“Corporate Reformers” Again and Again

Two previous posts (here and here) on philanthropists pushing a school reform agenda were parts of a chapter I am drafting for two editors of their  forthcoming book  on the current generation of wealthy donors trying to alter the educational terrain. This post is also part of that draft chapter and deals with the phrase “corporate reformers.”

For those readers who want all of the sources I used and accompanying endnotes, they will be in the final version of the chapter; I can supply the information on request.


Much like an earlier business-driven school reform movement launched in the late 19th century, civic and corporate leaders allied with enthusiastic donors seek to build human capital essential to fostering economic growth and stronger competition for global markets. Their overall strategy was (and still is) to apply a business model of competitiveness, innovation, and efficiency to public schools that fixed attention on the bottom line of test scores and return-on-investment in high school graduates entering and completing college.[i]

These leaders and foundation officials over the past quarter-century have created beefy portfolios of reform ventures including changes in funding and structural innovations such as vouchers, charter schools, high academic standards, testing and accountability including using student scores to evaluate teachers. This cobbled together strategy emerged from ideas tossed up by entrepreneurial policymakers and cherry-picking anecdotal and statistical evidence from here and there to build strong schools, strong students, and a strong economy.

Critics of this jerry-built strategy argue that such ventures flung together helter-skelter add up to a movement to privatize public schools through expanded parental choice of public schools and instilling market competition into a quasi-monopolistic institution. For-profit companies taking over low-performing public schools (e.g. K-12 Inc., Edison Inc.), non-profit charter schools (e.g., KIPP, Aspire, Green Dot), and requiring districts with persistent low-performing schools to outsource tutoring and other educational services to private companies—a mandate in the No Child Left Behind law—provide substantial evidence to critics who say that such a strategy will not only reshape public schools into business-like, highly competitive enterprises but also end up privatizing them.

Critics have called those leading the privatization of public schools “corporate reformers.” From the center and left of the political spectrum denunciations have poured over “corporate reformers” for sending public schools down the path of destruction.

Listen to Diane Ravitch:

As a historian of American education, I have seen, studied, and written about waves of school reforms that came and went. But what is happening now is an astonishing development. It is not meant to reform public education but is a deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling.

A veteran Louisiana English teacher in 2014 published A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education which, she said, analyzed current U.S. school reforms. To Mercedes Schneider, “’Corporate reform’ is not reform at all. Instead, it is the systematic destruction of the foundational American institution of public education. The primary motivation behind this destruction is greed. Public education in America is worth almost a trillion dollars a year.”

I have tried to avoid such terms because, in my opinion, they imply absolute certainty about reformers’ motives, smell of conspiratorial decision-making, ignore historical patterns of private-public collaboration, and the unvarnished embrace of market-driven capitalism and business practices that has swept across all U.S. institutions, including schools, in the past quarter-century. And so much of the back-and-forth about who is and who is not a “corporate reformer” is venomous personal attacks.  I am allergic to such implications, smells, and ad hominem language because both the acrimonious language neglects the obvious fact that close linkages with commerce have run through American society for decades, a society deeply anchored in democratic capitalism. [v]

My allergy is based on the following reasons:

*While the current generation of civic and business leaders, donors, and elected federal officials–policy elites– believe in the crucial importance of schooling spurring economic growth and believe in market forces advancing equal opportunity and democracy, similarities in beliefs hardly combine into a concerted effort to privatize public schools.

*Policy elites drawn from overlapping but distinct spheres of influence (e.g., CEOs, donors, elected officials, hedge fund managers, think tank writers, etc.) vary in their aims, strategies, and motives. They are seldom organized enough to maintain secrecy, control the flow of information, and follow through with decisions. But they can and do move in a certain direction even if at times they stumble badly.[vii]

*Policy elites are pragmatic decision-makers. Policies evolve out of practical decisions often made under political and economic conditions that require swift action to advance an overall agenda (e.g., top-down push for Common Core State Standards, abandoning small high schools as a reform strategy, embracing pay-for-performance plans).

*The charge that donors and policy elites are making profits and that money-making drives current efforts to privatize schools (e.g., Pearson, test-makers, technology companies for-profit charter schools) rings hollow given that much of the business done is made public and often draws negative publicity to the company, a result that gives CEOs the shakes. Also current critics have forgotten prior failures of private, for-profit companies running public schools. Few contemporaries remember the collapse of contracting-for-performance in Texarkana (ARK) or Gary (IN) the 1960s, or the belly-flop that Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) took in Baltimore (MD) public schools in the 1990s or Edison Inc. fleeing Philadelphia schools a decade ago.

*Finally, critics paint the current “corporate” reform agenda as privatizing the entire nation’s public schools—almost 14,000 school districts, nearly 100,000 schools, over 3 million teachers, and about 50 million students (2012) yet the vast majority of current reform-driven programs are located not in rural, exurban, or suburban schools but in cities where low-income minority students attend school. The constantly repeated statement that all U.S. schools have failed the nation and need to be transformed trips over obvious facts that nearly all of the reforms focus on urban schools housing a fraction of the U.S. student population.

