Profiteering and Union-Busting Repackaged as School Reform
This is one of those stories that shows how far some people will go in America to make a buck—even if it means profiting at the expense of children, or exploiting the legacy of the civil rights movement.
Stand for Children is an unassuming name for an organization. Just taken at face value, one would conclude that the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit aspires to accomplish what the title suggests. Their website says SFC is “an innovative, grassroots child advocacy organization. Our mission is to use the power of grassroots action to help all children get the excellent public education and strong support they need to thrive. Our members believe we need to stand up for our children now – particularly for their education from pre-school through high school – to create a better future for America.”
Now, that all sounds good, until you dig deeper. The co-founder and CEO of SFC, Jonah Edelman, is the son of Marian Wright Edelman, the well-respected civil rights activist and head of the Children’s Defense Fund. Critics charge that Stand for Children started out on the right side of the issues, devoting itself to progressive issues such as class sizes, affordable children’s healthcare and adequate funding for schools. But then, things changed when they started taking the money, and lots of it— from wealthy interests who arguably care nothing about poor children of color in the inner cities, and care a great deal about a vision of privatization that extracts profit from the public schools.
In an infamous YouTube video that went viral, Edelman discussed his strategy in Illinois at a July 10 Aspen Institute event. That strategy was essentially to mislead the teachers unions, do a number on them, and pay off the state legislators to pass SB7, an extensive school reform bill. The original bill would have stripped teachers of their right to strike, eliminated seniority as a factor in layoffs, and denied teachers their due process rights that come with tenure. What this has to do with the interests of children is anybody’s guess. A weaker version of the bill that passed still undermined labor rights by restricting seniority and the right to strike.
Typically, when Edelman goes into a state, he sets up a PAC, raises a ton of money and hires the best lobbyists money can buy. He benefits from his mother’s Rolodex and the cache her name and reputation brings to the table. SFC spreads money around in the community, in an attempt to soften up the black clergy and community leaders and get them on board as partners. And they bribe public officials to pass union-busting legislation.
In Illinois, SFC raised $3 million late last year and hired 11 lobbyists. They approached Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan—who failed to garner union support that year for passing pension reform— and donated $610,000 to nine state campaigns in both major parties.
And Edelman attended a community meeting of black Chicago clergy with what observers have called a “slick dog and pony show.” But the pastors didn’t take the bait. According to Rev. Robin Hood, executive director of Clergy Committed to Community, SFC wasn’t the least bit interested in the concerns of the black community.
“One of the schools I’m working in has serious problems. Their organizer wasn’t concerned about that, they were interested in getting people to see [the film] Waiting for Superman,” Rev. Hood said of SFC. “Waiting for Superman did not fly here in Chicago. It wasn’t a hit like they thought it was going to be. It was about taking away the rights of unions to organize. In the communities we live in we need living wage jobs,” he said. “Most of these parents have been arguing about how we don’t have books in school. Those are not the things Stand for Children were talking about. They were talking about taking power from teachers,” Hood added.
From the start, Rev. Hood found Edelman and his group disrespectful and arrogant, with dollar signs and union-bashing on their mind. “I found they were anti-union when we met with Stand for Children. It was all about money, it was nothing about children. That’s why they had to build a grassroots component. They did a switch up while they were working here,” he said.
Although SFC spread around a lot of money in Chicago communities, Rev. Hood emphasized that not one of the pastors in his group would take any of it. “How much money do you people have?” he asked rhetorically of Edelman. “First they said they are doing political advocacy, and using community organizations as their base. Six months later they said ‘we got our own base now.’ Then they gave $3 million to state legislators,” he noted.
“Instead of advocating they became lobbyists,” Rev. Hood concluded.
Rev. Hood also shared his thoughts on the recent fallout from Edelman’s comments at Aspen. “As much money as they put out, I didn’t think they would self-destruct,” Hood said. “On a personal level, it was interesting to see him self-destruct, and I knew they weren’t focused on changing things for the children. They were union busting and making money off the backs of our kids.” Moreover, Rev. Hood believed Edelman’s public disclosure of his machinations with Speaker Madigan was particularly damaging. “Speaker Mike Madigan is the most powerful man in the state. The Governor doesn’t have that power. To say what he [Edelman] did to him [Madigan] is what the Japanese call hari-kari.”
To put Jonah Edelman and his operations in perspective, just follow the money. Susan Barrett quit her volunteer leadership position at SFC in Portland because wealthy investors are now driving the organization. “I want to make sure that people pay close attention to who is on the SFC board, where their money is coming from, and think critically about whether or not the agendas they are promoting will bring the results parents and community members hope for in public education,” Barrett recently wrote.
SFC’s Illinois PAC amassed the state’s largest war chest, just days before new caps on state campaign contributions went into effect. Those new restrictions limit individual contributions to $10,000, with $20,000 from corporations. All of the contributions to SFC were five- and six-figure amounts, including $250,000 from the billionaire Pritzker family, and $500,000 from Ken Griffin, CEO of the Citadel Group and bankroller of GOP state candidates. Sam Zell, owner of Tribune Co., contributed $100,000. Meanwhile, of the $610,000 that Edelman gave to legislative candidates, his PAC handed over $175,000—a record for Illinois— to Republican state House candidate Ryan Higgins, who lost his contest.
Stand for Children’s donor list is quite impressive, and equally revealing. For example, last year SFC received a $3.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation, its largest donor. The Walton Family Foundation—of Walmart anti-union fame—chipped in $1.4 million. And New Profit Inc., with ties to a firm running Muammar Gaddafi’s PR campaign, has donated nearly $1.5 million in recent years.
Meanwhile, the SFC board of directors consists of venture philanthropists and private equity investors, including the extremely wealthy and powerful. One would think that a “grassroots child advocacy organization” would have at least a token of community representation on its board, including educators and child advocates of color. Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, is a board member, as is Emma Bloomberg, daughter of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Mayor Bloomberg, who is pro-charter school and seems to claim personal ownership of New York’s public schools, has a history of placing ill-prepared corporate types in charge of the nation’s largest—and mostly black and brown— school system. Bloomberg’s most immediate past schools chancellor, a magazine executive named Cathleen Black, had no experience in education whatsoever. During her brief and painful stint as chancellor, Black offended many with her jaw-dropping remarks, which included addressing shortages in classroom space by asking “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It could really help us all out a lot.”
Black’s predecessor, Joel Klein, now Rupert Murdoch’s deputy at News Corp., is overseeing an investigation into the company’s infamous phone hacking scandal. Klein is the head of Murdoch’s new education technology business, which Murdoch plans to spend $1 billion to build.
But the larger picture here is that corporate education reform is big business. And the rightwing, plutocratic agenda— of school privatization, government austerity measures and deunionization— clashes with the needs of poor, working class, and disproportionately black and brown public school students.
“What I can say personally is their true colors came out. He won’t get a base in my community.” Rev. Hood said defiantly of Edelman. “We need to educate our kids, not get rich folks richer. These are the same people that don’t want you to have a living wage and adequate housing.”
Meanwhile, the education reformers, armed with a pocketful of billionaire money, rip off communities of color. And as they buy off legislatures, they come off looking like the saviors of the black and brown children they just pimped.
“I wish I could be wrong, but I think they’ll be back for vouchers,” Rev. Hood offered on a cautionary note. “They’ll be back with a sad sack of legislators to write a bill for vouchers.”