Thursday, January 16, 2020

National Parents Union: Do You Smell Astroturf

This week Lauren Camera treated us to a warm, fuzzy piece of launch PR for the National Parents Union; the US News editor announces right in the headline that this group is here to challenge the teachers unions, but in a totally organic grass roots kind of way.

Two Latina mothers from opposite sides of the country have joined forces to form their own union to disrupt an education agenda they say is pushing out parents like them and, more importantly, leaving behind poor students and students of color.

Well, maybe not exactly like them, because these two moms have a pretty hefty record in the ed reform world.

It's always a good idea to look underneath
Weirdly enough, the National Parents Union already exists-- well, a group with that same name. They were/are a coalition of state groups in New York City, Connecticut, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, plus Moms for School Choice, which gives you an idea of what they were up to. They even had a gathering in 2013 featuring such notables as Howard Fuller, Steve Perry, and the California state director of DFER, the hedge funder-founded group intended to nudge the Democrats in the direction of school choice. However, the New York chapter was part of the push to close down InBloom and stop then-commissioner John King from cashing in on student data.

In fact, when invited to join as a founder of the new group, Gwen Samuel, a founding member of the old group, declined and reminded one of the new founders that NPU already existed, and that she would pass on the new group. We are going to come back to these folks.

So there's a Columbus-like "Look we discovered this thing that people already knew about because they're there" quality to the new NPU. But maybe that's just an unfortunate hiccup. Perhaps this new group is different. Is there any reason to suspect this isn't good old-fashioned grass roots activism? Let's take a look at the folks involved.

The West Coast is represented by Alma V. Marquez. The Camera profile notes that Marquez founded the Los Angeles Parents Union and worked with Green Dot Schools, a chain with a somewhat checkered past, including that time they tricked some parents into activating the parent trigger law. She was Green Dot's VP of External and Government Affairs. She headed up California's Obama Latino campaign. And she's the founder and CEO of Del SOL Group, "A full service communications and public affairs firm, providing expertise in Communications, Public Affairs and Coalition Building." Their stated specialties are communications, public affairs, and coalition building. Their clients include ACLU CA, the LAUSD board, KIPP:LA, and EducationPost.

In this context, it's worth looking at part of the descriptions of their services:

Our strategic message development establishes clients as authentic and innovative thought leaders, and desirable partners within their industry and community.

Our team of policy experts anticipate public concerns, and assists clients with advocacy efforts, promote and defend our clients’ interests, and coordinate grassroots coalitions and public relations initiatives.

Our team offers decades of successful experience initiating, organizing and managing national coalitions of individuals, companies and interest groups.

Marquez's company has been in business for over two decades, so clearly she knows her business. And her business is exactly what NPU is setting itself up to do. There's nothing wrong with being in that business, and there's nothing wrong with hiring professionals if you want to get in the advocacy business. But the picture of this group as just a bunch of folks trying to get their message out seems a bit disingenuous given Marquez's professional chops.

And then there's her partner.

When the story, Massachusetts residents on Twitter rolled their eyes so hard that the internet almost had to sit down for a second.

Keri Rodrigues has a hell of a story. Runaway tween, foster child, recently widowed, radio talk show host dubbed the "pint-sized Portuguese pundit" (she is Irish, Venezuelan and Portuguese). Union organizer, campaign consultant. I don't imagine for a minute that she's any kind of lightweight. But folks in Massachusetts may best remember her as the face of Question 2.

Specifically, she was fronting for Families for Excellent Schools-- the group that was caught and fined for hiding its dark money donor list, which turned out to be a short list of deep-pocketed Wall Street types who wanted the Massachusetts charter cap lifted and donated many dollars to do it. . The group never really recovered (what good is a dark money group that can't keep its donors hidden?) and one final scandal shut down the parent organization.

Rodrigues later tried to distance herself from the doomed effort: "Honestly, I felt I was being used as a prop. It was a lot of white men at the table." She added that she saw Question 2's huge loss coming and critiqued the backers. "I think fundamentally this reform sector does not respect or understand organizing." She says that FES wasn't wrong, but their methods sucked (I'm paraphrasing). She has connections and skills. She's on the board of DFER. And she knows her way around Walton money.

Who else is involved in this organization?

