By Ansev Demirhan
Dark money-funded women’s groups are using this deadly pandemic to push their right-wing agenda to privatize public schools.
There is no doubt that the Covid-19 contagion has strained parents and teachers contending with how best to protect against the spread of this disease, which has killed more than 800,000 Americans and injured the health of millions, including children and the parents and grandparents who raise them.
But some groups appear to be trying to exploit this crisis to reduce funding for public schools. For example, the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice (IWF/V). Since the outset of the pandemic, this Koch-tied duo has attacked public health measures recommended by experts in virology. They opposed quarantine measures designed to prevent the spread of the disease and even urged that home-based child care limit sanitation standards. Almost immediately as the pandemic was breaking, they were touting homeschooling and “unschooling.”
Just three months into the pandemic, they were demanding that schools re-open, even before there was a vaccine for kids or for those whom kids might infect–school bus drivers, teachers, teachers’ aides, administrators, parents, and grandparents. Meanwhile, they opposed a federal paid and family medical leave plan during the pandemic health crisis while pushing an alternative that would siphon tax dollars out of social security and fail to cover most medical leave, including if a family member falls ill. After vaccines started to become available in 2021, more kids returned to in-person schooling–despite ongoing concerns about the spread of the disease and potential variants that would likely result due to the number of kids and others who were not vaccinated.
Now, in response to the decision of some public school districts to return to virtual learning during a surge of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, IWF/V staffers are again emphasizing “school choice,” a term employed by Milton Friedman and others to describe the libertarian agenda to siphon tax dollars from public to private schools. IWF has claimed “the case for educational freedom for everyone is undeniable.”
For IWF/V, that “freedom” has involved efforts that undermine COVID-19 expertise, including the expertise of Dr. Anthony Fauci ( the premier infectious diseases expert in the country) and the CDC. And the Washington Post uncovered how they have tried to get parents to push back against mask-mandates in schools, a practice they continue to employ.
To be sure, this pandemic has harmed children (including thousands orphanedbecause of the virus) and adults, but IWF/V have actively opposed many of the social safety net programs–like child care and parental leave–that would genuinely benefit the lives of almost all Americans and their families.
IWF/V has a record of pushing school privatization efforts, including drafting memos that promote school privatization and claims that people “underserved” by the “education monopoly” (a libertarian framing of public schools) stand to gain the most from privatization . They have also supported legislation that takes money for public school money and gives it to privately run entities. Some of their staffers have made careers out of promoting the reallocation of funding away from already underfunded public schools in America.
IWF/V has also attempted to rebrand itself as a pro-parent organization. They have joined the right-wing engineered movement to stop public schools from teaching teens and kids the truth about history.
IWF’s press statement last week in commemoration of National School Choice Week touted 2022 as “The Year [o]f [t]he Parent,” part of their apparent effort to aid right-wing politicians to win elections this year, as with their messaging around Virginia. IWF’s school privatization agenda is part of a longer and larger right-wing agenda to funnel money from public schools into a parallel, and private, school system.
How So-Called “School Choice” Hurts America
IWF/V portrays school privatization as the solution to parental frustrations with public school responses to Covid-19, such as virtual learning and school closures, along with the loss in learning for many kids that has resulted from the society-wide (and global) disruption caused by this once-in-a-century contagion. They also claim that taking money out of public schools is supposedly the great socio-economic equalizer this country needs, but their arguments obscure the real problems with school privatization.
“School choice,” pulling money away from public schools towards private schools, has a historically racist foundation. Starting in the 1950s White parents in the South began devising ways to transfer their children from public to private schools to avoid racial integration following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that separate public schools were inherently unequal. Racist white men who were governors and legislators changed state laws to invent tuition vouchers or grants to allow white students to transfer to private schools.
Many of these changes were framed using the language of “freedom to choose.” Milton Friedman, the Chicago economics professor, attacked the Brown decision and the policy of having no public schools at all, and argued that parents should be free to choose all white, all black, or mixed schools, as part of a “free market.”
The effort by racist Southern politicians, like Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, led to entire public school systems shutting down to limit racial integration. After the “Little Rock Nine” enrolled in their local public high school, Faubus shut down all public schools for more than a year to allow private schools to be created for white students to attend, for example.
