School Privatization in DC

School Privatization in DC


Over the last several decades, public education has been under attack by corporate and private entities looking to profit from K-12 education. In this session of Socialist Night School, we will explore the tactics and history of the corporate-funded political group Democrats for Education Reform, and the funding, spending, and influence that has allowed them to advance the school privatization project here in DC. This session was led by Laura Fuchs and Nathan Luecking.

Laura Fuchs has been teaching in DC Public Schools at HD Woodson HS in Ward 7 since 2007. She quickly learned so-called “Ed Reformers” were not to be trusted when Michelle Rhee started systematically defunding her school. Currently serving as the Secretary of the Washington Teachers Union, she also chairs the WTU’s Committee on Political Education since 2014, going up against DFER many times.

Nathan Luecking has been a School Social Worker in DC schools since 2011 and has been at Anacostia High School in Ward 8 since 2014. Nathan is a delegate for 1199 SEIU and a member of their Political Action Committee, and is a founding member of the Mayor’s Office Coordinating Council on School Mental Health Expansion. He is a Metro DC DSA member and did opposition research for the Metro DC DSA-endorsed School Board candidate Emily Gasoi, kicking off his obsession with the seedy underbelly of corporate education reform.

Below, you will find a recording of the session and a recommended reading list.

Who are the Democrats for Education Reform?

The narrative around DC politics often suggests that developers are the biggest moneyed interest buying access to politicians like Muriel Bowser. In truth, education reformers are actually some of the biggest spenders in District politics — led especially by an organization called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER claims to care about low-income students and students of color currently being underserved by the education system. But DFER believes that helping these students requires using poor standardized test score results to close down schools, remove the monopoly of public schools and fire “bad” teachers currently protected by teachers’ unions.

DFER was founded in 2007 by billionaires, hedge fund managers and lawyers, with the explicit goal of attacking the power that teachers’ unions currently hold within the Democratic Party. Yet the leaders of DFER often have very minimal experience of their own as teachers. Whitney Tilson, the co-founder of DFER, has been a Teach for America recruiter and a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) board member, but not a teacher himself. Shavar Jeffries, the current (as of 2020) president of DFER and Ed Reform Now, has no direct education experience. The three leaders of DFER DC (as of 2020) — Ramin Taheri, Jessica Giles and Ericka Harrell — have plenty of experience in education policy, but relatively little experience actually teaching.

DFER fights for market-based school choice, parent trigger laws that allow parents to turn a public school into a charter school, the use of standardized test results to rate schools and teachers, the elimination of teacher tenure, Common Core standards, merit pay for teachers and much more.

Origins of the Charter School Movement

Charter schools are nonpublic entities given a “charter” to operate a school with public funding, often financed by vouchers, which are sums of money provided by a local district to fund an individual student’s enrollment in a charter school. Education “reformers” who push charter schools and market-based reforms to public education often work from a common privatization playbook that runs like this: 1) destabilize a public institution; 2) blame that institution for its destabilization; and 3) claim that a private solution can solve the problem.

The first stage of this playbook was helped along by the redlining practices of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. By concentrating poor and nonwhite residents in segregated communities, redlining practices effectively hollowed out the capacity of local schools to help underprivileged students, since schools rely primarily on local property taxes that can’t be effectively maintained when residents are concentrated into dense, low property value communities.

Concurrently with the height of redlining was the emergence of school vouchers in Virginia as a means to avoid the school integration commanded by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The Virginia legislature realized that although it could not keep its public schools segregated, it could provide public money to any student wishing to attend a private school, effectively allowing white students to attend segregated private schools on the state’s dime. After the federal government cracked down on this practice, the Virginia legislature went a step further by denying public funding to schools that chose to integrate, effectively bankrupting them. In other contexts, local governments use vouchers as a way to fund private religious schools, effectively circumventing the law around the separation of church and state.

