Yves here. This story contains an impressive amount of gumshoe work on the funding of a major school privatization campaigner and therefore the hidden hands behind her effort. It’s also a good, if sobering example of how influence-pedddling works in modern America.
By Kali Holloway, a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet. Originally published at Alternet
Perhaps guided by the old adage that you have to spend money to make money, the champions of education “reform” have poured billions into the effort to privatize and profit from America’s schools. Those funds are used on multiple fronts: launching charter schools, underwriting the political campaigns of politicians, and of course, investing in media to propagate the free-market privatization vision. Among the most visible properties in this effort is the Seventy Four, the well-funded, power broker-backed education news website run by former journalist-turned-school privatization activist Campbell Brown. Launched last year, the site’s reported $4 million annual budget comes from a collective of school privatization’s big hitters: The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Jonathan Sackler (of OxyContin producer Purdue Pharma) and the Walton Family Foundation.
Philanthropy of this sort has an endgame—the privatization of America’s public schools—and media manipulation is an essential part of a winning strategy. Brown, leveraging her longstanding image as a truth-seeking newsperson in service of her new brand as an earnest education reformer, has been indispensable to this effort. As the head of the Seventy Four, under the guise of providing hard-hitting education news, she leads one of the key media efforts to push the anti-union, pro-privatization message of the charterization movement, all while keeping its billionaire backers out of the picture and off the front page.
Among those betting on Brown’s brand, the Walton Foundation has been notoriously dogged in its efforts. Run by the family behind Walmart, the foundation has already spent $1 billion over the last 20 years on its education vision and recently committed an additional billion to bolster charter development. Thanks to their bottomless coffers, privatization pushers like Walton not only fund media entities that openly promote their agenda, but contribute to those that don’t seem to carry water for charter marketers at all. According to Walton’s most recent annual report, the foundation provides money to “shape public policy” to a list of grantees that includes the Atlantic Monthly Group, the New York Times and National Public Radio. The art of detecting if and how Walton money affects the editorial tone of these entities is at best imprecise. But for traditional public education defenders, it’s a relationship that merits interrogation.
The billionaires and hedge fund millionaires heavily investing in the charter industry, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Eli Broad and beyond, are engaged in a multi-pronged strategy to take over public schools while building an editorial army of proselytizers to spread the gospel of privatization. Like her partners in the site, Brown has spent years challenging tenure rules, attacking teachers unions and pushing for market-driven education. Unlike her partners, who quietly funnel money into corporate education reform from the shadows, Brown has been both vocal and visible in her advocacy. Though she’s not the only one, she has become the primary media mouthpiece for the school privatization agenda.
How Did Brown Go From jJournalist to One of the Loudest Voices for Education “Reform”?
Two years after leaving television news in 2010, Brown penned a controversial op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she accused teachers unions of “resisting almost any change aimed at improving our public schools,” and suggested that the New York City teachers union helps sexual predators remain in the classroom. Brown wrote that union officials, whom she paints as almost cartoonishly nefarious, have created an arbitration process rigged to favor the guilty. Citing three cases over two school years in which wholly independent arbitrators made poor calls, Brown argued that “New York City’s schools chancellor and districts statewide must have the power to fire sexual predators.” In the end, she seemed to suggest the arbitration process should be scrapped altogether.
Brown left a lot out of the discussion to make her case stand. For starters, every teacher deserves due process, which unions, the clear target of much of Brown’s ire, fought hard for them to obtain. She ignores the fact that the union contract—an agreement made between the union and the schools chancellor—already includes a zero-tolerance policy for educators found guilty of sexual misconduct. As American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten pointed out to Brown via Twitter, the union only defends teachers against allegations that are found to be false. Arbitrators, it cannot be stressed enough, are independent, and are selected jointly by the union and the New York City Department of Education, both of which can call for removal should they see fit.
