“Schools In The Crosshairs”: Parent-Trigger Laws Effort Has Become A Stealth Means To Privatize Public Schools
When her dyslexic second-grader landed in a failing public elementary school in Pittsburgh, single mother Jamie Fitzpatrick spotted trouble right away. Her daughter’s teacher spent class time shopping online for clothes while the kids bullied one another. Though other teachers wanted to do right by the kids, their union wouldn’t allow it; teachers were forbidden to offer any extra help to the students outside of class, and because their pay was based on seniority, some of the worst made the most. So despite working two jobs, Fitzpatrick somehow found the time to persuade other parents to sign a petition to turn the school into a nonunion charter. Most teachers joined the effort, perfectly content to give up their union protections. At the new charter school, magic happened. The kids began to get a proper education. Fitzpatrick’s daughter learned to read almost immediately.
It’s an inspiring tale. It’s also fiction—the plot of Won’t Back Down, a film released this fall starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the supermom and Viola Davis as a frustrated teacher who becomes her ally. Like most people, you probably steered clear of this critically panned box-office flop. If so, you didn’t miss much—except a revealing glimpse into the Hollywood-style fantasies of education reformers who believe they have found a new panacea for saving public education: parent-trigger laws.
These laws sound appealingly straightforward. If enough parents sign a petition, they can get their children’s failing school shut down or converted into a charter. Seven states have passed a parent trigger over the last two years; more will likely follow suit next year. These laws are designed to make public education increasingly look like the free marketplace of parental “choice” that reformers long to see. The idea has powerful backers, including conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—best known for “stand your ground” self-defense laws—and the Heartland Institute, famous for challenging climate science. Walden Media, which produced Won’t Back Down and funded the charter—school documentary Waiting for Superman, is owned by Philip Anschutz, an ALEC supporter and prominent Tea Party funder.
Parent trigger is not solely a right-wing cause. Democratic legislatures in Connecticut and California have passed these laws, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has unanimously endorsed them, and 70 percent of Americans view them favorably. The broad support is no surprise. If parents organize to make radical changes to a failing school, who would want to stop them? But many who back parent-trigger laws don’t realize that the effort has become a stealth means to privatize public schools. Heartland, which owns the website theparenttrigger.com, has crafted model legislation for trigger laws that apply to all schools—not just those that are failing. That might be a logical, if drastic, response if public schools were mired in the deep “crisis” that education reformers constantly cite. But they’re not: Many achievement gaps have narrowed substantially, test scores have risen, and high-school completion rates are at all-time highs.
Won’t Back Down, like the movement it champions, begins from the assumption that public schools are a hopeless mess. The complicated challenges that public educators grapple with—severe budget cuts, for instance, or health problems that make learning a particular challenge for low-income kids—are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, parents are exempted from responsibility. Jamie Fitzpatrick never volunteers to help out at the school. She doesn’t go to PTA meetings. She never even asks about her daughter’s homework. Gyllenhaal’s character is not so much a parent as an unhappy customer demanding a better school.
Anyone who believes in the school-reform fairy tale of Won’t Back Down should be required to watch another film released this fall to much less fanfare. This one doesn’t feature an Academy Award winner or a soundtrack of No. 1 hits. Instead, Brooklyn Castle chronicles a messy reality—that of Intermediate School 318, a Brooklyn middle school where 70 percent of the kids live below the poverty line, and where funding cuts are threatening the after-school activities that are key to getting many of them engaged. That includes the school’s chess team, which is, improbably, among the best in the country.
In most respects, I.S. 318 is ordinary. It’s not a magnet school or a charter, but it’s also not failing. The kids featured in Brooklyn Castle have real problems: They struggle with ADHD, asthma, and hunger, and many must work after school to help their parents make ends meet. Teachers and administrators encourage the students, helping to set goals for each one. When after-school programs are endangered, the parents rally, launching a letter–writing campaign to state officials and organizing a walkathon to raise money. I.S. 318, like most public schools, succeeds because the community invests in it, without expecting perfection.
“I think this is a good thing for kids to be exposed to—the idea that truth isn’t quite so simple as right and wrong,” I.S. 318 teacher and chess-team coach Elizabeth Vicary says. “The answers aren’t really clear to anybody.” She’s talking about chess. She could just as well be talking about our entire approach to education. The quest for easy fixes is seductive. But the more we look for Hollywood-style magic bullets, the less we focus on what makes public schools work.
By: Abby Rapoport, The American Prospect, November 30, 2012
Mitt Romney is going to address the 103rd convention of the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People Wednesday.
