Seed Money for Conservatives

Department of Ed funds flow to privatizers and voucher supporters

By Barbara Miner

illustration: David McLimans

You don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to argue that the Bush Administration’s long-term education agenda is the privatization of our public school system. Just look at the facts and follow the money.

Through grants, job appointments, policy initiatives, and public pronouncements, the Bush Administration has made clear its support for vouchers and other privatization proposals.

Antipathy toward public schools is so deep that it wasn’t surprising that Education Secretary Rod Paige called the National Education Association a “terrorist organization” in February. The only surprise is that he had the audacity (or, some might say, the stupidity) to say so publicly.

Consider these facts:

  • Grants. From 2001 to 2003, the Department of Education funneled almost $78 million under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to conservative groups dedicated to ensuring that public tax dollars go to private, for-profit and/or religious schools.
  • Appointments. Department of Education officials overseeing NCLB, Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok and Deputy Undersecretary Nina Shokraii Rees, are staunch conservatives with a long history of involvement in unabashedly pro-privatization organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform.
  • Policy. The Bush Administration’s proposed fiscal 2005 budget calls for the smallest education spending in nine years-underfunding NCLB by billions of dollars and eliminating monies for 38 education programs such as dropout prevention. At the same time, however, Republicans successfully rammed through a $50 million national “experiment” in vouchers in Washington, D.C., diverting public dollars to private schools.
  • Pronouncements. In both conservative and mainstream media, Department of Education officials have admitted they favor privatization. This March, for instance, NOW with Bill Moyers questioned Deputy Secretary Hickok about the department using its grants as “seed money, really, for a conservative movement that would transform public schools and do so beyond public control.” Hickok — a former staffer for the Heritage Foundation, an advocate for vouchers and privatization during his six years as education secretary in Pennsylvania, and now the man in charge of NCLB — didn’t even try to sidestep the question.

    “We believe in choice,” Hickok said. “That should come as no surprise. Every administration pushes their priorities.”

As Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said in describing the conservative movement’s ties with the Bush Administration: “There isn’t an us and them with this administration. They is us. We is them.”

Norquist is one of the more rabid right-wingers hanging around the Bush Administration. His Americans for Tax Reform, founded during the Reagan Administration, has been in the forefront of GOP tax initiatives favoring the wealthy while squeezing money for social services. He is particularly blunt when describing his aversion to public institutions. As he told National Public Radio in a May 25, 2001, interview, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Shokraii Rees, meanwhile, remains deeply rooted in conservative ideology and partisanship. She heads up the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which coordinates the “choice” provisions of NCLB. Her previous jobs include Republican congressional aide, outreach director at the pro-voucher Institute for Justice, policy analyst at Americans for Tax Reform and the Heritage Foundation, and education advisor with the Bush presidential campaign and transition team.

Money to Conservatives

Nowhere is the Bush Administration’s determination to push privatization clearer than in grants approved by the Department of Education.

Congressional opposition forced the administration to backtrack from its original plans to include vouchers for private schools in its landmark NCLB legislation. But that has not stopped the department from using discretionary monies to promote vouchers. (Mindful that the public distrusts vouchers and has consistently voted them down in statewide referenda, conservatives use code words such as “choice” and “educational options.” Such code words are prominent in the names of conservative groups springing up to promote vouchers.)

From 2001 to 2003, the Department of Education granted $77.76 million to a handful of right-wing groups dedicated to privatization, according to People for the American Way, which released a report on the grants last November. The Department of Education has given money to an interlocking network of pro-voucher organizations-from the Education Leaders Council co-founded by Deputy Secretary Hickok; to the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO); to the for-profit “virtual school” company K12, founded by William Bennett. Bennett’s many right-wing credentials include his stints as Drug Czar and Secretary of Education in former Republican administrations. (His stretch as Drug Czar didn’t immunize him from becoming addicted to gambling, however, a revelation that thankfully has caused Bennett to reduce his public role as unofficial scold and moralizer.)

Controversy has been particularly intense around grants funding conservative groups to inform parents of their options under NCLB-mandated “supplemental” tutoring services for children in so-called failing schools. It’s not just the money, but how the grants can be used to promote discontent among poor families about the problems of public schools. At the same time the NCLB does little to fix the problems. In fact, the NCLB puts so-called failing schools in a Catch 22. Need more money to do a better job? Sorry, instead we’ll take money from you.

Under NCLB, for example, so-called failing schools must allow a portion of their Title I money to be used to pay for supplemental tutoring services before or after school. In other words, schools that are clearly in need of resources to do a better job are instead forced to use Title I money to pay for tutoring services, often by for-profit companies, that are disconnected from the problems a child is facing during the school day.