Andy Kroll, writing in Mother Jones, notes that while Brown makes it seem as if the union pulls the strings in these cases, there’s little about the process it controls. “New York state law…mandates that any teacher convicted of a sex crime be automatically fired. It is the law, not union contracts, that requires that an independent arbitrator hear and mete out punishment in cases of sexual misconduct that fall outside criminal law. The quickest route to changing that policy may be lobbying lawmakers in Albany, not hammering teachers and their unions.”
There was one more item Brown neglected to mention in her piece, a bit of information that drew the most attention of all. Her husband, Dan Senor, was at the time an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a board member of StudentsFirst. The latter group, founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, has been on the frontlines of the school privatization fight against teachers unions and in favor of charterization. Media Matters pointed out that Brown’s failure to disclose that information seemed odd, not only because she is a seasoned journalist, but because she had pointed out her connection in a previous editorial she’d written that was critical of Barack Obama.
Brown responded with a piece in Slate in which she suggested she was just learning the ropes about this whole journalism thing. “I never thought I was harboring a dark secret. But if you live in the overlapping world of politics and media, as I am learning, anything less than full transparency can potentially do you in.” As Kroll notes, Brown directed a healthy dose of snark at the teachers union, writing, “Here I failed to disclose because I stupidly did not connect the teachers’ unions’ opposition to charter schools to their support for a system that protects teachers who engage in sexual misconduct. My sincerest apologies to the teachers unions for not fully appreciating how wrong they are on not one but two issues. As you may have guessed, I am not feeling very apologetic.”
Pressing on in her mission, Brown founded and funded a “watchdog group” called the Parents Transparency Project, which in 2013 went so far as to create a $100,000 television ad challenging New York City mayoral candidates to “stand up to the teachers unions.” The commercial essentially accused the union of allowing 128 teachers accused of sexual misconduct to remain in the classroom without facing repercussions. But as the Washington Post noted, those allegations were misleading.
While some teachers accused of misconduct had remained on the job, the ad distorted several aspects of the emotional issue. One is that 33 of them had been fired. The balance were either fined, suspended or transferred for minor, non-criminal complaints. The other was the ad’s implication that the city’s main teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, had impeded the disciplinary process. As the union pointed out, however, under state law, non-criminal complaints against teachers are handled by independent arbitrators. Neither the union nor the mayor had a say in such cases.
The ad had little impact on the mayoral race, but Brown was undeterred. In late 2013, she established the Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ), a nonprofit singularly dedicated to filing lawsuits to overturn New York’s tenure laws. This was a broader strike on teachers and teachers unions, one which relied on the erroneous idea that student failure could largely be chalked up to educators who remain in the system too long yet fail to do their jobs. Brown’s supporters in this campaign were precisely who you might expect. Though getting her to admit it would prove to be difficult.
Who Else Is Backing Brown’s Website and Advocacy Groups?
Stay with me here, because this can get a little confusing.
In 2014, Brown appeared on The Colbert Report to promote the Partnership for Educational Justice, which had just filed a lawsuit to strike down teacher tenure laws in New York State. The suit was modeled on a California case in which a court ruled teacher job protection laws in the state were unconstitutional. (The case is currently being appealed.) Brown cited a number of “facts” in opposition to teacher tenure that have already been refuted by research. Then, when asked by the Comedy Central host where her organization’s money comes from, Brown deflected the question twice, then flat out refused to answer.
“I’m not going to reveal who the donors are,” Brown stated, because people opposed to her efforts “are also going to go after people who are funding this.”
Despite heading up an organization that claims its mission is to “bring transparency” to education policy, Brown seemed to have decided that same transparency wasn’t required on her part. Oddly, the trusted newsperson-cum-determined privatization proponent steadfastly refused to live up to the principles that ostensibly define both.
Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll had by then already reported that Brown’s group had worked with Tusk Strategies, the same consulting firm that previously worked with StudentsFirst, the Michelle Rhee organization where Brown’s husband is a boardmember. Brown’s organization also worked with a Republican consulting firm, Revolution Agency, whose partners, “include Mike Murphy, a well-known pundit and former Romney strategist; Mark Dion, former chief of staff to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.); and Evan Kozlow, former deputy director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.” (“The domain name for Parents Transparency Project’s website was registered by two Revolution employees: Jeff Bechdel, Mitt Romney’s former Florida spokesman, and Matt Leonardo, who describes himself as ‘happily in self-imposed exile from advising Republican candidates.'”)
