Meet Craig Barrett. He's the closest Arizona comes to having its own member of the Billionaire Boys' Club, that group of high-tech wizards, hedge fund gurus and other ridiculously wealthy people who think, because they've figured out how to make billions and know 50 ways to tell their underlings to "Produce or get out," they also know the best way to teach a first-grader how to read.
Of course, Craig Barrett is no Bill Gates, a man who can spend $100 million to create and promote the national Common Core State Standards—a very questionable concept—then drop another $100 million to fund a database designed to scoop up every bit of information about every schoolchild in the country—a truly bad idea. Barrett, the retired CEO of Intel, is only worth hundreds of millions, so he can't match Gates' largesse. Barrett and his wife gave $780,000 to BASIS charter schools over the years. They also gave $230,000 to Republican candidates and the RNC during the 2012 elections. Generous, true, but chump change compared to Gates.
But what Barrett lacks in billions he makes up for in power. Though he's never been elected to office, when it comes to education funding and policy, he may be the most powerful person in Arizona. And that should concern anyone who cares about the future of public education in the state.
Along with his national prominence in the charter school movement and the Common Core State Standards (more on that later), Barrett heads Gov. Brewer's Arizona Ready Education Council, a position he uses to steer the state's education policy. His AREC funding taskforce has come up with a number of recommendations to change how we fund education. The most likely legislator to carry those ideas next session is Sen. Chester Crandell, who agrees with most of the AREC proposals. Here's the Barrett/AREC/Crandell agenda in a nutshell.
Don't add a penny to K-12 school funding. Freeze it right where it is, even though we're spending about 20 percent less than five years ago and we're near the bottom of the nation in per-student funding.
Send more money to charter schools. That, of course, would mean less for district schools. And districts can forget about trying to pass bonds or budget overrides. Those funding options would be wiped out. But charters would still be able to float bonds to build new schools. So if Arizona's student population goes up, districts would have no way to handle the overflow, and charters would be more than happy to step in and fill the void.
Set teacher salaries based on student performance, not experience or education. Those lucky teachers in high-performing, high-rent districts could expect their salaries to climb at the expense of teachers in low-income areas. And schools, like teachers, would get performance bonuses, meaning those same high-rent districts would find themselves with extra cash while districts with low-income students who need the most resources would see their allotments shrink. And if any district slips into failing territory, the state would take it over. No extra money would go along with the takeover, just loss of local control.
Barrett's influence stretches far beyond the Governor's Office. He's the president and chairman of the board of BASIS, a chain of charter schools whose stellar reputation is only partially deserved. (It creams off Arizona's top kids, then claims credit for their academic success.) He's also a member of the board of directors of K12 Inc., a for-profit corporation that runs a string of online charter schools across the country (Arizona Virtual Academy alone has 4,200 students) and has been reviled in the press for its deceptive recruitment practices and in-the-cellar student achievement. (Anyone see a conflict of interest in Barrett's push to increase charter funding?) And he's chairman of the board of Achieve, the nonprofit organization largely responsible for developing the Common Core.
Like most rich guys, Barrett has gotten a pass from the media, which allows him to say pretty much anything he wants without being challenged. Some brave journalist who has done the necessary research needs to question Barrett and make him go public with his schemes to change the face of Arizona education. It won't be easy. He knows how to say the right things in public and work his agenda behind the scenes. But he's too powerful and his education agenda is too problematic for him to go unchallenged.