Division problems in public schools

Faye Arndt's professional epiphany began with an advertisement she heard in 1996 on WKES-FM, a St. Petersburg radio station operated by the Moody Bible Institute.

"It was a blurb, just an announcement," she says in a lilting, grandmotherly voice. "I called the number. I got Cathy up in Jacksonville. I invited her down to my house."

A Polk County English teacher for 20 years, Arndt gathered 15 people to meet with Cathy DeMoisey in her living room and talk about a new organization with which DeMoisey was affiliated called the Professional Educators Network, or PEN. And to jump-start the revolution.

Arndt had been a member of the National Education Association's local affiliate during her career -- nearly all teachers are at some point -- but "the more I was a member, the more I heard people talk, and I thought, 'These people have weird philosophies,'" Arndt says. The union's tendency to protect members who Arndt felt were not "doing a first-class job" rankled. And a Forbes magazine article led her to conclude that her union "extorts" money from taxpayers and members alike, and holds scandalously liberal views on social policy questions. Arndt pledged privately to do something to bring competition to the realm of teacher representation.

That competition is now shaping up.

This week Gov. Jeb Bush signed his A+ Education bill, touching off perhaps the most important school-voucher battle in the nation. With this law, America's third-largest state became the first to offer its public-school students a $4,500 certificate good in any school, public or private, secular or religious. Only those who want to transfer from failing public schools are eligible. But the standards that determine which schools fail will be set, at least in the short term, by voucher proponents.

To voucher opponents, this is Armageddon.

Lead by a newly unified teachers union, the Florida Coalition for Public Education has filed suit to overturn the new law. Both sides are bracing for an epic legal war focused on the constitutionality of providing public funds to parents who, in some cases, will purchase religious schooling. On the PR front that fight will be about the quality of the schools, and whether private schools, which face little public oversight, can really deliver on their promise of better, cheaper education for all comers, including randomly selected voucher participants. The debate will storm around issues of fairness; about what happens to students left to crumbling inner-city schools; about racial segregation and the theory of competition.

But the flurry will overlook a central aim of the voucher movement, and of the related movement to establish groups such as PEN. The goal: To destroy the teachers' unions and rip the belly out of the Democratic Party.

Union officials have seen this coming. And they raised their voice in protest recently when they discovered, buried in the fine print of the Republican governor's education package, a provision allowing PEN access to the school message courier system. This gives PEN organizers a direct pipeline to teachers they're trying to recruit, and symbolically elevates the 500-member organization to the same status as the 250,000-member union. It will save PEN thousands of dollars annually in postage costs alone.

But while union officials bleated, most observers paid no notice. "The problem that we're having right now is like in those old sci-fi movies," says David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession/National Education Association in Tallahassee. "The guy goes out to the edge of town and sees the flying saucer. He tells the sheriff. The sheriff says there's no flying saucer, then later you see [the sheriff] and he goes into the flying saucer!"

Hyperbole notwithstanding, corporate, campaign-finance and tax records reveal close ties among key Republicans, conservative donors and foundations, think-tanks and private corporations -- both profit and nonprofit -- seeking to influence or make money on Florida's emerging education policy.

Those individuals and organizations are part of a national network with the same aim: Indeed, PEN is but a cog in a multibillion-dollar machine that means to revolutionize American education while destroying what it regards as one of the last vestiges of Soviet-style socialism.

Only the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association -- which holds its national convention next week in the Orange County Convention Center -- stand in its way.

PEN's pitch to teachers can be summed up thusly: Why pay $400 a year to belong to a union when we provide what you really need -- $2 million worth of liability insurance -- for only $90? The union is grubby and petty and left-wing and takes your money to fund its own political causes. You're a professional. You belong within a nonpartisan, professional organization.

With Bush's backing, PEN is gearing up for a fall membership blitz by hiring regional coordinators and a communications director, according to DeMoisey, the woman whom Arndt invited into her home on that spring day in 1996. The goal is to displace the teachers unions completely, despite the fact that the real purpose of a union -- to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions -- is the one thing PEN reliably promises it shall never do.

DeMoisey, who still answers the phone at the PEN office in Jacksonville, had been a union staff member until January 1995, before helping start PEN at a meeting in November of that year. That meeting occurred in a conference room at the James Madison Institute (JMI), a conservative think-tank founded in 1987 by former FSU President J. Stanley Marshall after his unsuccessful run for state education commissioner.