Based on IRS filings, Politico determined that between December 2013 and November 2014, Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice raised $3 million. A chunk of those funds, $300,000, was paid to the Incite Agency, a public relations firm founded by former Obama administration press secretary Robert Gibbs and campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. Perhaps this is what Brown means when she says her work is nonpartisan: her efforts are supported by numerous entities pushing to privatize our schools across party lines.
It’s worth noting that Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice is also working with Mercury Public Affairs; Stefan Friedman, a partner in the company, sits on the Partnership for Educational Justice’s board. Mercury’s clients include Alliance Charter Schools in Los Angeles, which a court recently ordered to cease its anti-union organizing efforts. Mercury also counts among its clients Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan (who presumably hired it to handle spin as he attempts to retain political power despite allowing thousands to be poisoned by lead-tainted water).
Another former client of Mercury? Walmart, which fired the agency after one of its staffers pretended to be a reporter to infiltrate a press conference by a pro-labor group. United Teachers Los Angeles union also notes that Mercury currently handles PR for Great Public Schools Now, an initiative backed by billionaire Eli Broad and the Waltons to privatize a significant portion of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Despite her initial refusal to name donor sources, the Walton Family Foundation’s 2014 Annual Report also lists Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice as a grantee, one given the task of “shap[ing] public policy.” (A 2015 New York Magazine interview with Brown also identifies the Broad family as a contributor.) That’s the same Walton Family Foundation that, as previously noted, has invested in Campbell Brown’s education news website the Seventy Four. An investigation by Edushyster also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Mercury handles PR for the Seventy Four.
There are myriad connections between Brown and the pro-charter, anti-union lobby. It’s just a matter of unraveling them.
Beyond Brown: Who’s Funding Your Education Media?
It’s not just Brown, though. A look at the back end of education media reveals plenty of outlets that are funded by those seeking to displace public schools in favor of a market-driven system. Media Bullpen, published by Walton grantee Center for Education Reform, bills itself as an education “media watchdog,” and receives funds from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton family and the Gates Foundation. (The Columbia Journalism Review notes a managing editor job ad explicitly sought a “passionate advocate for education reform.”) Education Post, “a nonprofit, nonpartisan communications organization,” launched with promises to promote “an honest and civil [education] conversation,” as well as $12 million in startup funds provided in part by “the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies [and] the Walton Family Foundation.” (Per the Washington Post, the site’s three areas of focus are “K-12 academic standards, high-quality charter schools and how best to hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students,” the Holy Trinity of education reform.) Brown’s Seventy-Four, it turns out, is just another holding in the portfolio of the education reform lobby.
Not every group is so nakedly apparent in its goals. Well-respected education blogs including Chalkbeat and Education Week both receive funds from the Walton Family Foundation (in the latter case, specifically for “coverage of school choice and parent-empowerment issues,” a long-winded way of saying pro-charter pieces.) The 3,000-strong Education Writers Association receives money from Gates and Walton, while the L.A. Times—which maintains that it retains editorial control—receives funds from Broad for its Education Matters Digital initiative. As mentioned above, the Walton foundation provides money to an unexpected list of progressive entities. As Inside Philanthropy puts it “[i]t’s heartening to see philanthropy coming to the rescue of journalism. But the trend is also problematic…Nowhere is the influence of private money over public life more pronounced than in K-12 education and yet, as it turns out, the specialized media most likely to raise questions about the trend are themselves supported by foundations.”
We haven’t even gotten to various other media campaigns guided by the invisible hand of school privatizers and built on a foundation of billionaire corporate reform stacks. Gates and Broad both underwrote the multi-year “Education Nation” broadcasting initiative, which brought education-focused programming to NBC staples “such as ‘Nightly News’ and ‘Today’ and on the MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo TV network.” The Walton Family Foundation reportedly provided the cash for Chicago Public Schools to purchase ad space for videos to spin the closures of 50 traditional public school even as charters increased in the city.