Well, one document from the group includes a list of founding council members. It's called "in formation" so it may be aspirational rather than real, but it still gives an idea where their aim is. The list includes Sarah Carpenter of Memphis Lift (the Walton-funded group of charter parents that tried to disrupt a Elizabeth Warren speech), Chris Stewart of Education Post and vocal charter advocate, Charles Cole III, Vesia Hawkins of Volume and Light in Nashville, Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School in Philly, and Seth Saavedra. Most of these folks are connected to Education Post, and many of them are Teach for America grads.

The actual board listed on the website includes Rodrigues and Marquez. There's also Peter Cunningham, edu-flack for Arne Duncan and founding father of Education Post; Gerard Robinson, executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, a Koch-funded thinky tank; Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP; and Bibb Hubbard of Learning Heroes.

Advisors for the group include John King, currently of The Edeucation Trust, and Shavar Jeffries of DFER. Their email address is aimed at MercuryLLC, a PR "high stakes public strategy" firm that helps with strategic media relations and has "a proven ability to counsel leaders of Fortune 500 companies.".

So what are these folks setting out to do? Well, the launch document offers this:

National Parents Union is a network of highly-effective parent organizations and grassroots  activists across the country that come together to unite behind a set of common goals and  principles to channel the power of parents. Our family advocates improve the quality of life for  children across the United States and define the education conversation in the 2020 election  cycle. 

And when they break that down into three specific goals:

1) Affect politics. 2) Coordinate the various parent groups across the nation for the election and 3) Grab some headlines the same way all them striking teachers are doing. As the document observes, "The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force." You see the central theme here-- the election, and opposing teachers. In the article, Marquez goes to great pains to say that the NPU is not anti-union, but everything else about the group screams anti-teacher union, including the repeated emphasis that the conversation must be child-centered and not teacher union centered. There are many echoes here of the old notion that the public school system is just a union-run scam to create income and political power for the union bosses.

Someday I would like to see a journalist really examine the question of how much political clout the teacher unions really have, but it won't be Camera, who writes lines like "the state of K-12 politics, which, as it stands, is largely controlled by the two national teachers unions" and "the two national teachers unions have a veritable stranglehold over the majority of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls." So today isn't going to be that day.

Camera in the article cites the two unions for spending $64 million on the 2016 cycle, including money through various organizations it contributes to. But the NPU has Walton money on their side, and as Camera admits, the Waltons have spent at least $595 million in grants in 2018 (that would not include, say, the various political contributions they make as well). I have heard the argument over and over and over again that philanthropist money and Walton and Gates and Broad and Jobs money is necessary to counterbalance the vast financial resources of the unions, but the union is a bb gun in a field of howitzers. And the Waltons are apparently dipping into their deep pockets for this group as well.

The new NPU's plans are ambitious-- they want to "roll out" an agenda that will "define the Education K-12 debate in the 2020 Presidential cycle" as well as field "rapid response" ground-level teams for local elections. In  this respect, they sound a great deal like Education Post and the 74. And then there's this:

Launch aggressive communications strategy (earned and owned national, local, ethnic and  social media) to position NPU as ​the organization representing parent interests in Election  2020.

They want to own the parent voice in 2020 (which seems, honestly, a little like the opposite of wanting to give parents a voice). But wait-- what about groups like the first NPU, who already were a parent voice in education?

Well, it turns out that at least one founding member of New York Parents Union has some thoughts about this new group. You can read the whole letter from Mona Davids, a Black parent and one of the original founders of the first NPU, right here. But here are some highlights:

If you don't know who Davids is, she'll tell you

I have lost count of the defunct local and national AstroTurf organizations during my decade of being an independent, grassroots, unbought and unbossed, parent advocate. The inauthenticity, arrogance, chicanery and lies, of the many AstroTurf organizations seeded by tens of millions of dollars is what inevitably leads to their failure and downfall. 

For those that do not know me, I am a New York City parent. I am the founder of the New York City Parents Union. My two children have both attended district schools and charter schools. I fight for the rights of students and parents in the district schools and charters. I fight for a parent’s right to choose the school that best fits the educational needs of their child. I hold district schools and charters accountable to the parents and for educating our children. I fight for school funding and I fight for parents to have a seat at the education policy table. The only side I belong to is the side of students and their parents. I am not paid by anyone and I do not have contracts with anyone. Nobody controls me. Nobody can bully me. Nobody can silence me. You can find my receipts here.

