School & District Management Opinion

Diane Ravitch on Edelman’s Astroturf Enterprise

By Anthony Cody — July 14, 2011 4 min read
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Yesterday I shared some reactions to a video making the rounds, in which Jonah Edelman describes the way his non-profit organization, Stand For Children, maneuvered to get legislation enacted in the state of Illinois. This seems to represent the sort of money-fueled policy that education historian Diane Ravitch has been warning us about, so I asked her for her thoughts.

What do you think that Jonah Edelman’s remarks reveal about how education policy is being shaped in states across the country?

I attended the Aspen Ideas Festival but did not go to Edelman’s session, which was titled “If It Can Happen There, It Can Happen Anywhere: Transformational Education Legislation in Illinois.” Edelman shared the billing with James Schine Crown, a financier in Illinois. I watched the video and read the transcript. Edelman was very candid in describing the hardball political tactics that Stand for Children used to push through legislation that diminished the collective bargaining rights of teachers. But above all, he used a massive financial political kitty to woo friends and allies to his side. This is not merely an interesting anecdote about Illinois politics, but reveals tactics that are now being employed in states and districts across the nation by small numbers of very well-funded people. Groups like Stand for Children, Education Reform Now, and Democrats for Education Reform are connected to some of the wealthiest individuals in our society; their boards include a disproportionate number of Wall Street hedge fund managers. I don’t know why hedge fund managers are so interested in controlling education policy, but there is no doubt about their eagerness to commit large sums of money to get rid of due process, seniority, and collective bargaining, and to tie teachers’ evaluations to test scores. There is nothing inherent in being a hedge fund manager or a successful entrepreneur that would make one an education expert, yet these guys seem determined to revise state laws as they relate to teachers. The part I don’t understand is why they think that what they are doing will improve education.

What do you think of the policy agenda embodied in the legislation his group was able to enact?

The intent of legislation like that pressed by Edelman is to make the job of teachers contingent on the test scores of their students, to remove job protections, and to turn teachers into at-will employees, who can be fired if they displease their principal. This approach will of course make test scores even more important than they are now. More teachers will teach to standardized, multiple choice tests. Untested subjects, like art and music, will get less time or disappear, unless tests are devised for everything. More resources will be diverted to test preparation. Unfortunately, there may be more Atlantas, as teachers and principals try to save their jobs. It is really a very wrongheaded understanding of education. I wonder if people who support legislation of this kind ever taught in a public school, ever attended a public school, or ever enrolled their own children in public schools.

Stand For Children, his non-profit, describes itself as an “innovative, grassroots child advocacy organization.” What do you think about the role groups like this are playing in education policy?

Stand for Children, like Education Reform Now, Democrats for Education Reform, TeachPlus, and various other “reform” organizations are committed to a course that is anti-education. They are not grassroots organizations. They should be described as “astroturf” organizations. Look over their board of directors, and you will see a large number of Wall Street executives, high-tech entrepreneurs, and others who have little or no experience in public education. I don’t understand their animus towards one of our society’s most vital public institutions, nor do I think they realize that they are responsible for creating public hostility to the teaching profession. If they understood it, why would they do it? It makes no sense. Some of these groups are funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation, so what we are really seeing is a well-planned and well-executed effort to change public education by the wealthy and powerful.

How can teachers and parents have an impact in the policy arena when confronted with this sort of machinery at work?

Those who, like Jonah Edelman, are currently having a huge impact on state laws and federal policy are doing this because of the enormous wealth that they can summon up for political campaigns. But what they don’t have is grassroots support. They don’t have the support of teachers, whose lives and professions are being impacted negatively by their actions. And they certainly don’t represent the children or parents. They represent the monied elite, whose resources are essential to political campaigns. The only way to respond and have an impact is to inform the public about the real consequences of these laws, and about the money that is behind the changes. Parents and teachers must work together and mobilize to save public education and the teaching profession from those who are now using their wealth to pull the levers of power. They have no evidence to support their agenda, nor do they have the will of the people.

Diane Ravitch will be joining us at the next Save Our Schools Teach-in, scheduled for 8 pm Eastern, Thursday, July 21st. We do not have any big corporate donors - or small ones for that matter, so we are going to do a day-long fundraiser for the Save Our Schools March - which is just around the corner. You can register for free - and slots will be reserved for those willing to organize house parties of five or more to participate. Sign up here - and kick in a donation to a genuine grassroots movement on behalf of our students.

What do you think about Diane Ravitch’s thoughts on this matter?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.