Walton was also among the funders for ads pillorying New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after he rejected three charter proposals from Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies charter chain. (Education blogger Diane Ravitch writes that the commercials “showed the faces of adorable children, all of them being kicked out of ‘their’ school by a vengeful mayor who hates charter schools.”) From union-bashing, teacher-blaming film Waiting For Superman (outreach and engagement funds by Walton; additional supporting monies from a host of school privatizers) to its brethren Won’t Back Down (Walton and other players factor in here, too), the level of media infiltration stunning.
The Seventy Four and the Takeover of America’s Schools
“Our public education system is in crisis” warns the Seventy Four in its mission statement, echoing the refrain of billionaire school privatizers over the last decade plus. It’s evidence that Brown’s latest venture is dedicated to pushing what has become known as the “awfulizing narrative” that America’s schools are broken beyond repair; that teachers, unions and locally elected school boards are to blame; and that the only way to fix our education problem is by dumping one of America’s oldest democratic institutions—public schools—in favor of a market-driven system.
After Brown announced the Seventy Four was coming and the site’s backers were named, numerous education watchers wondered aloud whether an education news website underwritten by a collective that has poured billions into school privatization would even attempt to offer impartial journalism.
“It is always wise to know who is funding something,” John F. Jennings, founder of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, told the Washington Post. “If the ‘new reformers’ are funding [Brown’s] site, and there is no balance of funding from others, I believe the site will be suspect. Sorry, but as they used to say, ‘Money makes the world go ’round,’ and in this instance it may wobble in the direction that the new reformers like. I presume [the site has] integrity, but questions will always be asked about how the topics were picked [and] presented.”
In response to the buzz of questions about potential bias in the Seventy Four’s reporting, Brown posted an open letter of sorts to the site.
“I have learned that not every story has two sides,” the former reporter wrote. “[I]s The Seventy Four journalism or advocacy? For 74 million reasons, we are both.”
This vague admission that the Seventy Four would be taking a side came as no surprise to those who have watched Brown’s trajectory over recent years. And while it hews as close to transparency as can realistically be expected from Brown, it still remains a good distance from full disclosure.
The former anchor speaks openly and often in favor of charter schools. She once called herself a “soldier in Eva’s army,” a reference to Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools. (The chain has been criticized for putting so much pressure on children that they wet themselves during testing, and video recently surfaced of a teacher—whom Moskowitz has since defended—harshly berating a first-grader for a math mistake.) Last year, Brown loudly applauded UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s call “for an end to the country’s traditional public school system, endorsing instead a nationwide conversion to academies, which are essentially the British equivalent of charter schools.” The Seventy Four rarely covers charter missteps, but Brown dedicated an entire article to the demise of three New York City unionized charters, somehow surmising that the problem lies with teachers unions and not charters themselves.
“Ms. Brown [has] transformed into the most recognizable face of the combustible school-reform fight,” a New York Times article declared in 2012, back when Brown was still rising to become the full-throated public voice of education reform. Since then, she has become a key media operative in the billionaire-backed effort to push the idea of school privatization. In many ways, thanks to two decades in television and an image as a truth-seeking reporter, it’s a role she was made for.
The Real Cost to Taxpayers, Parents, Students and Traditional Public Schools
It is not incidental that those who fund Brown’s groups and projects are the same figures who’ve been instrumental in charterizing school districts across the country. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are now 3 million children enrolled in charter schools across 42 states and the District of Columbia. Since 1992, by its own estimation, Brown backer the Walton Family Foundation has “supported a quarter of the 6,700 charter schools created in the United States.” A critical element of the charter campaign lies in convincing Americans that free-market “school choice” is the only route to good schools, and threading that narrative into the mainstream education conversation has helped contribute to the wildfire spread of charters in places like Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. But charter expansion has also had a downside for the school privatization movement, in the form of increased scrutiny on charter performance and delivery on promises made.
