This article was published four years ago on this site but needs to see the light of day again.

-Dora Taylor

There’s a lot of brand new education research coming out nowadays, and it’s telling our policymakers that privatization is good for education. Class sizes are going up? That’s okay, because research shows that class size has little impact on student learning. Charter schools are competing with your neighborhood schools? Hey, many of them outperform public schools!

And this is good research. Great research. In fact, it’s the best research money can buy. Big money, I mean. Corporate money.

How do they buy it? Through right-wing think tanks. Corporations fund think tanks, and the think tanks employ researchers, and then the researchers wrangle leadership roles in strategically placed research centers, which – like schools – are being privatized.

This article takes a quick look at a few right-wing think tanks and how they’re steering education policy in just one city – Seattle, Washington. If you want to delve deeper into the topic of think tank propaganda, visit sourcewatch.org or rightwingwatch.org.

What Are Think Tanks?

Think tanks are organizations that produce propaganda posing as legitimate research for the benefit of their funders – generally, corporations and billionaires. Some of them were founded decades ago by pro-corporate leaders in partnership with millionaires and corporations. They were created for a specific purpose, such as to battle the “communist menace” after World War II or to help out the tobacco industry. Other think tanks have been founded more recently, by people such as the Koch Brothers.

This article will touch on just three: the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and the Fordham Institute.

American Enterprise Institute

The American Enterprise Institute is a pro-business, conservative think tank that puts profits before people. It was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders.

It has a rather spotty past — in the 1980s, it mounted a propaganda campaign for the tobacco industry, and in 2007, it came under fire for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warning.

In the field of education, AEI scholar Charles Murray drew fire for his book The Bell Curve, which used pseudo-scientific methods to argue that intelligence differs inherently across the races. Another prominent researcher is Frederick Hess, a pundit who argues against spending more money on schools and for laying off teachers and raising class sizes. Finally, closely affiliated to the American Enterprise Institute is Dan Goldhaber, a member of the AEI Future of American Education working group, which is actively working to privatize education.

Hoover Institution

The Hoover Institution is a public policy think tank that was founded in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, before he became president. It is extremely conservative and supports privatization of social services, deregulation of industry, school vouchers, tax cuts for the rich, and various other policies that also put profits before people. In exchange, corporations fund it well.

Its Senior Fellows include high-profile conservatives such as Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, and economist Milton Friedman. Friedman was an advisor to the dictator Pinochet and was in favor of deregulating and privatizing everything under the sun. In the field of education, one of its Visiting Fellows is Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush, who at the time supported vouchers.

Currently, the education efforts of the Hoover Institution are coordinated through the Koret Task Force. Some of the task force members are Chester Finn, Eric Hanushek, and Paul T. Hill.

Fordham Institute

The Fordham Institute is a conservative think tank that focuses on education under the direction of the Hoover Institution’s Senior Fellow Chester E. Finn. It puts out an online magazine, Education Next, which sings the praises of everything from charter schools to standardized testing and changes to “human capital” policies.

The Researchers

Think tanks employ researchers, who have gained prominent positions in public policy and make powerful voices in education debates. Here are a few major researchers and the projects they have taken on:

Eric Hanushek is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He publishes articles about education policy, but his main focus is economics. He was the first researcher to attempt to measure “teacher effectiveness” using “value added” methods – that is, the gain in student learning as measured by standardized tests.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, the chairman of the Koret Task Force, and the president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He also publishes for Education Next.

Paul T. Hill is a member of the Koret Task Force, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and a professor at the University of Washington Bothell. He promotes charter schools as well as vouchers and “school choice” – that is, encouraging schools to compete with one another.

Frederick Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He has written numerous books about education and has a column at the Education Week blog. He is also a codirector of the AEI’s Future of American Education project, a working group of twenty privatization-friendly researchers around the country, with the goal of finding and promoting original privatization research.

Dan Goldhaber is on the task force of the AEI’s Future of American Education project. He also happens to be the Director of the Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR) and a professor at the University of Washington. He is also a scholar at the Urban Institute. He focuses on “human capital policies” that affect teachers.

The Research Centers

Through their researchers, think tanks have come to have influence over a few key research centers. Think tank researchers from the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution lead the federally funded Urban Institute and CALDER Center. They also lead the locally funded Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR).

Meanwhile, the Fordham Institute, along with the Hoover Institution, funds the journal Education Next, where much of the research is publicized.

