Archives for category: Dark Money

NPE ACTION’S NEW PROJECT TO BRING TALES FROM THE FRONTLINES OF PUBLIC SCHOOL ADVOCACY

Public schools remain incredibly popular among Americans across the political spectrum, even under the strains of a global pandemic and a divisive political culture being inflamed by opportunists seeking to push radical, unpopular agendas. Parents, students, volunteers, and communities who rely on and cherish their public schools deserve to be heard now more than ever. Public Voices for Public Schools, a community project of the Network for Public Education Action, launches today with tales from the frontlines of public school advocacy.

Unfortunately, public education in America has been under systematic attack for decades by an axis of right-wing political radicals, self-appointed reformers, opportunists, segregationists, and wealthy special interests, all working together to dismantle and privatize our treasured public schools. Their efforts have done lasting harm to students and their communities, and it is time those communities have a platform where their stories can be shared.

“After my two sons enrolled in a private school thanks to vouchers, I began to understand that school is about more than academics,” said Dountonia Batts, a former voucher parent. “As charter schools and vouchers expanded, the school system in Indianapolis was falling apart. All of the high schools in our neighborhood had been shut down, even as charter high schools were popping up. I realized I could no longer accept school vouchers for my children because it was unethical.”

People like Batts rarely get a chance to be heard, especially by policymakers who are often targeted for pressure by pro-privatization groups with access to campaign donations and full-time public relations machinery. That’s why Public Voices for Public Schools is so important, as it is a place to elevate the regular people in our community and help them have access to the tools to engage their elected representatives directly.

“Once I understood that our funders wanted us to help them burn down the entire public school system, I realized I had very different intentions than the school reform movement,” said Gloria Evans Nolan, a former Missouri education reformer. “I could see for myself the toll that education “reform” was having on my city. The result was that our sense of community was dropping away. We were also losing our history. Every school I attended is now closed.”

Public Voices for Public Schools will regularly bring you stories from parents like Batts and Nolan, students, academics researching the effects of privatization, along with many others. Visit us at pv4ps.org where you can join our shared community and always be kept up to date. You will learn what you can do to preserve a pillar of our democracy, our neighborhood public schools.
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Maurice Cunningham is a political scientist with a deep interest in how Dark Money influences education policy. His motto is: “Dark Money never sleeps.” He is a master at following the money. He customarily blogs at a website called MassPoliticsProfs, but was kind enough to send me this post first.

He writes here about the groups pushing the attacks on critical race theory:

The Corporate Critical Race Theory Attack: Chaos is the Product

“The backlash” begins an opinion piece in Newsweek by Parents Defending Education outreach director Erika Sanzi, and these may be the most accurate two words published by those who are attacking “wokeness,” gender studies, and Critical Race Theory. The sad fact is that white backlash has a proven record of effectiveness in American politics and it is once again being employed in the service of right wing corporate interests. The end product desired has less to do with CRT than with spreading disruption, fear, and chaos across America’s most important democratic public institution, schools.

According to the Washington Post, as of June 24 CRT (a theory developed in law schools and not well known among most Americans) has exploded on Fox News. The term was heard on Fox only 132 times in 2020 but has been mentioned 1,860 times this year, escalating month by month. The narrative is that grassroots parents groups have discovered the threat CRT poses to their children in schools and have arisen organically across the country to form local parent groups, a movement noticed and captured by websites and the powerful Fox News. The truth is that of an oligarch-funded and coordinated campaign using time tested techniques.

Follow the Money

Over the past five years I’ve been following “education reform” groups created by billionaire investors with names like Families for Excellent Schools, Massachusetts Parents United, and National Parents Union which have presented diversity as their public face while attacking teachers. So when I saw the launch of Parents Defending Education on March 30 I took note because it follows a different path: white backlash aimed more at school boards, superintendents, and principals. The first thing to do when evaluating these groups is always, follow the money.

But as the financial backers of groups like PDE well know, public disclosure of funders will only come about nearly two years down the road, if then, in publicly available Form 990 tax returns for organizations with Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3)status as charitable organizations. PDE president Nicole Neily has refused to disclose the organization’s donors when asked by media outlets. It’s not just that she won’t. She can’t. Disclosure would likely reveal ties to radical right funders tied into the Koch network and similar underwriters. We know this thanks to work done by PRWatch and from Sourcewatch at the Center for Media and Democracy. They show that Neily is a political operative at Koch network funded operations like the Independent Women’s Forum, Franklin Center, and Speech First.