Good. In recent years, Republican politicians have tended to criticize the NAACP, when they should be reaching out to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. Romney’s acceptance of the group’s invitation is the right response and he gets credit for showing up at the convention in Houston.
The Republican presidential contender’s topic Wednesday will be “civic engagement.”
Very good. In the United States, a republic that bends toward democracy, the highest form of civic engagement has historically taken the form of voting. Americans have suffered and struggled and died for the right to vote.
As NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous wisely notes: “If you let someone diminish the power of your vote you will already have lost a battle.”
Unfortunately, the NAACP and allied groups have been forced to re-fight too many old battles on behalf of voting rights in recent years.
Republican legislators in states across the country, working in conjunction with the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council — and, it was recently learned, the Republican National Committee — have sought to enact and implement so-called “Voted ID” laws. These laws have been condemned by good government groups, including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, as assaults on voting rights.
The Voter ID laws, new restrictions on same-day registration and early-voting, purges of voting lists and other voter suppression schemes pose particular threats to civic engagement by African American voters and others who have historically faced discrimination based on their race, ethnicity or national origin.
“Our democracy is literally under attack from within. We have wealthy interests seeking to buy elections and when that ain’t enough, suppress the vote,” says Jealous. “There is no battle that is more important or urgent to the NAACP right now than the battle to preserve democracy itself. Let me be very clear, our right to vote is the right upon which our ability to defend every other right is leveraged.”
At the convention in Houston, Jealous and other NAACP activists have made the defense of voting rights a central focus. They are right to do so, especially in Texas, where local Republicans have been calling for the elimination of the Voting Rights Act — and where a newly-passed Voter ID law has been described by Attorney General Eric Holder as a 21st-century variation on the “poll tax.”
The question that Romney must answer Wednesday is a simple one: Which side is he on?
Is Romney on the side of the NAACP and campaigners for voting rights — including Republicans like his father, George Romney — or is he on the side of those who would suppress the vote?
If the prospective Republican nominee for president is really interested in “civic engagement,” he will call out those in his own party who seek to suppress voting rights.
By: John Nichols, The Nation, July 10, 2012
Mitt Romney was in Michigan this week trying to make it competitive in the presidential election. It’s a steep climb for the native Michigander because President Barack Obama’s auto bailout, which Romney opposed, has helped bring the state’s unemployment rate down by 5.7 points since 2009.
But Romney has a strong ally there: legislation being pushed this month by his fellow Republicans aimed at preventing the nonpartisan League of Women Voters from undertaking the voter-registration drives it has sponsored for nearly a century.
Across the country, the Republicans’ carefully orchestrated plan to make voting harder — let’s call it the Voter Suppression Project — may keep just enough young people and minorities from the polls that Republicans will soon be in charge of all three branches of the federal government.
Yes, both sides try to change voting laws to favor their team. The 1993 “motor voter” law that made voting more convenient by extending registration to the Department of Motor Vehicles helped mostly Democrats. That was at least in the long American tradition of expanding the franchise.
The Republican effort to restrict voting isn’t just anti- Democrat, it’s anti-democratic. No fair-minded person believes the tall tales of voters pretending they were someone else, which have been debunked by the Brennan Center for Justice and others. What fool would risk prison or deportation to cast a single vote?
This isn’t about stopping vote-stealing and other corruption, for which there are already plenty of laws on the books. It’s about rigging the system to keep power.
First we saw the efforts during the George W. Bush administration by Karl Rove and Justice Department officials to get rid of U.S. attorneys who refused to pursue bogus voter- fraud cases. When Republican prosecutors complained, Rove and company ran for cover.
Then came Crawford v. Marion County, the 2008 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory photo-identification laws were constitutional on the basis of ballot protection. The evidence presented included not a single case of in-person impersonation fraud — the only fraud that photo ID laws can prevent. And the millions of Americans — mostly less-affluent seniors — without driver’s licenses? Good luck.
The big Republican victory in the 2010 election was essential to the Voter Suppression Project. With the help of ALEC — a conservative lobbying outfit that spreads cookie- cutter bills to state legislatures — Republicans moved with lightning speed to implement their scheme. Since 2011, 18 states have enacted voter-suppression bills, with similar ones pending in 12 more.
In the presidential race, it’s hand-to-hand legal combat, with almost every battleground state embroiled in a struggle over voter eligibility.
Michigan’s bills attack the League of Women Voters by requiring some volunteers to attend state-approved training sessions before they can register voters. The catch is that the bill makes no provisions for such sessions. Ha! It does threaten them with penalties for registration offenses that aren’t specified.
