Reformer Love for the Opinion Pages
For reformers advancing their cause in the ubiquitous education reform battle, no medium is too insignificant for promoting privatization. As such, an important yet unassuming battlefield involves the opinion pages in community newspapers.
My first experience with this opinion-page battle involves reading then-Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) President Penny Dastugue’s October 9, 2012, defense of Louisiana’s own former Teach-for-America, Broad-Superintendent-Academy-trained John White in the Baton Rouge Advocate. In her letter, Dastugue praises White for his effective communications, a statement that is absolute nonsense to anyone who has asked White for a clear answer on any complex or controversial issue. Here is how Dastugue concludes her letter:
The Department of Education has an obligation to inform the public about changes that impact education. As president of BESE, I am grateful Superintendent White takes this responsibility seriously.
Penny Dastugue, president
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Dastugue’s propaganda is aimed at the unassuming reader who will not see this “letter” for the privatization ad campaign that it is.
White himself has also taken to the opinion pages. On June 19, 2013, White published this propagandistic beauty, which I systematically dissect in this post. White wrote his letter in response to LSU Professor Robert Mann’s confrontation of Louisiana voucher fraud, a confrontation coincidentally published following a legislative session that was no stellar finish for Jindal and White.
Time to defend the education reform agenda against those who are telling the truth. Take it to the opinion pages, where no references are necessary to support one’s assertions.
The opinion pages influence public opinion. This is not lost on reform-minded politicians. Consider, for example, a message from Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, featured in this post on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Here is an excerpt:
Sometimes, every level of government creates obstacles to success. I consider it a priority in the United States Senate to remove those obstacles and help citizens, taxpayers and parents succeed.
That is why I am fighting hard for more choice and freedom in our schools.
…School choice is working where it has been allowed to replace the education establishment.
At the end of this message, McConnell solicits donations and includes the following statement as a post script:
In a growing number of school systems throughout the country, voucher and charter school programs that allow public education dollars to follow the student to the school of their parents’ choosing are greatly improving student performance and giving children an opportunity for a better life. Voucher programs provide scholarships that let students enroll in private schools, while charter school programs allow educators to create public schools of choice free from the constraints of school district bureaucracies. [Emphasis added.]
McConnell et al. do not speak plainly. Vouchers take money out of the public schools and give it to private schools. If the students leave the voucher schools (which many do) and return to the public schools, that money does not automatically return with the student. As for charters, they have an established reputation being under-regulated.
“But the public will believe us because we are Senators Publishing an Editorial– therefore, we must be credible.”
The use of op/eds to shape public opinion has even been connected to our own US Department of Education (USDOE). Here is the game: The USDOE awards a grant to a pro-reform group. That group published op/eds but neglects to include the mandatory disclaimer alerting the public that the op/ed has been paid for using federal funding. This way, the public is not aware that USDOE funded this group. Now, the USDOE might not be called the culprit in such circumstances, but there are indicators as to lack of USDOE rigor in the process.
Below I excerpt the situation with NCTQ president Kate Walsh’s use of the op/eds from my blog post, NCTQ’s Varicose Reform:
NCTQ President Kate Walsh is sold on the reformer agenda, enough to warrant this 2003-04 investigation by the US Inspector General (IG) regarding $677,318 in USDOE unsolicited grant money awarded to Oquirrh Institute and NCTQ. As the IG report notes:
The purpose of this unsolicited grant was to increase the American public’s exposure and understanding of the research and full spectrum of ideas on teacher quality. According to the grantees’ monthly progress reports, NCTQ was able to publish op-eds in 11 newspapers; however, we have been able to obtain copies of only three. The three op-eds we reviewed focused on proposed changes in teacher reform and NCLB. Each op-ed advocated a particular viewpoint and did not contain the required disclaimer.[Emphasis added.]
Kate Walsh wrote all three op/eds.
