Kevin G. Welner: Free-Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy (PDF)

Kevin G. Welner: Free-Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy (PDF)
Dissent, Spring 2011

Kevin G. Welner is professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education. His research examines the use of research in policymaking, the intersection between education rights litigation and educational opportunity scholarship, and the school change process associated with equity-focused reform efforts. His latest book, co-edited with William Mathis, is The Obama Education Blueprint: Researchers Examine the Evidence.


For about two years now, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been co-opting much of the GOP playbook on education. They support charter schools. They endorse merit pay. They decry teacher tenure and seniority. On alternating Thursdays, they bracingly challenge the teachers’ unions.” So begins a December 2010 article in National Review Online, authored by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute. Later in the article, Duncan receives praise from these conservative pundits for embracing spending limitations on American schools and welcoming—in place of those resources— “productivity” increases.

The Duncan-Obama approach should sound familiar, even to those who do not follow education policy discussions. Defund, deregulate, de-unionize, and shift to the private sector. Reallocate policy-making authority from democratic institutions to a wealthy oligarchy. Corporate-endowed think tanks like AEI have been successfully promoting this road map for everything else, so why not education?

But education is different in one disquieting way: many self-identified progressives have climbed on board the bandwagon. Some, in fact, are driving. Although the economic analyses offered by groups like the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress generally explore how to soften the sharp edges of market capitalism, their respective education divisions are busily promoting free-market policies in our children’s schools. Arianna Huffington warns against deregulation of the financial sector, but she’s all for it in the educational sector. Nicholas Kristof worries about a “hedge fund republic,” but joins in the hedge-fund managers’ campaign to criticize teacher-union contracts. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek sees dangers in unregulated markets yet pushes for more markets in education. As anyone who has watched Waiting for Superman can attest, Alter is particularly hostile toward teachers’ unions. Director Davis Guggenheim is another example: a hero of the Left for An Inconvenient Truth, but a hero of the Right for Superman. Media stars such as John Legend and Oprah Winfrey have also joined in, as have (to some extent) venerable civil rights organizations such as the United Negro College Fund and the National Council of La Raza.

The most engaged in this neoliberal education campaign are organizations focused on school choice: Democrats for Education Reform (and their 501(c)(4), Education Reform Now Advocacy), Education Sector, and the Progressive Policy Institute; as well as service-oriented groups like New Leaders for New Schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Green Dot charter networks, Teach for America, The New Teacher Project, Stand for Children, the New Schools Venture Fund, and even the leadership of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

These groups, it should be stressed, are very careful to avoid being characterized as politically on the Right or affiliated with Republican political efforts. Their collaborators, however, do not show any such reluctance. Right-wing, free-market think tanks have joined with neoliberal education groups in pushing for choice and privatization policies. These right-wing think tanks and similar organizations are active in every state, and many more are pursuing a national agenda. Together, these groups have launched a potent attack on the progressive foundations of American schooling, and they are framing this attack as a “civil rights struggle.”

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