Some examples: Parental choice through charter schools, magnets, and vouchers are common in large and middle-sized cities enrolling about 13 percent of U.S. students. Even in first-ring suburbs that have become largely minority such as Prince George’s County (MD) outside of Washington, D.C. where 67 percent of the population is middle- and working class African American, out of 204 schools in 2014, eight are charters.

Charters are rare, however, in largely white, middle-class suburbs such as Marin County (CA) where 60 percent of the school population is white and located in 79 schools of which three are charters (2013).

One would expect, given the overblown rhetoric and enormous media attention to these alternatives from which parents across the nation could choose, that over the past quarter century the spread of vouchers and charter schools would have spilled over suburbs and taken a deep bite out of U.S. students enrolling in school. That has not been the case.

Yes, charter schools have, indeed, spread, mostly in cities. Some cities such as New Orleans and Detroit have most of their students attending charter not neighborhood schools. Most cities do not have majorities of their students enrolled in charters but this two-decade old innovation is urban-bound (90 percent of Illinois charter schools are in Chicago; 80 percent of charters in New York state are in New York City). With growth in numbers from about 2000 to 6000 schools over the past decade (or about six percent of all U.S. schools) yet they enroll only four percent of all U.S. students (2012).

As for vouchers (including tax credits), they have surely increased public expenditures for private education in cities (e.g., Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C.). Moreover 18 states have laws permitting public monies through vouchers and tax credits to be used for private schools. But even with all of this support, about 310,000 students, or about six-tenths of one percent of U.S students (2012) use vouchers.

Frederick Hess made the point clearly of choice options largely occurring in cities, not in suburban school districts when he wrote: “Whether educational choice succeeds is ultimately in the hands of America’s suburban middle class. Choice advocates had better start talking straight to the soccer moms and NASCAR dads—with respect, reason, and rational incentives.”

Also one would expect from the bullish advocacy of vouchers and charters from donors (especially the Walton Foundation) and deep penetration into many cities that these ventures coupled with the use of business “best practices” in public schools would have shown clear-cut impact on student achievement. They have not.

In short, the high-pitched rhetoric and extensive media exposure including allegations about privatization of all U.S. public schools have yet to take hold in suburban districts for the obvious reason that these choice structures have joined libertarian and conservative champions to highly motivated minority parents stuck in segregated, poor areas of big cities. Rhetoric, media programs, and policies aimed at turning around all U.S. schools, then, are basically proxies for the failure of many urban schools to educate poor children and youth of color. Advocates of choice have yet to convince the majority of Americans that all U.S. schools are failing.

For all of these reasons, I have concluded that the common charge leveled by critics about a closely tied together coalition of CEOs, hedge fund managers, philanthropists, civic leaders, and similarly situated wealthy people called “corporate reformers” seeking to convert public schools into private ones is hyperbole. Surely, there are loose and shifting alliances—depending upon the issue–of policymakers, donors, business leaders, and elected officials who have mixed motives and fickle allegiances in setting the policy agenda for reform and deciding which policies to pursue. But these loose alliances are not tightly coupled by phone calls, emails, texts, and frequent closed meetings of top officials and donors who plot the demise of U.S. public schools.



[i] Not unlike the reform model of early 20th century reformers and donors where efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” sought to improve schools through “scientific management” or the application of business principles to schooling. They wanted to produce youth—native and immigrant–equipped with the essential skills to gain jobs in an expanding industrial economy. Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Merle Curti, “The School and the Triumph of Business Enterprise 1860-1914,” in Merle Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1966), pp. 203-260; David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974); David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).


ii] I use the phrase “policy elites” interchangeably with “top policymakers,” “civic and business leader coalitions,” “policy entrepreneurs,” and “reformers.” By “policy elites” I mean loose networks of corporate and civic leaders, elected policy makers, foundation officials, and academics who circulate ideas consistent with their views of problems and solutions, champion particular reforms, use both public and private funds to run projects, and strongly influence decision-making. Not unlike policy elites in business and civic affairs who are involved in growing a stronger economy, improving health care, protecting national security, strengthening foreign policy, and safeguarding the environment, policy entrepreneurs and reformers have ready access to media, are capable of framing problems, and set a public agenda for discussion. Or as one member in good standing wrote: “In public policy, it matters less who has the best arguments and more who gets heard—and by whom” (Ralph Reed, cited in Dana Milbank, Homo Politicus: The Strange and Barbaric Tribes of the Beltway [New York: Doubleday, 2008], p. 68).

