Hypocricy and Co-Optation in Education Reform

The Producers (1967) Poster

No, this is not a contentious and offensive analogy between Common Core, testing and Nazi Germany. It’s a post about how a movement can be co-opted. And how to fight back. It’s about strategy co-optation and “ideological camouflage” in which one agenda can be disguised as something else. In this instance it’s about corporate players camouflaging private interests as a public good, and then pointing the blame elsewhere as a distraction. These strategies (listed here) are not top secret. Anyone who has taken marketing or advertising 101 knows how public perception can be manipulated by media and “research.” Because something is not common knolwedge does not make it conspiracy. It just makes the public susceptible to ideological manipulation. I reference here a few historical and fictional examples of how such strategies have been used, and how the American Legislative Exchange Commission’s (ALEC’s) agenda to corporatize, profit from and privatize our public schools eerily mirror these tactics.

The title of this blog is a reference to the movie The Producers (1967). The premise of the movie is that the two main characters, a theater producer for Broadway (played by Zero Mostel) and a meek accountant (Gene Wilder) are both in a slump and they are in need of money. It occurs to Gene Wilder that they’d make more money with a flop than a hit because they can collect the insurance when it goes belly up. So they create a Broadway musical they believe will flop, basing it on a screen play written by an old post-war Nazi nut. There’s the infamous scene where the audience sits in shock and horror while the singers and dancers on stage all croon, “Its springtime for Hitler and Germany.”

So what if…just what if… you were an organization that intended to privatize public education? Given how deep seated our democracy is with the ideal of public education, such a proposal would not win over very many except the most die-hard followers of Milton Freidman. Perhaps you’d get more people to adopt your agenda if first you created systematic “reforms” intended to be a flop. And then when the reforms “fail” you could cash in on your real agenda?

The goal of ALEC is to craft model legislation behind closed doors to create state level policies which serve the interests of their corporate partners. They are a powerful private-public partnership devoted (to a fault) with Milton Freidman’s notions of private enterprise at the expense of the public good.  Many of the polices we are seeing promulgated right now can be traced to model education legislation bills which can be seen etched carefully into state-level policies that call for:

-more (corporate led, hedge fund invested) charter schools,

-more vouchers draining the funds greatly needed by starving public schools into the pockets of “venture philanthropists,”

-the call for new teacher evaluations (rolling out the red carpet for union busting TFA faux teachers, and Pearson’s domination of the educational/testing system),

-replacing brick and mortar schools with online classrooms,

-obsessive amounts of data collection via the new tests, lobbying efforts led by Pearson, and political push by billionaires, and “research” done by big data gurus McKinsey and Co.

So does ALEC have a blue print for this nutty proposal? You bet.

Paul Weyrich is a co-founder of ALEC.  Eric Heubeck, Weyrich’s protégé, proposes a transition to the new elite domination of society … into a political force that can move the New Traditionalists into the position of ultimate power in our society.  Heubeck lays out a three-step process:

There will be three main stages in the unfolding of this movement. The first stage will be devoted to the development of a highly motivated elite able to coordinate future activities. The second stage will be devoted to the development of institutions designed to make an impact on the wider elite and a relatively small minority of the masses. The third stage will involve changing the overall character of American popular culture.

Our movement will be entirely destructive, and entirely constructive. We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them, and eventually destroy them. We will endeavor to knock our opponents off-balance and unsettle them at every opportunity. All of our constructive energies will be dedicated to the creation of our own institutions.

We will use guerrilla tactics to undermine the legitimacy of the dominant regime. We will take advantage of every available opportunity to spread the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the existing state of affairs. For example, we could have every member of the movement put a bumper sticker on his car that says something to the effect ofPublic Education is Rotten; Homeschool Your Kids.’ This will change nobody’s mind immediately; no one will choose to stop sending his children to public schools immediately after seeing such a bumper sticker; but it will raise awareness and consciousness that there is a problem. Most of all, it will contribute to a vague sense of uneasiness and dissatisfaction with existing society. We need this if we hope to start picking people off and bringing them over to our side. We need to break down before we can build up. We must first clear away the flotsam of a decayed culture.

In terms of our long term prospects, because we will be seen as a purely defensive movement, not interested in imposing our views on anyone, only interested in being left alone, we will surely gain the sympathy of the public … Sympathy from the American people will increase as our opponents try to persecute us, which means our strength will increase at an accelerating rate due to more defections–and the enemy will collapse as a result.

So, how can you tell if co- optation is happening? There are three tenets to examine: message, funding, and motive. Messaging is the equivalent of marketing or advertising. It’s what you see on the shiny brochures or classy websites. It’s the sound bites. They may often promote similar goals and values. Or at least claim to. This is where they get folks on board. So it’s important to examine the funding and motive to see if your movement is being co-opted. Funding includes a deep examination of who is funding the organization. Though the messaging alone will not make evident your own goals are being cop opted, those who pull the purse strings pull the real agenda. The funding reveals the true motives. So what does it mean if an opt out group or an anti-Common Core group is funded by corporations? It means that the goals of those politicians, ideological agenda, or corporations funding the group are the true motives. It means co-opting is taking place. Message: Support Opt Out. Funded by: Corporations X,Y and Z. Motive? Take tips from Paul Weyrich — Opt out because “public schools are rotten. Promote privately run charter schools.” This is not the message of United Opt Out nor part of our motive! Co-optation is a way to use the energies of genuine activists and redirect them without even realizing its happening.

