Privatizers’ Trojan Horse

Bush’s NCLB law funnels money to for-profits, churches, voucher supporters.

By Barbara Miner

Have I got a deal for you!

Worried about these tough economic times? There’s more than a billion dollars of Uncle Sam’s money to be made tutoring poor kids.

No experience? No problem.

What’s that, you’re an ordained minister? You worry too much. You can collect Uncle Sam’s cash without ever taking off your collar.

Did I hear you right, you’re based in the Virgin Islands? No sweat. If you’re hooked up to the Internet, anything’s possible.

Could you repeat that? You care more about vouchers than part-time tutoring? Hey, this is just the ground floor. Be patient.

You won’t read the above in any Department of Education brochure. But if you have experience in looking beyond phonics and actually reading for comprehension, that’s what’s being promoted.

At issue are the “supplemental services” provisions of last year’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which the Bush administration, in its fondness for compassionate-sounding blather, refers to as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Under the law, low-income families from schools in their second year of “needing improvement” are eligible for before- or after-school services in reading, language arts, and math. The money to pay for the services will be taken out of Title I dollars that would otherwise go to the public schools to fund improvement.

Schools that are “in need of improvement,” which could be based on one class failing in one tested subject area, will not be allowed to provide supplemental services to their own students. And if a district is marked as “failing” — which, given the law’s label-happy provisions is a distinct possibility in urban areas across the country — it can’t provide supplemental services either.

Lots of other folks are lining up to get a piece of the action: colleges, community groups, non-failing school districts. But guess who else hopes to cash in on the federal dollars? Computer-based tutoring companies and churches.


Go to the No Child Left Behind website (, follow your Internet nose and you’ll find the supplemental services providers approved by your state. You’ll be surprised how many are based thousands of miles away.

Computer-based companies — with catchy marketing names such as EdSolution, EduCare, or SMARTTHINKING — have jumped into “supplemental services” with all the power their megaprocessors can deliver. Many of them, unlike reality-restricted community groups that serve a specific geographic area, are statewide providers. And they promise the latest in technological “interaction.” Which means you get to talk to your computer.

There’s one problem with some of the cyber-based companies, however. You need an up-to-date computer. Lightspan, headquartered in San Diego, has been particularly creative in resolving this dilemma. Its boasts that its “interactive standards-based program … runs on the PlayStation PS-1 console, so it can go home with every student, where it helps increase family involvement.”

Then there are the Huntington and Sylvan learning centers of the world, which are expanding beyond their suburban base into the central city. Why rely on private tuition when there’s billions in public dollars? If you’ve got some extra cash (no education degree required), you might consider starting a Huntington or Sylvan franchise — check out their websites for more information.


To truly understand the direction of “supplemental services” you have to look at Bush’s faith-based initiative.

Bush’s faith-based rhetoric masks what is a long-standing conservative goal of funneling public tax dollars to churches — in particular to fundamentalist churches looking for payback for supporting Bush and African-American churches that can be used to bolster Bush’s dismal eight percent vote among African Americans in the 2000 elections.

Two recent events underscore Bush’s commitment to battering down the separation between church and state. First, in December he issued an executive order allowing churches to discriminate within government-funded programs and hire only members of their religion. Second, in January he proposed that churches receive government funding to cover construction costs not directly related to worship or proselytizing — in other words for basement cafeterias and tutoring centers. (It is unclear where bathrooms will fit in this separation; perhaps churches will have to post a sign, “No praying while peeing.”)

The White House’s “Guidance to Faith-Based and Community Organizations on Partnering with the Federal Government” explicitly lays out how churches can get public dollars without jeopardizing church/state separation.

First, the guide cautions churches not to fret the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition against churches using tax dollars for “inherently religious activities.” The guide says that’s “just a phrase that has been used by the courts.”

Second, go through the motions of pretending to separate religious and non-religious activities. Worship, religious instruction, or proselytization must be separate “in time or location” [emphasis added] from government-funded social services. In other words, if you provide tutoring, make sure you formally end math class before you begin Bible study.

Third, the guide notes that federal funds can pay the salary of a “rabbi, priest, imam, or preacher,” so long as the funds are for non-religious services. Translation: If the minister spends two hours tutoring, that’s on the government’s dime. If he tells a child to wait until after class for 10 minutes of religious counseling, the church pays for those 10 minutes.

Few expect such a dichotomy to work. Trying to pretend a minister is not a minister, even when on church property fulfilling a religious function such as ministering to the poor, is “like trying to take the sugar out of cupcakes,” notes Billy Terry of the National Congress for Community Economic Development.


And then there’s vouchers for private schools.

Bush was unsuccessful in making vouchers an outright program under the ESEA. But that’s the direction conservatives are headed.

Krista Kafer, senior education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in a 2003 education background brief that “if it becomes clear that there is insufficient will or capacity to give students meaningful public school choices, the administration should insist that Congress pass legislation to enable students to receive Title I vouchers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to use for tuition at a private school of choice.”

Interestingly, the Department of Education granted $600,000 to the ardently pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) last fall to publicize the ESEA’s choice provisions, which include not only supplemental services but the right to transfer out of a failing school. The money will pay for direct-mail, television, newspaper, and radio ads, and “door-to-door campaigning” in four cities — Milwaukee, Detroit, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickock, in announcing the grant, noted: “We want to change the conversation about parental choice by positively influencing individuals who are resisting parental choice options and get them to reconsider their outlook.”

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, questioned the propriety of granting tax dollars to a group that was founded explicitly to push for vouchers. “What accountability is built into this grant to ensure BAEO will not use federal money to promote private school vouchers?” he asked.

While BAEO portrays itself as a grassroots organization based in the Black community, its financial backers overwhelmingly have been conservative, white-dominated foundations with a pro-voucher agenda. They have paid well for BAEO’s willingness to put a Black face on the voucher movement.

According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, BAEO was the second biggest spender in 2001 in the Washington, D.C., area for print and television issue-advocacy advertising. BAEO spent $4.3 million on advertising for vouchers, only slightly less than Americans for Balanced Energy Choices. The NEA, in contrast, spent $1.7 million.

Howard Fuller, founder and chairman of the board of BAEO, has called for expanding the federal law to include vouchers. “One problem with the choice provisions of NCLB is the fact that choices are restricted to public schools,” he said in a September interview with the National Governor’s Association. “Hopefully, in years to come the law will be amended to allow families to choose private schools as well as public schools.”

It’s not hard to predict how the ESEA can be used to push for vouchers. First, you have groups like BAEO encouraging parents to transfer out of socalled failing schools. And then the district can’t provide enough seats in high-achieving schools. (Of course, the law was designed so that the suburban districts have absolutely no incentive to accept even a token number of urban students, thus perpetuating the racial and socioeconomic segregation of schools.) And then voucher forces will say, why not open up the program to private schools? They have plenty of room.

Then it’s “creative chaos,” Jeanne Allen, president of the provoucher Center for Education Reform, gleefully predicts. And out of that chaos, Allen hopes, vouchers will emerge victorious.

And who said vouchers were dead under the ESEA?

Barbara Miner is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.

Spring 2003