Saturday, July 30, 2016

$tand For Children: The Astroturfing of Advocacy

Stand For Children's pedigree is impeccable. It's twenty year history begins with a huge June rally in DC, where 250,000 people did, indeed, stand up for children. Geoffrey Canada and Rosa Freaking Parks spoke. Time Magazine did a follow-up interview with child advocate and activist Marion Wright Edelman. Edelman was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, and in 1973 she founded the Children's Defense Fund.

Edelman's son Jonah* (his father worked for Robert Kennedy) teamed up with Eliza Leighton to work on that rally, and immediately after, they launched Stand For Children. This was Edelman's first big project; he had received his B.A. in History with a concentration on African-American studies from Yale University in 1992, then landed a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, earning his Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Politics in 1994 and 1995.

The organization kicked off with rallies all over the country, and launched as a chain of local, grass roots chapters.In a press release for the 1999 Stand For Children Day, we can see the organization spread over "1,500 volunteer-led events" calling for things like greater funding for pre-school. The priorities of SFC in those days were pretty simple:
  • Health coverage for uninsured children
  • Monitoring the impact of welfare reform
  • More money for affordable, high-quality child care
  • Safe and productive after-school activities
  • Schools that have small classes, well-trained teachers, high standards, and involved parents.
But by the late 00s, something was happening to Stand For Children.

One thing that was happening was huge truckloads of money from the Gates and Walton foundations. Stand For Children was making a whole lot of interesting new friends, and their old friends, including parents like Susan Barrett, were noticing:

I think about the visits from the Policy Director of the New Teacher Project, and the former aide to New York City charter operator, Eva Moskowitz, who said she was moving to Portland and trying to set up a chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge-fund driven organization.  I think about their push for Oregon to submit a Race to the Top application, (which the state did initially, but it failed); and how the organization acted as the “social justice partner “of Waiting for Superman. and urged parents to attend the film. Only recently did I come to realize that the SFC Portland Director, Tyler Whitmire, is the daughter of Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a book lavishing praise on Michelle Rhee.

By 2010, Oregon SFC staff was pushing for support of a bill to increase charters and cyber-schooling. Oh, and SFC was now advocating a decrease in the capital gains tax. Former actual parent SFC member Tom Olson explained the last straw came with new SFC staff:

We were appalled that [Sue Levin] had virtually no experience leading grassroots organizations. Instead, we were told that she had a truly impressive background as an “entrepreneur” (a phrase we began to hear [CEO Edelman] use quite frequently during [his] transformation during 2009–10). Levin had been the founder and CEO of a women’s apparel company, Lucy Inc. Prior to that, she had been a women’s sports apparel VP at Nike Inc. Grassroots leadership experience? Absolutely none. Connections with millionaires? A whole bunch.

SFC became a big promotional partner for Waiting for Superman. They stood up to defend the Common Core across numerous states. And they advocated hard for charters and for anti-tenure, anti-union policies. SFC was out in ten states, so there are many stories.

Kenn Libby and Adam Sanchez put together a history of Stand For Children that ran in the Fall 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools. At that point, one of SFC's most recent "accomplishments" was its work in Illinois, where they were brought in to help bust the union. At Aspen in 2011, Edelman suffers an extraordinary attack of Damn I Forgot That The Internet Is a Thing and lays out in a panel discussion caught on video just how they did it, and it's an interesting explanation of how well-moneyed advocates could separate Democrats from usual constituents. Edelman is pretty blunt-- he explains at one point how officials were simply political tools to achieve the goal of "tilting" Speaker Madigan. He's also pretty blunt about how he managed the teachers:

After the election, Advance Illinois and Stand had drafted a very bold proposal we called Performance Counts. It tied tenure and layoffs to performance. It let principals hire who they choose. It streamlined dismissal of ineffective tenured teachers substantially—from two-plus years and $200,000 in legal fees, on average, to three to four months, with very little likelihood of legal recourse.

And, most importantly, we called for the reform of collective bargaining throughout the state—essentially, proposing that school boards would be able to decide any disputed issue at impasse...

We hired 11 lobbyists, including the four best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them. We enlisted a statewide public affairs firm. . . . We raised $3 million for our political action committee between the election and the end of the year. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.

And so essentially, what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. I can tell you there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers’ unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance, and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats, the same way the pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier.

Throat-jamming has been a favored technique of SFC. In Massachusetts, SFC mounted a huge media campaign to push the idea of erasing tenure and seniority protections and won concessions from the teachers union by the old-fashioned technique of blackmail-- you can give us some concessions now, or we will throw our weight behind a ballot initiative that will be even worse. As a further sign of their astro-turfy nature, they promptly vanished once their work was done.

By the time the current decade had rolled around, all traces of the original group and its original priorities had vanished. In 2011, Texas faced serious budget problems and the prospect of serious education budget cuts. The old SFC would have advocated for protecting schools and children from those cuts; the new SFC was busy throwing its weight behind new teacher evaluation programs.

