BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
I was born in Indiana, started my career in Indiana. Most of my family of educators taught there. So, I was saddened to read Hoosier School Heist by Doug Martin, about the systematic destruction of public schools in Indiana. I learned about this book from Justin Oakely, an education activist who was teaching in the district I started teaching: Martinsville Public Schools. The illustrious John Wooden of UCLA fame also started his career in Martinsville.
Oklahoma and Indiana school systems were once ruled by Chiefs for Change, Jeb Bush’s cadre of school-choice proponents. Indiana was the first to show their Chief, the vilified Tony Bennett, the door. His opponent, Glenda Ritz, earned more votes than the governor or Mitt Romney. I was proud when our Chief, Janet Barresi, came in dead last in last year’s Republican primary. Despite these victories, reformers are clearly in charge.
Until I read this book, I didn’t know how bad it was in Indiana. How far down the path of privatized education my beloved home state has gone. I see this book as a cautionary tale for us in Oklahoma. We must pay attention.
Indiana’s charter laws are much more lenient than ours. For-profits, online schools, religious schools have all been welcomed with open arms and open palms accepting donations. Vouchers are equally wide open. Public schools have been stolen. And Martin traces the story, one foundation, one player, one payoff, one school at a time.
Martin systematically uncovers the agenda of several big players: the pretend liberals, the “Free-market Jesus” religious interests, and the government-corporate complex. All coming from a different place ideologically, they converged in a perfect storm attack on public schools.
The Pretend-Liberal Saviors include KIPP, the no-excuse charter chain, and Annie E. Casey Foundation, which does great work for kids. But they also funnel funding to groups who want to privatize education, including Teach for America, Stand for Children, and Democrats For Education Reform. These groups, as well as Bill Gates, use the language of liberals to push an agenda that will kill public schools. Free-market charters and vouchers to private schools are their tools; profit their aim.
Martin traces the work of religious groups in Indiana. Starting with the John Birch Society, he discusses groups funded and supported by the power brokers: Excellence Through Choice in Education, supported by Dan Quayle [yes, Dan, P-O-T-A-T-O-E, Quayle], John Bennett, and the Friedman Foundation. Others include Excellence Education for Everyone and Institute for Justice. Also mentioned are the Ayn Rand Institute and a religious charter chain called Lifeline, Youth and Family … who may or may not practice conversion therapy [the parallels keep appearing].
Then he zeroes in on the unholy alliance of government and business in Indiana and beyond: Chris Christie, Chris Cerf, Jeb Bush and his family, Walton, DeVos, supported by the Amway fortune, the Eli Lilly Foundation, and K12 online schools. All with buckets of cash to donate to hungry government agencies. He speaks at length about the Gulen charters. I know we have some in Oklahoma, but they must follow our charter laws … at the moment. Gates’ and Broad’s cozy partnerships with government agencies are here.
Governmental agencies seem to be conspiring with business – for a price.
Martin ends his book with the defeat of Tony Bennett at the polls, calling him the “Sam’s Club Hero.” We know the rest of the story, with the allegations of abuse and fraud at his beloved charters. We know he didn’t last long at Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. But the damage he and his buddies wrought didn’t go away.
As I read the book, my head hurt from all the names of groups and foundations and institutes and societies and federations and associations. If we needed any evidence of how well-connected and well-organized the privatizers are, Martin leaves no doubt. I re-read the book, copying the groups and individuals he mentioned. I was overwhelmed by the power they wield.
But this book is information, and information is power. We can use the Hoosier Heist as our warning.
Right now as I write, SB 68 has passed the Senate and is on its way to the House. It will give cities power to create charter schools, and cripple the already-struggling public schools. It appears that any charter – for profit, religious, ideological – can petition for a school. The author, Sen. David Holt, cites all the middle-class parents in the inner city who want a choice. I read “white parents who want to send their kids to schools with other white kids, leaving the ‘others’ in their struggling school.”
SB 609, the voucher bill, would be the finishing blow. Tax money leaves the public schools for private schools with no accountability. None. No real choice for parents either, since the choice is all on the side of the schools.
From Martin: “’School choice’ is their choice and will only make the gap wider.”
In one document I’ve seen, by 2028 Oklahoma public schools will be subsidizing every child in private schools … and what will be left for our students in public schools?
These two bills seem to be inspired by the success of Hoosier School Heist. Gut the current charter school law and invite Wal-Mart Charters, and then funnel public money to private schools with any agenda they choose to promote. Will we be talking about a Sooner School Stickup in the near future?
A quote at the end of the book from Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, crystallizes all my fears for public schools, and for my family business.
“We may well find, in a future world – where the rich have their own system of education, the religious have theirs, the poor don’t get educated at all, and everyone is schooled in contempt for those who are different [my emphasis] – that we have kept all our rights, yet lost everything but the pretense of democracy.”
We have been warned, Oklahoma.
– Claudia Swisher, a National Board Certified Teacher and regional coordinator for Education Leadership Oklahoma, lives in Norman, OK and is a frequent contributor to The Oklahoma Observer