The Speech First association is instructive. Neily is founding president of that non-profit as well. Sourcewatch has identified some of its funders as the Bader Family Foundation for $30,000, Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund: $500,250, Judicial Education Project for $1,000,000, and National Philanthropic Trust: $500,000. The real check writers will probably never become known. Form 990s show that Neily is the sole employee, earning $161,000 in 2018 and $150,000 in 2019. Speech First brings lawsuits against universities for policies touching on race. For this, it paid the law firm Consovoy McMullen $950,000 in 2018, and to get the word out paid the Republican communications firm Creative Response Concepts $106,000. Boiled down, Speech First is a pass through that allows wealthy conservative donors to remain hidden while paying Consovoy McMullen to attack universities.

And who represents Parents Defending Education? Why, Consovoy McMullen. William Consovoy also represents Donald Trump and clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas. The firm is conservative legal royalty. PDE did not hire it after an especially successful bake sale.

Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, and Moms for Liberty

PDE launched its well-developed website featuring pages with links to its allies, most of which were branches of groups called No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty. According to NBC, No Left Turn in Education was launched in 2020 when a parent from a Philadelphia suburb became enraged at her children’s school for teaching concepts of racism after the police murder of George Floyd. Elana Yaron Fishbein then sprang into action to attack wokeness and founded NLTE. In September she appeared on Fox’s Tucker Carlson program and the next day the group’s Facebook increased from about 200 followers to over 30,000 and there are now 30 chapters in 23 states.

But when I looked at local NLTE chapters’ Facebook pages linked to through the PDE site in April, I found sparse membership: Alabama, 7; Arkansas, 3; Delaware, 6; Iowa, 2; Idaho, 4; Indiana, 8; Michigan (Betsy DeVos home state), 13; Mississippi, 3; Montana, 2; North Dakota, 2; Massachusetts, 17; Hawaii, 1. All of the NLTE Facebook pages featured the same banner, a montage of diverse teens against a background of school lockers, each student smiling and engaged, not a pimple on their perfect teenage faces; probably models, most certainly not local students. As for Moms for Liberty, it too had sparse membership in its affiliates: Arizona, 17; Wright Co, Minnesota, 8; Corpus Christi Nueces, Texas, 70. Moms for Liberty’s creation story is similar to others in the anti-public education universe: “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” The story goes that two parents became upset with their local schools and started up a parents group. It happens. It’s a lot more unusual for the two grassroots moms to then book former Fox host Megyn Kelly for a fundraiser with tickets running from General Admission of $50 up to Presenting Sponsor for $20,000 with perks including a photo with Ms. Kelly and corporate logo on print and online marketing materials.

From Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty and on to groups like National Parents Union, the creation stories are similar. A handful of disgruntled moms talk over their frustrations, determine to start their moms or parents group to seek change, and then in pour the millions of dollars; contracts are quickly signed with nationally recognized public relations firms and pollsters (one newly birthed charter school-tied group in Rhode Island immediately hired a Biden pollster); the head mom is booked on Fox or featured in national media outlets. Conservative outlets like The Federalist, Washington Times, Campus Fix, and most importantly Fox News amplify the misleading message.

How to Attack Educators in a Few Easy Steps

The tactics for going after K-12 educators did not spring up anew but have been adapted from successful attacks on college and university professors. Isaac Kamola has explained this in an important article titled Dear Administrators: To Protect Your Faculty from Right-Wing Attacks, Follow the Money. Kamola finds that groups like Campus Reform and Campus Fix, which pay conservative students as “reporters” to whistleblow on their professors, are funded by wealthy right wingers including Koch who wish to gain leverage over what is taught and researched at America’s universities. These attacks follow a common script. Something a professor says or writes in research, a lecture, or even on social media is grabbed and most often taken out of context; there is never an engagement with the actual intellectual product. (In Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, Anne Nelson shows that Campus Reform is tied into right wing clearing house organizations the Leadership Institute and Council for National Policy). The targets are often scholars of color, especially women, and their work focuses on race or inquiries into capitalism. The out of context remarks are then percolated through a right wing ecosystem which includes web sites funded by the same network and all the way up to Fox News. Results can be stark. After Campus Reform did a story on a speech by Princeton University professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor the piece was picked up by Fox; threats against Professor Taylor were so virulent she cancelled talks in Seattle and San Diego. After Campus Reform misrepresented remarks by Trinity College professor Johnny Williams the campus had to be shut down due to threats and Williams was unfairly placed on leave. So the radical right knows how to generate chaos. Parents Defending Education has refined the play book further.

