DFER’s Campaign to Dominate Local School Boards and Launch Charters

In Hedging Education, Justin Miller, for The American Prospect, describes “how hedge funders have over the past decade underwritten a movement to mushroom the number of local school board members who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. “A network of education advocacy groups, heavily backed by hedge fund investors, has turned its political attention to the local level, with aspirations to stock school boards—from Indianapolis and Minneapolis to Denver and Los Angeles—with allies.”

It all began in New York City, where, “Whitney Tilson, straight out of Harvard… deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach for America’s first employees in 1989.  Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York.  Soon after that, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him… The school was one of two original Knowledge Is Power Program schools—better known as KIPP, which has since grown into a prominent charter network with nearly 200 schools in 20 states plus the District of Columbia, serving almost 70,000 students, predominantly low-income and of color…  Tilson… started dragging all his friends, most of whom were hedge fund investors, from Wall Street up to the south Bronx to see the KIPP school.  ‘KIPP was used as a converter for hedge fund guys,’ Tilson says. ‘It went viral.'”  When he became a charter school evangelist, Tilson really didn’t know much about public schools themselves: “I personally never knew what the situation was like for families forced to attend their local school in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn. I didn’t know of anyone who dropped out of high school or college—much less that there were high schools where half the students dropped off.” One wonders whether Tilson also visited public schools in New York City or whether he just accepted that KIPP’s approach is the best strategy for educating children in poor neighborhoods.

Tilson and his friends in the hedge fund world founded a new political organization, Democrats for Education Reform, and, according to Justin Miller, they set out to confront what they considered to be the politically powerful supporters of public schools, the teachers unions.  “Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in.  Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission ‘to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.'”  Miller adds that DFER also targeted national Democratic leaders: “Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions.”

Miller corrects the common assumption that hedge funders got into supporting charter schools for the money: “Many critics of the corporate education-reform movement are quick to accuse proponents of seeking to cash in on the privatization of one of the United States’ last public goods.  And while there are certainly those in ed-reform circles who stand to benefit from a windfall of new education technology, testing, and curriculum services, hedge funders by and large do not fit that stereotype. Theirs is more of an ideological and philanthropic crusade, rather than a crude profit-seeking venture.”

Miller reports that DFER, which is currently active in 13 states and the District of Columbia has expanded the role of charters across the country by partnering with other Astroturf groups that, like DFER,  pretend to be local, but are in fact, well-funded national organizations—StudentsFirst (that just merged with 50CAN), 50CAN (operating in 7 states), Stand for Children (with 11 state affiliates), and Students for Education Reform, described by Miller as an Astroturf offshoot of DFER.  Shavar Jeffries, the national president of DFER, denies, of course, that DFER is an Astroturf organization: “Our state chapters are not run by people flying in from Washington.  They are staffed by local political organizers and education experts that are overwhelmingly from the communities they work in.”  Miller responds: “But the financial influence of the outside charter-boosters is an ill-kept secret.  The pushback against outside pro-charter money in local races has been steadily growing as more and more cities are impacted.”

These organizations have, according to Miller, been able to influence local school board races with big financial investments primarily because, “Compared with other political races where a campaign will stretch over the better part of a year… school board races are unique.  Filing deadlines are much closer to Election Day, meaning that the field of candidates doesn’t fully materialize until quite late and the actual races don’t heat up until about two months out.  That makes it more difficult to vet candidates and learn about connections.  Campaign finance reports exposing big money often pop up late….”

These big national groups—DFER, StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, 50Can and Students for Education Reform—have, as profiled by Miller, influenced school board elections in Denver, Minneapolis, and most particularly Indianapolis, where candidate Gayle Cosby eventually raised a total of $80,000 (from several organizations and investors) to support her successful 2012 school board candidacy: “DFER pumped more than $40,000 into Cosby’s campaign, hiring her a campaign manager, orchestrating several direct-mail flyer blasts, and buying up radio spots.  This was unheard of in Indianapolis school board races.”

