Monday, February 27, 2012

Whatever It Takes? - "Charter School Reform" & the Future of Madison Prep

-Allen Ruff

Part #3 in a Series.
(For Part #1, see:  “History, Not “Conspiracy”: Kaleem Caire’s Connections”; & Part #2: The Company One Keeps: Kaleem Caire’s Rightward Connections)

David Cagigal, the chair of Madison Preparatory Academy’s board of directors and vice chair of the Madison Urban League, made a provocative suggestion following the Madison School Board’s December 19th rejection of the proposal for the charter school. As the large crowd filtered out of Memorial High’s auditorium that evening, he mentioned a different option that supporters might take to win approval of the project.

David Cagigal
While the Prep’s public champion, Kaleem Caire, floated the idea of opening a private academy, the usually less vocal Cagigal recommended a different tack. Speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal, he suggested that the school’s supporters might urge Wisconsin legislators to create a statewide charter school authorizing board as a way to bypass School Board approval and help Madison Prep receive public funds.

Reporting Cagigal’s statement, the WSJ’s Mathew DeFour pointed out that such a bill had already been introduced earlier in 2011. It was approved by the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee in the spring, but has not yet been scheduled for a final vote. The WSJ piece noted that charter schools currently become eligible for public money only after they receive approval from the school districts in which they are located. The proposed legislation would do away with that and do much more.

Kaleem Caire
Caire had emphatically stated how he was “one hundred percent in support of the charter bill” when he spoke before the Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee hearing on the bill last March.  His close associate Cagigal clearly understood the significance of the pending “school choice” legislation.

A seasoned executive with over twenty-five years’ experience, Cagigal had come to Madison in October, 2004 to become chief information technology officer at Alliant Energy. He worked there into 2011.

Previously, he helped develop electronic learning at Depaul University.He then went on to become a director of information services involved with e-learning at DeVry, Inc., the international education-for-profit corporation. The parent firm of a wide range of business and technical colleges and universities, Devry in recent years has moved into making acquisitions in the rapidly expanding field of online secondary education. Cagigal most recently took a $500-a-day position as interim director of technology for the Dubuque Community School District.

The proposed “charter school reform” legislation that Caire has fully endorsed and Cagigal urged the Prep’s supporters to get behind contains many aspects that warrant some close examination.

The Proposals for “School Reform”

Still pending, the companion bills (Senate Bill 22/Assembly Bill 51) were introduced in February and March 2011 by Republican State Assemblyman  Robin Vos and co-sponsored in the Senate by Luther Olsen, a recipient of out-of-state recall campaign contributions from the chairman of the anti-public school Children First America. Olsen’s legislative accomplice, Alberta Darling, was the supposed author of SB 22. The companion bicameral proposals would, among other things, entirely remove the charter school approval process from locally elected school boards.

If enacted, the new legislation would create an appointed state body, the Charter School Authorizing Board (CSAB) that would have the power to grant charters anywhere in Wisconsin, even in communities where the local school board has turned down a proposal.
The Capital Times’ Susan Troller honed in on the impending situation: 
In the past, School Board denial of a charter agreement signaled the end of the line for a project. But a new GOP-backed piece of legislation creating a state authorizing board for charters could change that. In fact, it would upend Wisconsin’s long tradition of local control of schools, where authority rests primarily with school board officials elected by local taxpayers….

…[C]ritics say loss of such control, combined with Gov. Scott Walker’s massive budget cuts to schools, plus 18 years of strict revenue limits, would lead to financial ruin for some public school districts. They claim the legislation is unfair because it provides public money from the state’s general aid fund — at $7,775 per student — to start new independent charter schools, but eliminates any oversight role by locally elected school officials. The flow of money for these new charters would reduce the pot of money remaining for the states’ existing schools during already fiscally challenging times.

Observing the public hearings held before the legislatures’ Joint Finance Committee last March, Ruth Conniff, political correspondent for the Progressive Magazine, observed that the measure was a political maneuver to allow privatization of public education.