According to JMI's tax returns, between 1995 and 1997 the institute funded PEN with $128,038 in grants. Marshall also serves as PEN's executive director. PEN's total budget is not known because the organization did not file its tax forms with the state as required, say spokesmen for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which monitors those forms.

But don't assume that PEN has a political agenda. "If a liberal organization wants to give us a grant, we'd certainly take that," DeMoisey says. "The James Madison Institute didn't start this. Marshall joined after it came about."

Although also ostensibly nonpartisan, the Madison Institute labors at the stone heart of conservative politics in Florida, churning out op-ed pieces, short "backgrounders" and legislative testimony in the service of tax cuts, anti-environmental legislation and school vouchers [Money Talking, March 27, 1997].

The institute's activism on educational issues dates to 1991. That year Marshall founded a nonprofit corporation called Floridians for Educational Choice, which has the same address as JMI. Three years later he published a 50-page pamphlet, "School Choice: A Time and Place to Begin," under the Floridians for Educational Choice logo. Bush subsequently listed Floridians for Educational Choice among his community-service activities.

John Barry, a conservative activist who served for a short time as JMI's executive director, quit in the spring of 1998, complaining that the institute was an adjunct to Bush's gubernatorial campaign. And this past February, JMI merged with the Foundation for Florida's Future, a nonprofit organization that Bush founded shortly after losing his first bid for governor in 1994; the foundation functioned for three years in part as a vehicle driving Bush's successful 1998 campaign, collecting millions outside of normal campaign channels [The Golden Eggs, Oct. 20, 1998].

Bush's foundation also published policy prescriptions much like those of JMI. In one of those, Jonathan K. Hage outlined the core reason for charter schools and other radical education reform. "It's a question of power," he wrote. "Today the power is shared by the politicians who fund education, the administrators who run the system, the suppliers who sell to it, and the unions who negotiate with it."

Hage was the foundation's director of research. But he's no mere theorist. A long-time Bush friend, Hage in 1997 founded Charter Schools U.S.A. to compete for educational dollars. Other Bush associates involved in the educational gold rush include Armando Codina, Bush's former business partner, who ran Florida Schoolhouse Developers until the company shut down in April (the ostensibly nonprofit corporation, which built two charter schools in South Florida for Hage, was not profitable enough, a spokesman told the Tampa Tribune), and Octavio Visiedo, the former Dade County Schools superintendent who helped Bush with the charter school Bush founded in Miami's poor Liberty City neighborhood. Visiedo heads up Haskell Educational Services, a charter school management company launched by the Haskell Co., Florida's largest contractor, which is itself building at least four schools.

"These guys want to make a buck," argues Clark, the union spokesman. "They don't have the interests of kids at heart."

Bush spokesman Cory Tilley has denied the voucher law is designed in part to pay back Bush supporters with tax dollars that otherwise would have gone to public schools. And indeed, some of the voucher movement's strongest supporters have spent their own money in an effort to start a stampede away from public schools.

John Mitchell is a founding director of PEN. An Orlando trial lawyer with no obvious profit motive in the school debates, he has at times home-schooled his children, he says, because he doesn't get his money's worth in the Orange County public schools -- and they're sometimes shockingly dangerous. "My third-grade daughter went to Killarney last year," he says. "One of her friends said he brought a stiletto to school; he bragged he had to ride home in a police car."

Mitchell isn't crew man on any right-wing mothership directing the voucher movement. And he disagrees vehemently with Bush's other major policy victory this year. "Republicans are all wrong on tort reform," he says. But, "I have a very strong support of a voucher system. The parent ought to make the choice of where the child goes, and the child should follow. That's just my philosophy."

Mitchell is also director of Children's Educational Opportunity of Orlando, the local chapter of a nonprofit group that offers vouchers to needy students seeking transfers to private schools. In 1998 the local chapter awarded 104 vouchers between $50 and $2,000. "We now have a waiting list of 2,300," Mitchell says.

The Orlando chapter is relatively small. But nationally the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation America, or CEO America, boasts more than $150 million in vouchers distributed to more than 40,000 students since its inception in 1994.

Based in Bentonville, Ark., CEO America was the brainchild of J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of the Indianapolis-based Golden Rule Insurance Co. and pal of Newt Gingrich. In 1991, Rooney had established a $1.2 million trust offering to pay half the tuition for up to 500 children so they could attend a school of their parents' choice.