In study after study, researchers have determined that, on average, charters don’t outperform traditional public schools, and not infrequently fare worse. They accept public funds, but in many cases give day-to-day oversight to private, for-profit organizations. They’re exempt from many regulations that govern traditional public schools, which, depending on the state, can include “‘minimum standards’ covering such things as training and qualifications of personnel; public disclosure of instructional materials, equipment, and facilities; organization, administration, and supervision of schools; and ‘reporting requirements.’”
This ability to opt out of the very rules that make public education accessible to all helps further contribute to issues that already plague our schools, such as racial segregation and the achievement gap between white and minority students. A recent Mother Jones piece on the “no excuses” philosophy—the belief by some charter officials “that the smallest infraction…is to be met with an immediate consequence”—notes that punitive measures disproportionately target black children and students with disabilities. And perhaps unsurprisingly, widespread deregulation has led to charges of corruption at charter institutions around the country.
“[The] model requires firing all the teachers, no matter their performance, allowing them to reapply for a job, and replacing many of them with inexperienced [Teach For America] recruits,” Ravitch told In These Times, speaking to the charterization of New Orleans schools. “That model requires wiping out public schools and replacing them with privately managed schools that set their own standards for admission, discipline, expulsion, and are financially opaque. These heavy-handed tactics require a suspension of democracy that would not be tolerated in a white suburb, but can be done to powerless urban districts where the children are black and Hispanic.”
Despite the light now being cast on school privatization negatives, the Walton Family Foundation and other wealthy privatization advocates continue to promote and support charter schools instead of refocusing most of their giving on the nation’s perpetually underfunded public schools. It’s a strategy that has been questioned by numerous education experts.
“What returns have we all seen as a society?” asks Kim Anderson of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, speaking to the Associated Press. “A billion dollars would provide a tremendous amount of services to a number of school districts around the country. Eyeglasses. Hearing exams. It is not as though we have things in the [traditional] public school systems that don’t need to be improved.”
In fact, school privatizers have relentlessly promoted the idea that putting more money into traditional public schools is actually a bad idea. Yet if you doubt that the education fight is fundamentally about money, consider that Walton recently held a symposium to help hedge funders and other wealthy investors learn how best to get a crack at the $500 billion spent each year on K-12 public education. (Organizers expressly billed the event as a way for attendees to “[l]earn and understand the value of investing in charter schools and best practices for assessing their credit.”) The Nation quotes a presenter at the conference, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, saying it’s “not rocket science” that we shouldn’t put any more money into our public schools. The article goes on to note that New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, echoed this idea when discussing school spending in his State of the Union address last January.
“Why do Cuomo and these hedge funders say money doesn’t matter?” Zakiyah Ansari, a parent who also works with the Alliance for Quality Education, asked the Nation. “I’m sure it matters in Scarsdale. I’m sure it matters where the Waltons send their kids. They don’t send their kids to schools with overcrowded classrooms, over-testing, no art, no music, no sports programs, etc. Does money only ‘not matter’ when it comes to black and brown kids?”
Instead of more money for schools, school privatizers argue, “school choice” is the solution to underperforming schools. Vouchers and charters, they suggest, are the kids’ best hope. Campbell Brown, who like so many in the top-down world of corporate education reform sends her own children to private school, suggests that choice for all is why she has enlisted in the school privatization battle.
“Because my kids go to private school, I need to be in the fight,” Brown said in an interview with local television station NY1 late last year. “Because I have a choice, I need to make sure everyone else gets a choice, too.”
But here’s the fallacy at the root of this argument: Many parents choose charters not because they want to, but because without fully funded, high-functioning local public schools, they feel they have to. If your community schools are riddled with problems, of course you’re likely to take a chance on a charter. But that’s a false choice. If we funded education the way we should, across the board, for every student, we wouldn’t need charters. It’s easier to talk about privatizing schools than it is to discuss poverty, racism and other socioeconomic factors that led to the problems in our most struggling schools. Problems which educators are somehow expected to overcome, often without basic provisions. (See: Detroit.)
