The Secret Group That Wants to Take over Your School

By Lahm, Sarah | The Progressive, June 2015 | Go to article overview

The Secret Group That Wants to Take over Your School


Lahm, Sarah, The Progressive


Don't look now, but there's something creepy coming toward you, and it wants to take over your public school system. Sure, it's connected--through all-important grants--to many of the big names in today's education reform movement (Gates, Walton, Broad), but most people have probably never heard of it.

This "education reform powerhouse" is the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which goes by the acronym CRPE--or "creepy." How fitting. While there are many individuals and organizations on the front lines of the free-market education reform movement--from Teach for America, to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to the Recovery School District in New Orleans-- CRPE has not been publicly outed. Instead, it has steadily carved out an influential role for itself behind the scenes.

In fact, CRPE operates in a manner that is strikingly similar to ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the secretive, powerful group funded by the Koch brothers and a large roster of corporations. Here's a look at how the two organizations work:

1. Member networks: Both CRPE and ALEC have a "secret club" component, through their member networks. With ALEC, the members are state legislators. With CRPE, they are school districts from across the United States (there are currently thirty-nine of them).

2. Network meetings: Both CRPE and ALEC host member network meetings or conferences, where a common philosophy (based on a distinct rightwing ideology) is honed, articulated, and shared.

3. Model legislation: Both CRPE and ALEC create sample, model policies (CRPE) or "cookie-cutter bills" (ALEC) for the districts or legislators who are part of their member networks.

4. Free-market funders: Like ALEC, CRPE is funded by very wealthy, free-market-focused special interests, including the Walton Foundation.

One difference is that ALEC has been around since the early 1970s while CRPE is a more recent concoction. University of Washington political science professor Paul T. Hill founded the group in 1993, just as the "accountability" movement in public education was taking off, and it is housed at the University of Washington-Bothell. CRPE is affiliated with the university, but Hill explains, "Our work is funded through private philanthropic dollars, federal grants, and contracts." And, although CRPE describes itself as engaging in "independent research and policy analysis," in 2011 the Center for Media and Democracy's Source Watch website tagged the group as an "industry-funded research center that ... receives funding from corporate and billionaire philanthropists as well as the U.S. Department of Education."

While Hill may not be well known nationally, he is no shrinking violet when it comes to agenda-driven policy work. Beyond CRPE, he has been affiliated with the right-leaning Hoover Institute and its Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, which focuses on vouchers and other market-based, privatization-centered reforms for public schools.

And that right-leaning stamp is all over CRPE, which has built a network of "portfolio school districts" from New York City to New Orleans and beyond. It promises to run these districts like a stock portfolio. Under this model, schools are to become more "autonomous," and districts will be decentralized for a more "hands-off' approach. In an eighteen-month portfolio implementation guide that CRPE provides school districts, a suggested strategy for the first two months is to "announce the district will replace five schools with charter schools." Schools will be closed for such failures as "negative labor-management relations."

Many people in progressive-minded Minneapolis would be shocked to know that the Minneapolis public school system has been part of the CRPE network since 2010 (thanks to a makeover, led, for free, by consultants from the global consulting firm McKinsey and Company). Today, this shadowy organization is on the verge of completely overhauling the public school district's entire operation. …

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