Cosby is described as reflecting that after DFER contributed $40,000, “At that point, I felt a loss of control in certain respects.” Today Cosby has become disillusioned with the cause promoted by her original campaign investors: “Cosby has since taken up the role as the board’s main dissenter. She believes that charter special interests have completely co-opted the desire for change in the schools and have promoted an agenda that sees charter schools and privatization as the only way to fix Indianapolis Public Schools. Four seats will be up in 2016, including Cosby’s, who has decided not to seek re-election….”

Developments at StudentsFirst and Teach for America

There is some shifting and changing of the guard in the world of corporatized education reform.

StudentsFirst and 50CAN

I thought about Michelle Rhee and her organization StudentsFirst earlier this week as I sat for three hours at a huge meeting in my own school district, where our dedicated teachers demonstrated over and over again that they understand the needs of our community’s young people and where parents and a long list of students spoke about an art teacher, an English teacher, a drama teacher, a Chinese teacher or a coach who had made them feel welcome and engaged. Rhee—the woman featured on Time Magazine‘s cover with the broom to sweep out “bad” teachers—said she founded StudentsFirst to promote the interests of children and to protect us all from what she said was the practice in public schools of putting the needs of adults before the needs of students.

Michelle Rhee launched StudentsFirst in 2010, after she was ousted from the D.C. public schools. Rhee promised she would raise $1 billion to support the organization’s in its first year, though in reality she was able to raise only $7.6 million that year.  Rhee resigned as the organization’s director in 2014.  Now StudentsFirst is being subsumed into another far-right organization, 50CAN.

Here is Caitlin Emma from Politico Morning Education: “What will remain of Students First? Sources tell Morning Education that the 50CAN and StudentsFirst marriage announced last week is not so much a merger as it is an acquisition—and it’s unclear how many StudentsFirst staffers will be left when all the wedding cake is eaten… 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee said there will be some layoffs as a result of the merger.”

So what is 50CAN?  Diane Ravitch provides some background: “The latter organization is funded by hedge fund managers and the Sackler family of Connecticut, whose fortune was made from pharmaceuticals, specifically the opioid drug Oxycontin, that is now causing so much addiction and death across the nation.  Forbes says they are the 16th richest family in America.  Jonathan Sackler’s daughter Madeleine made a documentary about Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter chain called ‘The Lottery.’ It gave viewers the impression that these were the world’s most magical schools and any child lucky enough to win the lottery would have a blessed life.  Never having attended a public school, she bought into the myth that they are horrid places that one must escape… and that charter schools are sort of like the private school she attended in Greenwich.”

50CAN began as ConnCAN in the state of Connecticut and Sackler and his partners have expanded it to other states and created a national organization.  Here is Jon Lender for the Hartford Courant: “Jonathan Sackler is a leading proponent of charter schools in Connecticut, the region and the nation.  He is… operator of about 20 charter schools in New York and Connecticut with thousands of students.  He was the founding chairman and still a director of ConnCAN, the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, and serves as director of other education groups such as 50CAN….”

While 50CAN clearly intends to operate across the 50 states, according to the organization’s website, today it has seven state affiliates in addition to ConnCAN: RI-CAN, MinnCAN, NYCAN, MarylandCAN, CarolinaCAN, JerseyCAN, and PennCAN.  Although 50CAN’s website proclaims a commitment to developing local leadership for excellence in education (“We believe that the most successful local education advocacy efforts follow a bottom-up approach by finding, connecting and supporting a diverse group of entrepreneurial leaders.”), 50CAN is an Astroturf organization—a national organization that merely pretends to be locally supported at the grassroots.  Here is a description of its work in Minnesota: “While the name “Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund” lends the group an air of boots-on-the-ground campaigning — chairman Daniel Sellers describes himself as a ‘Minneapolis resident and parent’ — there is nothing grassroots about it. In fact, the Progressive Education Fund, as reported by MinnPost, is an offshoot of 50CAN, the right-wing education group founded by Connecticut hedge fund managers and heavily bankrolled by school privatization interests, such as the Walton Family Foundation. Sellers is the chair of the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund and also the executive director of MinnCAN.”