Under the initial proposal, later amended primarily because it entirely by-passed the Department of Public Instruction (a body authorized by Wisconsin’s constitution), the CSAB would have consisted of nine members, with three appointed by the governor, three by the senate majority leader, and three by the speaker of the assembly. (Presently, and for a now uncertain period, Scott Walker and the Brothers Fitzgerald.)

As amended, the Authorizing Board would include the state superintendent of public instruction and eight other members – with six appointed by the governor and two by the DPI superintendent. Among other powers, the proposed panel would be given the authority to grant charters for virtual (online) schools.

The new law would eliminate enrollment caps on existing charter schools and expand the use of vouchers statewide. The changes in the law would provide wealthy families access to thousands of dollars in state school aid once ostensibly set aside for students from low income families. It also would weaken teacher licensing requirements.

State funds that had previously gone to local districts would now leave brick-and-mortar public schools, referred to as “government schools” by right wing proponents of the legislation. Funding would pass into the hands of online charter ventures or private and parochial schools operating from anywhere in the state.

Under the new law, the CSAB could grant charter school “associations” the ability to open more than one school, and would allow a charter school’s governing body to enter into multiple contracts. Representatives of a number of “non-profit” charter school ventures, certainly interested in the millions in tax dollars annually allocated for public education, spoke before the Joint Finance Committee hearing of the “expanded opportunities” promised by the new legislation.

The Bill’s Origins

The Cap Times’ Troller noted that the proposed legislation had its origins in a larger “school choice” movement which she described as an unusual coalition of mainstream Republicans, tea party members and various liberal school reformers. The movement’s supporters argue that charter schools would provide dissatisfied families educational options and would force existing public schools to improve through competition.

That movement for “school choice” has had a base of community support among those legitimately concerned with city schools challenged by ever decreasing state funding, public support, and largely racialized “achievement gaps.” That grass roots concern, while providing popular backing for the movement, has not led or propelled it, however.

The primary push for the expansion of voucher, charter and virtual schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere has been part of a well-financed nationally coordinated offensive – motivated by educational entrepreneurs and privatizers, as well as corporate conservatives eager to further cripple teachers’ and other public sector unions.

Just as eager have been those who seek to shrink funding for public schools, to reduce them to little more than temporary holding pens for the unchosen majority not quite ready or old enough for low paying jobs, military service, or the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  (Various supporters of “school reform” have argued that “school choice” would help disrupt, if not halt the incarceration of youth of color. They have ignored the fact that some of the same foundations and think tanks that promote “independent schools” have also played a key role in accelerating the expansion of the prison population and the for-profit “prison industrial complex”.)

Virtual schools and privatized “choice” academies have also been viewed favorably by those demanding “tax relief”; those long opposed to property tax levies and spending for public education. The movement has included the ideologically motivated arch conservatives who historically have been suspicious of public education, viewed as the well-spring of subversive democratic demands.

Wisconsin’s charter school reform bills were not the work of Alberta Darling and other Republican geniuses in the legislature. The joint proposals were drawn from boiler plate “model legislation” created by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative national combine of legislators and business execs set on moving the country rightward.

Members of  ALEC’s Education Task Force (ETF) wrote the "Charter Schools Act" and "Next Generation Charter Schools" – “model legislation” for the creation charter school authorizing boards that would override the chartering authority of locally elected school boards. ALEC’s "Virtual Public Schools Act" encourages the introduction and expansion of on-line charter schools. (One merely has to compare any of the above proposals with SB 22 or AB 51 to see the marked similarities.)

Mickey Revenaugh, the “private sector chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force, illustrates the nature of the organization.  She was co-founder of Connections Academy, the Baltimore-based  private developer of virtual charter schools. As “Senior Vice President for State Relations” at Connections, Revenaugh has worked to create management contracts for K-12 Connections Academy schools with local districts, charter schools, and state boards of education in twenty-one states, including Wisconsin.