PDE relies upon two modes of attack on schools (which may include charter as well as public schools). The first, often well covered in the media and with appearances on Fox, is individuals who inundate school districts with public records requests. The second involves anonymous attacks on school personnel, concealment guaranteed by guidance offered by PDE to assure their agents remain hidden.

NBC News reported on one now famous Fox-supported attack by an individual wielding public law requests. A Maine parent named Shawn McBreairty was disgruntled with his local schools and joined No Left Turn in Education. He has filed over 50 public records law request with his Maine school district, tying up education professionals serving the public for his individual crusade. In South Kingstown, RI a parent whose child is enrolled but not yet attending kindergarten in the town filed 200 public records law requests “seeking copies of middle and high school curricula, lists of all books related to gender available in the library and 10 years’ worth of harassment complaints and emails.” The district estimated it would take 300 hours to fulfill the request. Local officials were undoubtedly right in assessing the attack as an effort to disrupt public education and attack a public good. The Rhode Island parent was rewarded with an appearance on Fox. When districts try to resist the onslaught of requests, corporate spokespersons like PDE’s Sanzi are ready with pro-wrestling sincerity to whine—to Fox News—about the people’s right to know. These groups weaponize the very openness of government to undermine government.

In a forthcoming work, Kamola and co-author Ralph Wilson show how groups like Speech First use discovery in lawsuits to create a “nightmare for administrators and their general counsel.” PDE and allies are now using public records lawsnationwide to achieve the same goal against public school districts.

While the public records requests are designedly onerous and discouraging, at least educators can tell where the attacks are coming from. The second tactic promoted by PDE is much worse, to encourage anonymous attacks against educators.

Take a recent example involving the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. This was an anonymous complaint forwarded by PDE grumbling that Wellesley had violated civil rights laws by providing affinity rooms for students to process their emotions after anti-Asian attacks across the nation. Ms. Neily confessed she has no idea who submitted it to PDE or if anyone in Wellesley agrees with the complaint. This is a baked in design by PDE as we see from examining the operation’s website page that teaches How to Create “Woke At” Pages. It provides detailed instructions for how to set up “an anonymous, safe Instagram page.” First set up a Gmail account “that can’t be tied to you.” Gmail is recommended because the site creator will also need to set up “an anonymous Google Form . . . which allows you to receive anonymous tips” that shields the informant’s identity, even from the Woke At administrator. At all times “we recommend erring on the side of secrecy.”

The Woke At instructions encourage PDE’s local spies to check out social media pages of educators which may reveal woke attitudes. The Understanding Woke Jargon page catalogs terms like “social justice” or “antiracism” the group finds offensive. Questions to Ask School Officials offers gotcha questions that can be asked of woke school officials “with cameras rolling.”

Why the advice to always act with hidden identities? Because of the terrifying disposition of those “woke activists” who talk about “inclusion, equity, justice” but are really “divisive, toxic, and extreme.” PDE is one education organization that was absent on the day irony was taught, for it insists on secrecy while pretending it promotes transparency. Concealment is especially important “given how angry and retaliatory many woke activists get when criticized.” PDE understands that much of its audience consumes a heavy diet of Fox News. Research by Jeffrey M. Berry, James M. Glaser, and Deborah J. Schildkraut shows Fox’s “underlying strategy is to anger viewers by stoking their resentment of racial and ethnic minority groups” and building fear. For instance, after the images of George Floyd’s murder, which initially shocked even Sean Hannity, Fox repeatedly showed video of “rioting and looting by protestors, relying on film showing fires burning and Blacks running out of looted stores with stolen merchandise in their arms.” These images were repeatedly shown well beyond the first week, after which there was little new such behavior to report upon. But the coverage stokes ideas of lawlessness and fear.

Whether by an avalanche of public records requests or generating negative coverage from anonymous tipsters, PDE and its allies are in business to create disruption and chaos in public education.

