Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why We Should be Concerned About AstroTurfing and Education

Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham, spent a month following and researching the Tea Party and the resulting documentary: (Astro) Turf Wars (trailer below) , reveals how Corporate America has created a fake grassroots movement to further their cause.

In the above video, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and Rolling Stone's Matt Tibbi, discuss the movement and at just past the three minute mark, we see David Harmer, a failed Tea Party candidate who wants to abolish public education.

Mr. Harmer is not an educator and his campaign to eliminate public schools is not based on studies or research into the quality of learning.

He is a Wall Street corporate lawyer. In fact he was the lawyer for J.P Morgan Chase, who received a 25 billion dollar bailout, only to take 9.3 billion dollars of it and give it as bonuses to their executives.

One of those to receive some of that tax payer funded bonus money, was David Harmer himself, who pocketed $ 160,000.00. He was hardly a grassroots candidate representing the people who are marching for the cause. (J.P. Morgan also contributed to his campaign)

He sees the privatization of education as an opportunity for profit. Nothing more, nothing less.

And the average American marching for the corporate funded Tea Party, stands to lose the most for their children, if Harmer is able to achieve his goal.

Education becomes tiered, creating a future generation of "haves" and "have nots", something public education sought to alleviate by providing education for all children, regardless of social standing.

The "American Dream" becomes even more exclusionary.

Olbermann and Tabbi also discuss Americans for Prosperity and Republican John Boehner. I had written about this group before, since they have a relationship with the Harper government. You can read it here. If you scroll down that page you will see a photo of Boehner, with Canadian Shona Holmes, to his right. It reveals how the oil and gas industry are behind trying to end our public health care, while preventing President Obama from following through on a universal American plan.

What Could This Mean for Canadian Public Education?

The Reformers gathered in Saskatoon saved perhaps the loudest cheers, whistles, and applause for [William] Gairdner's last shot: 'And my favourite proposal, by the way, is returning choice to education by privatizing every school in the country'. (1)

William Gairdner, is the author of the book The Trouble with Canada, which journalist Murray Dobbin stated ".. helped lay the groundwork for Reform Party policy." (1) Reform Party policy which was then being drafted by Stephen Harper.

In their 1994 book, Class Warfare, Maude Barlow and Heather-Jane Robertson, were already sounding the alarm about Canada's Neoconservative, AstroTurf movement, and their plans to eliminate our public education. And they were trying to sell it to the public with the endearing term "choice".

In Neo-Conservative Rhetoric, the restriction of choice is demonized as the root of all evil; the right to more choice in more areas is touted as the solution to our moral, economic and political conundrums. Governments are viewed as the agencies that limit choice, and the marketplace the venue in which choice triumphs. (2)

But what do they mean by "choice" in education? It means creating a system that is exclusionary and discriminatory, where the purposes of education are not what is best for all children, but on what is best for 'me' or 'my child'.

The educational philosopher John Dewey saw the role of choice in education as the exercise of our collective responsibility to choose from among competing possibilities what is best for all children. No doubt Dewey would be appalled to see choice appropriated by the conservative alliance to uncouple the fortunes of some children from the fortunes of others, claiming that everyone will be better off. (2)

And they have been systematically placing our educational system into the hands of the private sector.

When Neocon Mike Harris proposed a private school tax credit, Stephen Harper, then running the National Citizens Coalition, told the Hill Times: "pulling their children from 'union-run' schools should be a viable option for all parents." (3) The NCC was always anti-union and for a while MP Rob Anders headed up that area of their activism.

But for many "choice" in education means schools that teach religion, and frame their curriculum within the teachings of ancient texts.

In Ontario, Jim Flaherty, as finance minister for Harris, understood that. When he was running against Ernie Eves for the provincial leadership in 2002, an American freelance journalist wrote of Flaherty:

His full-bodied, conservative platform of tax cuts, privatization, and school choice, first caught the attention of grassroots conservatives with his unexpected announcement in last year's budget of a $3,500 ($2,300 USD) per-child tax credit for parents who send their children to independent schools. The measure, according to Laura Swartley of the Milton* and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for School Choice, is the most generous education tax credit in North America. It alone has won Flaherty the support of social conservatives and minority religious groups. (4)

Ernie Eves responded by suggesting that the education tax credit would help religious schools that "teach hatred."