The company’s “school without walls” programs and private virtual school, National Connections Academy enroll K-12 students nationwide. Connections was an off-shoot of the education-for-profit giant, Sylvan Learning Systems.

Such for-profit education companies, part of an increasingly competitive field, stand to benefit directly from brick-&-mortar schools staffed by underpaid teachers or virtual “classrooms without walls”.

On Wisconsin

Robin Vos, who introduced the charter school reform bill in the State Assembly, happens to be ALEC "State Chairman" for Wisconsin.  Alberta Darling is also a member of ALEC.  She has had some direct dealings, some would even suggest collusion, with former Wisconsin Republican political operatives Scott Jensen and Brian Pleva who now work for the American Federation for Children (AFC). An ALEC-affiliated association, the AFC promotes public school privatization, independent charter schools and the expansion of voucher programs. Its board, in 2011, was chaired by the right-wing billionaire Betsy DeVos. Early AFC funding came from the Wal-Mart heir, John Walton. (For more on the AFC, Walton, and Devos, see: Ruff, “The Company One Keeps…”)

Other Wisconsin conservative politicos in addition to the formerly indicted Jensen have gravitated toward the well-endowed national charter reform associations. In her coverage of the State Joint Finance Committee’s hearings on SB 22 last March, the Progressive Magazine’s Conniff pointed out that another Republican top operative, James Bender, the former chief of staff for the Assembly majority leader Jeff Fitzgerald, had left his government post to become president and a chief lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.

The National Effort

A broad network of primarily conservative foundations, think tanks and charter school associations have directly and indirectly financed and influenced the debates on “school reform” at all levels. They not only have designed school privatization legislation introduced at a number of state houses and actively lobbied for it. More significantly perhaps, they have been largely successful in defining the terms of the public discussion.

Leading figures and activists in the movement actually come together on occasion to map strategy and tactics and learn from each other. For example, the anti-union consultant Richard Berman, head of an outfit called the “Center for Union Facts,” speaking at an October, 2010 Philanthropy Roundtable conclave on education reform, outlined a clear strategy.

Rather than “intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…is there a way that we can get into it at an emotional level?” Berman asked. “Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts.” He then answered his own question: “We need to hit on fear and anger. Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem.” Running in places like Washington, DC, and New Jersey, Berman’s glossy ads have portrayed teachers unions as schoolyard bullies. One spot seemed to compare teachers to child abusers.

While Berman could be discounted as a movement extremist, other “school choice” activists have understood the force of emotional appeals. Conniff notes what she describes as a mantra of buzzwords that have popped up over and over again across the country – the talk of providing schools and communities the “right tools” they need; the framing of the push for charters and vouchers entirely as an “issue of social justice”; and a “new civil rights movement,” The use of the term “flexibility” comes up and there’s a constant refrain regarding "reforms" that will "empower" parents and students and improve educational “opportunity”.

Some readily dismiss efforts to illustrate a relationship between the Madison effort to open an “autonomous”, largely unaccountable charter school and state and national initiatives. Direct ties are waved off as little more than attempts to discredit the movement through “guilt-by-association” and “conspiracy theories”. Those making such out-of-hand dismissals, however, are either unaware or would prefer to disregard those common grounds of interest and shared perspectives that unite a seemingly disparate spectrum of “school choice” advocates. 

One part of that shared vantage point has to do with an ingrained belief in the ability of the free unbridled market to solve all of society’s ills. There are those who go so far as to argue that “school choice” would induce improvements in public schools since they would then have to compete with the chartered and privatized ventures that would in fact further siphon off dwindling state funds.

Another shared assumption has to do with the negative role of the state; that it indeed should provide funds for educational “choice,” but remain limited in its ability to regulate, license and oversee what goes on in the schools.

There also is a common belief in technical and technological solutions for what ails the public schools, shared across a broader spectrum. The accelerating push for virtual online voucher and charter schools with reduced numbers of in-house teachers and kids increasingly schooled via computers and proprietary programs owned  by education-for-profit outfits -- that already appears to be the income generating wave of the future.