The op-eds can be construed as advocating a particular point of view. In the op-ed published in the Mobile Register, Walsh states that the NCLB requirement that all teachers be rated “highly qualified” in the subjects they teach “is not overly demanding or unfair.” She later states “[t]he inability to reach consensus over these minimal requirements signals a resistance, however unintended, to putting the needs of children first.” [Emphasis added.]
Similarly, in the other two op-eds, Walsh advocated policy positions. In the op-ed published in the Grand Island Independent, she advocated changes in teacher qualification requirements in Nebraska. In the op-ed published in the Sacramento Bee, Walsh states: “[p]utting merit pay decisions in the hands of states or even school districts [sic] officials still will lead to excessively complicated formulas that suppress the potential benefits that merit pay could achieve.”
None of the op-eds we reviewed disclosed the role of the Department. Prior to the initial publication of the op-eds, a Department grants specialist reviewed a draft op-ed and reminded the grantee that the Department’s regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 75.620 require a disclaimer on all grant publications. The grant specialist did not know why the published op-eds did not contain the disclaimer. [Emphasis added.] …
As these op/eds were published without the EDGAR (Education Department General Administrative Regulations) disclaimer, the funds used to produce them may have resulted in an improper expenditure of grant funds. If all of the produced op-eds are similarly silent on the role of the Department, then all of the expenditures associated with goal one of the grant may have been improper. [Emphasis added.] …
Why conceal the funding behind the letters if not to present the illusion that no major organization (in this case, the USDOE) is promoting the messages? After all, wouldn’t it interfere with the ”grassroots” facade to have a USDOE disclaimer attached to a seeming “home grown” opinion piece?
…It is illegal. In fact, the IG report said that NCTQ needed to return the money for failure to disclose the funding:
The disclaimer language required by EDGAR applies to any publication produced with grant funds. In the absence of the disclaimer language, the funds used to produce a publication may be an improper expenditure, requiring the Department to initiate appropriate recovery action. The three op-ed pieces appear to be such expenditures. [Emphasis added.]
Another situation in which USDOE money was used to purchase op/eds absent the required disclaimer involves the Hispanic Council on Reform and Educational Options (CREO) promotion of vouchers. Here is an excerpt from the 2005 Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) report on the audit of USDOE grants:
The Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (CREO) received unsolicited grants for two consecutive years… to promote school choice… for Hispanic students. …The production of op-eds was included in progress reports under the FY 2003 grant and in a list of previous grant activities in the FY 2004 proposal. …
Two op-eds were published in the Dallas Morning News (Texas) in August and October 2004. Both advocate a particular point of view for Hispanic parents and about the Dallas Independent School District’s actions regarding students’ right to transfer schools. …
In the October 2004 op-ed, Garcini (Marcela Garcini, the Director of Parent Outreach for CREO) accuses the Dallas Independent School District of engaging in a “conscious effort to prevent eligible students from exercising their right to transfer to a better school,” and “blaming parents for their children’s underachievement.” She also states “I am tired of hearing excuses about the lack of funding for schools, particularly under No Child Left Behind… Don’t get caught up in the hype about funding, laws and politics. This is about our children.” …
The other products developed with grant funds included printed materials and at least one informational video, all designed to educate parents about school choice and tutoring options. None of these materials included the EDGAR disclaimer. [Emphasis added.]
Whereas the USDOE has not been implicated in any wrongdoing regarding the publishing of op/eds without the required USDOE grant disclaimer, the OIG is clearly concerned regarding multiple USDOE grant recipients’ ignoring the use of the disclaimer for op/eds and for other forms of advertising.
Where did reformers get this op/ed idea?
Use of the opinion pages for promoting privatization is actually a decades-old strategy.