Growing awareness of evidence showing charters are not the miraculous cure-alls they’ve long been touted as has contributed to a slow but growing—and meaningful—resistance to school privatization. Billionaire backers of charters are aware of this mounting pushback and are also increasingly aware that they need messengers to counter it. Brown is the media face of that effort, and her backers are putting money on her ability to use her media skills and credentials to give their cause mainstream validity. The Seventy Four, under the guise of delivering news, is among the most recent developments in that campaign.
The Seventy Four Takeover of LA School Report
In February, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Seventy Four had taken over LA School Report, which is focused on news related to the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country behind New York City. The deal reportedly was a cash-free exchange, with Brown’s outlet absorbing the education site and its staffers. Defenders of traditional public education across the board were dismayed by the news, for multiple reasons.
There was, of course, the matter of editorial integrity. Brown’s track record, along with those of her funders, and the pro-charter tone of the Seventy Four thus far, suggested that LA School Report would likely turn into yet another tool of the charter industry. But it was impossible to ignore the timing of the acquisition, which made the whole deal seem suspect and even cynical.
In September 2015, the Los Angeles Times managed to get its hands on and make public a confidential 44-page document from the Broad Foundation outlining a plan to double the number of Los Angeles-based charter schools. A list of potential partners in funding the “Great Public Schools Now” initiative included, among many others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Walton family. With a proposed collective investment of half a billion dollars, the document makes the case (mostly by obfuscating results from existing charters so they outpace reality) for the privatization of one of the country’s largest school districts.
After the leak, and the groundswell of criticism it received, Broad backed off its plan, softening its target goals and shying away from hard and fast numbers. But stakeholders remain suspicious of the plan—now referred to popularly as the Broad-Walmart scheme—and for good reason. The United Teachers Los Angeles blog makes clear why educators and others shouldn’t let down their guard down:
Although the Broad-Walmart public message has changed, their goal to defund, deregulate, and dismantle public schools has not. You only have to look at the team they hired to lead the disingenuously named Great Public Schools Now. If they were truly backing off their plan to push a massive expansion of unregulated charter schools across LAUSD, would they have put investment banker Bill Siart in charge? Siart is a founder of ExEd, a company that specializes in (and profits from) supporting new charters. Would they have hired Myrna Castrejon, a former lobbyist for California Charter Schools Association, as executive director? And if this effort was not truly about breaking the union, would they have hired Mercury Public Affairs?
UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl sees in the Seventy Four’s takeover of LA School Report a clear parallel to the ongoing effort to take over L.A.’s public schools.
“Is there a connection between the Seventy Four’s takeover of LA School Report and the Broad-Walmart plan to privatize LAUSD schools? Of course there is,” Caputo-Pearl told the Los Angeles Times. “Campbell Brown is not about fair coverage. She is about ‘reform,’ which is often a code word for criticizing teachers and advocating that public schools get turned into charter corporations.”
Steve Zimmer, president of the LA Unified School Board, spoke with LA School Report last year about the Broad-Walmart plan, describing it as terribly flawed. (“To submit a business plan that focuses on market share,” Zimmer told the publication, “is tantamount to commodifying our children.”) Upon learning of the site’s absorption by the Seventy Four, in an email to its outgoing editor, he lamented what the deal would mean for coverage of the school district. “Truth itself, as it relates to public education in Los Angeles, will be filtered through an orthodox reform lens at every turn,” Zimmer wrote, according to the Times.
According to the California Charter Schools Association, the state already has “the most charter schools and charter school students in the country.” Charter school enrollment in California grew 7 percent during the 2015-2016 school year, an increase of 36,100 students. The Los Angeles area leads all others around the state for charter school expansion. If the free-market charter school advocates win the next round—and they are prepared to spend a lot of money to ensure they do—those numbers will likely grow exponentially in the coming years.
The potential for this increases as the charter contingent builds steam, picking up properties along the way, including local education news sites. “LA School Report has been a legitimate and credible news organization,” Randi Weingarten told the Los Angeles Times. “The 74 million is not.”
That’s sobering news for watchers of Los Angeles public schools, and schools nationwide, who know that a win for privatization is a loss for student, teachers, public schools and democracy.