Madison’ schools cannot be viewed in a vacuum, though the promoters of charter solutions and “choice” primarily frame the issue as a local one. The disparities in achievement, based on race and class inequities, are national in scope and cannot be laid at the feet of some local “liberal establishment” or the failings of this school board or that union or those teachers. (One merely has to enter “closing the achievement gap” in any search engine to gain an immediate sense of the nationwide concern.)
Whatever it Takes?

Susan Troller’s Capital Times piece pointed out that the Madison Prep project could still become an independent reality if Alberta Darling’s bill eventually passes, and a newly appointed state board of political appointees approves the proposal. The resulting $7,775 per pupil state allocation would fall well below the amount which the Urban League says is needed to operate the school, however. Independent, the Academy could become eligible for federal funds from a variety of entitlement programs for its students. Troller also noted there would be plenty of opportunities for raise funds, including those from well-endowed national organizations that may favor Madison Prep’s approach.

One of the slogans Kaleem Caire, David Cagigal and the rest of the Madison Prep’s development team have used throughout the campaign for their charter school experiment has been “Whatever it takes.” Not giving up entirely on the idea of funding through the MMSD and conceivably looking toward a more favorable future vote on their charter proposal, they’ve advanced one of their own as a candidate for a seat on the School Board. 

Undeterred and committed, Madison Prep’s promoters also are seeking patrons and donors, locally and elsewhere. Recently, there’s been talk of “venture philanthropy” alongside ongoing discussions on how to improve the school district as a whole.

The Prep’s advocates now, too, are looking toward the passage of the “charter school reform” bill, no longer as certain as it was. That will allow them to bypass the need for Madison School Board approval as they draw funds from a district still responsible for the thousands of kids remaining in the city’s schools. “Whatever it takes,” remains the refrain. “Whatever it takes.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Company One Keeps: Kaleem Caire’s Rightward Connections, Part #2

 -Allen Ruff

A Continuing Series.
The key proponent for the creation of the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school, Kaleem Caire long ago established a record of commitment and service in his efforts to improve educational opportunities and achievement for African-American students in Madison’s schools and elsewhere. That commitment observably remains.  Also observable is his contradictory history of association with various right-wing funders and think tanks extending back more than a decade. 

In actuality, what remains key in regard to Caire’s story is that it is not about him as much as it is about some of the company he has kept in his efforts to advance educational opportunities. Deeply concerned about the situation of so many African American students, and prodded by a lack of progress on a number of fronts, he turned to others seemingly offering solutions and material assistance. Rightfully critical of a status quo often dominated by a “liberal establishment,” he looked elsewhere. He turned toward those with agendas not necessarily in the interest of the communities he set out to serve. 
Though he would later decry the absolute failings of local schools in addressing the needs of the young, while at the UW-Madison in 1997-98 he served on a Madison Metropolitan Schools District (MMSD) committee that advised the school superintendent on what he, Caire, would subsequently describe as “the District’s successful plan to improve minority student achievement.” [1]

Caire went on, in August 1999 to become the projects director with the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY), an agency providing educational programs and services to academically talented students throughout the state. He spent part of the previous two years as an education consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), where he initiated the Minority Student Achievement Initiative. He also had an established record of community service as, among other things, a founding member of One Hundred Black Men of Madison. In 2001, he was the youngest recipient, up until that time, to receive the City of Madison’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options *

Caire joined Milwaukee’s former School Superintendent and school voucher advocate, Howard Fuller to further the national agenda of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), founded in December, 1999. Moving to the Washington D.C. area, Caire became the first President and CEO of BAEO in November, 2000 and proceeded to grow the organization from zero to 31 chapters in 26 states across the country.

