Howard Stephenson and PCE’s Judi Clark, pushing the vouchers you can’t refuse

Don Corleone

Virtual Vouchers and the key to the public treasury

Early in 2010 when the Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) pirates began planning their 2011 campaign to sneak education vouchers through Utah’s back door, they knew they’d need a little more than a hijacked charter school association and a lobbying hitman to get their legislation passed.  Two strategies were crucial.  The first would be to split their wishlist into as many different moving targets as possible, but the second would be to have a legislator who could be trusted to shepherd the whole project to conclusion.

Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson - photo: Brian Nicholson, Des. News

After Sheldon Killpack, the Utah legislator and charter school go-to guy was suddenly indisposed last spring, PCE would be forced to turn to Utah’s lobbyist/legislator godfather, next to whom PCE/UAPCS lobbyist Chris Bleak is a mere piker.  I’m talking of course, about Howard Stephenson.

Stephenson, the Utah Taxpayer Association Don who is famous for never having seen a piece of pro-business legislation he didn’t like, and whose answer to the immigration debate is a full-employment act for bounty hunters funded by the runaway slaves themselves, wasted no time.  With PCE’s Judi Clark doing the drafting and Killpack’s abandoned campaign war-chest to draw from (Killpack donated an astonishing $4,000 to Stephenson in 2010), the result was a fistful of bills friendly to charters and hostile to school districts.

SB 65 – Virtual Vouchers

One of the results of the Stephenson/Clark collaboration was SB 65, the full employment act for online (for-profit) education providers serving high school students.  Utah already has an online education provider funded through a line item in the education budget – Electronic High School.  It is totally free to students and schools of all kinds and robs nothing from districts to provide.  But this poses no problem for Stephenson, for whom the for-profit education providers are simply a means to an end.

Just like Chris Herrod, who was so flummoxed when asked to explain his HB 388 (removing accountability from charter schools) in committee that he had to summon the bill’s real sponsor, ex-legislator Brian Allen, to do it for him, Stephenson summoned Judi Clark to perform the same function.  When the bill was introduced on the Senate floor, Stephenson had Clark waiting in the wings as emergency relief on the Senate floor.  “I’d love to get that kind of access,” one lobbyist told me.

Today’s free stock trading tip*

K-12, an online education franchise with significant investment from the disgraced junk-bond traders Michael and Lowell Milken, as well as Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Wells Fargo, Bear Stearns and others (trading symbol: LRN), is one example of an out-of-state online education investment vehicle that would benefit from a bill like SB 65. (K-12 also does “limited” call-center support from Utah.) Education budget cuts resulting from the recession have negatively impacted K-12’s business nationwide, but that’s what Jane Swift, former Massachusetts governor and helicopter enthusiast is for.

As a member of K-12’s Board of Directors, Swift, who was “a general partner at Arcadia Partners L.P., a venture capital firm focused exclusively on the for-profit education industry” was hired, according to K-12, “because her service as the governor of a U.S. state and public policy expertise enables her to contribute to the Board of Directors oversight of the Company’s efforts to expand school choice throughout all 50 U.S. states.”

And so here we see where PCE/Stephenson are really headed with SB 65.

K-12’s contribution to Stephenson in 2010 was modest ($1000) and the company is far from alone in the booming for-profit online education field.  But school “choice”?  Well, that tells you all you need to know.  Presumably the ROI (Return on Investment) for K-12’s efforts to expand into the Chinese ESL market stretches too far out in the future.

Looting the public school system in the United States on the other hand, by taking additional dollars from already besieged school districts (see PCE’s companion bills 303, 313 and 388, sponsored by junior legislative water-haulers Merlynn Newbold and Chris Herrod) is a real possibility, here and now, as Wells Fargo and Bear Stearns can plainly see.  “Choice” is nothing but branding.  As PCE has repeatedly demonstrated, they’re all about choice, as long as you choose them and no-one else.

The incentive racket

SB 65 is set up as a classic racket – with the plan being to funnel 60% of the looted district dollars to companies like K-12 up front, with the remaining 40% to follow when the student “completes” the course.  “Completion,” naturally, is undefined, but really, with 60% up front, who cares?  It’s a backwards incentive if you stop to think about it, because profit is maximized not when students complete the course, but when they disappear.  Certainly you have customer acquisition costs, but 60% more than covers those, especially when you start with the large pool of clients that SB 65 would automatically create.  After signup, the most profitable students will be those who demand the least attention.

But there’s no need to get mired in details here.  SB 65, like HB 301, 313 and 388 is essentially an ideological question.

Domino theory and Oreos

Wisconsin protest sign

PCE is basically a tool for two different groups that share the same worldview.

One is a tiny cabal of cloistered Davis County rightwingers with a little bit of money and not very much sense.  The other is a much more powerful and well funded national oligarchy that provides the real impetus for PCE.  This oligarchy views the teacher’s union as the first domino in the chain toward the elimination of collective bargaining for anyone.

Privatization of everything is a core belief and its destructive effects are not to be discussed.  According to this view, the public school system must be privatized, and the quicker the better.

Which brings us back to the strategy behind all PCE’s “companion” bills.  One of the least noticed pieces of language in Newbold’s HB 301 is that public school districts who will be bleeding more cash then ever before to charter schools thanks to HB 313, will be forced to put future tax increases to a vote.  Like that’ll ever happen.  It’s a heads we win (charter schools/home schools/private schools), tails you (public schools/unions) lose scenario.

I’ve talked about it being a matter of draining the bathtub, but I understand there may actually be a better analogy that PCE will especially appreciate.  What if you had a plate of Oreos and little by little somebody started to eat the Oreos until suddenly, one day, you reached out for one and all of the Oreos were GONE?!

* I have no personal shares or interest whatsoever in the for-profit educational shakedown industry.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Ellen Walker on July 5, 2011 at 2:31 am

    You’ve overlooked one angle – fear of losing all that funding has left local school districts as sitting ducks for high-pressure sales calls from K12, offering to set up district online programs that charge less than what the districts will have to pay should students opt for programs from outside their district. Our legislators wisely rejected the idea of sending our local money and jobs out of state, but this loophole is getting bigger by the day, since local districts can choose to contract with the out-of-state providers, and don’t seem to realize they could set up their own programs with free state-developed curriculum from the Electronic High School.


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