Getting Results

As Kamola has shown with his work detailing the corporate backed assault on higher education, these tactics often work. They are now working at the K-12 level. Public records requests have tied up school boards and administrators. NBC reports that Washoe County, Nevada halted in person school board meetings “after residents filled a large auditorium and lobbed insults and threats of violence during the public comment portion.” When open meetings later convened in a smaller venue, many residents waited long hours in the hot sun to make their comments against CRT and anti-discrimination policies—including quite a fewwho do not even have students in the system. “During the most recent meeting, which lasted 11 hours, speakers railed at school board members, calling them Marxists, racists, Nazis and child abusers, among other epithets.” In Rockwood Illinois, the St. Louis Post dispatch reported, teachers called upon the school board and superintendent to protect them against “personal attacks and outright threats of violence.” In Camas, Washington, the state’s 2020 teacher of the year thanked the school board and administrators for defending her efforts to promote inclusion and access after some residents “railed against the school district’s ‘woke’ agenda, COVID-19 mask mandates, remote learning and racial justice and equity programs.”

After all, as No Left Turn Maine’s Shawn McBreairty said in an email to NBC News, “This is a war with the left, and in war, tactics and strategy can become blurry.”

As the corporate agitators behind all this understand, they are making public service exhausting and distasteful, a campaign to drive good community members away from serving. This isn’t an unfortunate byproduct. We’ve seen it at the university level. It’s intentional.

The Rise of the Right Wing Moms

In announcing PDE’s complaint against the Columbus, Ohio public schools for its willingness to address racism in the wake of the police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, Ms. Neily acknowledged that no Columbus parent had complained, but that PDE was just a concerned group of parents. “We just all work from home,” Neily told the Columbus Post-Dispatch. “We’re all working moms.”

That sounds cozy and homey but Neily is a well-compensated veteran of numerous right wing organizations, including not only Speech First but the Cato Institute. Sourcewatch reports that “Nicole Neily has worked for many Koch-affiliated groups.” Ms. Sanzi has worked for billionaire funded school privatization groups, also bringing home a hefty paycheck. According to research from Mercedes Schneider the Education Post, an online publication originally funded by Eli Broad, paid Sanzi $121,000 in 2016 and $131,000 in 2017. She is also a “senior visiting fellow” at the Fordham Institute.

This is another area where patterns are not immediately visible but things become more clear years down the road when Form 990s become available. What we see is that following the emergence of these organizations with their tales of concerned moms banding together is that the moms are actually political operatives or communications professionals being well paid. Take for example Keri Rodrigues, “mom-in-chief” of the Walton backed Massachusetts Parents United. One of the several creation stories is that Ms. Rodrigues (always identified as a former union organizer) and a few other mothers gathered in their local library and decided to start a parents group. Actually, Ms. Rodrigues had been state director for Families for Excellent Schools, which ran a losing ballot campaign to increase charter schools in Massachusetts in 2016. She is also a communications professional, having been a radio host. MPU and an affiliate paid Ms. Rodrigues over $388,000 in 2017-2018. But the mom-in-chief story has had some penetration.

When the CDC announced reopening guidelines for schools in May 2021 Ms. Rodrigues, now also of Walton and Koch backed National Parents Union, appeared on Fox News to accuse teachers unions of undue influence. The host accused “teachers unions of basically writing the guidelines” a claim that Ms. Rodrigues enthusiastically agreed with. There was no basis for that claim other than that the unions, like over fifty other advocacy groups, had offered comments to the CDC. But it was blown up by Republican senators from a letter provided by a Republican dark money group. And then on to Fox and the eagerMs. Rodrigues.

Thus we shouldn’t be too surprised by a recent Media Matters study that showed that a number of the concerned parents featured on Fox News criticizing CRT are actually Republican political operatives. Quisha King, an African American woman billed by Fox News as an “everyday American” who is “Northeast Florida co-chair of Moms for Liberty” and “mom of two daughters” is also a GOP political consultant who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2020. Though Fox News billed Ms. Neily as a parent fighting against CRT in schools, Media Matters added that she “has spent her entire career working in and for libertarian and conservative political advocacy organizations and think tanks . . . .” PDE senior fellow Elizabeth Schultz was noted by Fox’s Dana Perino as a former Fairfax County, Virginia school board member. But she is also a former Trump appointee to the Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos. Before being defeated for re-election to the school board Schultz was known for opposing “‘expanding the school system’s sex-education curriculum to include lessons on gender identity and transgender issues’ and supporting armed teachers in classrooms.”

Charles Koch’s Pincer Movement

Far right groups like Parents Defending Education are new born but billionaire funded corporate education reform groups like Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union have been around a bit longer. Families for Excellent Schools was successful in New York until its 2016 Massachusetts charter school campaign was badly beaten, its dark money donors were ordered to be disclosed by the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and its CEO was fired after #MeToo allegations surfaced. These groups often present themselves as leaning liberal, non-partisan but vaguely Democratic, featuring spokespersons who are women of color, and advocating for their privatization policies as being pro-civil rights. National Parents Union even released a statement defending Critical Race Theory on May 21, but it seems to have dropped the topic since. Why then would Charles Koch, a likely source of support for the right wing groups, also be funding National Parents Union?