Caitlin Emma for Politico describes the merger of StudentsFirst with 50CAN in a bit more detail: “50CAN, unlike StudentsFirst, has a growing budget and a growing number of funders.  50CAN’s current operating budget is about $8 million, up from $2 million in 2010 when the organization was started.”  50CAN’s Porter Magee says “the merger combines the two best aspects of both organizations.  StudentFirst’s ability to influence the passage of legislation—like parent trigger laws that allow parents to intervene in low performing public schools and turn them into charter schools—and 50CAN’s broader advocacy work.”  One must correct the assumptions here: although parent trigger laws have been passed by several states with support from StudentsFirst and ALEC, there have been virtually no successful, sustained parent takeovers of public schools.

Teach for America

New college graduates are no longer flocking to become alternatively certified over the summer and sign up for a two year stint at Teach for America.  Diane Ravitch announced on her blog: “Despite the flashy celebration at TFA’s 25th Anniversary Summit held in Washington, D.C. last month, TFA did not meet its recruiting target for the second year in a row.  2015 was the first time in its history that TFA laid off employees, and now it’s happening again.”  “CEO Elisa Villaneuva Beard announced on February 29 that 250 TFA staff positions will be eliminated….  She said 100 new positions will also be created, leaving the net job loss at 150.”

Emma Brown, reporting for the Washington Post, explains: “The downsizing comes after a previous round of reductions in which TFA’s national staff shrank by more than 200 positions.  The two shake-ups will leave Teach for America with approximately 930 national staff members in fiscal year 2017, 410 fewer than it employed in fiscal year 2015, according to the organization.”

TFA’s model is controversial.  Instead of sending well-trained and credentialed college graduates, who have experienced extensive student teaching and mentoring, into the nation’s poorest schools, TFA has run a 5-week alternative certification program over the summer and sent graduates from elite colleges into our nation’s poorest cities for two year assignments, a practice that has created rapid turnover of staff in schools that need stability.

Last month Science Newsline reported on a study from the University of Illinois confirming that, “Teach for America has reaped millions of dollars in nonrefundable finder’s fees from school systems in the U.S. through lucrative contracts that require schools to hire designated numbers of the organization’s corps members—whether or not its teachers meet districts’ specific content or grade-level needs….  Five major U.S. school systems—in Atlanta, Chicago, eastern North Carolina, New Orleans and New York—paid finder’s fees that ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per TFA corps member per contract year…. The financially troubled Chicago Public Schools paid TFA nearly $7.5 million in finder’s fees between 2000 and 2014—a time period when the school system also underwent significant budget cuts, closed numerous schools and laid off thousands of teachers….”

States have continued to pay fees to bring TFA into their school districts, most recently Arkansas, where in January Governor Asa Hutchinson announced he will invest $3 million of state discretionary funds to bring in TFA over three years.  And at the federal level, according to Diane Ravitch, “The U.S. Department of Education has given TFA hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants since 2008.  Government funding (at all levels) comprised 38% of TFA’s budget in 2015, totaling $69.7 million that year alone, according to TFA’s 2015 annual report.”

D.C. Insiders Monetize Experience, Join Ex-CNN Anchor to Attack School Teachers

Not quite two years ago, the NY Times published what seemed to me a strange story.  Former CNN anchor, Campbell Brown had begun tweeting mean things about school teachers and attacking the unions who, she said, protect lewd behavior.   What did Campbell Brown have against school teachers and the NEA and AFT?

The NY Times piece then explained that Brown is married to Dan Senor, a foreign affairs advisor to then-presidential-candidate Mitt Romney, and that Senor also was serving on the board of Michelle Rhee’s national PAC, StudentsFirst, whose agenda includes attacks on the teachers unions that, according to StudentsFirst, put teachers first—ahead of students.

