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Education Funding Opinion

John Thompson: Are Charitable Groups Crossing the Line Into Politics?

By Anthony Cody — December 16, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

I do not intend to give legal advice without a license. It has been nearly three decades since I was a legal historian and a quarter of a century since I was a legislative lobbyist who studied the federal tax code and state laws on political activity. Back then, we were extra careful in distinguishing between our organization’s charitable 501(c)(3) and our 501(c)(4) lobbying arm. My sense is that today’s politics are more free-wheeling. So, I will limit my thoughts to the spirit of the law and the democratic principles that we should be practicing.

The IRS is proposing new rules on charitable organizations. Most commentators are focusing on organizations such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and Tea Party groups, but in education we need to ask whether new rules will apply to the “astroturf” organizations that corporate reformers use to attack teachers. As NPR’s Tamara Keith explains, 501c(4) organizations can now deny they are primarily political and still send the seemingly political message that “candidate X is terrible, call him and tell him to stop being so terrible.” Under the proposed rules, that would no longer count as social welfare.

We in education know Students First as Michelle Rhee’s blood-in-the-eye anti-teacher, anti-union organization, and it is a 501 C(4). Seed money for this political organization came from the Broad Foundation. In 2011, they fought the recall of Michigan Governor Paul Scott. In 2012, they spent nearly $2 million to support 105 candidates; 90 were Republicans. We could say that they exist to defeat teachers and unions in order to help schools, or we could say they exist to fight the people who work in schools. Either way, their message is that teachers and unions are terrible; tell them to stop being so terrible. It is hard to detect a difference between the tactics of Rove’s and Rhee’s organizations.

I am more shocked by the revelations in Lisa Alva Wood’s “L.A. Teacher and Education Reform Coalition: Irreconcilable Differences.” Wood participated in a conference call the Los Angeles United Way was sponsoring. The purpose was to discuss the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. That certainly sounds fully consistent with the spirit of the law and social welfare activities. She learned, however, that the news of John Deasy threatening to quit as LAUSD superintendent had “changed the topic and galvanized the group.” Now she heard a roll call of 51 educational, community or political groups who would participate in the conference call. She learned the “sole purpose on the call was to support John Deasy in his fight to keep his job.” (Emphasis is Wood’s)

While I make no claim to define the word “political” in this case, according to the dictionary definition of the word, a well-orchestrated attack on a union, as a part of the political process, is a political activity. Included in the group were some who could be expected to contribute to a pro-Deasy political campaign - Students First, Green Dot, KIPP. LA. Wood notes, however, that while their pressure should be expected, “they have no business in LAUSD’s superintendent evaluation” which was the ostensible purpose of the school board meeting that prompted the effort. Then, Wood explains, “Others made me gag in wonder - Goodwill of Southern California? Inner-City Struggle? LA Education Partnership? I thought we were friends!”

Wood describes this story as one of a broken romance. She would like to go out for drinks with people who have different opinions on school reform and “hash out our differences for the sake of the left-behind kids and schools.” But, now she must ask whether she has “irreconcilable differences” with those groups.

And, the recent news gets worse. Jane Rueter reports that the Douglas County Educational Foundation supposedly paid $30,000 to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for a paper, “The Most Interesting School District in America” by Rick Hess and Max Eden The school system (DCSD) paid for at least half of it, however. The district emailed the paper to parents before a school board election, identifying it as a “just-released white paper.” It was not identified as “a district-paid product.”

An email exchange regarding the paper includes one written by the AEI’s Hess saying, “Ideally, we would love for you all to help us help you,” .... “Rather, we would prefer it if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worthy of attention, what you’d like to see written about, and what your general angle on it and the paper is.”

Rueter explains that a defeated candidate now argues that “DCSD’s pre-election actions were designed to benefit the ‘reform’ candidates in the race.” The candidate “also claimed statistics were ‘cherry picked’ to reflect positively on the district, and that DCSD heavily edited Hess’ draft document, making 71 changes ‘that were, in my opinion, political in nature.’”

Again, I have made no efforts to research the legalities of any of these three sets of education reform organizations. I am stunned by the situational ethics of reformers who employ the worst of the right wing’s tactics to promote political policies that they claim to be progressive. I hope the Obama administration is even-handed in dealing with politicized 501 C(4). I wish progressive school reformers would ask how they have found themselves in such a questionable situation, destroying schools in order to save them.

Update: Ken Libby tweeted that StudentsFirst has both a 501(C)3 and a 501 (C)4. If that is still the case, I missed it when reading their web site. Again, without addressing legalities based on my thirty year old experiences as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, I know we were like Ceaser’s wife in obeying the spirit and letter of the law. We carefully distinguished between the provision of medical services and the activities allowed under the 501 (C)4. But, that raises a common sense question. What social welfare services does StudentsFirst offer? Do they feed, teach, or help heal children?

What do you think? Will the Obama administration treat Rove’s Crossroads GPS like Rhee’s StudentsFirst? If Rhee and corporate reformers succeed in defeating teachers, and the loss of union power undermines the defense of the social safety net, will historians say that this change in the political balance of power was due to a political process?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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.