A report released by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University in February summarized some of the inherent problems with the NCLB provisions mandating supplemental tutoring services. These requirements are new and “have no precedent in prior federal legislation,” according to the Project. (Those providing the services include non-profit, for-profit and faith-based organizations. Department of Education figures show that 63 percent of the groups providing supplemental services are private companies such as Sylvan Education Solutions or more obscure Internet-based companies such as EduCare of EdSolution.)

According to the Civil Rights Project, problems with the supplemental service provisions include:

  • The services cause most severe disruption in districts with large numbers of poor and minority students, yet with “little empirical evidence” that the services are effective;
  • The services cause “enormous administrative burdens” in districts but provide no additional resources to meet the responsibilities;
  • The services are not well coordinated with the classroom curriculum and have few if any measures to ensure accountability.

“Combined with the loss of resources, it is unclear how this strategy [of supplemental services] will improve low performing, disadvantaged schools,” the report concluded.

Blatantly Promoting ‘Choice’

The grants to promote “supplemental services” have deepened suspicions that, despite the rhetoric, the NCLB is designed to discredit public schools as abject and irredeemable failures and to increase public pressure for vouchers for private and religious schools as an alternative.

In defending the initial $600,000 grant to the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) in October 2002, Hickok said in a Department of Education press release, “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.” Hickok also described the department’s partnership with BAEO as “a perfect match.” In 2003, BAEO received a $500,000 grant to continue its outreach.

BAEO was founded with financing by pro-voucher foundations in 2000 by Howard Fuller, whose conservative credentials include advising George W. Bush during his first presidential campaign. The grants are being used to influence parents in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. (For detailed information on the origins and conservative connections of BAEO, see the July 2003 report by People for the American Way, “Community Voice or Captive of the Right: The Black Alliance for Educational Options.”)

According to People for the American Way, two other groups receive federal tax dollars to reach out to and organize parents about NCLB options. They are:

  • The Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, receiving $1.3 million to organize parents in Denver and Gary, Ind., and to establish community technology centers and improve teacher quality. The group was started in 1998 by Kevin Teasley, whose voucher roots go back to a failed 1993 referendum in California to establish universal vouchers. The foundation is based in Indianapolis and has strong ties to J. Patrick Rooney of the Golden Rule Insurance Company, who started the country’s first privately funded voucher program in Indianapolis as a way to organize support for publicly funded vouchers. Rooney was one of the first to articulate the strategy of wrapping vouchers in the mantle of concern for poor children, telling a 1992 conference, “The way we always position it is, we’re trying to help the children. Sure it is inherently a criticism of the public school system, but we don’t define it that way.”
  • The Hispanic Council for Reform

and Educational Options, receiving $500,000 to reach out to parents in Austin and San Antonio, Texas; Miami; and Camden, N.J. The council, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., has a softer ideological edge than BAEO but equally strong ties to the conservative movement, particularly Texas-based Republicans. It received the Department of Education grant in 2003 even though the organization had absolutely no track record of doing anything. The council did not receive its start-up monies until late November 2002 and did not have a staff and office until 2003. Its official launching wasn’t until mid-October 2003, a few days before it received the Department of Education grant.

Money for Chaos

In addition, the Department of Education granted $960,147 in 2003 to the Center for Education Reform to establish Parent Information and Resource Centers providing information on NCLB. Jeanne Allen, a former staffer with the Heritage Foundation and with Bennett when he was Secretary of Education under President Reagan, founded the center. At a black-tie event last November marking the group’s 10th anniversary, Allen received “gushing praise,” as Education Week put it, from dignitaries such as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wal-Mart heir John Walton. Secretary of Education Paige called her “an American hero.”

Allen’s abrasive style and bulldog mentality have led to friction with some fellow conservatives, but she has nonetheless maintained the support of influential voucher financiers such as Walton, whose Walton Family Foundation gave the center a $3 million, three-year grant in 2002.

Allen seems acutely aware of how NCLB’s unrealistic, unwieldy, and unfunded mandates will lead to growing frustration among parents and families caught in an ever-more-complicated web of bureaucracy and constant testing and sanctions.

NCLB will lead to “creative chaos,” Allen gleefully predicted in the Nov. 27, 2002, New York Times. Out of that chaos, pro-voucher groups are poised to offer what Allen called “more supply”-voucher-funded private schools.

As Fuller said in a 2002 interview with the National Governor’s Association, “Hopefully, in years to come the [NCLB] law will be amended to allow families to choose private schools as well as public schools.”

If that day comes, no one should be surprised. Voucher supporters both within and alongside the Bush Administration have never tried to hide their disdain for public education and their fondness for funneling public dollars into private schools and for-profit companies.

Barbara Miner ( is a freelance writer and former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.

Summer 2004