If you were looking to co-opt a movement, perhaps you’d take notes from post war Communist Russia. According to a story by 99% Invisible Radio, after Warsaw was destroyed in WWII the Communists decided to “rebuild” it, according to its original historical conditions. However, after reconstruction, things were not as they seemed. While the Communist developers gave the illusion of nostalgic accuracy… in fact things were constructed only on the surface to resemble Warsaw’s Old Town. Behind the veneer, inside the new buildings were completely in “communist style: fast, cheap, and big.”

The radio report says, “They wanted to send the message that the Old Town—and Warsaw as a whole—would be better than it was before the war.  Second, they didn’t want Poles to long for this lost part of the city. By recreating Old Town, the past could stop being such a distraction, and they could get to work on a drastic overhaul of the country.”

So via charter schools and 21st century curricula (aka Common Core), reformers create in the “illusion” of “public” schools, of supporting opportunity, of caring for kids: but beneath the surface something else entirely is being built; it is an ideological bait and switch toward privatization. And their strategy (from the playbook of Weyrich) is to build a narrative that will make public education “forgettable.” With the new faux “reforms” and enough time passing, people will cease to long for what they’re missing. It worked in Warsaw. Why not for ALEC and education?

It also works for organizations that “appear” to be in support of the testing/reform resistance. These co-opt actions are more subtle. It could merely be that politics have trumped ethics. Money talks. While some groups appear to support what we support, when you get past the “messaging” and find the funding connections, you can find the real motive. Make sure it’s one you share before endorsing partnerships with anyone. See Peggy Robertson’s blog post about The Education Commission of the States, a so-called “bi-partisan” non profit organization that claims to provide all the go-to resources any policy maker might need. They took the time to discredit United Opt Out state guides, and to offer their own version of opt out guidelines according to each state.  Old Warsaw? New Warsaw? As Peggy Robertson writes regarding Education Commission of the States:

ECS recently came out with an “opt out” document …to let folks know the legalities around opt out … This document allows folks to jump on the Opt Out Bandwagon, while defeating the main reason we have been successful as a social movement. We are successful because we recognize opt out as an act of civil disobedience. When folks share this document, while ignoring the social movement constituents – we are looking at a co-optation. 

Check out their funding: It’s a veritable Who’s Who of ALEC membership.

ALEC and the tentacles of its myriad reform legislation has also learned much from the film Promised Land (2013) as well.

In this film about Fracking in a small town, John Krasinski plays a guy pretending to work for an environmental company who wins the hearts and trust of the townspeople. But then later he is exposed for lying to them about something. So, they turn to Matt Damon who works for Global (the fracking company) who they had disliked previously. In one of the final scenes however, Damon, feeling he’d just made a major win for Global at the expense of Krasinski the environmentalist who failed, says that, by lying to the townspeople, “You just guaranteed we’d win.” Krasinki then confesses he’s working undercover for Global, unbeknownst to Damon this entire time. He had set it up so that disguised as an environmentalist, he’d win and then lose the trust of the people. Damon says, “Jesus Christ. You’re with Global” to which Krasinski replies:

Did you really think they were gonna
leave something like this in your hands?
After you let them bring it to a vote?
Steve, companies like Global, they don’t
rely on anyone. That’s how they win.
They win by controlling every outcome.
And they do that by playing both sides.

Anyone who follows policy is aware that the American Legislative Exchange Council rides both side of the “reform” fence. In a nut shell, there are two “teams.” First there’s Team Heritage Foundation (also created by Paul Weyrich)  and includes those members of ALEC who articulate an anti- Common Core and anti testing stance. Their claim is that federal overreach is an affront to “state’s rights” and local control. Not that we disagree with them on this. But Heritage Foundation has a very different motive and agenda than we do. Heritage and many other ALEC sponsored education front groups like Freedom Works are front and center in the efforts to lobby at state and federal levels for more privately- run publicly funded charter schools, including online education delivery systems (K12 Inc was the ALEC education sub-committee chair for years).

Then there’s Team Jeb, (aka Jeb Bush) -those members of ALEC who support Common Core and its tentacles of reform including standardized testing, school closures and new teacher evaluations. If you examine closely the corporations who funded the development and implementation of Common Core and the new PARCC and SBAC testing regimes, you’ll find many of them are members of ALEC. See a full blown set of connections here.

But…why? Why, if you are an organization dedicated to privatizing public education would you fund a “reform” policy for public schools which claims to “build 21st century career and college readiness” to rebuild public education? You wouldn’t. Unless… you knew it would be a flop. What if you knew you could help create a system so unbelievably bad, so offensive to parents, so harmful to teachers and schools (and quite profitable along the way), that you could generate a mentality which begins to hate public education itself? Then my friend, you’d have a hit.

It’s “Springtime for ALEC”-the “flop” that enables them to win big. The cost? Public education. And our children.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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