowing whether federal tax dollars are in fact being used to implement NCLB or to further the ideological agenda of right-wing organizations.”

Lax rules for private schools

About half of the Right’s federal education windfall goes to groups scheming to overhaul the way teachers are certified. The administration’s transparent goal is to bypass state teacher boards and standards by creating a national clearinghouse for private school teacher certification. The intent is clear: the Bush men are determined to convert the U.S. Department of Education into the incubator of a private school system, funded by the public.

The PFAW makes the common sense case that “rather than spending more than $37 million on alternative certification for teachers, students would benefit from increased funding to programs dedicated to producing highly qualified, certified teachers in every classroom. These millions could be more effectively spent on improving the higher education, training, recruitment and development of new and tenured teachers.” However, the Right’s agenda is not to improve public education, but to lay the groundwork for subsidized privatization of learning in the United States.

In pursuit of this goal, the Black Alliance for Educational Options and its Hispanic counterpart, CREO are paid millions to spread the voucher-privatization gospel, while “in New York City, thousands of public school students eligible for free tutoring are not getting the supplemental services help they desperately need because of poor information dissemination,” according to PFAW.

Vouchers are key to GOP ambitions to create an “alternative” Black political leadership and to simultaneously sunder the ties between African Americans and organized labor, particularly teachers unions. Beginning with a bucket of gold and a gaggle of hungry hustlers, Republicans have in a few short years succeeded in buying space for vouchers in the Black and general public discourse. An illusory voucher “movement” has been manufactured, despite the fact that nobody Black ever marched for vouchers and suburban whites want no part of such schemes.

The dropout factory

Rod Paige ceremoniously escorts the privateers into the federal treasury, as his public relations team spins obfuscations to mask the crime. That’s Paige’s specialty. While superintendent of Houston’s schools (1994 – 2000), he presided over phony reductions in dropout rates, accomplished with sleight of hand. Fantastically high test scores were achieved in the 10th grade by holding “slow” learners in the ninth grade until they drifted away. As a former Houston assistant principal told the Washington Post, November 8, "The secret of doing well in the 10th-grade tests is not to let the problem kids get to the 10th grade."

Houston’s standardized testing “miracle,” the cruel game of smoke, mirrors and lies that cemented Paige’s partnership with then-Governor George Bush, has become a national scandal. “In the 2001-2002 school year,” the Post reported, “the size of the ninth-grade class in Texas was 1.6 times the size of the 12th-grade class. In Houston, there were 21/2 times as many ninth-graders as 12th-graders.” A New York Times investigation “raises serious doubts” about the academic gains reported among Houston students who manage to graduate. “About 13,600 eighth graders in 1998 dwindled to fewer than 8,000 high school graduates,” said the December 3 article. “Though 88 percent of Houston's student body is black and Latino, only a few hundred minority students leave high school ‘college ready,’ according to state figures.”

Academics and laypersons debate the merits of the Texas model that became the template for No Child Left Behind. But the Bush men and their foundation-based thinkers cannot be expected to engage in an honest discussion of what’s best for public education in America. They are busy destroying the institution from within.

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