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This is part two of a three part series on Charter schools and Obama’s education policy. Click here for part one. As I worked on an investigation of charter schools my journey led me through a myriad of think tanks, front groups, advocacy organizations, and reform clubs and associations active in the controversy over charter […]

The Charter School Hype and How It’s Managed

by DANNY WEIL

This is part two of a three part series on Charter schools and Obama’s education policy. Click here for part one.

As I worked on an investigation of charter schools my journey led me through a myriad of think tanks, front groups, advocacy organizations, and reform clubs and associations active in the controversy over charter schools.  What I found particularly noticeable were literally hundreds of think tanks, many of which have been active in proposing charter school legislation for decades under the auspices of privatization.  I was struck by how large these think tanks were and had become, how well-funded they seemed to be and how they have the ability to create multi-issue networks that can respond on a wide range of issues in a relatively short period of time, a plus in the 24/7 news cycle world within which we live.  Many of the think tanks I visited in my research, though not all are also often the same think tanks that promote private vouchers, engage in anti-teacher rhetoric and encourage the privatization of education in general.  It is important that as consumers of a great deal of think tank commentary and information about charter schools we take the time to analyze just what a think tank is, why they exist and whose interests they serve.

Just what is a think tank?  According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy:

“A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors." (SourceWatch, 2009)

People for the American Way foundation’s (PFAW) library has files on over 800 of what they call “right-wing think tanks”, documenting their activities and providing information about their efforts to reshape society.  Many of the think tanks on PFAW’s list are the usual suspects found in charter school debates, school voucher debates and in fact, in all debates over the privatization of schools; think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, Black America’s Political Action Committee, Center for the Study of Popular Culture, The Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Hoover Institution and the list goes on and on as the reader can see from going to PFAW’s website.

In order to assure a healthy debate on issues such as charter schools and educational policy, it is necessary to publicly disclose situations wherein people of wealth and power are manipulating people with little wealth and power, and specifically how the use of language and imagery is used to accomplish these ends.  No where can this be seen better than in the debate over health care in the United States and the debate over education and charter schools is no different.

On April 1, 2009, while putting the finishing touches on the second edition of this charter school book, my attention was drawn to a news report in the New York Daily News by the journalist, Juan Gonzalez.  The article, entitled “Rev. Al Sharpton’s 500G link to education reform” detailed financial wheeling and dealing, skilled manipulation, personal gain, payoffs through third party intermediaries, front groups, cronyism and rigged public relations campaigns and events designed to influence and manipulate public sentiment on matters of educational policy, especially charter schools.

It should be no surprise that the Reverend Al Sharpton, the self-proclaimed civil rights leader, would be linked to personal financial controversies and political scandals over educational policies in New York City and elsewhere.  After all, the Reverend has been a lively and highly vocal figure in the public arena for decades, consistently camera-ready and often rubbing noses with those in power for the sake of personal aggrandizement and questionable financial gain.  Yet what should be of interest, if not somewhat surprising, is the exact nature and actual details of the incestuous relationships between so-called community leaders, Wall Street, politicians, conservative think tanks, and well-heeled financial donors, all described by reporter Gonzalez in the New York Daily News piece. The news report detailed secretive dealings and hidden financial payoffs involving Sharpton, the current New York City school Chancellor, Joel Klein, Harold Levy (former New York Chancellor of Education), Joe Williams a strong charter school advocate with his own ‘front group’, Wall Street financiers and the overnight creation of what has come to be known as ‘The Education Equality Project’ (EEP), an ‘educational reform group’ which both Joel Klein and the Reverend Sharpton founded back in 2008.  

The new organization, the Education Equality Project (EEP) which Chancellor of New York schools, Joel Klein and Reverend Sharpton set up in 2008 was supposedly put together in an attempt to launch some type of political campaign to erase the historically wide achievement gaps in education between white and black students, or at least that was the stated intent at the group’s announcement ceremony.  In fact, at its website, the Education Equality Project proclaims:

“The Education Equality Project (EEP) was founded by Reverend Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein as a national advocacy group focused on closing the achievement gap. Reverend Sharpton and Chancellor Klein are committed to bringing about real equity in public education. Their partnership and shared passion for change is the heart of our organization.” (Education Equality Project, 2009).