The 1970s and 80s were a boom time for the emergence of organizations known as “think tanks,” often called “institutes,” but sometimes called other names, such as “foundations” or “councils.” Originally, these think tanks formulated ideas but did not lobby for legislation advancing their findings. However, the Heritage Foundation, founded the same year as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)– 1973– shifted the role of the think tank to one of the systematic and methodical shaping of public policy via bombardment of letters to the editor and opinion editorials in newspapers:
In earlier times [1970s], think tanks conservative and liberal were usually the repositories of professional researchers and other academics who were paid to ruminate on the weighty matters of the day, then publish books on their findings.
But the Heritage Foundation struck on another model: Rather than academics, hire effective communicators and influence peddlers and devote resources to putting out short articles and op-ed pieces quickly, then get those messages out with savvy media methods. Dismissed in its early years as a haven for right-wing cranks, xenophobic eugenicists and neo-Nazis, the Foundation eventually became so successful at getting media attention, it could claim to be considered mainstream. [Emphasis added.]
ALEC founder Paul Weyrich also helped to found the Heritage Foundation.
Another think tank, the Heartland Institute (formed in 1984) currently publicly advertises its aggressive pursuit of this “local flavor” media strategy; in fact, it requires its interns to compose letters to the editor, op/eds, and Facebook and Twitter messages in order to advance the Institute’s agenda. According to the Heartland website, interns work 20 hours per week for 10 weeks and are paid $150 per week. Much of those 10 hours is spend in writing and disseminating Institute propaganda:
Among the specific tasks that will be assigned to the intern during this period:
…Daily submission of at least one letter to the editor. This will require reviewing news sources (Internet and print) for articles to respond to; drafting the letter to the editor for review by the Communications Director; and submitting it to the appropriate newspaper(s).
Weekly submission of at least one op-ed: review topics “in the news”; identify an article from one of Heartland’s four monthly newspapers or other Heartland publications that addresses that topic; create an op-ed from that article for review by the Communications Director. Determine which newspapers across the country the op-ed should be submitted to, based on a review of articles they’ve published that week; and submit the op-ed. Follow up telephone calls to determine whether the op-ed will be used.
Daily interaction/promotion using Heartland’s Facebook and Twitter accounts; finding compelling topics “in the news” that Heartland can share with others who embrace free-markets and liberty; commenting on the posts of allies and friends…. [Emphasis added.]
The Heartland Institute joined ALEC in 2010. Mark Oestreich of Heartland Institute sits on the ALEC Education Task Force; Oestreich proposed two ALEC model bills, the Parent Trigger Act (originated in Los Angeles with Green Dot charters and Ben Austin) and Taxpayers Savings Grants Act (a really fancy way to say “vouchers whereby public school funding is sent with students to private schools”).
The Heartland Institute advances the same privatization agenda as ALEC, with the notable exception that Heartland is against the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Not everyone is against CCSS, however. The Gates Foundation has pumped millions into CCSS. What better place, then, for Gates funding beneficiaries to show their thanks than in the opinion pages– only they don’t tell readers that they have received over $1.2 million in Gates funding between them. This excerpt is from an op/ed written by Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, and David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, published May 5, 2013, in the Pennsylvania Patriot News:
…With the input of educators, parents and experts in English and math, along with governors and other state-level leaders, the Common Core State Standards were developed for English and math. …
Lately, there’s been a lot of negative chatter about the Common Core, much of it based on ill-informed speculation that it is a federal government plot to “take over” our local schools, dictate classroom curriculum or compile databases on our kids for some sinister, unstated purpose. In reality, the Common Core is a state-led initiative that involves no new student data collection and in no way usurps Pennsylvania’s long history of local control.
Again with the peddling of lies. CCSS is anything but “state-led” and developed “by educators, parents and experts in English and math.” And to tell the public that CCSS involves “no new data collection” is to conceal the fact that this “data” is being gathered by entities outside of parental control.
Readers, when you see your next pro-reform op/ed or letter to the editor, consider that reformers are strategically using of the opinion pages to garner support for privatization from the unsuspecting–you.
They are banking on it.