Flaherty has continued his move toward privatizing education, as reflected in his 2007 budget, when he slipped in a little gem, that allowed our tax dollars to fund tuition fees for private religious schools.** He and Stephen Harper defended the move, by saying that it would also apply to public schools. But public schools don't charge tuition:

The Harper government is giving a tax break to families who send their kids to elite private schools, raising the ire of public education advocates. Under a little-noticed measure in last month's budget, scholarships and bursaries to attend elementary and secondary school will now be fully tax exempt. Finance officials estimate the new exemption will mean "significant tax savings" for about 1,000 students – or, by extension, their parents.Officials insisted that the exemption applies to scholarships for either public or private schools. But they couldn't supply any examples of public schools – which are funded from the public purse and don't charge tuition fees – awarding scholarships or bursaries. (5)

And the stimulus funding that has put us into record debt and deficit, included enormous spending on private religious school projects.

Meanwhile, William Gairdner continues to lead the charge, suggesting that only "rusty old lefties who have spent a lot of their careers engineering budget-busting tax grabs and even extortions and transfer-payment briberies of the kind that produced Canada's "free" health care", want to preserve the status quo.

There is a suggestion with critics of public school, that they represent socialism, where all children are treated equally, so the best have no chance of breaking away. But that's not true. There are special classes for the gifted and extra help for those who need it.

And none of this is based on the size of their parents wallets.

Corporations are trying to direct every aspect of our lives, from cradle to grave, by using terms like "free " and "choice", while suggesting that the government is trying to do the same thing.

They call everything a "tax grab" and yet they have no qualms about taking our taxes for their own purposes. They claim that they can do a better job of providing services, but we saw what a good job they were doing, during the economic crisis, that they had created.

They lined themselves up with their hands out. But they didn't use the money for the betterment of the public, only their shareholders and executives.

We must fight to keep our public education, public. If the wealthy want to send their children to private school, they can. No one is stopping them. But they must pay for it themselves.

Tea Party candidate David Harmer, didn't win the election, but there are thousands of David Harmers out there, who represent corporate interests, while using the "grassroots" to fight against their own survival.

And Canada is not immune, as we see with people like Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper, who use calculated ambiguity to sell us on something that goes against our survival.

Only corporate interests matter.

This hardly seems fair.


* Milton Friedman was Ronald Reagan's financial guru and both he and his wife were longtime supporters of the Fraser Institute, the voice of the Reform movement . If you want to read a good book that follows the money to that institute, I recommend Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, By Donald Gutstein, Key Porter Books, 2009, ISBN: 978-1-55470-191-9

**If you think that Flaherty is somehow a "Godly" man, check out this story by BCer in Toronto. It would appear that Flaherty and his wife cashed in on the budget, by allegedly cheating taxpayers out of almost a million dollars. He has a lot of documentation.


1. Preston Manning and the Reform Party, By Murray Dobbin, Goodread Biographies/Formac Publishing, 1992, ISBN: 0-88780-161-7, pg. 165-166

2. Class Warfare: The Assault onf Canada's Schools, By Maude Barlow and HeatherJane Robertson, Key Porter Books, 1994, ISBN: 1-55013-559-7, Pg. 187-189

3. So What DID Harper Say? The Conservative Leader's sound bite file on everything from taxes to Iraq, health care, gay marriage, nature, left wingers and keeping, By Tom Barrett, The Tyee, May 20, 2004

4. Looking North: Election time in Canada, By David Curtin, March 18, 2002

5. Private school families get tax break, Toronto Star, April 03, 2007


  1. I assume that when you wrote above:

    Public education becomes tiered education, creating a future generation of "haves" and "have nots", something public education sought to alleviate by providing education for all children, regardless of social standing.

    You meant to write:

    PRIVATE education becomes tiered education, creating a future generation of "haves" and "have nots", something public education sought to alleviate by providing education for all children, regardless of social standing.
    Emily, one of your best columns yet about the problem "they're" going to make with our schools. I am terrified of what will happen to poor children if these soul-less, heartless corporations take over the schools in the name of "choice".

    Sometimes I dream Native Americans murdered every immigrant that ever landed on their land and then the Indians built a society based on the needs of the people without destroying the land. Imagine the world we would live in if that had happened.

  2. You're right Nadine, I goofed. Thanks.