Larry Lee – Coincidence or Conspiracy in State Education?


Conspiracy is a strong word. Very, very strong. But coincidence seems way too meek and mild in this case.

Especially when you consider that out-of-state billionaires are sending money to Alabama to buy seats in the state legislature. Somehow, “meek” and “billionaire” just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence.

As one takes a step back and considers what has happened to public education in Alabama the last few years, as you look at what is happening across the country, as you snatch bits and pieces and notice the same names popping up time after time, as groups surface we have never heard of and you couple this with legislation that uses $66 million to benefit less than 4,000 students, it becomes impossible not to think there is a conspiracy afoot. If not that, then certainly a well-orchestrated campaign using a game plan written by folks other than the Alabamians trying to implement it.

The truth is, we’ve long had folks among us who believe they have been anointed to tell the rest of us how to live. They wrote the Alabama Constitution of 1901 that sorted us into economic classes and gave power to only their peers. They decreed that my sharecropper grandpa in Covington County could not vote without paying a poll tax.  They declared “separate but equal” with no intention of adhering to their own words.

This same mindset seems determined to mold our public school system to their own best needs and to declare that “government” schools are a failure and only they know how to fix everything. The voices of professional educators are not with them. Research studies are not with them. All they have is lots of money to deliver a message and total control of the Alabama legislature.

Of all the stars in the “corporate education reform” universe, one that often twinkles is former Florida governor and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush. Education was one of his poll-tested priorities while serving as governor from 1999-2007. Bush promoted high-stakes standardized testing, charter schools and vouchers for private schools. He also instituted the A-F school grading system that Rep. Terri Collins wants to see in Alabama.

Just as all that glitters is not gold, however, not everyone views the work of Bush in Florida as being worthy of all its praise. 

Not long after leaving the governor’s office, Bush created the Foundation for Excellence in Education, that, aided by support from Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Eli Board and various education companies, promotes the kind of reforms Bush pushed while governor.

The Washington watchdog organization, In The Public Interest, obtained e-mails showing that the foundation wrote and edited laws, regulations and executive orders to improve profit opportunities for FEE’s corporate financial supporters.

Bush has connections in Alabama. Former Gov. Bob Riley endorsed him for president, citing Bush’s education reforms as one of the reasons. Business Council of Alabama CEO Billy Canary worked for Bush’s father at the White House. And though Bush was unable to field a full slate of delegates for the Alabama Republican primary, he did round up such notables as Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, state school board member Mary Scott Hunter and state senators Steve Livingston, Gerald Dial and Jabo Waggoner. And Rep. Collins brought along Bush Foundation staffers to committee meetings working on the A-F school grading measure. It is also noteworthy that two of the Bush Foundation board members are Betsy DeVos of Michigan and William Oberndorf of California, two of the five billionaires who have sent $450,000 to the Alabama Federation for Children to use in political campaigns.

The stage was set in Alabama for an assault on public education by the takeover of the state legislature in 2010 by the Republican supermajority. A bill to allow charter schools in Alabama was attempted in 2012, but failed. But before people cry out for change, they must be convinced what they have is terrible.

The Alabama Accountability Act of 2013 was just the vehicle to do that. Patterned after a similar effort in Florida, AAA allows individuals and corporations to make donations for scholarships for private schools and get a dollar for dollar tax credit against their state tax liability. Since income taxes go straight to the Education Trust Fund, a dollar diverted for a scholarship is a dollar diverted from use by public schools.

We have diverted more than $66 million dollars since 2013. Since scholarship-granting organizations can use five percent of what they collect for administration and marketing, this is a war chest of more than $3 million dollars to spread the message of how poor public schools are. We can have slick videos on YouTube that talk about failing schools, fund direct mail campaigns and host rallies at the state capitol. You can write articles saying that 11,000 parents are standing in line to get their children out of public schools.