The bill is modeled on Florida’s, parts of which a federal judge invalidated May 31 because he said they had “no purpose other than to discourage” constitutionally protected activity.
In Ohio, the Obama campaign helped collect enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot repealing restrictions on absentee voting. Preferring not to face the voters directly on voter suppression, the Republican-controlled legislature repealed its own law, although it left intact a related measure that prohibits early voting on the three days before an election. That’s designed to discourage the tradition in black communities of busing worshippers from church to the polling place.
Several battleground states have new photo-ID requirements. Pennsylvania’s law allows valid student ID, but with a number of restrictions. Same in Wisconsin, which attached a series of bring-me-the-witch’s-broomstick demands for students looking to use a school ID. Fortunately, a state judge ruled against the Wisconsin law, although it’s being appealed.
Virginia’s legislation allows multiple forms of photo ID but restricts registering for an absentee ballot in person. A New Hampshire bill that required those without photo ID to fill out an onerous affidavit was thankfully just vetoed by Governor John Lynch.
The Obama campaign is obviously concerned about these ballot-access issues for political reasons. But even those with no dog in this fight should recognize that a great democracy doesn’t sully itself by suppressing the precious right to vote.
By: Jonathan Alter, The National Memo, June 22, 2012
On Tuesday, all eyes will be watching to see whether Wisconsin voters will keep labor-bashing right-winger Scott Walker (R) in the governor’s mansion. But win or lose, the real story is the 15 months of people power leading up to this day. The real lesson lies in more than a year of progressive organizing, petitioning, canvassing and campaigning for the cause. The real result is a progressive movement that is deeper and broader than before.
When Walker’s opponents needed 540,208 signatures to trigger the recall election, Wisconsin’s progressives responded by collecting more than a million. They filled 152,000 pages — weighty evidence of the power of a group of people determined to right a wrong.
And the effects have rippled outward. The sight of 70,000 protesters — teachers, firefighters, nurses, students, parents with children – occupying the Wisconsin State Capitol in February 2011 ignited activists around the country. Just as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt motivated people around the world, including in Wisconsin, the occupation of the Madison statehouse helped inspire the occupation of Wall Street a few months later.
Let me state the obvious: I want the recall to succeed. A victory for Democrat Tom Barrett would not only create an opportunity to roll back Walker’s worst anti-labor, budget-slashing measures, but would also send a clear message to those who are masquerading as deficit hawks around the country: We’ve had it with starve-the-beast politics. We’re done with leaders whose idea of austerity is to cut education, health care and vital public services in order to give more tax breaks to their millionaire friends.
Walker’s GOP legislature, like so many Republican statehouses around the country, has pursued a “divide and conquer” strategy, as Walker himself admitted to a billionaire donor. His legislative efforts, backed up by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the extremist, corporate-funded group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are meant to cripple labor unions and disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
Make no mistake — Walker knows his recall has the potential to be a resounding progressive victory. That’s why he’s raised $31 million to stay in office, compared with $4 million raised by his opponent. Two-thirds of Walker’s money has come from outside Wisconsin, and his donor list reads like a list of Who’s Who of America’s Billionaires. Sheldon Adelson — Gingrich’s Daddy Warbucks — and Amway founder Richard DeVos have each given Walker $250,000. And remember the “Swift boat” ads against Kerry? Houston home builder Bob Perry, who backed that smear campaign, wrote Walker checks totaling $500,000. As the recall fight comes to an end, this record amount of money from ultraconservative outsiders has kept Walker alive.
Money in politics is nothing new. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson lamented that corporations that “challenge our government to a trial of strength” were undermining the will of the people. But the battle lines have radically shifted. Ever since the Citizens United ruling welcomed unrestricted corporate money into our elections, the interests of the 99 percent have been badly outmatched by anonymously sourced dollars.
Indeed, we are witnessing the first major battle between astronomical numbers of people and astronomical amounts of money.
As I write this, Walker leads in the polls, and if progressive turnout is merely ordinary, he will likely win. On the other hand, if we see the same groundswell today as on the days that led to this one, Walker can be defeated. Yet, big as this election is, it is only the first test of the progressive response to an electoral landscape overrun with money from corporations and wealthy individuals.
By attacking labor unions, flooding Wisconsin with outside cash and trying to cleanse the electorate of people who don’t look, earn or think like him, Walker has taken aim at more than a single campaign cycle or a series of policies; his real targets are the pillars of American progressivism itself. With the Romney campaign gearing up, and super PACs taking to the national airwaves, we face an unprecedented, well-funded assault on our basic values.