A special report on the BAEO by People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, noted that when the push to advance the school voucher movement stalled in the late 1990s, white conservative school privatization advocates, “embraced a new strategy – adopting the language of the civil rights movement and targeting the African American community….” They developed a “political strategy… designed to boost support for vouchers, not only among African Americans, but also among progressive and moderate suburban whites....” The PFAW exposé noted that,
Almost immediately after its national launch, BAEO began running print ads in several national newspapers, including the Washington Post, Washington Times, and New York Times, and over a dozen community newspapers with predominantly black readership. The ads feature young African American students and their parents repeating BAEO’s mantra, “Parental school choice is widespread – unless you’re poor.” Designed to put a new face on what has traditionally been a largely white Republican movement, the ads’ objective, [Howard] Fuller explained, “is to change the face of [the voucher] movement."
The public relations campaign expanded in late 2000 to include television and radio spots in the Washington, D.C. area in what BAEO organizers described as a targeted attempt to influence key lawmakers and journalists.  Kaleem Caire, at the time BAEO’s national executive director, explained the ad campaign strategy, saying that, “[Washington, D.C.] has the most opinion leaders in the country – and it’s out there where we felt that the message needed to be sent first.”

An Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that BAEO’s 2001-02 print and television ads in the Washington D.C. market alone cost $4.33 million  (exceeding the amounts spent in the same market by defense industry giant Lockheed Martin and the AARP) while comparable anti-voucher spending came to only $870,000.[2]

An additional BAEO television PR blitz touting the benefits of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida ran from April through June 2001. Again according to PFAW’s report, “the campaign targeted 30 newspapers and 35 radio stations in Wisconsin, where the fight over vouchers is a constant part of the political landscape.”

By July 2001, the Christian Science Monitor reported that estimated costs for that BAEO public relations campaign ran as high as $3 million – a remarkable feat considering the group began as a national organization a year earlier with a $900,000 budget.

Where did the money come from? The BAEO listed four major players in the right-wing voucher movement as its benefactors in 2001: the Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the American Education Reform Council (see below), and the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation (now the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which, in cooperation with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, has been a key designer of “school choice model legislation”.)

According to a series of investigative pieces done for the Black Commentator, an online journal critical of the white conservative movement’s money and influence in the African-American community, Bradley and Walton spent at least $2 million to create the BAEO as “an African-American wing of the phony voucher ‘movement’.”  According to the Commentator,  the BAEO during its first year of existence had “no life independent of Bradley and its wicked sister, the Walton Foundation.”

The right-wing weekly Human Events reported that the start-up fund of $900,000 for the BAEO’s national effort came entirely from the Waltons. Wal-Mart heir John Walton, now deceased, became one of the voucher movement’s constant donors, providing a steady stream of money to its think tanks and political campaigns. The BAEO, as recently as 2011, noted that with the passing of Walton, “the parental choice movement lost one of its most vigilant champions.”

The Bradley Foundation

The Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation was established in 1942. Harry was one of the original charter members of the far right-wing John Birch Society, along with another Birch Society board member, Fred Koch, the father of Koch Industries billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch.

According to Media Transparency, which monitors right-wing foundations and think tank influence, Bradley’s "resources, …clear political agenda, and its extensive national network of contacts and collaborators in political, academic and media circles has allowed it to exert an important influence on key issues of public policy. While its targets range from affirmative action to social security, it has seen its greatest successes in the areas of welfare 'reform' and attempts to privatize public education through the promotion of school vouchers...”

Media Transparency noted that, “Bradley supports the organizations and individuals that promote the deregulation of business, the rollback of virtually all social welfare programs, and the privatization of government services,” and that “the overall objective of the …Foundation… is to return the U.S. -- and the world -- to the days before governments began to regulate Big Business, before corporations were forced to make concessions to an organized labor force. In other words, laissez-faire capitalism: capitalism with the gloves off.”

The Bradley Foundation has provided grants to vocal opponents of affirmative action. It provided nearly $1 million to researcher Charles Murray, co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve. A scandalous work, it claimed a genetic causation for the supposed intellectual inferiority of African-Americans. Bradley has also funneled nearly $4 million to the right-wing Center for the Study of Popular Culture. The Center’s president, David Horowitz, wrote a controversial newspaper ad opposing reparations for slavery that suggested Blacks should feel "gratitude" that their ancestors were brought to America in bondage.