Campbell Brown had appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, written an op-ed that was published in the Wall Street Journal, and begun testifying in Albany against teachers unions.  While the teachers unions were quick to point out that they do not protect sexual predators, Al Baker reported: “Ms. Brown had transformed into the most recognizable face of the combustible school-reform fight and in so doing had injected star power into a campaign the Bloomberg administration has been waging for months.”

Fast forward to June, 2014.  Earlier this week Stephanie Simon reported at Politico that Campbell Brown has now spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to launch a series of lawsuits against teachers’ tenure and due process protections, legal attacks similar to the recent Vergara trial in California that “struck down California’s tenure system and other job protections embedded in state law, ruling that they deprived students of their constitutional right to a quality education….”  The California trial in Vergara will be appealed and many speculate that the decision will not survive the appeal.

Campbell Brown has hired a brand new public relations firm to manage her effort: “The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended…. LaBolt and another former Obama aide, Jon Jones—the first digital strategist of the 2008 campaign—will take the lead role in the public relations initiative.”

Whether Robert Gibbs’ new firm, staffed by Democrats, is merely monetizing its celebrity and insider connections in this new bipartisan anti-teacher campaign or whether it represents a stronger anti-teacher bias than many had perhaps realized in President Barack Obama’s Department of Education is not quite clear.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan has surprised some with his strong statements of support for the Vergara decision.

What is clear is that Campbell Brown is interested not merely in the legal outcome of the cases she plans to bring.  She cares very much about the message.  Brown is quoted by Simon: “The PR piece of this is essential because for the first time, we’re having a dialog in this country about anachronistic laws and how we revamp our public education system for the modern world so it serves children first and foremost.  Having that conversation is as important to me as the litigation itself.”

Notice how Campbell Brown defines “dialogue.”  There is no mention here of the dedication of the great mass of our approximately five million school teachers across the country. There is no acknowledgement that teachers might need some job protection because the work they do is so public.  They meet groups of children and parents all day; high school teachers often teach 135-150 students every day.  With this level of public exposure, teachers can come in for frequent criticism, some of it unmerited.  There is no mention of the peer assistance and review programs designed by the teachers unions, programs in place in school districts across the country to improve the practice of teachers and to ease out the teachers unable to succeed even after they receive intensive assistance.  What Campbell Brown is talking about is a public relations campaign driven by big money and insider professionals to attack job security for school teachers.

We ought to think about this.  As a society are we really intent on making public school teachers at-will employees like the adjunct professors becoming more and more prevalent in our colleges and universities?  These are the college teachers who are hired as-needed—one class at a time from semester to semester.  Part-time employees who struggle to patch together a living wage—paid by the class and frequently denied health insurance.

As an adolescent I was encouraged by my father to become a school teacher because I would always be employable in a secure job.  Certainly job security should not be the only reason a person chooses a profession, but it is one of the characteristics of teaching that has attracted a lot of good people over the years.  Campbell Brown, from her perch in lower Manhattan, attacks what she calls “anachronistic” laws.  Do we really believe stable employment is an anachronism?  I wish Campbell Brown’s dialogue would explore that much deeper question.

Vergara Decision Blames Teachers, Ignores Injustices for Students in Poorest Communities

Earlier this week California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers.  This is the case of Vergara v. California.  The plaintiffs have said they will appeal.  According to Stephanie Simon, writing for Politico, “Judge Treu has tentatively decided to let the laws stay in effect pending that appeal… Judge Treu’s ruling is preliminary; he will take comments from both sides into account before issuing a final ruling within the next month.”

Nobody wants bad teachers in California’s classrooms or the classrooms in any other state.  On this particular issue Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, declared she agrees with Judge Treu: “He argues, as we do, that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom.  He is right on that.”

Treu’s decision explains that tenure protects bad teachers, that bad teachers are more often assigned to the schools serving California’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, and that the assignment of bad teachers (protected by tenure and seniority rights) violates the students’ civil rights under the equal protection clause of the state constitution. “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this Court that the challenged Statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students.”