You then come back in 2015 with a charter bill, and it zips through the state legislature.  So you set up another bureaucracy at the state department of education to work with charters and you appoint a commission to set up all the rules, regulations and guidelines.  And since this commission can approve a charter application should a local school system turn it down, you make sure you have plenty of charter friends on it.

For instance, Gov. Robert Bentley just nominated two people to serve. One was Blake Harris, who has been head of StudentsFirst in Alabama (the California-based group created by Michelle Rhee that spent $200,000 in state elections in 2014). A lawyer with no education background, Harris was a key player in crafting the ill-fated RAISE Act.  The governor’s other nominee was Lisa Williams, who worked with the online charter school chain, K12, Inc., in Arkansas before moving to Alabama. (Toby Roth, former chief-of-staff for Gov. Riley, lobbies for K12, Inc.)

The governor also appointed Ryan Cantrell to be considered as a replacement for former state school chief Ed Richardson. Cantrell runs the Alabama Federation for Children, the group the out-of-state multi-millionaires sent $450,000 to. This is the same Ryan Cantrell who state school board member Matt Brown appointed to a statewide education committee and said the fact that Cantrell gave his campaign nearly $50,000 had no bearing on the appointment. Like Harris, Cantrell has no education experience. However, he was on President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s staff when the Accountability Act was passed in 2013.

Among other nominees were Mark Colson with the Business Council of Alabama; Hunter Oswalt, who worked for Teach for America and charter schools in Houston and Atlanta; and Charlotte Meadows, another former StudentsFirst lobbyist and close friend of Rep. Terri Collins.

Let’s circle back to Florida again. When the Accountability Act created scholarship-granting organizations, one of the first folks to get involved was Gov. Riley. He started the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund and formed a relationship with the largest such group in Florida, Step Up For Students. In fact, the last IRS 990 form filed by the Florida folks shows that they are the “direct controlling entity” for Riley’s organization.  This explains why four of AOSF’s seven board members are from Florida, three of whom work for Step Up For Students.

The head of Step Up For Students is John Kirtley, a wealthy financier, who serves on Riley’s board. He is also vice-chair of the American Federation for Children. Betsy DeVos, the same person who has sent $125,000 to Alabama for political campaigns, chairs this group.

Of course, we were told the Accountability Act was to “help kids stuck in failing schools by their zip codes.” So we declared the bottom six percent of all public schools were “failing.” And how were we going to help them? By taking some of their students away from them. Unless, of course, they were located in places like the Black Belt, where this was impossible due to distances and lack of transportation.

But we were not going to help them with additional resources, or reducing class sizes by hiring more teachers, bringing in instructional coaches, mentoring teachers or principals or by doing ANYTHING except tell the world that they were bad. The initial round of “failing” schools had 23,000 students. Of these, 87 percent were on free-reduced lunches and 91 percent were African-American.

So we set up a system that has diverted $66 million dollars from our 730,000 Alabama public school students so we could send less than 4,000 students to private schools, only about 25 percent of whom were zoned to go to a “failing” school.

Is it any wonder that when the most recent list of “failing” school came out earlier this year, the mayor of Montgomery talked about how his city needs charter schools? 

“I know there are some terrible charter schools out there,” he said, “but there are some good charter schools.”

The above statement indicates that the effort to castigate public schools is working. It’s funny that he didn’t say, “I know there are some terrible public schools out there, but there are some good ones as well.”

Yep, it all sounds peachy when legislators and out-of-state spin doctors tell us that their only interests are Alabama school kids. But when you connect the dots, it’s hard not to believe that the peach has a lot of wormholes in it.

In the first six months of 2015, five active Alabama scholarship-granting organizations raised a total of $11,845,131. The Riley/Florida SGO received $10,170,474 from 20 donors. But here’s the kicker: between April 16-19, 2015, someone wrote a check for $10 million dollars and gave it to the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund. So 19 donors gave an average of $8,972 and someone else gave $10 million dollars. That’s a $10 million dollar tax break for some company.

Conspiracy? Coincidence? All I know is that money – not professional educators – seems to be in control.

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