Sunday, January 18, 2015

NJ Charters Play Hardball

A week ago I brought the story of an attempt by the New Jersey Charter School Association to shut down Dr. Julia Sass Rubin (a Rutgers professor) and Mark Weber (grad student and prominent blogger Jersey Jazzman). Rubin and Weber have done research which has produced an assortment of facts which the NJCSA find inconvenient. Rather than try to dispute the facts or their interpretation, NJCSA instead chose to gin up some state ethics charges against Rubin, suppress the report, and force her to keep her qualifications a secret every time she talked about the research.

Now from New Jersey blogger Marie Corfield comes news that the charter association hired a PR specialist, a Darth Vader who has experience in smearing opponents. Michael Turner actually has a history of working for folks in the toxic waste business, so the NJ Charter School Association is really asking for extra mockery here. Exactly who made the connection. Did someone in the NJCSA officed say, "A toxic waste expert would be the perfect guy to make the case for charter schools." Or does somebody working for NJCSA think of Turner because they had previously worked with him back when they were in the toxic sludge business themselves.

Either way, making a direct connection between standing up for charter schools and defending polluters seems like a bad first PR step.

Turner has been part of some great NJ stories. When the Diamond Shamrock Chemical Company was found guilty of two decades of deliberately, intentionally, and illegally polluting the Passaic River, it was Michael Turner who, twelve years later, was leading the PR battle to make sure they never had to do a thing about it.

In 2006, Alexander Lane at the Star-Ledger wrote a profile of Turner (despite the fact that Turner's boss twice tried to talk the Star-Ledger out of writing it). It's not easily locatable on line-- if you've got a Yahoo account, you can get to a copy of it here. The article (which starts with the now oft-quoted characterization of Turner as Darth Vader) is pretty thorough. I'm just going to hit some highlights.

After graduating from Roger Williams University in 1992 with a poli sci/history degree, Turner went to work in political campaigns before landing at MWW. He rose to become the head of their brownfield redevelopment business (a brownfield is a contaminated site; redevelopers like them for being cheap to acquire, but work to keep their cleanup costs down while making sure the public feels secure). Brownfield developments sites in NJ include a golf course and a mall. Turner is quoted in the story saying that he truly believes in his clients, and will not work for clients in whose goals he does not believe. Lane notes that on a board from earlier brainstorming are the words "No fear... destroy opposition."

Jeff Tittel, state head of the Sierra Club, characterized Turner as "very pushy, very aggressive and very arrogant." Joe Morris of the Interfaith Community Organization, another Turner opponent, "said it's difficult to know how effective Turner's advocacy is, but it's certainly aggressive." Another Turner foe ultimately cut a deal, with a company handing over some land to the Meadowlands Conservative Trust in exchange for an endorsement of a development elsewhere.

MWW is also in the new in NJ because they were the creators of the "Stronger than the Storm" ad campaign, which has become part of the federal audit of Christie's NJ because it looks (and without any great deal of squinting) as if Hurricane Sandy relief money bought Christie a nice ad campaign promoting the governor in an election year.

MWW itself is a full-sized operation. They have "full-service" offices in LA, Seattle, DC, and New York, and an impressive list of clients including Continental Airlines, Bethlehem Steel, Kaiser Aluminum, and Verizon/New Jersey. Many websites will tell you that, "the MWW Group is among the top 20 public affairs and strategic communications agencies in the U.S. and is known for its results-driven approach to public relations."

So that's what the New Jersey Charter Schools Association hired to take care of a college professor and a school teacher. My first thought is that, wow, they must have a pile of money if they can just up and hire an outfit like MWW. My second thought is that Rubin and Weber must really scare the crap out of them.

I mean, think of how much cheaper and easier it would have been to just pop up saying, "We believe that Rubin and Weber have their facts wrong, and here are the numbers to prove it" or "We believe their reasoning is incorrect and here's where they made a mistake" or even, "Here's a picture of a cat riding a unicycle; your argument is invalid." I mean, if NJ charters were magically successful, there would be oodles of just-plain-factual material to mount a counter-argument instead of having to throw a bunch of money at a high-powered shark-attack PR firm. So much for magical charter school success.


  1. How do you look at this stuff every day and not cry?

  2. Imagine if a real public school engaged the services of a PR firm such as this. The outrage would be off the charts. Spending public dollars on nonsense like this? Makes my head hurt.