Education reform has all the hallmarks of a parent-led, grass-roots movement to fix failing public schools.

But it's become a big business, too. Nonprofits and interests from both ends of the political spectrum are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into reform initiatives, and hundreds of companies -- for profit and nonprofit alike -- are scrambling for a share of the hundreds of billions spent annually educating students in kindergarten through grade 12.

The Walton Family Foundation, named after Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, gave more than $159 million to education reform initiatives in 2011. The New York Times reported that Microsoft founder Bill Gates' foundation spent more than $370 million on education reform efforts in 2009, and expects to spend an additional $3 billion over the coming five or six years.

In Minnesota, money from those foundations and others helped win passage of alternative teacher certification measures and statewide teacher evaluation standards last year. It has also been used to build public and legislative support for another measure, awaiting action by Gov. Mark Dayton, that would end job protections for more experienced teachers who don't meet those emerging new standards.

Similar battles are being waged in statehouses across the country. California, Florida and other states have adopted or are weighing a law that gives parents the power to replace the entire staff at a school or convert it to a charter school. Indiana eliminated all restrictions on charter school formation, expanded vouchers and now limits teacher union bargaining to only wages and benefits. Louisiana's governor is pushing for a dramatic expansion of privately managed charter schools and vouchers for private schools.

Teachers groups and public education advocates view these campaigns as a coordinated effort to privatize education and to weaken the powerful teacher unions. No doubt, there's some truth to this. Teacher unions have traditionally thrown their considerable organizing power and money behind Democratic candidates for local, statewide and national office.

But teachers have also used their money and political clout to block legitimate attempts to improve educational outcomes. Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College, recalls the opposition from teachers groups in the 1980s, when Minnesota became the first state in the country to allow students to attend schools outside their district, and to allow high school students to enroll in college classes. "The school board association called it the worst piece of education legislation in 25 years," he said.

Mounting parental frustration over student achievement, particularly in urban schools, has led to the creation of dozens of nonprofit advocacy groups such as Stand for Children, TeachPlus and Education Reform Now, founded and funded by liberal and conservative benefactors alike.

In Minnesota, one of the loudest voices for reform is one of the newest, MinnCan. Like many of the other newer organizations, it began in one state and is attempting to replicate its campaign in others.

MinnCan (Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now) models itself on ConnCan, which launched in Connecticut in 2005 in response to the widening achievement gap between the state's white and minority students.

In 2010, ConnCan's backers decided to franchise their campaign. They formed a new organization, 50Can, which has opened affiliates in Rhode Island and, in January 2011, Minnesota.

MinnCan had a $1.2 million operating budget in 2011. Its backers included the corporate foundations at Medtronic, General Mills and Travelers, and the St. Paul and Minneapolis foundations. Other donors included the Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, which said it steered $400,000 to MinnCan in 2011.

Just to keep things in perspective: Education Minnesota, the union that represents K-12 teachers, usually ranks among the top five in lobbyist spending at the Capitol. In the six years ending in 2010, it spent almost $1 million a year on lobbying.

MinnCan used to the money to hire some high-powered lobbyists from Faegre Baker Daniels (including one who also lobbies on behalf of the Star Tribune) to sponsor research and to use Twitter and other social media to frame and build public support for the measure to end seniority protections for teachers. MinnCan calls this "keeping the best teachers in classrooms," and says almost 900 people have signed and forwarded a letter to Dayton drafted by MinnCan.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian, researcher and author who was assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, sees some parallels between the current reform movement and No Child Left Behind, the decade-old federal legislation originally embraced, but now repudiated, by reformers.

Ravitch says conservative groups used the achievement gap to build liberal support for No Child Left Behind, and she thinks the same thing is happening now. Since the schools couldn't be fixed by No Child Left Behind, she says, reformers are pushing privatization, through vouchers and privately run charter schools, and getting rid of teachers.

"I know of no evidence that removing job protections produces higher test scores or better education," Ravitch said by e-mail. "If it were true, charter schools would be far outperforming regular public schools, but they're not."

Nathan, who has sparred with Ravitch in the past, dismissed her notion that education reform measures are part of a broader conspiracy to gut public schools. But on at least one point he agrees: Ending teacher seniority won't by itself close the achievement gap or boost overall educational outcomes.

But, he added, "It's well beyond about time for us to be having a conversation about how to evaluate teachers and principals." • 612-673-1736