Norquist protege's push for charter school privatization plan in Southern California worries educators

Miriam Raftery and Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: January 25, 2006

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Ron Nehring, protege of conservative strategist Grover Norquist, Vice-Chairman of the California Republican Party and former colleague of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has introduced a proposal to convert all east San Diego County schools in the Grossmont Union High School District into charter schools, RAW STORY has learned.

At a hearing Jan. 19, the Grossmont school board -- of which Nehring is a member -- voted 5-0 to begin preparing a district-wide charter petition. If approved, Nehring's proposal would make Grossmont the largest charter district in California.

Some educators believe Grossmont is being used as a petri dish to test privatization of public education as part of a national GOP strategy.


"Ron Nehring ... is an important piece on Norquist's chessboard," states a report titled Target San Diego: The Right Wing Assault on Urban Democracy and Smart Government. Prepared for the Center on Policy Initiatives, a progressive think tank, the report reveals how the National GOP has targeted San Diego as a "battleground" and model for an alleged agenda of radically cutting government funding, permanently weakening organized labor, and aggressively moving to privatize public services.

Bruce Seaman, president of the Grossmont Education Association, called Nehring's plan the "first step toward privatization" of public education.

"From our standpoint, the Grossmont district is working well. Test scores are up," Seaman told RAW STORY. "Why fix something that isn't broken?"

Nehring did not return repeated calls for comment. Nor did the California Republican Party.

Nehring, Chairman of the San Diego County GOP, is said to be eyeing the state chairmanship. His relationships with Washington conservative heavyweights date back to his time in D.C. working for the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR). A conservative thinktank where fallen super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was a board member, NCPPR is alleged to have raised money through questionable means and funneled money from Abramoff clients to pay for former GOP House Majority Leader Tom Delay's (R-TX) posh junkets abroad.

Official GOP websites have recently sanitized Nehring's bio to delete references to several groups which have recently generated unfavorable media coverage, including those with links to Abramoff and Delay.

As part of his seven-year tenure in D.C., Nehring was Director of Development and Public Affairs for the National Center for Public Policy (NCPPR). Abramoff channeled money through the center to pay for at least $64,000 in travel for DeLay. The Center was also part of a six month investigation by RAW STORY for fund raising letters it sent to unsuspecting seniors misleading them into believing that this group would save social security.

NCPPR also donated to Tom Delay's legal defense fund in 2004.

What role Nehring - as Director of Development and Public Affairs - might have played in NCPPR's alleged mail fraud and dealings with Abramoff is unclear.

David Almasi, NCPPR's Executive Director, said he did not remember Nehring and directed a call to Amy Ridenour, the group's director. Ridenour did not immediately return a call for comment.

NCCPR also founded Project 21, a conservative African American think tank with an all Caucasian board, purporting to be from the black community, that opposes affirmative action and minimum wage hikes.

Project 21 lobbied for the tobacco industry and against other minority concerns. One of Project 21's leading voices is the controversial Ohio Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell, under whose election oversight many allege the African American community was largely disenfranchised and unable to cast their vote in the 2004 election cycle.

Nehring's charter initiative may have had a boost from research provided via NCPPR's PR affiliate, the Black America's Political Action Committee, a conservative group that released a poll claiming that 63% of blacks would prefer to remove their children from public schools and enroll them in charter schools or private schools.

Contrary to the poll's findings, recent research indicates that in some states, charter schools are more racially segregated than adjacent public schools. The North Carolina Education Reform Foundation, for instance, found that nearly 40% of the state's charter schools violated the diversity clause -- and all but one enrolled over 85% African-American students. Similarly, a UCLA report concluded that California was not enforcing its requirement that charters achieve racial and ethnic balance reflective of the district's population.

Charter schools that receive public funds must meet certain requirements or risk losing their charter contracts. In exchange for being exempted from certain state rules, charters must show gains in student achievements. A charter school also has control over its own hiring and firing. Proponents maintain that charters offer more choices for parents, students and teachers, allowing for innovative approaches to learning.

Overall, charter schools have received mixed reviews on academic performance. A report by EdSource found that charter schools were 33% more likely to meet student performance goals in 2004 than regular public schools.

But a 2004 American Federation of Teachers report analyzing Department of Education data found that charter school students lagged behind students in regular public schools on reading and math proficiency by 5% and 7% respectively. That study measured 6,000 fourth-graders at 167 charter schools.

While acknowledging some excellent charter schools, the teachers also found that students who transferred from public schools to charters had achievement scores drop. They accused the Bush administration of failing to release data that casts a negative light on charter schools' academic record.

Nehring, who has no children of his own, was inexplicably appointed as a Grossmont trustee following the departure of trustee Gary Cass, a pastor who moved to Florida and became executive director at the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ.

The trustee board, dominated by Christian conservatives recruited by Cass, has sparked numerous controversies. Superintendent Terry Ryan, also a Christian, raised eyebrows for sending an e-mail to a Jewish teacher who complained about a board meeting set on a Jewish holy day. The one-sentence e-mail read, "I will pray for you."

Charter schools on a national stage

The Grossmont school district has also been involved in a bitter labor dispute, with the prospect of a teacher's strike looming. As Director of National campaigns at Americans for Tax Reform, Nehring promoted policies aimed at limiting labors unions' power. He also headed up Project for California's Future, which spear-headed promotion of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed Proposition 75, an initiative which would have restricted use of union dues for campaign expenditures. Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group was founded by Grover Norquist, who himself is currently in the cross-hairs of the Abramoff-GOP scandal.

Paul Schnaubelt, a parent with children in Grossmont Union, heads up a teacher's union in the La Mesa Spring Valley School District.

"Nehring publicly has worked to destroy unions in every state, every organization he's ever been involved with," Schnaubelt said. "The Grossmont District has always been, until this last school board, known for its excellent educational program. This school board seems bent on destroying that."

Most charter schools are non-union and pay teachers significantly less than public schools. In New York, right-wing foundations recently teamed up in an attempt to bust a teacher's union in charter schools.

Nehring may have outlined the true objectives of the charter program in a 2002 article written for the conservative Heritage Foundation: "Any move that changes the direction of policy toward smaller government should be viewed as a victory: an incremental gain. Similarly, if public school vouchers are the goal, then new charter legislation that opens the door to options and alternatives is a victory."

Educators and residents alike express concern that religious conservatives could wield an undue influence over school policies if the charter proposal is adopted. Still others believe that Nehring's initiative has nothing to do with religion at all, rather, the move is a union-busting ploy, citing Nehring's anti-union record.

Charters can also provide lucrative income sources for private companies. Arizona has attempted to outsource public education by proposing that for-profit companies operate charters for publicly funded schools, a tactic supported by the Bush administration.

Some see a non-altruistic motive behind controlling public education through charters.

"Education is the doorway from the middle class to the elites," one district insider, who feared speaking out by name because of his job, said. "If you can destroy the middle class, we're right back in the 17th century."

Nationally, the number of charter schools has grown dramatically. The number of charter schools increased 15% in the 2004-05 school year and 13% in the 2005-2006 school year, according to the Center for Education Reform. There are now 3,625 charter schools in the U.S.

Muriel Kane contributed to the research of this article.

To contact the authors, email: [email protected] or [email protected].

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated Nehring's position with the San Diego Republican Party. He is the chairman.


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