The destabilization of public education escalated significantly under the Reagan administration, which significantly slashed the Department of Education’s budgets, simultaneously blaming a “multi-layered, self-perpetuating bureaucracy of administrators” for declines in education performance. This era saw the emergence of the education reform movement with a report from the chair of the National Governors Association, Lamar Alexander, which called for performance-based salaries for teachers, increased choice for parents in the public school system, and the ability of the state to declare underperforming schools “bankrupt” in order to take them over and reorganize them. 

The Privatization of Public Schools

The first concerted push for charter schools was spearheaded in the 1980s in Minnesota by a collaboration between the Minnesota Business Partnership Education Foundation — a group of major CEOs with business interests in Minnesota — and the Citizens League, a centrist policy think tank. These two groups began lobbying the Minnesota state legislature to embrace the education reform philosophy. At the same time, the American Federation of Teachers — facing sharp hostility from the Reagan administration — began cautiously endorsing the philosophy as a means for teachers to experiment with new educational approaches without affecting the overall public school system.

The Citizens League, however, started framing this very cautious embrace as a full endorsement and began to claim that they were in partnership with the teachers’ unions. By 1991, Minnesota passed legislation allowing charter schools to operate in the state. Soon after, charter schools began popping up in the inner city areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

As other states began passing similar legislation, Ted Kolderie, the head of the Citizens League, travelled to Washington, DC, to try to sway Democratic leadership towards his agenda. In May of 1991, Bill Clinton and the DNC endorsed an education agenda that included school choice and the promotion of charter schools. This turned the charter school movement into a fully bipartisan agenda with support from both centrist Democrats and free-market Republicans. Although no federal charter school legislation was passed, in 1996 Newt Gingrich succeeded in passing a DC school reform law which allowed charter schools to operate within the District.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 was also a major gift to the education reform movement. The new law included a federal funding system based on standardized testing performance, as well as a provision that schools failing to meet performance metrics would be required to foot the bill of any student attending a private or charter school instead.

The Emergence of DFER DC

In the 1990s, the Walton family — the owners of Walmart — began funding school privatization efforts of both the charter school and school voucher varieties. In 2015, one in four charter schools was funded by the Waltons, who also pledged to donate another $1 billion to charter schools between 2016 and 2021. Rupert Murdoch, Pershing Square Capital Management, Koch Industries and many others have come to view education reform as both ideologically positive and profitable.

DFER is now the political arm of education reform, and the organization receives a large share of its funding from groups and individuals that also donate heavily to conservative think tanks. DFER DC has become one of the largest independent expenditure groups in DC, spending over $1.4 million between 2015 and 2020. 

Former mayor Adrian Fenty was endorsed by DFER in his re-election bid in 2010. After losing, Fenty joined the board of DFER in 2014, and his presence is likely a major reason why DFER has targeted DC since. The DC chapter of DFER was founded in 2015 and quickly began endorsing candidates and spending money as a PAC before moving to become an independent expenditure. DFER began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on DC political races, favoring incumbents, to the point where a very large percentage of high-level officials in DC politics today have received at least some contributions from DFER.

DFER’s Astroturfing Strategy

Another tactic of education reform funders is to fund astroturfing groups like DC Education Coalition for Change and Parents Amplifying Voice in Education. These organizations recruit members of impacted groups like DC public teachers or parents and give them the opportunity to advocate in front of the DC Council. But the priorities that these organizations push for are determined by surveys taken once or twice a year that consist of questions carefully formulated in advance and are generally reduced to small, “achievable” goals instead of focusing on structural problems.

These astroturfed groups are often filled with well-meaning people working hard to achieve worthy goals. But they regularly clash against the long-term systemic work being done by largely unpaid advocates in grassroots organizations. Even more importantly, the fact that they are funded by many of the same individuals and organizations responsible for funding other groups in the education reform movement that actively undermine their goals makes it hard to trust such organizations on the whole.

Why Charters are Profitable to Privateers

It is reasonable to wonder why billionaires like the Waltons are so interested in funding the education reform movement. As it turns out, this movement can be very profitable for the right people.