A differently constituted Supreme Court later ruled against efforts to integrate city and suburban schools in the wake of “white flight,” which reinforced deeply rooted economic and racial inequalities. The result is that, despite efforts to ensure a baseline of equal per capita school funding by states, most public schools are funded by property taxes, which has the effect of richer neighborhoods having better-funded public schools and having predominantly richer kids in attendance, and poorer neighborhoods having less funding and having economically vulnerable students to educate and aid.
Some of the proponents of school privatization contend that this problem does not exist in the context of voucher programs or privately-operated charter schools. And that is simply untrue.
For example, research shows that a strong predictor of White private school enrollment is the proportion of Black students in the local public schools. Similarly, in Nevada a judge found that their state’s experiment with a “universal” school voucher program disproportionately benefited rich families.
According to nine studies conducted by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, school privatization programs deepen educational inequality, do not yield consistent learning gains, and as other research has shown, actually increase racial segregation.
IWF/V supports “school choice” in its various forms (homeschooling, private and parochial schools, “virtual schools,” , etc.), but appear to be most vocal in their support of publicly-funded vouchers to attend private schools and charter schools that are not operated under the same rules as public schools. A closer look at the issues surrounding vouchers and charter schools elucidate some of the problems with “school choice.” Vouchers are funded by taxes and are used to subsidize tuition fees at private schools. Charter schools are publicly funded through taxation but are often established and operated by for-profit organizations, and are not necessarily held to the same standards as traditional public schools.
Some school privatization proponents claim that in a privatized school system parents hold all the decision-making power. But charter and voucher-recipient schools are not required to accept all students, unlike public schools, and have been shown to push out students with challenges which can help some private schools record high test scores.
Voucher programs pushed by groups like IWF/V would take tax dollars that would go to their local public schools and use that money to fund private or parochial schools. Such vouchers often do not cover the full cost of private school tuition, which means such programs can help families that are better off and who can supplement the difference in tuition costs. As Duke University Professor Nancy MacLean has documented, Milton Friedman exploited white supremacy to promote the voucher schemes he endorsed and promoted.
IWF/V and most proponents of “school choice” avoid discussing the terrible track record of charter schools, many of which fail to remain open for very long. More than a quarter of charters close after just five years, up to forty percent after ten years, with even higher rates of closure in the poorest neighborhoods according to a comprehensive analysis of charter schools between 1999-2017 by the Network for Public Education.
IWF/V staffers, and other proponents of school privatization, frame their appeals to parents as consumers. “Competition means better education quality because it allows parents to hold failing schools accountable. Right now, there’s largely a monopoly on K-12 public schools, and monopolies hurt consumers. . . ” wrote IWF staffer Carrie Sheffield. IWF/V, like Friedman, have claimed that public schools are federally funded and therefore disincentivized to do better by students and parents.
However, the reality is that charter bills advanced by the Koch-funded ALEC and its other funders eliminate most of the public oversight of charters (as well as how voucher money sent to for-profit or non-profit private schools is spent). This lack of accountability compared with public schools has been decades in the making and it has led to massive cases of fraud and waste. Strong federal oversight of the more than $3 billion it has also been greatly lacking.
Additionally, unlike public schools, there are no publicly-elected school boards for charters that can be held accountable. In reality, the public knows very little about how these tax dollars flowing away from public schools are spent, and that is precisely one of the objectives of right-wing legislation that has advanced the aims of the charter school industry.
According to Media Matters, anti-public school legislation also weakens workers rights, because most charters and other private schools are not unionized. Such measures can also convert public assets into sources of privatized profit, as with charters that outsource administration to for-profit entities run by the spouses of charter operators or that convert voucher funding for facilities into real estate assets owned by real estate holding companies.
All of this is being done, with little apparent regard to how these policies leave public schools even further behind.
Meanwhile, IWF/V accuse teachers’ unions of harming students. Most recently, they have gone after the Chicago teacher’s union which won increased safety measures for their schools during the Omicron surge after an eleven-day strike. IWF/V-ers have repeatedly maligned Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, including accusing her of orchestrating school closures that are being caused by this deadly contagious disease. These attacks seemingly disregard the physical well-being of students and the teachers who educate our children. Numerous public school teachers and bus drivers have died from Covid after continuing to work in person, due to inadequate state safeguards or other reasons.