Political party labels do not define these elites, although there are clearly Republican and Democratic members who wear their affiliation on their sleeve and, when administrations change, move in and out of office. I do not use the phrase “policy elites” to suggest conspiratorial groups secretly meeting and designing action plans. Nor do I bash elites. I suggest only that these overlapping networks of like-minded individuals share values and tastes and seek school improvements aligned with those values and tastes. As “influentials,” they convene frequently in different forums, speak the same policy talk, and are connected closely to sources of public and private influence in governments, media, businesses, academia, and foundations. They help to create a climate of opinion that hovers around no more than a few hundred national policy leaders and smaller numbers at state and local levels. Familiar with the ways of the media, these policy elites extend and shape that climate of opinion by closely working with journalists who report what they say, write, think, and do. Few members of these loosely connected policy elites, however, have had direct or sustained experience with school principals or teachers, much less engaged in the teaching of children. Yet their recommended policies, their “common sense” about what the nation, state, district, and teachers should do, touch the daily lives of both educators and children. See John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984); James Fallows, Breaking the News (New York: Random House, 1996); William Safire, “Elite Establishment Egghead Eupatrids,” New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1997, p. 16. For a survey of experts as to who are the “influentials” currently shaping school reform policy, see Christopher Swanson and Janelle Barlage, “Influence: A Study of the Factors Shaping Educational Policy,” (Washington, D.C.: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, December 2006).










Filed under school reform policies

27 responses to ““Corporate Reformers” Again and Again

  1. Alice in PA

    What is your opinion of ALEC?

    • larrycuban

      A Koch brothers funded organization that drafts templates for state legislation on topics that are part of the conservative agenda for the country including health care, revisions of the tax code, and school reform (e.g., caps on charter schools).

  2. Gary Ravani

    I am reminded of the old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to get you.

    I think there is enough evidence to rightfully suggest there is an agenda to privatize as much of public education as can be accomplished. The fact that the capitalists and “uber-efficient” business class can’t figure out how to do this efficiently doesn’t truly undermine the original premise.

    • larrycuban

      Well, Gary, if there is an agenda to privatize public schools, can you point me to evidence that such an agenda exists? I am trying to pin down such information and I would appreciate your help. Otherwise, privatization is an attribution of motive to donors and policy elites. Figuring out why these folks want to end public schooling requires, at the minimum, if not compelling at least credible evidence, not personal opinion. Thanks for the comment.

      • Matt

        Hi Larry!

        It’s localized and circumstantial at this point, but that may be because no one’s doing the research just yet.

        In Colorado, I’m sure you’ve followed the conservative “takeovers” of the allegedly non-partisan school boards in Douglas and now Jefferson County (both large suburban school districts). It became somewhat sensationalized when a Jeffco board member proposed a review committee for the AP US History curriculum (with the potential to look at all curricula–and it was passed by the 3-2 majority). Beyond the literal family ties among conservative board members on both the county and state school boards as well as their connections to other conservative politicians and agendas, the Jefferson County school board hired the assistant superintendent from Douglas County as the only “finalist” for the position.

        Relatedly, an interesting study might look at the correlation between the conservative “takeovers” of these non-partisan school boards and the increase in charter school applications (and acceptances) within those districts.

        The most sustainable reforms–liberal or conservative–are grassroots reforms, right?

        Thanks for the thought-provoking posts and your continually inspiring work in education!

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Matt, for your comments about JeffCo which I had followed but I did not know about Douglas County. I appreciate the information.

      • Gary Ravani

        I didn’t say “end public schooling.” I said “privatize as much of public education as can be accomplished.”

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the clarification, Gary.

  3. Hi Larry,
    I always enjoy reading your posts. The question I have after reading this one is: If you could run a school district any way you wanted to, what would you do?
    Many thanks for your work,

    • larrycuban

      I cannot answer your question because it depends upon too many variables and the context in which the district exists. You may see this as evasive, but it is surely the truth.

  4. Hi Larry,
    I don’t think you are being evasive; just telling it as you see it.

  5. Sadie Tate

    This is a very interesting read for me this afternoon. I have been reading so much lately on education reform, currently in fact a book by M. Shannon Hernandez who has written Breaking the Silence, A teacher’s look at why education reform is a must. Her look inside the classroom and at the students makes it all too real. http://www.myfinal40days.com is her site. We need this so bad, and she gets it.

  6. EB

    Thank you, Larry. Legitimate criticism of school reform policy and school choice is being warped and weakened by ad hominem attacks on the supporters of those policies and their supposed motives.

  7. Great post, Larry. The thing I like most is that it seems you are asking for the concrete evidence- not perceptions. I’ve always loved your term “policy elites.” I’d suggest the recent developments in Jeffco and Douglas County are not vast conspiracies to make money, but efforts by “policy elites” to push their style of reform.

  8. Donna Campbell

    I regret not reading this post until now. However, after reading the review of “The Public School Advantage” in today’s online version of Harvard Education Letter, the timing is perfect. In a nutshell, here are the authors’ findings: “In short, the differences in student performance across school sectors apparently have little to do with market forces such as competition and autonomy and much to do with the demographics of the students served. In fact, after considering demographics, the public schools appear to have a pronounced advantage in student performance.” The full review can be accessed at http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/31_1/helarticle/turning-conventional-wisdom-on-its-head-public-sch.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Donna, for taking the time to comment. I read Rob Smith’s review of the Lubienskis book so thanks for putting me on to it.

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