But he is, through his Charles Koch Institute, which is partnered with the Walton Family Foundation in a joint venture called the Vela Education Fund. Vela dropped $700,000 on NPU to promote home schooling. NPU then spread Vela funds around in grants for home schooling. As Casey Parks explained in The New Yorker these foundations “advocate ‘school choice’—rerouting money and families away from traditional public schools through such means as charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, and vouchers, which allow public-education dollars to be put toward private-school tuition.” NPU had been launched by the Walton Family Foundation to help in the Waltons quest to undermine teachers unions. Recognizing the opportunity presented by closed schools Vela formed and wrote the $700,000 check even though NPUhad been in business only a few months. Vela has pursued other such opportunities including funding the far right Home School Legal Defense Association.

Coincidentally or not in 2017 the civil rights-proclaiming Ms. Rodrigues and the radical right Ms. Sanzi were partners in another venture named Planet Mom, which featured a podcast and proposed radio show. In her paid position at Education Post Ms. Sanzi wrote of Ms. Rodrigues “I consider her a partner in this work. And a friend.” It’s a small planet, after all.

The point is not Critical Race Theory, or charter schools, virtual schools, or home schools. The point is to undermine public education, keep taxes low, spread doubt of the efficacy of public goods, and demolish institutions like unions and local school communities that make demands on the Waltons and Kochs of the nation. It is, as Nancy MacLean has said, to put democracy in chains. Diverse-presenting National Parents Union and white backlash Parents Defending Education serve the same cause.

Whither We Are Tending and What to Do About It

I hope my colleagues in academia continue to speak out about the intellectual contributions of Critical Race Theory and the fine efforts of K-12 educators to provide the kind of schooling all our students need—open and honest about the nation’s race and history and our ongoing challenges, including corporate promoted white backlash.

On the other hand, don’t expect any engagement from Nicole Neily or the anti-CRT bard Christopher Rufo, who has helped spike this ridiculous campaign. In a triumphant appearance at the Claremont Institute, Rufo described his annoyance at scholars trying to bait him into a discussion of what CRT really means and proclaimed “I don’t give a shit about this stuff.” (Nine minute mark)

As Isaac Kamola has urged, start with follow the money and pursue that relentlessly. There’s a reason groups like PDE and NPU can’t come clean about their funding sources and amounts and that reason is that they know the public is suspicious of the Kochs and Waltons of the world and what’s more, the public and America’s billionaires are on a different page on policy issues.

These are corporate generated right wing attacks. Say it. Name names.

Come awake to the threat. Recognize what this is and that isn’t just about wokeness or even education but something else Koch and the Waltons can’t say out loud: to destroy the capacity of people to coalesce together and fight for a better life for themselves, a project that offends oligarchs ideologically and threatens their power and pocketbooks. They focus on educationbecause schools have been a fertile locale for white backlash but also a source of great progress, because teachers unions are a barrier to them, and because local community organizations defy them.

That means that teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, principals, lunch workers, school bus drivers, custodians, business, parents and students—everyone who serves their local school community—have to recognize that they need to fight together against this assault. In other words, join together to take action—exactly what the Waltons, Kochs, and other radical right billionaires fear.

And stand up for a real education for all our children, not the white(wash) backlash being promoted by phony AstroTurf fronts like Parents Defending Education. Remember, fronts are fronting for someone and in this case, fronting for radical right billionaires.

Money never sleeps. Follow the money.

Maurice T. Cunningham is recently retired as an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a union member. He is the author of the book Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, forthcoming in 2022.

Two prominent Idaho citizens, Jim Jones and Rod Gramer, warned that proposed voucher legislation violates the clear language of the Idaho state constitution and threatens the future of public schools.

Jim Jones is the former Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court and former Idaho Attorney General and Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.

They wrote:


Supporters of privatizing education are about to change the Idaho Constitution and 130 years of education policy without going to a vote of the people. Instead, those who want taxpayers to fund private schools should take their case to the people and let them decide as the Constitution requires.

Idaho’s founders were clear when they adopted the Constitution that the Legislature should support public schools. In Article IX, Section 1 they wrote: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools.”

The Founders did not say the Legislature should fund private schools. They did not say the Legislature should fund religious schools. In fact, in two other sections of Article IX they specifically said no taxpayer monies should go to fund religious schools.