Right-wing think-tanks spread the news. Private voucher programs sprouted in Texas, then in other states. When CEO America was created, John Walton, heir to the WalMart fortune, was a founding director and major benefactor. Walton is heavily invested in Tesseract, a private school chain. Critics note that this links his personal finances to the voucher issue, although there are undoubtedly easier ways to make a buck in the short term.

But $1,000 grants to needy students are not the only way CEO America spends its funds. The organization contributed $500,000 last year lobbying Florida legislators on behalf of Bush's A+ Education bill. That money was filtered through Floridians for School Choice, a lobbying group whose directors include John Kirtley, a 35-year-old Tampa venture capitalist with no children. Kirtley donated $1.5 million last year to start a Tampa-area private-voucher campaign; records show he also gave $5,000 to Bush's gubernatorial campaign and $10,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.

Whether this adds up to some kind of banal insider's club or to the fabled "right-wing conspiracy" is open to interpretation. But the political stakes for the NEA have been clear for years. Reagan-era Education Secretary William Bennett said it succinctly in a 1993 Forbes article that compared the teachers union to Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union. He added: "You're looking at the absolute heart and center of the Democratic Party."

"That piece was a hatchet job," sniffs Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman in NEA's Washington, D.C., headquarters. "It doesn't serve us to be defensive about a particular piece, but to go on the offensive."

Brace yourself: "The union leadership is all different today," Lyons says, adding that the NEA "has moved in the direction of what we call new unionism: putting quality at the center of everything we do."

Offense like this has arguably put the Florida teachers' union in the pickle it finds itself today: scorned from all sides, respected by few. A strong union might command more loyalty and develop a broad base from which to campaign for the genuine bipartisan school reform its members say they want. Ironically, teachers are somewhat evenly split among Democrats and Republicans.

"Many of us have worked to bring the teachers to the center, so we can bargain on both sides," says Bill Ward, a history teacher since 1969 at Apopka Middle School. He adds that several of Orange County's union officials are or have been Republicans. "Prior to Bush, the state FTP [Florida Teaching Profession] was prepared to endorse for re-election about 40 percent of the Republican legislators."

Vouchers scotched that.

"PEN is simply a smoke screen to get people to get out of a collective-bargaining situation," says Ward. The template for PEN is the 46,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which is larger than any teachers union in that state. The irony there? While Georgia teachers' $37,000 average annual salary is $2,000 below the national average, Florida's union-negotiated teacher salaries lag $2,000 below Georgia's.

The ironies mount: The Georgia association is anti-voucher, as is a Texas association of similar anti-union pedigree. While PEN members seem mostly pro-voucher now, if the organization succeeds and stays true to its pledge to reflect its members' position on educational issues, it too may soon be anti-voucher. And maybe even anti-Bush. "Those of us who have received the information are absolutely enraged by everything that has come out of the Legislature," claims Ward. "I have not spoken to a Republican teacher this summer who does not feel betrayed by this Republican Legislature [when] they learn how easy it is to fire a teacher if the [student test] scores don't go up."

He might have spoken to Arndt.

In an early May meeting of PEN, "our lobbyist was present to explain what had just become law the week before," Arndt says. "The lobbyist explained the law -- there's nothing to be afraid of if I am a good teacher."

She says she signed up 10 new PEN members that day: "It was a very inspiring day." Two years ago, Arndt sent out 200 letters soliciting PEN memberships. "I formulated the letter," she says. "I paid for the printing. PEN supplied the envelopes and I supplied the stamps."

And Arndt, who has spent the years since age 55 as a single mother of two, sometimes working two or three jobs to make ends meet, wants no part of collective bargaining. Instead, she took part in the battle to get PEN access to the school courier system in the hopes of decertifying the union. "[The union] provided their own wording in contracts that no one but [the union] can make contact with teachers," she says. "I looked at the constitution. I said, 'When did Hitler move in?' When they told me we couldn't talk about PEN, I went into orbit."

With the change in place, she believes the only thing standing in the path of justice is not the teachers union but apathy -- that lazy habit some teachers have of letting meaning melt away like science-lab mercury or professional dignity.

"Language is purged. It does happen," Arndt says, in that same kindly Mrs. Butterworth's voice. "Each year when I teach "Animal Farm," I say to them over and over again: don't let this happen to you."

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