In his decision, Judge Treu quotes expert witnesses whose numbers are stunning. In one case the judge seems to have extrapolated from what he heard—from expert David Berliner, who is described to have “testified that 1–3 % of teachers in California are grossly ineffective.”  Treu continues, “Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.”  The exact number of ineffective teachers is, of course, speculative.  Treu also quotes Harvard economist, Raj Chetty, who has authored an econometric report on the impact of bad teachers on students’ lives.  Treu writes, “Based on a massive study, Dr. Chetty testified that a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom.”

Experts who did not testify in this court have warned against the use of such econometric studies as the sole basis for creating policy.  The American Statistical Association has warned, for example, about Value Added Model (VAM) econometric formulas for evaluating teachers: “The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data.  These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling.”  “…most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers.  This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores.”

Commenting on the danger of shaping day-to-day school policy on such statistical and econometric data, UCLA expert on teaching, Mike Rose has cautioned that such longitudinal extrapolating “requires that all other factors in the lives of the children and their schools remain the same: that the students maintain the same level of motivation, don’t get sick, don’t experience family disruption. That teachers are equally immune from life’s perturbations…. That the school-level leadership doesn’t change; that new policies aren’t enacted; that funding remains stable, that the community isn’t hit with economic hardship; and so on.”  Real life, of course, cannot be easily quantified.

The existence of massive inequality from school district to school district has been well documented, but was not questioned during the testimony in Vergara.  The American Federation of Teachers’ comment on the Vergara decision names many of the issues that were not raised in this case but that are known to violate the rights of children in the poorest schools across the states: “It is surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children.  We must lift up solutions that speak to these factors….”

The Vergara case was clearly part of an orchestrated attack on teachers unions.  After all, nobody in this trial mentioned the problems of the young, two-year Teach for America recruits, trained for five weeks over the summer and placed—with only meager experience—in classrooms.  Nobody in this trial discussed the long-term substitutes too often left in charge of classrooms in poor schools.  Nobody mentioned the issues around school climate and the deplorable facilities that discourage teachers from seeking positions in the poorest school districts.

The Vergara case was launched by Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur David Welch and the nonprofit he created to fund and publicize the case.  He hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court.  Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, described the case during the trial back in April: “The case, and the public relations effort accompanying it, is being bankrolled by a nonprofit called Students Matter, set up by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch.  Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.”

Teachers deserve protection through due process to enable them to pursue stable careers. Teachers deserve ongoing support to help them improve their skills throughout their careers.  Children deserve expeditious processes by which struggling teachers can be moved out of the profession. Teachers and the children in our nation’s poorest school districts together deserve a change of political priorities around education.  Instead of federally-incentivized “turnaround” plans that emphasize firing teachers and principals, turning schools over to charter management organizations, and closing schools, our society must work to create the political will to improve and support the schools in our poorest big city neighborhoods. The census just demonstrated that total spending on education dropped for the first time in history in Fiscal Year 2012.  States persist in austerity budgeting.  The federal government cut education funding in 2012 by 19.2 percent from the previous year.

The Vergara attorneys sought to portray the needs of children as separate and very different from the needs of their teachers.  In fact, teachers and children in our poorest communities share the need for society to invest in improving their public schools.

“Social Welfare Agencies” Spending Millions to Push Privatization of Education

While states continue to spend less money on public education than they did in 2007 prior to the Great Recession, lots of people are spending lavishly to promote what is frequently called the corporate school reform movement that features various forms of privatization. It is virtually impossible to follow and master all the details of what is happening.  Every once in awhile, however, this blog highlights some examples of the ways money is being spent to buy the policies that shape the education of our children.  This is one of those posts.

The recent and startlingly lavish publicity campaign against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to reign in the excesses of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s favored charter schools is a good place to start. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported that in the past three weeks a not-for-profit organization called Families for Excellent Schools has spent $3.6 million airing TV ads that attack Mayor de Blasio for denying Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools the right to co-locate three schools into public school facilities in New York City.  Mayor de Blasio had granted co-location rights to the majority of Moskowitz’s schools that applied for free space, but denied these three because they would endanger very young children by placing them with much older students in high schools or would infringe on the rights of students with disabilities by taking the rooms used for physical therapy and other special services.  To provide a little context, the Daily News reporter described the $3.6 million add buy: “the amount candidates typically spend in three weeks of a heated mayoral primary.”

So… what is Families for Excellent Schools and who are its financial supporters?  In March 2014, Robert Lewis, of WNYC News, reported: “Families for Excellent Schools’ most recent tax filings are from 2012, so it’s unclear how much they’ve raised in recent years or where that money is coming from.  The organization is technically two entities—a standard charity and a tax exempt group that can accept anonymous contributions for advocacy.”  Managed by the 27-year-old Jeremiah Kittredge, Families for Excellent Schools shares an address with New York’s affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  According to Zoe Carpenter, writing for The Nation,  Families for Excellent Schools is chaired by a venture capitalist named Paul Applebaum, although its website lists neither its board members nor its funders.  Stu Loeser, former spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is now the organization’s press official.  Lewis reports that Students for Excellent Schools  has received grant funding from the Walton and Broad Foundations, although from the organization’s website one can discern neither what its standard charity functions are nor how the organization’s money is allocated for charity and advocacy.

New York City is not the only place where big money is being used for political advocacy and where the donors of that money are hidden today by the tax code.  Thomas Edsall, writing for the NY Times, explains: “The explosion in secret financing of political advertising has turned tax-exempt nonprofit organizations into the weapon of choice for those who want to influence elections without leaving fingerprints.  Campaign spending by these groups, which do not disclose donors, has grown from a modest $5.8 million in the 2003-4 election cycle to $310.8 million in 2011-2012, an increase of more than 5000 percent with further growth expected in 2014 and 2016…  Most of the money raised from undisclosed contributors flows through nonprofits claiming tax-exempt status under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code…. The most common tax-exempt organizations are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups, although there is also substantial political cash channeled through 501(c)(6) groups, which are nonprofit trade associations like the United States Chamber of Commerce.”

Writing for The Center for Public Integrity, Rachel Baye traces the role of secretive big-money donations to so-called “social welfare” groups that support privatization of education and that are not required to report their donors:  “StudentsFirst—created by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee—is leading a new wave of ‘education reform’ organizations, funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers’ unions and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in dozens of states…  Among the biggest spenders: the American Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform… They have been funded by a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.  However, the full list of funders opening their checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so called social welfare nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S, tax code.”

This blog explored a new web campaign, Stinktanks.org, from Wisconsin’s Center for Media and Democracy—a campaign designed to expose the quiet linkage through an organization called the State Policy Network, of a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good. Many of the state think tanks described by Stinktanks.org and the State Policy Network itself are promoting privatization of public education.  Once again in many instances, the donors are shielded by the tax code.

Rachel Baye quotes University of Wisconsin professor Michael Apple’s explanation of why so many powerful people are donating to the “social welfare” 501(c)(4) agencies that are investing in the political campaigns of local school board candidates and state legislators who seek to  privatize public education: “‘If you look at Broad, Bloomberg, they’re in favor of strong mayoral control of education.  Some of it is also this belief that the corporate sector is the last remaining set of institutions that form the engine of our society.’ But changing the way public education functions also opens windows for private corporations and individuals to make a profit, which is likely a factor in at least some donor’s decisions to open their wallets, he said.”

Potential for profits is huge, according to Baye: “In 2002, the education sector spent an estimated $146 million on technology.  By 2011, that number was estimated at $428 million…”

Who Are the Philanthropic and Corporate Sponsors of Today’s School Deform?

I believe that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is essential for ensuring that all children are served, and I believe that a strong system of public education is essential as the foundation of our democracy.  In that context, I think it is important to write more about what I support—strong public schools—than what I oppose—the assault on public education by those who would privatize the education of our children primarily for the purpose of making a profit.

However, I don’t think we ought to be naive.  For this reason I sometimes like to look up the source of the money behind the school privatization movement as a discipline to keep myself informed.  In that spirit, let’s check on some of the foundations and corporations that sponsored Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit last week in Boston.


The Grand Rapids, Michigan founders of Amway Products, Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their family foundation and Betsy’s organization, All Children Matter, are among the nation’s most persistent promoters of vouchers.  According to Think Progress, “In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term ‘public schools’ and instead call them ‘government schools.'”

The Oberndorf Family Foundation devotes itself to school choice and privatization.  According to Think Progress, the Orerndorfs, whose money was earned through SPO Partners, an investment firm, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past five years in school privatization: “Bill Oberndorf… said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the ‘gold standard’ for what should be done across America.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, has been a strong supporter of charter networks and the corporate school reform movement with grants to the New School Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP charter schools,  and Teach for America.  The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the philanthropy of the founders of The Gap.  According to the National Education Policy Center: “The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America… the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.”

And there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the longest and most constant funder of school voucher efforts.  Bradley, a Milwaukee-based foundation, underwrote think tanks and astro-turf organizations behind the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Center for Media and Democracy has closely tracked the far-right giving of the Bradley Foundation, and quotes a local newspaper investigation: “According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ‘from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.’”


Here is Amplify, the school tablet and education data management division of Rupert Murdoch’s The News Corp.  Joel Klein, who revolved right out of his job as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools to his position with the News Corp, worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to bring mass charterization, disruptive change through ongoing school closures, and school co-locations to New York City.  Microsoft is also a large contributor.  Jeb Bush has worked with many of the technology firms, including Microsoft, to promote “blended” learning that is said to save money for school districts if computers do some of the teaching and thereby permit larger class size.  Edgenuity, another sponsor, promotes blended learning and sells “blended” curricula that incorporate computers. Intel is another enormous ed-tech company.

Here among the sponsors are a number of corporations who supply standardized tests and grade the tests and manage the data around testing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scantron.  Scholastic is selling educational materials to implement the Common Core Standards.   Renaissance Learning produces curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards.  The Education Testing Service, the manager of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for decades, has also been prominent in the burgeoning K-12 standardized testing market.

Finally there is K12, the nation’s largest, for-profit, on-line charter school with affiliates across the states.  K12 brags about its huge enrollment, but cannot boast about its graduation rates and student achievement. This is the company about which hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson published a scathing critique a couple of weeks ago.

The Truth about StudentsFirst and Why It Matters

Living as I do in Cleveland, Ohio, I remember not long ago when the names of companies told you just what they made: Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Cleveland Twist Drill, and Timken Roller Bearing.  I suspect we are the town whose public utility has the most delightful and perfectly accurate name: Cleveland Electric Illuminating.  When trees fall on the power lines here in Cleveland, the Illuminating Company comes to get the lights back on.

Nowadays however, company names no longer tell you very much: Halliburton, Archer Daniels Midland, Enron. What does the firm do? Does it make something?  If so, who does the work?  Does it happen in the U.S. or someplace else?  Does the company pay the workers enough? Does it protect them from injuries and toxins? Does it protect the environment?  Does it pay enough taxes?  Any taxes?  Names no longer tell us much, and we aren’t encouraged to ask questions.

Just last week at two social events I found myself in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain how an organization’s name may not really be designed to tell the truth about what the organization does. This time the issue of the name related to a not-for-profit advocacy organization instead of a company.  In both instances well-meaning people brought me the same flyer advertising the local screening of a movie. The flyer which depicted cheerful young children was designed in appealing primary colors.  At the bottom appeared the logo of the sponsoring organization, StudentsFirst.  The flyer provided no information about StudentsFirst, and those who had picked up the flyer—one at a bus stop and the other in a coffee shop— thought it must be a local group, maybe some kind of PTA.  These people wondered if I planned to attend the screening?  They asked if I know anything about StudentsFirst.  Is it new?  Where does it meet?  Which schools does it relate to?

In an article titled, How Michelle Rhee Misled Education Reform, published last May in the New Republic magazine, here is what Nicholas Lemann, the recently retired dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, wrote about Michelle Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst:  “StudentsFirst, Rhee’s post-Washington organization, lobbies state legislatures around the country to pass education-reform measures.  Although it began in a series of meetings in Washington among the influential friends Rhee had made as chancellor—the names she drops in telling of its founding include Rahm Emanuel, Eli Broad, the Aspen Institute, the Hoover Institution, and McKinsey, and her initial requests for philanthropic funding are at the $100 million level—she insists that it is a grassroots organization, ‘a movement of everyday people.’  What this really means is that StudentsFirst has used the latest top-of-the-line Internet-marketing technology to generate a notional membership of more than a million.  They do not pay dues and they are not organized into local chapters that hold regular meetings, but when there is an important vote in a state capitol, StudentsFirst can generate turnout to demonstrate that it is engaged in a grand battle between powerless parents and rich unions.”

Writing for Reuters in May of 2012, Stephanie Simon reported, “Rhee has set up StudentsFirst as a network of interlocking lobbying groups, advocacy organizations and political action committees.  By law, she does not have to disclose her donors, and she refuses to discuss her fundraising.  But an adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg confirms that he provided financial backing for Rhee’s recent push into Connecticut politics. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, funded by John Arnold, a hedge-fund manager and major Democratic donor, has pledged $20 million over five years.  Other backers: the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, funded by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, which gave $1 million, according to foundation records.”

In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch describes the role of philanthropists to fund the think tanks that develop research and then the role of philanthropists and politicians to fund organizations like StudentsFirst who then promote the policies favored by the same research.  Ravitch concludes: “The issue for the future is whether a small number of very wealthy entrepreneurs, corporations, and individuals will be able to purchase educational policy in this nation, either by funding candidates for local and state school boards, for state legislatures, for governor, and for Congress or by using foundation ‘gifts’ to advance the privatization of public education.” (p. 310)

Even prior to Rhee’s launching of StudentsFirst, it turns out that we all ought to have been asking more questions about Michelle Rhee.  Although she has managed to prevent a major investigation of her tenure as Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools, John Merrow, the reporter for the News Hour on PBS has gone to great lengths to investigate what USA Today exposed as a likely major test-answer-erasure cheating scandal during the period when she led the school district.

In the cover story of the October 10, 2013 New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, the chair of the Department of American Studies at Columbia University, reviews together Michelle Rhee’s recent book, Radical and Diane Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error. The review, The Two Faces of American Education, inaccurately presents the authors as though they represent two ends of a simple continuum of opinion.  Instead Rhee and Ravitch are as unlike as they can be; Rhee is a shrewd, self-promoting operator and media darling, while the 75-year-old Ravitch, an academic and long published historian of education, has turned herself into a muckraker.  Delbanco would seem to conclude that challenges for our poorest children and their schools can be worked out if the debate can be made less polarized and less shrill: “You would think it possible to take ideas from both sides and put them to work together… One thing that certainly won’t help our children is any ideology convinced of its exclusive possession of the truth.” While Delbanco is correct that the conversation about public education has become angrily ideological, he is wrong to conclude that Rhee’s story and Ravitch’s well documented analysis can be read as any any sort of counterpoint.  And he is naive to assume there is a mere polite middle ground.

All of us need to start paying closer attention, and we must insist that the media help us by more persistently cutting through the rhetoric designed to cloud our understanding. Who is Michelle Rhee?  What is StudentsFirst?  Does this organization have anything to do, as its name implies, with the needs of students?  In what way is this organization’s name a slap at the teachers whom Rhee has made a career of blaming for putting their own interests ahead of the interests of students?  Are not, in most cases, the needs of students and their teachers closely related?  Where is StudentsFirst raising its money?  What kind of ideology is being pushed by those investing in StudentsFirst as a mouthpiece?  What kind of candidates has it been bankrolling as a national organization investing in local school board and state legislative elections?  How have we lost our capacity to discern the difference between a PTA—a real parents’ organization—and an astroturf (fake grassroots) organization like StudentsFirst?