What the website fails to mention, however, and what Gonzalez was able to uncover, is that Sharpton’s own organization, The National Action Network, was immediately paid $500,000 for Sharpton’s consent to endorse, involve and partner himself with Joel Klein to launch the new Education Equality Project.  The cash no doubt was timely, and quite handy, for at the time of the payment Sharpton’s National Action Network had already agreed to pay the US government $1,000,000 dollars in back taxes and penalties as a result of a criminal investigation – a combination of the organizations failure to follow tax law as well as Sharpton’s own complicity in personal tax evasion.  However, the story gets even more bizarre (Gonzalez, 2009).

It appears that to avoid any publicity over the ‘pay for play’ payment that Sharpton received for his alliance with Joel Klein in erecting the new EEP, the $500,000 intended for Sharpton’s group was covertly funneled to Sharpton’s National Action Network by Plainfield Asset Management, LLC, a Connecticut hedge fund.  As the story progressed, I asked myself: ‘why was an asset management company chosen to make a payoff to Al Sharpton’s group?’  Perhaps the best motivation could be found in the fact that the former Chancellor of New York Schools, Harold Levy, is currently the managing director of Plainfield Asset Management and a registered lobbyist for the firm.  And just what does Plainfield Asset Management, LLC do?  The company works closely with Wall Street and other well positioned financiers investing capital here and abroad for maximization purposes.  At their website the corporation claims:

“The firm manages investment capital for institutions and high net worth individuals based in the United States and abroad.  Plainfield currently employs over 130 people among its three offices in Greenwich, Connecticut, Summit, New Jersey and London, England.  The firm’s accountants are PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.  The firm’s prime brokers are Goldman Sachs & Co., Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., JPMorgan Prime Services and Citigroup.  The firm’s principal lawyers are Seward & Kissel LLP.” (Plainfield Asset Management, 2009).

Plainfield Asset Management is also a major investor in gaming operations in New York City and the firm is currently pressing city and state officials to authorize two deals worth millions of dollars.  Harold Levy, former Chancellor of New York Schools and now a paid lobbyist, has targeted City Hall to privatize the city’s off-track betting operations as well as laboring assiduously in an attempt to win the bidding process for the state’s proposed development of Aqueduct Racetrack (Gonzalez, 2009).  The revolving door that allows politicians to become lobbyists once out of political office and then turn around and lobby the offices they once inhabited could not be better illustrated than Levy’s involvement in Plainfield Asset Management and his work on behalf of privatization efforts within the city of New York.  In light of all this, as I read on I still failed to understand the connection between Plainfield Management, LLC and the Reverend Al Sharpton, charter schools or privatization efforts in New York schools.

The complex relationships went from murky to clear when the money trail failed to stop with Plainfield Asset, LLC.  In a bizarre move that is still left unexplained, what the former New York City School Chancellor, Harold Levy did, was to pay the sum of $500,000 to yet another non-profit organization called Education Reform Now.  Education Reform Now then turned around and covertly paid the $500,000 to Sharpton’s group in several installments, knowing that the National Action Network is not a non-profit organization but a for-profit organization devoted to lobbying efforts; this now began to make more sense and rendered all the secretive and tricky financial payments appear both understandable and questionable on multiple levels.  To add a twist to the plot, Education Reform Now was then allowed, under IRS rules, to claim the ‘donation’ as a charitable tax deduction (Gonzalez, 2009). 

As I continued reading, questions immediately arose as to the status of the non-profit group, Education Reform Now, which served as the pass through or ‘front group’ for the $500,000 to Sharpton and his organization.  Who or what is ‘Education Reform Now’ and just what do they stand for and why the subterfuge in paying off Sharpton?  I went to their website where the group claims, among other things:

“Although we clearly favor a more rigorous, structured education as providing the greatest benefit for both the individual and society as a whole, the most important principle is freedom of choice. Parents must be free to choose the type and style of education they want for their children, organized and delivered in ways they find most suitable. One of the most pernicious of the mythologies of American public education is that some kind of wisdom resides in the bureaucratic tangles of government that makes it a fit dictator of the right and proper ways to educate children.” (Education Reform Now, 2009.)