The figure below shows the relationship between think tanks, the research centers, and Education Next.

The CALDER Center

The National Center of Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) is a federally funded research organization that has a number of think tankers in management, on the advisory board, or working as independent researchers — Eric Hanushek and Paul Hill from the Hoover Institute and Frederick Hess and Dan Goldhaber from the American Enterprise Institute.

CALDER puts out working papers and policy briefs that have been widely cited and used to shape federal, state, and local policy. The working papers contain a disclaimer that they are for discussion purposes and have not gone through formal review. This means that the research results are only educated guesses. However, the privatization industry has made great use of them, referring to them with no mention of the disclaimer or the lack of peer review.

CALDER has “state partners” in several states. These partners are researchers that just happen to also lead other research organizations, which take funding from both public and private sources. The Washington State partner Dan Goldhaber, for instance, runs the industry-funded Center for Education Data and Research.

Center for Education Data and Research

The Center for Education Data and Research (CEDR) is a research organization in Seattle funded by a hybrid of governmental and corporate sources. It researches charter schools, vouchers, “human capital” policies, and high-stakes standardized testing. Some of its research uses quasi-experimental or case-study approaches, but the press releases and policy papers it puts out don’t disclose that. It is directed by Dan Goldhaber.

Center on Reinventing Public Education

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a research organization in Seattle, is funded by foundations and businesses, including the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the owners of Walmart. It promotes “alternatives of financing and governing public education” – that is, privatization. It supports standardized testing, “value-added,” charter schools, and pay cuts for teachers. Its director, Paul T. Hill, is also a member of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force.

Reporting on the Research

Education Next is a journal sponsored by the Hoover Institution, the Fordham Institute, and also the Harvard Kennedy School Program on Education Policy and Governance. Its editorial board is comprised of the members of the Koret Task Force – including, for example, Eric Hanushek and Paul T. Hill. And it has regular contributors from both the Hoover Institution (Chester E. Finn) and the American Enterprise Institute (Frederick Hess).

It’s a mouthpiece, then, for all three of the think tanks mentioned in this article!

Taking an Active Role

Think tanks and associated research centers are actively shaping education policy, steering it toward privatization. Researchers not only write policy briefs and host conferences for public officials, but they also end up in positions of power and use those positions to enact changes.

For example, a former researcher at CRPE, Bree Dusseault, is now an executive director of Seattle Public Schools. She recently drew fire for terminating a popular principal at Ingraham High, despite an outpouring of community support for the principal.

In another example, recommendations from a Fordham Institution report on “human capital” mysteriously found its way into the Seattle teachers’ contract midway through negotiations. The National Council on Teacher Quality, which is funded by the Fordham Institute and has the president of the Fordham Institute on its board of directors, actually sat down with the district and the union to give its recommendations – as if it deserved a place at the table!

What Can We Do?

What can we do to counter the influence of think tanks? Plenty. To name a few:

1. Go back to the basics

Those of us who had a quality public education learned how to evaluate sources in elementary school. Put that knowledge to work! Whenever you see that sneaky little phrase “research shows,” ask some impertinent questions. Which research exactly? What was the source? Who funded it? What do the other studies say?

2. Call a rose a rose

Think tankers have been spreading “glittering generalities” to cover up their nasty privatization and deregulation policies. Don’t fall into the trap of arguing using their terms. For example, “school choice” = vouchers, charter schools, and private schools. “Effective teachers” = teaching to the test. “Accountability” = high stakes testing and school closures.

3. Confront our policymakers

Our policymakers are listening to the think tankers. Fancy full-color policy briefs come at them from every direction. It’s nothing but advertising, but they don’t seem to know that. Who knows, maybe they went to a private school and missed out on that quality public education? Confront them. Ask them why they’re so in love with conservative think tanks. Do they have a secret privatization agenda too, or were they just duped?

4. Spread the word

Spreading the word person-to-person really works. The more people understand what’s really going on, the more people will be calling their school board members, writing letters to the editor, posting on blogs, contacting the media, and just generally raising a ruckus.

5. Organize locally

Last but not least, organize locally. It works. When Bree Dusseault tried to fire Ingraham’s principal, the school community organized and spoke out loud and clear. The result? The interim superintendent backed down and reversed the decision.

Local think tanker Paul T. Hill was not pleased. “It kind of gives a blueprint for resistance,” he told the Seattle Times.