To be clear, Davids and I are not on the same side of most ed policy issues. She's is absolutely pro-choice, and she was the one who went head to head with Campbell Brown over who, exactly, would get to be running the New York version of the Vergara lawsuit. But Davids surely does not suffer high-paid fools on her side of the issues:

The president is supposed to be Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo, a White woman from Boston [Rodrigues allegedly actually lives in a suburb]. She is not Latina although she purposely misleads everyone to think she is. Rodrigues Lorenzo is founder of Mass Parents United, that was created in 2017. She is the former Massachusetts state director for the defunct, AstroTurf, Families for Excellent Schools. The ones responsible for the biggest, most expensive, education reform defeat in history. It was epic. Not only did the parents and people of Massachusetts see through and reject their hypocrisy, but the chicanery, corrupt, unethical and illegal actions of the education reformers resulted in historic huge fines and banishment from Massachusetts.

She says Marquez must be a failure because California keeps beating back ed reform. She blames John King for making ed reform toxic in New York. And she calls DFER a "huge failure." Lots of folks have theories about why charters and ed reform have been having a rough time. Here is her theory:

There is not an AstroTurf organization, defunct or still active, that Walton does not fund. From StudentsFirst, to Families for Excellent Schools, to Great Schools Massachusetts, to Partnership for Educational Justice – all doomed to fail from day one because they are not organic, authentic and grassroots. 

The fruits of the many, multi-million-dollar funded AstroTurf organizations and DFER is parents, students, entire communities, politicians and democratic presidential candidates all want nothing to do with charters because their AstroTurf organizations have successfully made charters toxic.

After laying out how many folks had informed Rodrigues that NPU already existed, she winds up her blistering letter like this:

I know of no one in the education world — teachers, advocates, or the teachers’ union, that would steal something that belongs to parents. We teach our children not to steal. We teach our children not to take something that belongs to someone else. 

But, clearly, ethical, honorable behavior does not apply to Walton, DFER, John King, Rodrigues Lorenzo, Marquez, and everyone else listed as their advisors. They are thieves. Plain and simple. 

Go ahead, steal the name and continue to expose who you are and what your real interests are – because it is not the education and best interests of our kids.

Nobody will be fooled, and this will be the final nail in the education reform, AstroTurf coffin.

This, I will remind you, is from the pro-school choice side of the aisle. It would appear that some parents are not quite ready to let the new NPU serve as their voices, and that some folks can smell astro-turf a mile away. That matches this quote that Camera includes from Lee Adler, a labor, criminal law and civil rights practitioner who teaches at Cornell University's' School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

"The real battle is who is going to shape the education policies within the Democratic Party," he says. "Essentially they wish to unionize parents as a counterforce to educational unions to influence policy in the Democratic Party. They're not functioning as parents, per se. They're making it look like a grassroots, community organization, but they're really fronting for dark money billionaires who wish to shape education policy in America."

Rodrigues points out that she's not for sale, but Camera also talks to Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education and the director of the Politics & Education Program at Columbia University's Teachers College who points out that's not how the big money folks do this sort of thing.

"By hooking up with parent and progressive groups that are already operating in key cities and states and building alliances with them where they are, they're operating like a front organization," Henig says. "It's almost like, and this should be in quotes, 'hiring' or 'bringing on to contract' existing parent and progressive groups, so that they can have something more resembling a genuine link to a genuine community-based, grassroots set of organizations."

Don't buy people to make them say something; rent people who already say what you want them to. Is it wring for rich folks to support causes they believe in, or for people to get financial support for their own crusades? I suppose not. But when the super-wealthy start amplifying groups to serve their own purposes, it distorts the national conversation. And it's dishonest, to boot. The new NPU may be many things, but an organic grass roots outpouring of ordinary folks it is not. And when you set your agenda before you sign up your members, that distorts the truth of the conversation as well. Nor is democracy served by having the wealthy buy their way around it.

The New NPU meets today in New Orleans, with delegates from all over the country. We'll see what they have to say, because I'm sure somebody in the press (Fox News picked up the story) will cover it. We'll see if the Trump administration gets any useful talking points out of them (though Martquez has been pretty critical of Betsy DeVos) or if they can get any of the Democratic candidates to take a meeting or if they can convince the nation that they are the one and only voice of parent concerns about education.