corporate and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

08 Mar '04

Where School Choicers Got Started

The idea’s roots reach deep into U.S. Christian and libertarian politics.

The roots of the Fraser Institute’s report card, issued last week, lie buried in the American Deep South and at the Chicago School, where racist conservatives and radically individualistic libertarians made common cause to undermine public education.

In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ended 100 years of school segregation when it ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The slow pace of school integration led to another Supreme Court ruling in 1971, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, that involuntary busing was a legitimate means of achieving school integration. The rulings sparked segregationists and conservative ethnic communities to develop their own schools for their children, bypassing public integrated ones.

Getting God into classrooms

Removing school prayer from the classroom was a second outrage suffered by conservative white Southerners. The Supreme Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale (1962) denied the right of a public school system to conduct prayer services within school buildings during regular school hours. The immediate reaction from evangelical Christians was to claim the Supreme Court had removed God from the schools. They declared the public school system an enemy of Christianity and began sending their children to newly created private Christian academies.

Like Catholic parents, who thought it unfair to be taxed for support of public schools while they were paying tuition for religious schools, evangelicals demanded government support of private schools. Initiating a “school choice” movement, evangelicals argued that state and federal governments should provide financial assistance so that parents could make a choice for their children between public and private schools.

The religious right’s demands for school choice paralleled the extreme free-market ideas advocated by radical libertarians. These ideas included ending all government support of schooling and turning education over to the marketplace. This radical form of capitalism originated in the work of Friedrich Hayek and the Austrian school of economics in the early twentieth century. Hayek moved to the U.S. in 1950 and taught at the University of Chicago. He influenced some notable American economists including Milton Friedman. Hayek’s economic ideas influenced Reagan-style Republicanism and sparked conservative attacks on liberalism and government bureaucracy. He was spiritual godfather of the Fraser Institute and sat on its board of academic advisers.

Unions the ‘enemy’

In the Road to Serfdom, Hayek defined bureaucracy as the enemy. It became the clarion call among the school choicers. For them the problem is simple: public education is a mess because of the educational bureaucracy and teachers’ unions. By arguing thus they ignored the real problem, unequal funding among schools districts. Some students receive the benefits of living in well-financed suburban schools districts while others languish in poorly funded schools without adequate textbooks and educational materials.

The same year the Supreme Court ruled school prayer unconstitutional, Milton Friedman advocated vouchers that parents could redeem for a specified amount of money as a means of getting government bureaucrats out of the business of operating schools. Evidently some capitalists had never been happy with the idea of educating the masses and Friedman showed them a way back to the nineteenth century.

There was no shortage of reactionary money to support school choice. An early financial angel was David Koch who inherited a fortune from father Fred Koch, a founder of the John Birch Society and head of $20-billion Koch Industries. Koch is a prominent George W. Bush supporter and Bush, not surprisingly, is a staunch advocate of school choice.

Retooling an American import

These ideas dribbled across the border during the 1980s, receiving a hospitable reception with the libertarians at the Fraser Institute and Christian fundamentalists in Alberta and the B.C. interior. But school choice didn’t take off as a political force until the Donner Canadian Foundation made it a priority.

Donner was a typical good-works foundation until the conservative branch of the family took over in the early 1990s and transformed it into the mould of the reactionary U.S. foundations. Donner is key in the project to change the ideological fabric of Canadian society. The foundation gives out about two million dollars a year to right-wing causes. Among its many grants were three to establish new libertarian think tanks across Canada: the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and the Montreal Economic Institute.

Donner also pumps money directly into school choice projects. Its favourite is the Society for the Advancement of Educational Research in Kelowna to which it gave $700,000 to figure out how to set up charter schools to replace public schools.

Fraser Institute ties with CanWest Global

By the late 1990s, right-wing Canadian foundations were exhibiting the same coordinated funding behaviour that made the American foundations so formidable. This development became clear after Michael Walker joined the board of Calgary-based Max Bell Foundation. Along with Donner, Bell began providing large sums for school choice projects, including $500,000 to the Fraser Institute and similar amounts for charter schools in Alberta.

Walker reined in two more foundations to support the school choice work, the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation, whose money came from selling arms, and the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, whose money comes from a less colourful source — selling biscuits. The Westons will spend over $10 million on vouchers, and also contribute to outstanding principals and high school report cards.

Propaganda requires a cooperative press. The Province, with its unlimited coverage afforded the report cards, is certainly cooperative. Relations between the newspaper chain and the think tank were cemented when Conrad Black captured control of Southam newspapers in 1996 — both his wife Barbara Amiel and long-time business partner David Radler became Fraser Institute trustees.

Nor did the closeness diminish when the Aspers bought out Black. Son David was a trustee of both the Fraser Institute and the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg, leaving when he was appointed publisher of the National Post.

There are other connections too. In 1996, institute staffers Fazil Mihlar and Danielle Smith published a Critical Issues bulletin which claimed — predictably — that vouchers and charter schools would produce a education far superior to that provided by the public system. Smith became an editorial page writer for the Calgary Herald, and host of CanWest Global’s public affairs show Global Sunday. Mihlar went on to become editorial page editor for the Vancouver Sun.

First published in The Tyee

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