Yet on page two, line (b), House Bill 294 says that state funds can be used for “tuition or fees at private schools.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that if a state spends funds on private schools it must also provide funding to religious schools, thus allowing House Bill 294 to undermine both the letter and spirit of the Idaho Constitution.

This attempt to undermine the Constitution is piggybacked on the popular Strong Families, Strong Students program Governor Little created last year to provide computers, internet service and tutoring to students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If that’s all the bill did, we would support it. But the bill’s sponsors slipped in the private school tuition provision and made it sound like the bill was a harmless continuation of the Governor’s program. Several lawmakers and veteran reporters missed the bill’s real impact.

Supporters of House Bill 294 have some powerful allies like the Idaho Freedom Foundation which advocates for the abolishment of public schools. Another backer is “Yes. Every Kid” which is funded by the Koch Network, created by the billionaire Koch brothers. It is buying time on Idaho TV stations proclaiming how the bill benefits families. Of course, they don’t mention that it threatens the future of our public schools and violates the Idaho Constitution.

Instead of listening to out-of-state billionaires, legislators should listen to our founders and generations of lawmakers who clearly believed that the state’s responsibility is to fund public schools, not private or religious schools.

There is another reason lawmakers should listen to our founders. Idaho ranks last in the nation in spending per student and is already out of compliance with the Constitution’s mandate to fund a uniform and thorough public school system.

This shortage of state funding has caused local communities to raise their own property taxes by millions of dollars to ensure that their schools can operate. If the state cannot fund our public schools adequately, it makes no sense to divert badly needed state funds to support a private education system too.

Ultimately, the people of Idaho should decide whether to change the Constitution and fund private schools. That’s what our state’s founders intended, that’s what the Constitution says, and that’s what we should do. Not have the Legislature make an end run around the Constitution – or the people of Idaho.

Rhode Island is a mess. Two years ago, the state took control of the Providence public schools. The Governor, Gina Raymond, is a former hedge funder and not a friend of public schools. She loves charter schools and welcomed them to her state. She is now Biden’s Commerce Secretary and has been succeeded by her Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, who is also a privatizer. The relatively new State Commissioner is Angelica Infante Green, who comes from Teach for America and had a desk job in the New York State Education Department. She is a member of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change. The Providence Teachers Union originally supported the state takeover, hoping that it would bring new resources to the schools. Instead, the takeover has meant disruption, turmoil, threats to teachers, and bitterness between the hard-charging, inexperienced State Commissioner and the teachers.

Mary Beth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, has been a teacher for 24 years and president of the union for five years.

Less than two years later, and with the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowing nearly all of the takeover, Calabro now says that the relationship between the union and Infante-Green has deteriorated beyond repair, and she is asking state lawmakers to give control of the school district back to the city of Providence. She is also calling for Infante-Green and Superintendent Harrison Peters to be removed from their positions.

The union voted “no confidence” in both the state commissioner and the city superintendent. Calabro warned that the district was forcing teachers out with its hard-nosed tactics.

“We had hope that our state takeover here would provide the much-needed support, resources, and changes to help our students move forward,” Calabro said during a Monday press conference. “And we had hope that our educators’ collective skills, experience, and expertise would be seen as a welcome part of transforming out schools. Sadly, our hopes have died.”

The state commissioner made clear from the beginning that she wanted to control the union and its contract:

The most recent sticking point between the union and management has revolved around a provision in the current union contract that gives veteran teachers preference over newer teachers when it comes to hiring. Seniority tends to be a sacred cow for public employee unions, and the teachers have resisted changes that would give Infante-Green and Peters more control over the hiring process.

Both Infante-Green and Peters say they believe the Crowley Act, the state law that gave them the power to take control of the school district, allows them to make unilateral changes to the contract. But they fear that such a tactic would send the two sides to court, prolonging a series of negotiations that has already resulted in the city paying more than $1 million to lawyers advising management.

The Boston Globe turned to Brown University professor Kenneth Wong, who was previously known for praising mayoral control as the answer to urban school problems.

Kenneth Wong, an education policy expert and professor at Brown University who has advised city and state leaders on a wide range of school funding and reform initiatives over the past decade, said he sees the next few weeks as crucial to finding common ground.

Wong said the state deserves some credit for some initial progress during the takeover. The state has issued a clear set of goals for Providence schools, like raising the graduation rate from 73.6 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 89 percent by the 2024-25 school year, and slashing chronic absenteeism from 37 percent to 10 percent during the same period.