Milton Friedman & Co.

The Friedman Foundation, in 2001, gave $70,000 to an institute headed by Howard Fuller at Marquette University for a symposium on “Educational Options for African Americans.” In 2000, the Friedmans’ fund gave $230,000 to the American Education Reform Council (AERC), Kaleem Caire’s future employer, to cover the production costs of five television and four radio commercials for the BAEO.

The money came primarily from the fortunes of the University of Chicago’s free market economist Milton Friedman, credited with providing the original academic framework for school voucher theory. Friedman’s work focused more on the financial profits school privatization could reap rather than the purported assistance it could offer low-income students in failing schools – the interest BAEO and subsequent ventures publicly championed.

Friedman actually supported voucher programs that would make taxpayer dollars available to all families, even the very wealthy. That, the PFAW report pointed out, contrasted sharply with BAEO, which promoted vouchers as a means to help low-income children and whose newspaper ads carried the tagline: "Parental school choice is widespread—unless you’re poor."

In 1995 Friedman wrote, “The privatization of schooling would produce a new, highly active and profitable private industry.” He insisted that voucher programs ought to include everyone, regardless of economic class. “Programs that are designed for the poor will be poor programs,” he told the editor of the right-wing Heartland Institute’s School Reform News.

Friedman’s agenda went deeper. In his Public Schools: Make Them Private  (1995), he wrote that, “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system … I sense that we are on the verge of a breakthrough in one state or another, which will then sweep like a wildfire through the rest of the country.…"

With George W. Bush in the White House and school privatization and pro-voucher conservatives at the helm at the Department of Education (DoE), in October 2002, BAEO received a $600,000 federal grant, “to develop an intense public information campaign to reach parents about the choices available to them under the sweeping federal “No Child Left Behind Act”. A DoE press release announced that the campaign would target communities in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. The Department’s Undersecretary Eugene Hickok stated, “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.”

National Center for Policy Analysis

Caire and Howard Fuller co-authored Ten Myths about School Choice: Answering the Campaign against School Vouchers which appeared in 2001 and received considerable attention among conservatives. At a press conference touting the book held at the US Capitol, Caire was joined by Jack Strayer, vice president for external affairs for the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA). Also present was US Rep. John Boehner, at the time chairman of the House Education and Workforce committee and now Speaker of the House.

The book was published by the NCPA. People for the American Way describes the NCPA as “a right wing think tank with programs devoted to privatization in the following issue areas: taxes, Social Security and Medicare, health care, criminal justice, environment, education, and welfare.”

Established in 1983, the NCPA belongs to the ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network, a network of national and local right-tilted think tanks, and to, a right-wing internet portal created by the Heritage Foundation. Major NCPA funding has come from the Bradley Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation, while a lengthy list of other contributors includes Charles and David Koch.

Kaleem Caire at 2002 NCPA forum on "Myths About School Choice" hosted by the CATO Institute [NCPA Executive Alert Extra, May/June, 2002. (]
American Education Reform Council

In late 2002, Kaleem Caire stepped down from his position at the BAEO to become project director, east coast representative, and then director of national initiatives with the American Education Reform Council (AERC), described in a Philanthropy Roundtable biographical sketch of Caire as “a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based non-profit organization that works nationally and in Wisconsin to provide accurate information about the impact of school choice on parents, students, taxpayers, and the community.”

While with the AERC, in January 2003 Caire was named to the Education Department’s Independent Review Panel for the National Assessment of Title I., the major federal program intended to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students. The Bush-era panel was charged with advising the government “on the methodological and other issues that arise in carrying out the mandated evaluation of Title I.”

According to the PFAW report, the AERC -- also backed by the Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation -- put $185,000 into the BAEO in 2001. Wal-Mart’s John Walton not only funded AERC – putting up almost one million dollars via his family’s Foundation between 1999 and 2000 – but had been AERC’s president. The BAEO’s Howard Fuller sat on the AERC board with him.