The current SFC Board of Directors is, well, unsurprising:

* Anne Marie Burgoyne, Chair. Holds an MBA from Stanford and is currently manages the social innovation initiative for the Emerson Collective, the reformy group headed by Steve Jobs widow (Laurene Jobs was on the SFC board back in 2006) and which hired Arne Duncan to do something-or-other.

* Emma Bloomberg. Michael Bloomberg's oldest daughter, and chief of staff at the Robin Hood Foundation (founded by Paul Tudor Jones, a hedge fund manager who dabbles in ed reform).
[Update: Bloomberg is no longer on the Robin Hood board, and has not been for almost two years. SFC's website has not been updated to reflect that. I have no idea what else they may have wrong.]

* Phil Handy, Treasurer. CEO of Winter Park Capital. Six years as Chairman of Florida State Board of Education under Jeb Bush.

* Eliza Leighton. Co-founder and now independent consultant. Left SFC in 2001 to get a law degree.

* David Nierenberg. An investment guy, now running his own firm after years of managing money for other people's firms.

* Lisette Nieves. Partner at Lingo Ventures, her own consulting firm. She's "an experienced social entrepreneur and public sector leader." Some government work, too, including Bloomberg appointee on NYC Board of Education.

* Don Washburn, Secretary. A private equity investor who has held executive positions at Northwest Airlines, Marriott Corp, and Quaker Oats.

In other words, not a single person with education credentials in the bunch. But they know a lot about investing money. Does it get any better if we look at the heads of their local affiliates?

Arizona's director's previous experience is help Jan Brewer push her education reform program. Colorado? Fifteen years as a "successful contract lobbyist." Illinois-- lawyers who worked for ed division of Tribune publishing. Indiana's head has background in communications and marketing, having helped shill for reformy Bart Peterson. Louisiana's director first joined SFC as Marketing and Communications Director. Massachusetts gets a Teach for America guy. Oklahoma's director was a journalist who moved into political communications work. Oregon's is former TFA, former KIPP, former Alliance for Excellence in Education, and a former aid to Senator Hillary Clinton. Tennessee doesn't have a state chief; the Nashville head is a former Obama administration liason for Department of Energy, and the Memphis head is a political activist and consultant. Texas and Washington don't have full staff presence.

In 2012, national leadership of SFC, "to ensure that we are maximizing our collective impact, ...decided to develop a shared viewpoint on how to accomplish our mission and to prioritize strategies that have proven effective in closing the achievement gap." In other words, "let's get everyone on the same page." The six-page manifesto is relatively harmless, even as it uses plenty of reformster dog whistles.

But words are cheap, and Stand For Children may be many things these days, but cheap they are not. I spent my Saturday morning reading up on them because they have surfaced twice this week, in both cases busy trying to buy themselves some democracy.

In Washington State, SFC is trying to buy itself a judge. See, the current judge, the one they'd like to buy a replacement for, had the temerity to rule Washington's charter law, the charter law that charter supporters paid lots of good money to get passed, unconstitutional (Mercedes Schneider has the painful details). Sigh. This is the sort of thing that should bother you even if you don't even care a little about education-- for these folks, laws and democracy are just obstacles to getting their way. Want a particular law passed? Just buy the law you want, and if that isn't enough, buy the judge that will interpret the law the way you'd like it. So Stand For Children is funneling three quarters of a million dollars of reformster money into the judge's race (meanwhile, that judge who is not being backed by funders from across the nation, has about $30K to defend herself with-- if you would like to help her with that, here's the link).

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, spent (or passed through) another $700K to buy itself some Nashville school board members. At Dad Gone Wild, you can read just how far off the rails that effort has gone (it appears that SFC is a little muddied on PAC and campaign law).

I confess to some mystification. How did a guy with such a child-centered, activist background become such a tool of corporate interests? How did a group that started with Rosa Parks saying, "If I can sit down for justice, you can stand up for children" end up being a group that doesn't stand for much of anything except stacks of money wielded like political clubs? How do these folks decide that law and democracy are simple obstacles to be leveraged and used, cast aside or buried under stacks of cash? Watch Edelman in that video-- children aren't even on the radar.

Reformsters like to say that you can't fix schools by throwing money at them, but they sure do like to throw money at politics and politicians. I suppose it is somehow comforting to believe that everyone can be bought when you yourself have long since sold out.

*I initially posted the wrong brother's name (Josh) instead of Jonah.


  1. Reformsters like to say that you can't fix schools by throwing money at them, but they sure do like to throw money at politics and politicians. I suppose it is somehow comforting to believe that everyone can be bought when you yourself have long since sold out.


  2. THROAT-Jamming. Jamming it down the public throat. Sadly this phraseology now covers so much of what our country is brought to believe/embrace.

  3. Thanks for keeping SFC on your radar!! They are slick as they try to come across as an innocent non-profit, but the are deformers all the way. We've ( Oregon Save Our Schools) been watching them for years here in Oregon, and there are still some in power who fail to see or understand the damage they are doing. Many SFC leaders have made their way into top state education policy positions. Appalling!!