There are other negative long-term effects of school privatization that its proponents fail to address. School privatization obviously reduces funding for public schools, weakening universal public education and the ability of schools and teachers to meet the needs of students. School vouchers also require taxpayers to carry the financial burden of private schools, potentially including subsidizing religious indoctrination, a bill estimated to be at least $59 billion a year.
IWF/V Are Pay-to-Play Groups, Funded in Part by the Underwriters of Public School Privatization
A closer look at IWF/V’s funding reveals how school privatization is a central component of their political agenda.
IWF/V have been funded by dark money groups tied to Leonard Leo (who advised Trump on who to make a federal judge) and his benefactors as well as industries like Big Tobacco and PhRMA. IWF/V does not disclose donors, but accepts funds from major corporations without publicly disclosing ties when writing about issues that advance their funders’ bottom-line, as with Juul. Between 2011 and 2019, IWF has received over $3.4M from DonorsTrust, dubbed the right-wing’s “dark money ATM.”
Notably, IWF/V has long financial ties to several organizations and people who have invested their riches in dismantling the U.S. public education system. These groups include: the Charles Koch Institute and Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and the DeVos fortune of Dick and Betsy DeVos. It also has had ties to the Koch-funded ALEC, the Center for Education Reform, and American Federation for Children all of which push for school privatization. Indeed, as documented in the Bill Moyers’-narrated documentary, United States of ALEC, Milton Friedman called for the abolition of public schools and praised ALEC for its efforts to kill public education, noting that they had not quite succeeded yet, circa 2006.
IWF/V has deep ties to billionaire Charles Koch and his operatives and fortune. For example, IWF was led for years by Nancy Pfotenhauer, who had been Koch Industries’ top lobbyist in DC and led both IWF and the Kochs’ Citizens for a Sound Economy/Americans for Prosperity in shared offices in DC.
Charles Koch has long had antipathy for public schools. As True North’s Lisa Graves has documented, his very first non-profit enterprise, the Center for Independent Education, was devoted to pushing for purely private schools with no public oversight. For decades, he has funded groups that attack public education.
Notably, in 2019, the Koch network funded two additional, new education initiativesintended to dismantle K-12 public education. One of them was created in 2019 by Charles Koch and is called Yes. every kid. That group pushes for private school vouchers and charter schools. It was launched in conjunction with a $5 million pledge to a second group called “4.0,” which describes itself as a project that financially supports, “education entrepreneurs in incubating, testing and launching innovative approaches to education.” The Walton Family foundation also committed $5 million to 4.0.
The Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which has been a major funder of IWF, has spent tens of millions of dollars on education privatization, according to the non-profit progressive group One Wisconsin Now. Bradley, the fortune of anti-union industrialists, has long sought to expand the diversion of public school funding for private school vouchers, and it is one of the biggest funders of charter schools proponents. Bradley Foundation money and influence helped establish Milwaukee’s school voucher program in 1991, the first in the nation, and later funded lawsuits to expand using public tax dollars to subsidize religious indoctrination through private school funding.
ALEC is a corporate-funded bill mill that brings together lobbyists and state lawmakers to vote in secret and as equals on so-called “model” legislation sought by special interests to be introduced in state legislatures dominated by right-wing ALEC legislators. Among decades of its bills to weaken public schools and attack public sector unions, ALEC pushed for the Charter Schools Act, which allows for the creation of charter schools that do not have to adhere to the same laws and regulations as public schools, despite these charter schools being funded on a per-pupil basis–like public schools.
Another funder of ALEC, the Center for Education Reform, is a pro-school privatization group focused on expanding charter schools and vouchers. CER has had a seat and a vote on ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force, where special interest groups vote secretly as equals with ALEC legislators on bills before they are introduced in statehouses. Prior to working for IWF, Inez Stepman worked on research for CER and went on to serve as the director of ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force. She is also a fellow at the Claremont Institute, which is affiliated with the disgraced John Eastman, who composed the discredited memo that tried to justify overturning the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election–Joe Biden.
