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Back to school: Privatizers turn to big screen to push charters, trigger laws

by Becca Heller

As school starts up, it seems a good time to take a look at the a well-financed political tussle for control of the blackboards and soon-to-be bustling halls. It's a battle that pits upstart entrepreneurs and big-name philanthropists against the well-oiled political machines of the nation's leading teacher's unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The battle has been fought in Congress and state legislatures. More recently, it has gone Hollywood. 

Conservative bankrollers Rupert Murdoch and Philip Anschutz have teamed up to produce "Won't Back Down," a film that presents the inspiring,  yet one-sided, story of parents fighting to take over a failing public school using Parent Trigger legislation. Parent Trigger laws give dissatisfied parents the option to convert schools into charters and seek bids from outside organizations--both nonprofit groups and for-profit companies--to run them. The laws are the latest item on the push for privatization and have already been enacted in seven states. According to the Huffington Post, they have received backing from a politically diverse group of supporters ranging from the Walton Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council to the Bill Gates Foundation and some Democratic lawmakers.

Murdoch and Anschutz have pulled together a star-studded cast for Won't Back Down, due to premiere Sept. 28, including well-known actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. The two men are media powerhouses:  Murdoch's vast News Corp. empire includes 20th Century Fox. Anschutz is a conservative publisher who two years ago teamed up with some political liberals to produce "Waiting for Superman," another documentary that was harshly critical of the public school system. Movie critics liked it; teachers unions, not so much.

In an audio clip published by the Nation in October 2010, anti-union consultant Richard Berman reflected on the best strategies for pushing forward private education reforms. If we can't "intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…we need to hit on fear and anger," Berman explained. "Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem."

Murdoch, whose News Corp. is now investing heavily in the education market, has put Berman's strategy into action. Previews of "Won't Back Down" feature inspiring background music, touching parent-child scenes, and words flashing across the screen "the system can fail...but a parent can't."

While Murdoch and Anschutz's flashy efforts are likely to draw more attention from the general population, private companies and teachers unions have been investing politically in this issue for years, a check of the Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer shows.

Among the largest for-profit Educational Management Companies (EMOs) are White Hat Management, K12 Inc, Charter Schools USA, and Imagine Schools Inc. In the last 5 years, these companies have spent a total of $1.4 million in political contributions, predominantly channeling their money into GOP committees and legislatures. 

White Hat Management, based out of Ohio, has poured just under a million dollars into the Ohio Republican Party alone, not too mention the $200,000 it has split between the Ohio Senate and House Republican committees. Additionally, White Hat has made significant contributions to GOP legislators, Rep. William Batchelder, R-Ohio, ($83,000); Rep. Jon Husted, R-Ohio, ($75,990); and Gov. John Kasich ($46,186). In return, Batchelder was recently caught trying to slip in provisions benefitting White Hat, and Gov. John Kasich has been championing private education for years, funneling state taxes into charter schools. 

K12 Inc, was similarly rewarded for its more than $25,000 in contributions to Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Not only did McDonnell sign into law a bill that benefitted K12's virtual learning business, but he and his wife also made an appearance in one of K12's virtual classrooms. In addition, K12 has contributed money to Republican parties in several states in which it operates, giving $60,000 to Florida's Republican Party, $15,000 to Arkansas' Republican Party, and $10,000 to Georgia's Republican Party.

Charter Schools USA has also contributed $71,000 to Florida's Republican Party and has established 36 schools stationed in the state. With more than $125,000 coming in from various for-profit EMOs, Florida's Republican state legislators have begun pushing through bills to increase state funding for charter schools, as well as introducing Parent Trigger laws to state legislature. 

During the last five years, Imagine Schools Inc has given $10,900 to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.,  and $10,000 to Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio. When Wolf -- an outspoken proponent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, more popularly known as STEM -- created a committee to examine the state of the nation's education system, among the committee members he appointed was  K12 Inc. board member Craig Barrett. 

Meanwhile, teachers unions across the country have sought to defend public education, arguing that taxpayer dollars, instead of going to the private sector, should instead be invested in existing schools. While their unions' contributions dwarf those of the EMOs, it's important to note that teachers unions lobby on a wide range of issues whereas all of the EMO's contributions are focused solely on advancing their business model. 

In contrast to the EMOs, the unions have given primarily to Democratic legislators and committees. A look at some of the states that have been major battleground for the battles over control of the schoolhouse gives a sense of labor's clout: In the last year, the National Association of Education has contributed just under $11 million dollars to "We Are Ohio," a PAC active in Ohio, and another $600,000 to the Ohio Democratic Party. Likewise, the American Federation of Teachers has contributed just over $2 million to "We Are Ohio" and just under $80,000 to the California Democratic Party.