Standing for Corporate America

In a rare moment of ruling class honesty, billionaire James Crown and Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman revealed the union-bashing corporate agenda behind education reform in a recent speech.

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, they explained how Stand for Children, a nonprofit ostensibly dedicated to helping “all children get the excellent public education…they need to thrive,” helped push through legislation in Illinois aimed at severely restricting teacher union rights.

Their panel discussion, titled “If It Can Happen There, It Can Happen Anywhere: Transformational Education Legislation in Illinois,” began with Crown painting a picture of an all-powerful teachers union that consistently blocks education reform and has a stranglehold on Illinois politics:

[W]e had a mayor who talked importantly about reforming the schools, Mayor Daley, and we had a CEO of public schools, Arne Duncan, who did everything he could in that environment. But this was not a fair fight. Because of the political strength and the organized strength of the unions, who, each time they came up to a contract session, would not concede on length of day, would not concede on teacher metrics and would insist on additional compensation. And that’s the way things have gone for an entire generation in terms of negotiated outcome.

Crown was particularly angry that teachers in Illinois had maintained their right to strike. “In forty-five of the fifty states there is no right to strike by teachers,” he protested. “So this was an incredibly strike permissive environment with these other efforts by the unions, and so forth, that created an unsustainable structure in our school system.”

But for Crown, whose family has long been a pillar of the Chicago financial elite, this environment changed when Jonah Edelman and Stand for Children got involved.

Stand for Children (SFC) is a Portland, Ore.-based non-profit that emerged out of a 1996 march of over a quarter-million people in Washington, D.C. The aim of the march was to highlight child poverty at a time when Congress and the Clinton administration were preparing to “end welfare as we know it.” According to Susan Barrett, a parent volunteer who recently stepped down from her position in Portland’s SFC chapter, Jonah Edelman:

and a co-founder set up a home base in Oregon, and worked on smaller issues with positive impact, such as after-school program funding and emergency dental care for uninsured kids. Many parents like me who joined SFC a while back still remember how it was an organization fighting for the Portland Children’s Levy, which provided funds for early childhood education, foster care, child abuse prevention programs and a variety of other programs centered on children.

But in the last couple years, Stand for Children has seen an influx of corporate cash that drastically changed the organization’s priorities.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of SFC’s earlier big donors, began by offering a two-year grant of $80,000 in 2005. In the last few years, however, possibly because it realized that SFC could be an effective ally in pushing the corporate model for education reform, the Gates Foundation drastically enlarged its contributions. In 2007, Stand for Children received a $682,565 grant. In 2009, it got a $971,280 grant, and in 2010, it received a $3,476,300 grant—all from the Gates Foundation.

Though the Gates Foundation remains the biggest donor to Stand for Children, other players in the world of corporate education reform have also begun to see SFC as an effective vehicle to push their agenda.

New Profit Inc. is the other major player that has funded SFC since 2008—to the tune of $1,458,500. According to its website, New Profit is a “national venture philanthropy fund that seeks to harness America’s spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship to help solve the country’s biggest social problems.” New Profit’s “strategic partner” is Monitor Group, a consulting firm that was recently criticized for signing a $3 million contract with Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi for a PR campaign aimed at rehabilitating the regime’s image.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the extremely wealthy owners of Wal-Mart, made a 2010 grant of $1,378,527. Several other major funders are tied to Bain Capital, a private equity and venture capital firm founded by Mitt Romney—currently the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

To think that bedfellows like these are just handing over millions in cash and expecting nothing in return would be naïve. As Susan Barrett wrote in an eye-opening article about the changing atmosphere inside Stand for Children:

Parents and community members most likely do not know that SFC now has private equity investors and venture philanthropists on the board, making decisions for the organization as it grows new chapters…

My fear is that unwitting parents and community members will join SFC because they want to rectify the problems they see every day in their children’s public schools, such as underfunding, lack of arts programs, large class sizes and cuts to the school year, only to find that they get roped into very different goals. With SFC inspiring many of its members to run for school board seats, and the funding it gives through its PAC, I worry we will lose a truly democratic discussion and action on education weighted in favor of corporate reforms.

Barrett goes on to explain how the priorities of the Portland chapter have changed:

About three years ago, some team leaders at my school became uncomfortable when they were asked to engage in what they considered to be tacky conversations with teachers around hiring practices. When a fellow parent and I were asked to take over as the new team leaders for this school year, we were cautioned about this, but otherwise, we all assumed SFC was working to enhance public education, and this was just a minor mistake along the way…That was a red flag, but now, as I look back and connect the dots, I see so many more.

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.

This past year, Oregon SFC staff wanted us to press our legislators to pass a “bipartisan education package,” which basically tied the release of much-needed school funding to the expansion of charter schools, online learning, and other so-called “reforms.” SFC also pushed to lower the capital gains tax….

This stance is a great departure from what people would normally expect of SFC, and only makes sense when you see the wealthy investors on SFC’s National Board of Directors, and how billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Walton Family Foundation are now funding and driving the organization’s agenda.

As SFC begins to expand across the country, new chapters will likely be controlled from the top with the corporate-driven agenda as their first priority.

This was certainly the case in Illinois, where Stand for Children played a part in crafting what they are touting as their biggest victory yet: Senate Bill 7.

SB 7, which passed the Illinois Senate in a unanimous vote and the General Assembly with a single dissenter, undermines seniority as the basis of teacher job security and specifically singles out the Chicago Teachers Union by severely restricting its right to strike.