Frankly, it is hard to see why the state deserves any credit for setting ambitious goals when it has not supplied the means to reach them and is driving away experienced teachers. The one thing that we supposedly learned from the ambitious “national goals” of 1989 was that setting goals is easy, reaching them is hard.

Here is a piece of advice for Commissioner Infante-Green: No teachers, no education. A good leader provides encouragement to the troops; a bad leader puts them in the line of fire.

Meanwhile, the new Governor Dan McKee, aligned himself solidly with the Walton-funded parent group that wants more charter schools. Democrats in the legislature have lined up behind a three-year moratorium on charters, but McKee made clear that if the bill passes, he will veto it.

The article in the Providence Journal accepted at face value that the pro-charter lobby was led by ordinary parents, but Maurice Cunningham of the University of Massachusetts has demonstrated that the group called “Stop the Wait, Rhode Island” is funded by the Waltons and other Dark Money billionaires. And see here as well.

Governor McKee is doing the bidding of the Waltons of Arkansas.

Maurice Cunningham is a professor political science at the University of Massachusetts who has developed a unique talent for exposing the workings of Dark Money in education. The usual source of Dark Money is the multi-billionaire Walton Family, but they are not alone. In this post, he reviews the remarkable story told by the media in Rhode Island. A group of ordinary moms got together to demand charter schools. They set up a website and commissioned a poll done by President Biden’s pollster. Where did the money come from? The media forgot to ask that question. The media’s lack of curiosity about the funding behind this group of moms is curious.

On February 25, five “frustrated mothers” organized to raise money for their passion: charter schools.

What we see here is quite common, a front purporting to be parents but actually funded and acting for wealthy privatization interests. In Massachusetts, Massachusetts Parents United claims to have been founded in 2017 by three moms in a library. From 2017-2019 MPU and its allied 501(c)(4) took in over $3.3 million (actually more, for technical reasons I won’t get into) and about half of that came from the Walton Family Foundation. The organization’s “mom-in-chief” paid herself just short of $400,000 in 2018-19. In 2020 the same mom founded the National Parents Union, which is not national, not parents, and not a union. But it is a money pit. Its financial backers include the Waltons, Charles Koch, and a boatload of America’s wealthiest oligarchs.

And you’ll never guess! But advocacy through polling is a major component of National Parents Union’s marketing strategy.

The story Golocalprov fell for is one of scrappy moms facing off against hidebound unions. But the real story is corporate and oligarchic interests masquerading behind parents versus teachers and the very notion of the public good.

Let’s hope that Maurice Cunningham is able to stir the Rhode Island news media to dig deeper and find out whose money is shaping the attack on the public schools of Providence.

Maurice Cunningham watches the flow of “Dark Money” into the privatization of public funding for schools. A professor of political science, he has recently followed the money trail of the “National Parents Union,” which he points out is neither “national,” nor “parents,” nor a “union.”

NPU markets itself as if it were a “grassroots” group, but it is funded by the Walton Family Foundation and Charles Koch and enjoys the high-priced assistance of Mercury Communications LLP to get its anti-public school, anti-union message into the national media. Mercury currently represents Teach for America and at one time represented Eva Moskowitz (who fired them).

With this expensive marketing, NPU presents itself as an authentic voice of parents.

Cunningham writes:

Here’s an example of the coverage from the New York Times: “National Parents Union, a collection of 200 advocacy organizations across 50 states representing parents from communities of color.” But there is no publicly available evidence that NPU represents parent groups. My research shows that it is mostly comprised of charter school and associated organizations.

Nor am I aware that any of these media outlets has reported on the funding of National Parents Union, which includes not only the Walton Family Foundation and Charles Koch, but a billionaire boys club of astonishing levels of wealth. (The one outlet that consistently reports on the funders is The74.org, which also receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation. So compliments to them.)

These media outlets accept the story offered up by Mercury LLC and the NPU Comms team, that there is a battle between teachers and parents. But as I said, NPU does not represent parents. If journalists need conflict there is a big one going on: teachers unions against the corporate behemoths of the Waltons, Koch, Gates, Dell, Arnold, and on and on. It’s a good story, just not the one NPU and Mercury are peddling.

You get what you pay for; NPU’s marketing is going great.

Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, is a specialist in exposing the influence of “dark money” in our political life, especially in the area of education politics. In this post, he explores the connections among Christian conservatives, economic royalists like the Waltons and Charles Koch, and the so-called “National Parents Union,” which enjoys Walton funding.

