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The “Reformers” Are Winning the PR War

March 30, 2016

The Naked Capitalism blog recently crossposted an Alternet article written by Kali Holloway on media maven Campbell Brown, a former news anchor who is now the point person for “school reform”. But as Holloway notes in the article, Campbell Brown is not acting in isolation: there are billions of dollars being spent by a relative handful of investors to help persuade the American public that public schools are failing and only the forces of the marketplace (i.e. an abundance of charter schools combined with school choice) can save them.  Worse yet, these funds are not only being invested in a host of spiffy new websites, they are being invested in formerly independent education publications like Education Week and Chalkbeat, mainstream publications like The New York Times and Atlantic and, of course, NPR, the newly corporatized broadcaster. And if anything, Holloway underplays the impact of these investments. She writes:

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.

As a subscriber to the NYTimes for over a decade and a blogger for three+ years I can assure Ms. Holloway that readers of this blog have seen countless examples of that newspaper’s explicit and implicit support for “reformers”, especially Eva Moskovitz’ Success Academy. The notions that schools should run like a business, that unions are ruining public schools, and that the funding of “government schools” is necessarily wasteful are all ideas that media outlets repeat. Consequently, these are all notions that the general public now accept as “given”. When this mindset is in place, news consumers lap up misleading and inaccurate articles like the one’s written by Ms. Brown that are cited in Holloway’s article and the articles on blatant wrongdoing like the one cited in my previous post. Unfortunately, once the public believes schools are “failing” because of bogus data gathered in the name of “accountability”, reports of fiscal misconduct by administrators, cheating by teachers, and student misconduct in classrooms get more and more traction and they reinforce the cycle of negativity initiated by the likes of Campbell Brown…. and there are no hedge funders interested in investing in public schools or the public services students raised in poverty need and so the economic divide widens and the vicious cycle accelerates.

There are public schools that are failing… but the vast majority of “failing” public schools are not doing well because the students enrolled in those schools are not doing well outside of school. Children raised in poverty face daily challenges that involve food, clothing, and shelter— the basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy– and until those needs are met the great majority of those students will not be able to focus on the next level of needs. Alas, public spending on these items cannot result in a profit… and so the economic divide widens and the vicious cycle accelerates.


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