The AERC, according to the highly critical Black Commentator, spent millions of dollars on school voucher “issue ads” and played an important role as a propagandist for anti-affirmative action initiatives in California and Washington State.

As a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization, AERC’s political advocacy was restricted. It could not endorse political candidates and only did a minimal amount of lobbying on legislation. However, it ran “informational” advertisements during Colorado and Michigan voucher campaigns in 1998 and 2000, prior to Caire’s arrival. AERC spent $500,000 on the Michigan initiative, in addition to the $2 million Walton spent out of his own pocket.

The AERC also had a lobbying wing, the American Education Reform Foundation (AERF) that worked to influence the political process in Wisconsin and elsewhere.  The AERF, according to the People for the American Way, played a major role in failed efforts to get a voucher referendum on the California ballot in 1996 and 1998. John Walton and AERF then pitched in a combined $410,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to pass California’s Proposition 226, the so-called “paycheck protection,” that would have hampered union contributions to political campaigns.

Money for the AERC also came from Betsy DeVos, a founder and early member of the group’s board of directors. DeVos, wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos and sister of Blackwater-founder Erik Prince, is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party.

A Center for Public Integrity Report showed that the DeVos family and business interests were the fifth largest contributors in the 2003-2004 election cycle, with 100% of the donations going to Republicans. Dick and Betsy DeVos are recognized as top national contributors to the GOP, free market policy institutes, and Religious Right organizations.

The DeVos duo has also been credited with helping to finance the 2010 Citizens United case before the Supreme Court which ultimately recognized the “personhood” of large corporations and thereby opened the door for Super PACs to raise unlimited funds for political campaigns. The Prince and Devos families have also funded the homophobic Family Research Council and Focus on Family, and a coalition advocating the “separation of school and state”.

The AERC eventually merged with Children First America to form the Alliance for School Choice. Betsy Devos subsequently founded and bankrolled the American Federation for Children (AFC), one of the most aggressive pro-voucher groups aiming to fully privatize public education.

In 2011, the AFC launched an ad campaign to defend Wisconsin Republicans facing recall votes, and hosted an event where they honored Governor Scott Walker for his voucher advocacy. The former state Republican Assembly leader, Scott Jensen, indicted for his role in the Wisconsin 2001 caucus scandal, is a “senior policy advisor” for the AFC.

Devos also formed the AFC Action Fund, created to fund the election campaigns of pro-voucher candidates nation-wide. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign determined AFC spent $ 730,000 in the State’s 2010 election, the bulk of which went to Republican lawmakers and Scott Walker.

Public School Defenders

The Rev. Timothy McDonald, chair of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, stated in 2003 that, "Whether its leaders recognize it or not, BAEO is serving as a tool for some very extreme groups that do not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart." He went on to argue that, "Our community deserves to know the truth about the people who are funding BAEO and the destructive agenda they have for African-American families."

Eight years ago, the People for the American Way pointed out that right-wing leaders and organizers had been at work cultivating African American spokespersons in an attempt to improve their own image and outreach in the Black community. The BAEO, as an example, initially promoted itself as a grassroots organization devoted to increasing educational opportunity for poor children, but it also served as a vehicle for the Right to advance an extreme agenda that would shatter—not reform—public education, the PFAW argued.

The series on the BAEO and related efforts by the Black Commentator was far more direct in its assessment of white right support for efforts based in the African-American community:

…[The Bradley Foundation] and its fellows on the Hard Right don't give a damn about African American kids - who are destined for depravity, in their view, anyway - and are not really that keen on exploiting the potential Black private educational "market." Ghettos are, after all, full of problems. The major corporate players would just as soon leave exploitation of inner-city school demographics to…  various minority entrepreneurs, and favored ministries. The real prize is the general market in primary and secondary education - the broad mass of white folks - valued at around $300 billion a year. Now, that's worth the investment in all those phony voucher groups.