The same people now running the NPU were funded by the Waltons, Mike Bloomberg, and other billionaires in 2016 to press for unlimited charter expansion in Massachusetts. When Cunningham exposed the money behind the “Yes on 2” campaign, the wind went out of its sails. Voters realized that the campaign was intended to divert money from their public schools to billionaire hobbies. I wrote about the fight over Proposition 2 in Massachusetts in my latest book Slaying Goliath as an example of successful parent-teacher resistance to the billionaires.

This interview was recorded by Town Hall in Seattle, which is a great venue for speakers but in COVID Times was recorded remotely. I interviewed them about their important new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

They had some very valuable insights, and the time flew by. I hope you will take a few minutes and join us.

Maurice Cunningham is the Master of the Mysteries of Dark Money. In this post, he traces the shifting membership of the board of directors of the Walton-funded “National Parents Union.” You know what NPU wants: charter schools. After reading the story, you will understand who pays the bills: the Waltons and Charles Koch. They are parents too! Be sure to read Christine Langhoff’s comment.

Maurice Cunningham specializes in digging up the facts about Dark Money (political contributions where the donors’ names are hidden). His expose of Dark Money from the Waltons and other billionaires turned the public against a 2016 state referendum in Massachusetts to expand the number of charter schools, and it was defeated. I wrote about this campaign in Slaying Goliath.

In this post, published here for the first time, he exposes a “parent group” demanding more charter schools in Rhode Island.

Cunningham writes:

Parents who care about public education need to be wary of dark money fronts masquerading as concerned reformers. These are lavishly funded efforts with the goal of privatizing public schools. Rhode Islanders should take a long hard look at Stop the Wait RI.

This operation registered with the Rhode Island Secretary of State as a social welfare organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue on February 25, 2021. That status allows Stop the Wait to engage in a wide range of political activities including spending on political campaigns. The big advantage for a 501(c)(4) is that it can take in unlimited sums from individuals or corporations, spend generously on politics, and never have to disclose the names of the true donors—the real powers hiding behind the curtain. It’s dark money—political spending with the true interests hidden from the public. Stop the Wait’s web page is pretty explicit—its mission is to “preserve and expand school choice—including access to high-quality public charter schools.” Translation: privatization of public schools.

Privatizing fronts often present as an underdog group of grassroots parents. In politics though, power flows to money and so it’s key to know who is funding such groups. That’s tough with a brand new 501(c)(4) like Stop the Wait, but there are clues.

The first name on the Board of Directors is Janie SeguiRodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez works for the charter school chain Achievement First which is underwritten by among others, the WalMart heir Walton family. She is also on the board of a related corporation organized under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Parents Leading for Educational Equity. A 501(c)(3) can do reports, organize, advocate, communicate with the public, but can’t get into political campaigns. Contributions are tax deductible, so taxpayers subsidize this advocacy. Even though PLEE was only organized as a non-profit corporation as of July 13, 2020, only three months later, on October 19, 2020 the Rhode Island Foundation announced that PLEE was one of several organizations it had funded and offered it as an example for its new $8.5 million Equity Leadership Foundation. (It’s a little curious that a foundation funds an organization and evaluate it as a model of success in three months). The Nellie Mae Foundation was more patient—it waited all the way until December 21, 2020 before dropping two grants, one for $40,000 and the other for $120,000 into PLEE’s bank account. Actual check writers often give through donor advised funds, a tax advantaged option that keeps their interest in groups like PLEEever unknown.

Web searches indicate that PLEE has actually been around since 2018. But it couldn’t have taken in sums from foundations until it registered with the IRS. 

Ms. Rodriguez is a political veteran as well. She ran for city council in Pawtucket city wide in 2018 and in ward 5 in 2020, losing both (by two votes in ward 5). Another member of PLEErecently assailed teachers unions in a hearing over reopening Pawtucket schools. Look for more of this from PLEE and Stop the Wait. Across the country similar organizations are funded by anti-worker oligarchs like the Waltons and Charles Koch. Examples of right wing billionaire operations masquerading as parents groups include Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union

Using upbeat sounding front organizations funded by unidentified billionaires is what Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right calls “weaponizing philanthropy.” But communities can beat the billionaires. Ask questions, demand answers, accept nothing less than an accounting of the true interests behind dark money fronts like PLEE and Stop the Wait, publicize your findings, contact elected officials. This is your democracy and your public school system.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money.]