The American Federation for Children (AFC) is another dark money group that promotes school privatization through ALEC. AFC is the 501(c)(4) arm of the Devos Family’s Alliance for School Choice. (Betsy Devos was appointed Secretary of Education by Trump and proceeded to cut funding for public schools while creating the first nationwide federal private school vouchers program. When questioned by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, DeVos refused to say whether the Department of Education would protect private school students from discrimination, despite private schools receiving federal funds.) IWF staffer Ginny Gentles is also a “senior advisor” for AFC. She also hosts a vlog she calls “Escaping Your Government Assigned School” on IWF/V’s Independent Women’s Network and started her own “school choice” consulting firm in 2017.
In 2019, IWF/V awarded Betsy DeVos a made-up award they call the “Woman of Valor” for her leading role in pushing an anti-public school agenda. IWF/V gave the same award to former board member Kellyanne Conway after she helped Trump win the White House and defended his lies as “alternative facts.”
Additionally, IWF staffer Vicki Alger was part of the Trump-Pence transition team, advised the U.S. Department of Education on “school choice,” and reportedly helped shape school voucher and tax-credit scholarships programs in Arizona.
IWF/V Uses Their Assets to Platform Right-Wingers Attacking Public Schools
IWF has platformed the views of notable anti-public education militants. These include:
- National School Choice Week President (NCSW), and former American Federation for Children staffer, Andrew Campanella. NSCW describes itself as a “not-for-profit, charitable effort to raise awareness of effective K-12 education options for children.” It routinely touts right-wing claims about schools and is bankrolled by the Gleason Family Foundation.
- Parents Defending Education (PDE) – the legal arm of the “parent movement” attacking public schools – which is led byNicole Neily. Neily has worked for various Koch-affiliated groups, including FreedomWorks and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (both of which were spawned by Koch operatives). She previously led IWF, and in 2021 IWF bestowed its newly made-up “Resilience Award” to PDE Vice President Asra Nomani. On a recent DonorsTrust podcast, Neily claimed that one solution to the “issues” in public schools is introducing competition to public education through school privatization.
- Neal McClusky, who leads the “Center for Educational Freedom” at the Koch-funded and -founded Cato Institute, which argues that America needs to “break up the long-standing government monopoly[on public education]” and move “toward a competitive education market,” like billionaire Koch has pushed since he was a mere millionaire in the 1960s.
- Corey DeAngelis, also from the Cato Institute, argued that the first full calendar year of the pandemic, 2021, was a great year for school choice. She recently bragged that “I’ve already been tapped by or messaged by people telling me that there’s going to be several school choice bills filed in different states [in 2022].”.
- Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, who is widely viewed as inventingthe rightwing hype that “Critical Race Theory” is part ofpublic school curricula and using it as a flash point to fuel right-wing animosity towards the public schools.
- Jason Riley, who is also with the Manhattan Institute and pushes privatizing public schools. Riley recently urged Republicans to use the crises in public education to help them win midterm elections: “Republicans ought to embrace the opportunity to explain to voters why the best response—to everything from racial propaganda and incompetent education bureaucrats to mask mandates and learning gaps—is more school choice.”
The Independent Women’s Law Center (IWLC) also filed an amicus brief in support of Amy and David Carson, who sued the state of Maine for excluding parochial schools from their state tuition assistance programs. What is at stake in Carson v. Makin is the separation of church and state. But this case also points to the issue of a lack of anti-discrimination regulation where parochial and private schools are concerned.
Both of the private schools featured in Carson discriminate against the schooling and employment of non-Christians and LGBTQ people. Temple Academy’s hiring guidelines state “God recognize[s] homosexuals and other deviants as perverted,” and a listed objective of Bangor Christian’s social studies class is to “refute the teachings of the Islamic religion with the truth of God’s word.”
IWF also recently endorsed a bill by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) that they call “The Children Have Opportunities in Classrooms Everywhere Act” (or CHOICE Act). It would create a federal voucher system that would pull money away from public schools if parents want to pay for private religious or secular education or do homeschooling.
IWF/V has recently taken on a “pro-parent” persona, despite its long history of opposing numerous public policy initiatives designed to help children and their families. Public school privatization is one more in a long list of measures they embrace that would redistribute resources away from the public good to aid private interests.
True North’s executive director, Lisa Graves, and research director Evan Vorpahl contributed to this analysis.