Which brings us back to Jonah Edelman and his unrestrained arrogance. At the Aspen Ideas Festival—sponsored by the Aspen Institute, another Gates Foundation recipient that works on corporate education schemes such as the Teachers as Human Capital Project—Edelman caused an uproar for his comments about SB 7.

In a speech caught on video, Edelman gives a step-by-step account of how Stand For Children worked to undermine teacher union rights in Illinois. After explaining how SFC essentially bought a handful of Illinois legislators with campaign contributions—most crucially, Assembly Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat who had been shunned by the unions after pushing to cut teachers’ pensions a year earlier—Edelman explains SFCs strategy:

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. So a very, very bold proposal for Illinois, and one that six months earlier would have been unthinkable, undiscussable.

And after the election, I went back to Madigan…I reviewed the proposal, and I confirmed his support…The next day he created an education reform committee, and his political director called to ask for our suggestions for who should be on it. And so in Aurora, Ill., in December, out of nowhere, there were hearings on our proposal…

In addition 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.

Stand’s “Performance Counts” was used as a battering ram to get the less harsh Senate Bill 7. As Edelman explained, “[B]ecause we started extreme, we gave ourselves room to come back….And so, in the course of three months…[the unions] essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed…Not irrationally, not idealistically. It wasn’t a change of heart. It’s because they feared that we were able to potentially execute our collective bargaining proposal.”

Edelman’s anti-union comments rightly produced outrage among union and education activists and Edelman, realizing he had blown Stand for Children’s progressive cover, issued an extended apology. Edelman said he regretted that he “left children mostly out of the equation,” and that the speech “could cause viewers to wrongly conclude that I’m against unions.” The lengthy apology was obviously nothing more than an attempt to rehabilitate the image of SFC and Edelman.

For their part, the leaders of Illinois’ three main education unions blasted Edelman in a joint statement:

We heard a lot from Jonah Edelman about power in politics, power over unions and management power over teachers. Sadly, we didn’t hear anything in that hour-long session about improving education…What’s worse is that these false claims clearly show an organizational agenda that has nothing to do with helping kids learn.

What should be clear after reading Edelman’s remarks is that Stand for Children, rather than standing for the rights of poor children, has become an organization that stands for Corporate America. In order to push its agenda, groups like SFC try to get parents and other community members who care about education to buy into the myth that teachers have bloated pensions and are impossible to fire.

But any real account of the current atmosphere for teachers flies in the face of this fairy tale.

Chicago, in particular, has seen its school system devastated by a slew of corporate reformers: Paul Vallas (1995-2001), who later became the architect behind the union-busting and charterization plan in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Arne Duncan (2001-2008), who privatized Chicago public schools at a rate of about 10 per year before becoming Barack Obama’s Education Secretary; Ron Huberman (2009-2010), who weakened protections for probationary teachers and cut sports programs, while paying exorbitant salaries to central office officials; and now Jean-Claude Brizard (2010-present), the former superintendent of Rochester, N.Y., where 95 percent of teachers voted “no confidence” in his administration.

Chicago has become a testing ground for corporate education policy, which has created a terrible atmosphere for teachers.

For example, a week before the Edelman scandal broke, the Chicago Reader printed an insightful story by Ben Joravsky about a Chicago Public Schools teacher that debunks the teachers-are-impossible-to-fire myth. According to Joravsky, Allison Bates, a third-year science teacher at a high school called Austin Polytechnical Academy, “was fired and banned from working anywhere in CPS for the unforgivable sin of—hold on to your hats, folks—not putting her lesson plans in the red folder, as her principal told her.”

Bates’ first principal had given her an “excellent” rating, but within a year, he was promoted to the central office and replaced by a new principal from North Carolina, and Bates was given an “unsatisfactory” rating. This rating had nothing to do with her ability to manage a classroom or teach science to her students, but was due to her forgetting to follow the principal’s instructions to put printed-out copies of her lesson plans in a red folder.

As Joravsky points out:

[P]robationary teachers—that is, those with less than four years in the classroom—have no tenure rights. They have their jobs on a year-to-year basis and can be fired without much of an explanation. Moreover, probationary teachers who are given unsatisfactory evaluations and who are not rehired at their schools are slapped with a do-not-hire designation. Principals can hire back teachers evaluated as unsatisfactory, but if they don’t, the teachers are essentially banned from ever teaching anywhere in the CPS system.

This story reveals that the complaints of Edelman and James Crown about the difficulties in firing teachers are nothing more than a pretext for attacking what few rights teachers have left.

For the first several years, when teachers are in their probationary period, they can be fired for almost any reason. When teachers receive “tenure,” they can still be fired—the difference is that now they have access to due process, a basic right written into most union contracts, and they can file a grievance if they feel they were unjustly terminated.

Though cloaked in language about helping children, the purpose of further restricting teachers’ rights to due process and to strike is to take control of the classroom out of the hands of teachers and the communities they serve—and putting it under the authority of corporate boardrooms.

Breaking the teachers’ unions—now the largest sector of organized labor in the U.S.—is about smashing any organized resistance to the bipartisan drive for austerity. Edelman’s comments may be unique in their candor, but the ideas he espouses are commonplace among corporate education reformers—whether they come in Republican or Democratic clothing.

As the Edelman scandal makes clear, the ruling class is preparing to export the strategy it adopted in Illinois to the rest of the country. It will be up to teachers, parents and students to expose organizations like Stand for Children—and organize the fight to defend public education.

Adam Sanchez is a substitute teacher and a social justice activist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Adam, or visit Adam's website.