In DC, education is the second largest portion of the budget, and charter schools are a huge part of that portion. In fact, in fiscal year 2019, the District spent $890 million to fund charter schools despite only providing a baseline budget of $860 million to DC Public Schools (DCPS). Privatizers spend money in the District to protect this system, including — importantly — the mayoral system of governance in which there is very little oversight of charter schools from anyone except the mayor. Unlike in other states, in DC the mayor also controls the agencies responsible for data collection and reporting on the work of charter schools, which allows them to claim that education reform policies have been successful without being able to be meaningfully challenged.

Since 2007, education reformers have closed over 30 public schools in the District, sold off public land to developers and contracted out food services and most professional development to private corporations. These changes have produced over $60 million in private contracts while simultaneously expanding the size of the central office, where salaries have now grown to over 20% of the DCPS budget. It is harder to know what is happening in the charter schools, but many of these schools have highly paid administrators who contract out to charter brands like KIPP, which then pay into lobbying efforts within DC — in other words, converting charter school dues paid for by taxpayers into money spent on lobbying local government to maintain the status quo.

Today, the education reform movement is defending an expansive conception of charter school autonomy that insulates charter schools from needing to comply with most public initiatives, including those to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, provide support for suicidal students or protect public health during a pandemic. In addition, education reformers want to minimize transparency from charter schools, so that they do not have to publicize teacher salaries, contract details or any information about how they spend public money. Finally, these reformers want to defend the use of harsh teacher evaluations that have led to DC having some of the highest rates of teacher turnover in the nation.

The Rhetoric of Privatization

DFER’s promotional materials use several tropes to push their agenda. The first is a frame that implies that education is an issue where the interests of kids are opposed to the interests of adults — i.e., teachers and teachers’ unions. A second common tactic is to emphasize “accountability” for teachers, and even when this is paired with claims to “support” teachers, that support is far more nebulous than the metric-based result that goes into a teacher’s record after an evaluation. Third, education reformers often claim that the cause of underperforming schools is a lack of “competition” or of “compassion,” as opposed to a lack of resources and funding.

Pushes for education reform are often linked to “crisis capitalism,” with periods of economic upheaval being used as justifications for the interests of capital to come into a region and remake the existing education system. An economic crisis provides an added layer of outrage and urgency, as well as a more pliable school system when the existing residents lack the resources to resist the remaking of their school system. And during other periods of crisis for the education reform movement — such as the Chicago teachers’ union strike of 2012 — DFER has also been perfectly willing to push out ads attacking unions.

The early 2000s also saw a rash of movies like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down, which portrayed public schools as horrible and charter schools as the solution for underperforming schools. These types of media pushed a narrative of urgency and attempted to convince parents that they should exploit any legal means necessary to push for charter schools for their children.

All of these tactics, combined with extensive funding for think tanks, media blogs and op-ed authors who push the education reform narrative, has the effect of letting education reform talking points seep into the common understanding of the issue — which is precisely the goal of the education reform movement.

How Progressives are Fighting Back

The Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) has been trying to push back against DFER and other education reform groups, especially through grassroots collaborations with progressive organizations like DSA, Black Lives Matter, Jews United for Justice, DC for Democracy, the Working Families Party and other unions. WTU and other unions use democratic processes to vet and endorse candidates for office here in the District, and it has pushed for a resolution from the DC Democratic Party that would call for DFER to drop the term “Democrat” from its name.

DSA and DFER have also had major divisions in recent years over electoral endorsements. The first big clash between a DSA-endorsed candidate and a DFER-endorsed candidate came in 2018, when Emily Gasoi beat the DFER-backed candidate Jason Andrean, who was a Capital One executive. Then, in 2020, the DSA-backed Janeese Lewis-George went up against the DFER-supported Brandon Todd, who attacked Lewis-George with disingenuous mailers about Lewis-George’s position on defunding and demilitarizing MPD.