But progressives aren’t backing down. They’re just getting started.
So when the results come in, reflect on the vast organizing effort that brought Wisconsin to this moment — and imagine where it still has the potential to go. Elections are over in a matter of hours, but movements are made of weeks, months and years. The Declaration of Sentiments was issued at Seneca Falls in 1848, yet women did not gain the right to vote until seven decades later. The Civil War ended with a Union victory in 1865, yet the Voting Rights Act was not passed until a century later. Auto workers held the historic Flint sit-down strike in 1936-37, yet the fight for a fair, unionized workforce persists 75 years later.
And in the last 15 months, Wisconsin’s progressives have shown us that the battle against bankrolled austerity can be bravely waged by an army of dedicated people committed to protecting working families. They’ve reminded us that good organizing is our only chance to withstand the blitzkrieg of corporate funded advertising — and better yet, leave a lasting mark. Their movement, with thousands of new Wisconsin activists mobilized, energized and educated, can be permanent — and it can keep growing.
By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 4, 2012
Minnesota’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board will investigate whether the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) should be registered as a lobbyist in the state, according to a letter sent to Common Cause-Minnesota. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has also asked Wisconsin’s ethics board to investigate ALEC’s activities, and this month the Wisconsin Attorney General referred a joint complaint about ALEC’s lobbying — by CMD and Common Cause-Wisconsin — to the state ethics board.
Response to Common Cause’s Complaint in Minnesota
Common Cause-Minnesota filed two requests for investigation in recent months presenting evidence that ALEC lobbies state lawmakers to pass “model legislation” voted on by corporations and legislators at ALEC meetings. The Board has responded to the first complaint, which alleged that despite participating in lobbying, ALEC has failed to register as a lobbying organization. The Board says it “will investigate.”
“Corporations can no longer hide behind ALEC as they try to influence state law behind closed doors,” said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause-Minnesota. “This investigation should expose how ALEC has attempted to avoid laws that regulate lobbyists in Minnesota,” Dean said.
ALEC has come under increased scrutiny in recent months for its role in promoting as a national “model” the Stand Your Ground/Shoot First law cited in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, as well as other bills that make it more difficult for American citizens to vote, for workers to organize and bargain, and for regulatory agencies to protect the environment and health.
Common Cause-Minnesota filed a second complaint with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson alleging that, because of ALEC’s substantial lobbying, it is in violation of state laws limiting such activities by charities. To date, Common Cause has filed similar requests for investigation in 37 other states.
On May 17, Common Cause-Wisconsin and the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a similar letter with Wisconsin’s Attorney General requesting an investigation into whether ALEC’s lobbying activities violate its charitable status, which was referred in part to the state ethics board. The letter was filed as part of a larger report detailing how ALEC facilitates corporate influence in the state, and counting more than 32 bills or budget provisions introduced in the 2011-2012 session reflecting ALEC model legislation. That report, “ALEC Exposed in Wisconsin: The Hijacking of State,” can be viewed here.
GAB Investigation in Wisconsin
Earlier this year, CMD requested that Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB) determine that ALEC’s so-called “scholarship program” violates state ethics and lobbying laws.
In a complaint filed March 23, CMD described how the program allows global corporations to pay for ALEC member legislators’ travel to resorts for ALEC meetings, which would appear to violate Wisconsin laws prohibiting elected officials from accepting anything of value — even a cup of coffee — from corporations that employ lobbyists in the state. CMD also noted that while at ALEC meetings, legislators are offered invitations to corporate-sponsored receptions and given additional gifts like free tickets to the party box at a major league baseball game. CMD named all known Wisconsin ALEC members in the request because complete records about which lawmakers accepted these gifts in recent years are not publicly available.
ALEC subsequently disclosed that in 2010, it had asked the GAB to sanction these corporate-funded gifts, but offered a description of the so-called “scholarship” program contradicted by ALEC’s own bylaws, by ALEC’s filings with the IRS, and by other documents. CMD documented these contradictory claims in another letter filed in April.
Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), who is a member of ALEC’s Telecommunications and IT Task Force, sought to distance himself from the program, declaring that he had never received an ALEC “scholarship” and asking that he be dropped from the complaint. CMD applauded Senator Wanggaard’s acknowledgement through his actions that receiving corporate-funded flights and hotel rooms could compromise a legislator’s official judgment.
The Wisconsin GAB has acknowledged receipt of CMD’s complaint but is prohibited by law from commenting on the status of an investigation.
By: Brendan Fischer, Center For Media and Democracy, May 30, 2012