Curious, I wanted to know more; like who actually runs Education Reform Now?  It didn’t take much digging to find the answer: it was and still is as of this writing, Joe Williams, the former New York Daily News reporter who also directs another educational think tank or front group, Democrats for Education Reform, a leading advocacy group for expanding charter schools throughout New York.  Now the whole complex web was starting to make sense and the story eventually came full circle when it was revealed that Joe Williams is also listed as the president and the treasurer of the same Education Equality Project (EEP) launched by Rev. Al Sharpton and Joel Klein in 2008, for which Sharpton’s National Action Network was handsomely paid.  

I decided to look up Democrats for Education Reform on the internet to see what exactly they do.  The group says it works to foster charter schools throughout New York and elsewhere.  They also claim, at their website that:

“We support policies which stimulate the creation of new, accountable public schools and which simultaneously close down failing schools
We support clearly-articulated national standards and expectations for core subject areas, while allowing states and local districts to determine how best to make sure that all students are reaching those standards.” (Democrats for Education Reform, 2009)

Although Joe Williams, head of the group, prefers to remain silent on the matter of the $500,000 payoff to Sharpton, current New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein not only acknowledges the payment but has been busy using his connections and the high-profile Sharpton partnership to raise more than $1.6 million dollars for EEP; no doubt the $500,000 investment in Sharpton’s glitzy media image, political influence and rhetorical support is paying off for the burgeoning New York city think tank and their ongoing efforts in New York to privatize education through charter contract schools, much in the same vein as we see in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New Orleans. 

From the point of view of those pushing policies intent on privatizing education in New York or advancing the notion of charter schools, an endorsement from the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton would of course be a blessing. Furthermore, with current mayoral control over New York City educational policies, an ongoing and bitter controversy within the city, having the ‘civil rights leader’ on the side of charter proponents would simply be another public relations coup for the neo-liberal reformers and give their think tanks more credibility in specific communities of color and therefore a larger base and more legitimacy for raising money.  Now they would have a ‘community spokesperson’ endorsing their privatization efforts, one very accessible to the corporate media, rhetorically savvy and himself a skilled manipulator.   Former New York City School’s Chancellor, Harold Levy partially confirmed the public relations angle when he was confronted with the circumstances regarding the private payment to Sharpton’s group. He simply equivocated at the time, responding:                                                                                                                

“Our goal was to increase public awareness of the problems of high poverty schools, particularly in the context of the presidential race.” (Gonzalez, 2009).

As I sat reading the article about the pay-off to the Reverend Al Sharpton for his support for the expansion of charter schools in New York, I could not help but recall the time when Jay P. Greene, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a leading spokesman for the privatization of every and all aspects of public schooling, appeared in 2006 on NPR, CNN and PBS to put forth his Hollywood thesis on ‘the drop out crisis’ in public schools (Greene, 2006). The interviews might as well have been staged ‘infomercials’ for his claims, for he was never challenged nor were any alternative points of view introduced to foster debate or cross swords with his key assumptions and claims.  In fact, Greene’s claims on the matter (the problem was due to lack of teacher incentives and systemic rot) were later inherited by Oprah Winfrey as a newsworthy story.  Winfrey then went on to cite Greene’s work as evidence on her TV show, which has an estimated 49 million viewers; yet nowhere did she present any alternative point of view to challenge Greene’s thesis, nor were there any challenges to Greene’s reasoning and claims (Kovacs, 2007). The whole thing was a staged exercise in propaganda and of course the public was never told that at the time of Greene’s interviews and press rounds that Greene had recently been appointed head of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville’s new Department of Education Reform.  The Department was created and then given $20,000,000 dollars from Arkansas’s other favorite son, Sam Walton and the Walton Family Foundation, a strong supporter and major contributor to charter schools.

 The Greene incident also drew parallels with television show 20/20, an ABC affiliate show (home to the Oprah Winfrey show) which in 2006 premiered John Stossel’s special attack on public education entitled, “Stupid in America”.  ABC aired the show not once but twice in 2006, without ever letting their viewers know that Stossel, when he is not engaged in media coverage for 20/20, is a close associate of the Cato Institute, a neo-liberal think tank that vociferously targets the termination of public education as one of its main goals.  Of course the audience was unaware of either the Cato Institute or Stossel’s ties to the think tank and there was no equal time given to any alternative points of view — nor were there any voices to challenge Stossel’s claims.

Final part tomorrow: The Future of Charter Schools.

DANNY WEIL is soon to publish "Charter Schools" , dissecting neo-liberalism’s plan for reforming education in America. He can be reached at WeilUnion@aol.com