The Commentator, back in 2003, forcefully argued that the voucher movement was a “wedge issue”:

Vouchers are the Right’s wedge issue, carefully chosen to create divisions between the Democratic Party’s two strongest pillars: Blacks and public employees unions, most notably, teachers. Keenly aware of African American reverence for education, the very people who wage relentless war against the public schools wave vouchers under the noses of the poor, knowing full well that private schools cannot possibly meet the needs of the vast bulk of Black children. Private capital has no interest in taking on the responsibility of educating the masses of Black kids. Rather, their strategy is to sow dissension in Black and progressive ranks while setting up contra outposts in scattered, publicly funded private schools, places of employment [while] propagandizing for new waves of African American mercenaries.

In its often blunt “Voucher Tricksters – The Hard Right Enters Through the School House Door,” written ten years ago and still pertinent for its future assessment, the irrepressible Commentator observed that,

Two major forces stand in the way of wholesale corporate raiding of public education: Black leadership and organized labor, primarily teachers unions. African Americans harbor an almost mystical attachment to education, long believed to be the one reliable route out of degradation. Historically, no issue has had a higher priority among Black leadership, who also rank as the nation's most pro-union political grouping at all levels of elected office - federal, state and municipal. The teachers unions' stake is obvious. In numbers and reliability, the two groups represent the heart of the Democratic Party - or, at least, its progressive wing.

The voucher offensive is designed to crush both of them. It goes without saying that privatization will decimate the unions. The Black leadership problem is almost as straightforward. The current crop of African American office holders must either be made to submit - that is, break with the unions - or be replaced.

"Alternative" African American leadership is being invented, enlisted, wooed, bribed, tricked and conned into service of the voucher "movement" at stunning velocity, causing utter confusion in the ranks of Black politicians and educators. Black America has never before faced the raw power of money on this scale. At no time in our history has cash been offered so freely to Black people of no previous interest to the captains of capital. The experience is entirely unprecedented - and deadly dangerous.

The Issue Before Us

The emphasis of this piece has been on Kaleem Caire’s previous connections. To which, of course, some might say, “So what?!”  After all, no one disputes that he has done some very positive things through his commitment to improve the educational achievement of so many.

Some will also want to dismiss Kaleem Caire’s connections to the “Hard Right,” documented here and elsewhere, as a bit of “guilt by association” overreach. Others might argue that what has been presented is “old” history, and that things are different now. Those early ventures, it could be argued, involved efforts to extend the school voucher movement and that charter schools or preparatory academy attempts to “close the achievement gap” are something entirely different.

The terrain has shifted since the early 2000s, depending on the locale, to an emphasis on charter schools rather than vouchers, a focus on legislation regarding state chartering authority, and contests for control of local school boards. The same forces continue to operate as strange contradictory alliances continue to be forged, however.

School boards, teachers and teachers’ unions have come increasingly under assault while well-endowed think tanks, “public policy” fronts, conservative law firms, legislators, public relations experts, and “free marketeers” too often fueled by rightward foundations, continue their offensive.  At the same time, eager “edupreneurs” with eyes fixed on public school coffers have come to mix freely with sincere folks legitimately concerned with the plight of all the kids not being served to the fullest in schools increasingly under attack and underfunded.

Those concerned with our schools and how they might best serve the needs and aspirations of all the young people in the district must place any solution in that broader context.

* Along with other sources, this section draws largely from the July, 2003 report on the BAEO issued by the People for the American Way, “Community Voice or Captive of the Right? A Closer Look at the Black Alliance for Educational Options”  (

[1] Next Generation Education Foundation, Next Generation Preparatory Academy for Young Men – Business Plan: A prospective Public Charter School in the District of Columbia (August, 2009) (

[2] Annenberg Public Policy Center press release, “New Annenberg Research Tracks over $105 Million in Inside-the-Beltway Print and TV Issue Ads During the 107th Congress,” June 19, 2003. Accessed via: