Disclosure: I was sought out by and interviewed with Change.org back when they were seeking an education organizer; I like and respect many talented organizers there, and from speaking with him, I believe that Ben Rattray is a reasonable, thoughtful, person committed to social change. I’ve also written for Care2.com and similarly like and respect the many excellent bloggers and campaign staff there as well, but am uncomfortable with their retention of StudentsFirst as a client also.
It’s a contradiction that’s been discussed in progressive circles for some time now and the possibility that the Chicago Teacher’s Union might strike has pushed discussion to the fore: why do mission-driven Beneficial Corporations like Change.org (and Care2.com) do so much good elsewhere but have as clients at least two groups that push an anti-union, pro-ALEC education agenda of public school privatization, otherwise known as “education reform”?
Late in the day on June 19, 2012, Change.org issued a statement in which they copped to their mistake in retaining both Stand For Children and StudentsFirst as clients. SFC and SF are organizations with anti-teacher union agendas that also weaken public schools through promotion of punitive testing and back-door methods of defunding schools. The move came about as the result of outside pressure as well as behind the scenes discussions with many Change.org staffers.
A Brief Recap
Aaron Krager writes about the response he received from Change.org’s communications director after initially confronting the petition site/advocacy group with its promotion of StudentsFirst and Stand For Children. (The latter group is currently enmeshed in the Chicago Teacher’s Union possible strike with a geo-targeted call to action to Chicago-area Change.org members, Jonah Edelman having previously bragged at the Aspen Institute of how he outwitted the teacher’s union by pushing lawmakers to pass a ridiculously high threshold for strike authorization votes.)
Krager rebuts Change.org’s communications director, who acknowledges the union-busting tactics of Stand For Children, but in the interest of having an “open platform,” allows that the company maintains a business model where paid sponsored petitions (like ones purchased by StudentsFirst or Stand For Children) are neither pushed by the campaign staff, nor are they necessarily in alignment with the positions of any or all staffers. To Change.org, until recently with regard to SFC and SF, sponsored petitions functioned like paid commercials or ads that may have conflicted with editorial, but nevertheless paid the bills. Says Krager:
Change.org can hide behind Stand for Children’s focus group tested mission statement all it wants. It doesn’t stop the truth from existing. Stand for Children wants to privatize education, pick and choose the students who receive it, take away the rights of the people working in the schools, and allow corporate funders to dictate education policy. It simply does not fall in line with Change.org’s own policies. Saying so denies the truth and merely aligns Change with the one percent that already benefit at our expense.
Put another way, to what extent is Change.org’s profitability dependent on recycling conservative dollars paid to StudentsFirst or Stand For Children for ALEC lobbying? (I’ll talk in greater detail about the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, in another section.) That was what Change.org had to decide, as the sponsored petitions from clients StudentsFirst and Stand For Children are often upsold from legitimately grassroots petitions started by individuals not affiliated with any particular group. In that way, the rotation of sponsored petitions presented to a petition signer of a related subject, and the sale of information on signers of education-related petitions to Stand For Children or StudentsFirst is not at all like a paid ad or commercial that conflicts with editorial, as they first claimed. While some have argued that mass appeal to the widest possible base laid Change.org open to accepting clients at cross-purposes with their stated social mission, I would say the pressure of taking on venture capital with the expectation of a high-multiple return was the primary reason why the company engaged uncomfortable bedfellows like SFC and SF for so long. I don’t point this out to denigrate Change.org, but to highlight the stand they’ve now taken in light of what must be formidable pressure from investors to do otherwise. It was both the right thing to do and it’s costing them future income. Better for Change.org that it took that step.
“Ed Reform” Funders Matter
With the release of previously secretive American Legislative Exchange Council sample bills showing how “ed reform” notions spread privatization laws so quickly among state legislatures, there isn’t even a fuzzy line separating reform that improves and strengthens public schools from “reform” that weakens and de-funds public schools, narrows their curriculum, and de-professionalizes staff. The line, as Karoli Kuns documents, is pretty bright.
In 2010, Kuns found in her research, moneyed interests that wanted to introduce profit into not-for-profit public education met and discussed the strategies they could use to succeed:
AEI’s Rick Hess suggested that unions could be co-opted by being encouraged to move from an industrial model to a “professional model”, and then offered this:
The fiscal condition of states and towns will open up opportunities, too. “There’s going to be a sustained window of four to five years or longer where you’re going to find local districts with very tight budgets,” Hess said. “This is a huge moment of opportunity for funders to step up to the plate and say, ‘We’re going to help you out—but there’s a quid pro quo.’”
Shock doctrine, as Naomi Klein explains in her book of the same name, boils down to “your disaster is my moneymaking opportunity.” It’s carpetbagging, it’s what happened to New Orleans’ public schools post-Hurricane Katrina when they were replaced by charters, and it’s the $500 billion in public education spending that makes Rupert Murdoch’s eyes twinkle in the midst of budget cuts.
The Walton, DeVos and Gates Foundations were in attendance at the 2010 planning session. Not surprisingly, they’re the financial backers of most astroturf groups that push changes to teacher due process rules, teacher pensions, student test scores, and ill-defined “online education.” The budget crisis that has 30-plus states at K-12 funding levels below 2007-2008 is the golden opportunity for corporate efforts to privatize schools, and the GOP state legislators who blindly submit ALEC legislation and choke off efforts to fund public schools are the moneyed interests’ footsoldiers.
Stand For Children is funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Daniels Fund, two right-wing philanthropies that have invested heavily in pushing vouchers, charters, and an end to teachers’ unions. The Gates Foundation, chief “ed deformer” and key funder of charter school “voucherization,” has given Stand For Children millions to open franchises in new states. Real-life parents and community members who were active with Stand For Children in the 1990s document how they have observed over time the “non-partisan” organization’s troubling shift away from empowering parents who support children in schools to fronting conservative agendas far from its original mission.
StudentsFirst is no less a creation of billionaire backers and conservative corporate education privatizers.
Together, these groups and others like them agitate on behalf of more charter schools, more testing, more firings for teachers and failure for kids, bigger monopolies for testing/textbook/credentialing/remediating companies, and so on.
Bipartisan Policymaking is Not the Same As Saying “Equally Greedy”
What’s shameful is how many self-labelled Democrats have lent pseudo-bipartisan luster to the organization through donations or brand-washing, as with “Democrats for Education Reform.” The latter consists of self-identified Democrats who are not an official club or extension of the Democratic Party, yet use the party designation ‘Democrat’ to suggest bipartisan appeal and even party endorsement on deceptive candidate mailers just prior to elections. The point is, parent priorities are for small class sizes, well-funded schools, well-trained and experienced teachers, a safe school environment, and a broad and meaningful curriculum that engages and excites students. Parents are agnostic in their goals for their kids’ schools, and if Republicans suddenly decide that schools must be thoroughly funded to achieve the vision of high quality education, they are most certainly welcome to join those efforts — that would be true bipartisan policymaking in the service of public schools.
Instead what we have is equally greedy opportunism.
If Republican mayors were to suddenly decide to support full funding of schools (as they used to in the pre-Reagan era), they would be embraced by parents and teachers alike. But recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors voted to give a largely symbolic thumbs up to the ALEC-generated “parent trigger” law which first passed with the co-sponsorship of Democratic State Senators and Assemblymembers in the California legislature in 2010, but hasn’t delivered ballyhooed miracles since.
The same bill was resoundingly defeated in Florida when authentic grassroots parent groups wise to the example of California unmasked Jeb Bush’s vested interest in their own state for the unfunded mandate of rampant, often low-quality, charter school growth.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors, many of whom are Democrats, are currently at cross-purposes with the traditional goals of the Democratic Party to increase access and ensure equity in public education. Instead, they seem more interested in the plush funding by equally greed-driven wealthy Democrats and Republicans who want to magnify inequality and insert costly middle men in public education where none were needed or requested.
I pose the same question to DFER members and the Coalition of Mayors as Krager and Kuns posed to Change.org: liberals, to what extent are your career prospects in corporate “education reform” dependent on recycled right-wing ALEC dollars? Because if they are and you oppose every other element of ALEC’s agenda, then truth in advertising would suggest you’re really Republicans for Education Reform, with the vouchers, steady erosion of public schools through underfunding, and sneaking privatization through multi-state corporate charter chains that has long been the hard-right’s agenda. Stop giving cover to a religious right/fiscal conservative wish list that is slowly eviscerating public schools.
Change.org followed through (with a little prodding) on the principles laid out in its social justice mission. Care2.com, how about you? Democrats for Education Reform and Coalition of Mayors, where do you stand?