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Posted at 09:00 AM ET, 07/14/2011

Volunteer: Why I stopped helping Stand for Children (update)

[Note: A response from Stand for Children follows this post.]

Susan Barrett was a volunteer for an education reform organization called Stand for Children, which is based in Portland. In this post she explains why she stepped down. This appeared on the website of Parents Across America.

Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman, co-founder and chief executive officer, just got some unpleasant publicity for remarks he made while he was on a panel at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival. Caught on video, he was shown bragging about how he manipulated people to get reform legislation passed in Illinois. He apologized but the damage was done.

Barrett’s post explains the history of Stand for Children, why she initially volunteered for the organization and how it is changed. It is a story that goes beyond a single organization’s narrative and explains the current reform dynamic.

By Susan Barrett

I recently stepped down as a volunteer co-leader of a Stand for Children (SFC) team in Portland, Oregon, the headquarters of this organization. Being a SFC member has meant fighting for the needs of children and better public schools for all students in this state (see this pdf.) However, things have started changing here in Oregon, and I worry that SFC is headed down the path that disaffected parents, like me, identify as the corporate reform movement.

I was prompted to write this piece for a couple of reasons: One, I have seen characterizations of SFC as one of the “astroturf” organizations that have recently sprouted up like weeds, generated by the fortunes of billionaires and hedge fund managers to push their particular preference for implementing business strategies in education, attacking teachers and their unions, and promoting privatization. SFC is not astroturf, and that can make them perhaps more deceptive if we are not paying attention.

This leads to my second reason for writing this: 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.

As I read blogs and articles from across the nation, it seems that many people have already determined that SFC has a top-down, corporate reform type agenda. Here in SFC’s home state, it is not that simple to classify the organization. SFC holds a special place for many activist parents and community members in Oregon. You have to understand that they didn’t storm into the state with millions of dollars to influence election outcomes like they did in Illinois. Here, they had far more humble beginnings.

The organization was inspired by a Stand for Children Day Rally in 1996 in Washington, D.C. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, enlisted the help of her son, Jonah Edelman, to help organize this event. With over 300,000 people attending, Jonah wanted to keep the spirit alive and continue to work on issues attendees were passionate about. He 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.

Because this is part of the organization’s history, it makes it that much harder to believe how much it has changed. 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. And, grow they will, as they have announced the need to hire a National Expansion Manager, having raised over a million dollars in funding from the Walton Foundation, and over three million dollars from the Gates Foundation.

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.

Before I go further, let me just clarify, that those of us who are not on board with the “corporate reform agenda” don’t think everything is just peachy. We are not “defenders of the status quo” as we are often accused, but we just don’t see how the Arne Duncan and Bill Gates-type reforms are providing tangible, worthwhile outcomes for kids.

I first became familiar with SFC in 2001 when I worked in affordable housing and community development. Our organization’s parent network was invited to be the first SFC team in Portland. It was an incredibly powerful experience for the low-income parents we worked with to feel like they could band together to make changes for quality, affordable childcare. SFC was not working on school issues at that time.

When my oldest child started kindergarten in 2007, I looked at the myriad of ways to be an involved parent. I decided to join our school SFC team because I wanted to put my efforts into a cause that would improve the education of all schoolchildren in Oregon. Since I had familiarity with the group from my past work, I felt this was the right choice.

When I joined, SFC fought for more school funding and endorsed pro-education candidates for elective office. Our elementary school parents were passionate about lowering class sizes and enhancing our crumbling school facilities. A “grassroots” organization like SFC was the perfect fit for parents like me who wanted to work on these issues. Team members grumbled when some decisions seemed to come more from the top than from the bottom-up, but since those decisions were articulated as “standing for children” it was hard to put up a fight.

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.

Well, SFC definitely knows they made a mistake because they recently commissioned a consulting firm to work on better “teacher messaging” which provided them with a list of what to say and what not to mention when talking to teachers (such as, “Don’t reinforce that there are not many teachers involved with Stand chapters.”) 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 in exchange for “kicker” reform. (The “kicker” is an automatic tax rebate that significantly restricts state revenue that could be used to improve schools.) Reforming the “kicker” has been a long-term goal of SFC Oregon members, but apparently SFC now has to compromise, by supporting the goal of lowering the capital gains tax at the same time, which would considerably reduce or eliminate the revenue gained by repealing the kicker.

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.

What is even more frustrating than the reforms they are pushing is what they aren’t pushing for anymore.

Oregon has one of the shortest school years and lowest education spending in the nation. All of this has taken away from a focus on working for meaningful improvements in our schools. Even though SFC’s membership has risen over the past decade, Oregon’s per pupil spending has continued to drop. I can’t blame SFC for the economy, but where is the concentrated effort to address this? And, now that they have a national presence, they could actually try to create a national movement around funding an equitable and quality education for all.

One of the most prominent charter schools featured in Waiting for Superman was the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies. These schools have very small class sizes, amazing facilities, and wrap around services for students. Those are the kind of “reforms” we should have for all students in our public schools.

Perhaps if SFC replaced their Board Chair, Julie Mikuta, who is also partner at New Schools Venture Fund, which finances charter schools, with someone who has actually made meaningful improvements in public education, they could inch their way back to this work. They could also replace Emma Bloomberg, the daughter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire charter school supporter, as well as Steve Jobs’ wife, and two other board members who are private equity investors, in exchange for people who are stakeholders with a broader perspective and real experience in education....

I look forward to banding together with other parents and community members willing to make meaningful improvements for all kids in our public schools and work for real reform. Anything else, I just can’t stand for.

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This is a response that Stand for Children posted on its website:

Our Response

Some of you may have seen a blog post from Parents Across America questioning some of Stand’s work in Oregon. We’d like to offer our perspective and factual corrections below.

Like most large non-profits, Stand does indeed have many successful, affluent people on our board. They are committed citizens, who have worked for and championed important causes from coast to coast. They are or have been associated with organizations like City Year, Ashoka, Mercy Corps, and Conservation International, to name a few. They are passionate about making public education better for all children, and we are proud to count them among our supporters. And like thousands of other education non-profits, school districts and researchers, we have accepted grant funding from Walton and from Gates.

Neither our board nor our funders “make decisions” for us. Like any good board, ours serves in an oversight capacity to make sure our organization uses its resources wisely. Foundations support our proposals when they like our objectives, but they certainly don’t dictate our agenda.

Regarding Oregon schools and politics: the author simply distorts the facts on kicker reform. A bi-partisan proposal was crafted by two respected Oregon senators, which proposed kicker reform along with a lowering of the capital gains tax (among the highest in the country). This was the only proposal brought to the table by anyone in 2011 to reform the kicker. It was endorsed by a broad coalition of organizations across the political spectrum, including Stand, but it did not move in the legislature.

Those are the facts, and it is simply inaccurate to state that we were “pushing to lower the capital gains tax.” To then suggest that the foundations and donors who support our work across the country know or care about Oregon’s capital gains rate is without merit.

There’s also an ignorance of both the economic facts and the political reality around Oregon’s school spending. Every leader in Oregon, from our governor, to our legislature, to our county and district leaders, understands that the state does not have enough money to pay for services its citizens needs. Oregon’s citizens are earning less than they did a few years ago, so tax revenues are going down, while healthcare costs for state employees are going up. We all wish there were options for better short-term options for funding our schools, but recent bond and levy votes across our state reinforced that Oregon taxpayers are maxed out. When revenues rise as the economy recovers, Stand will fight forcefully to see school funding increased.

Of all the ideas expressed in this post, perhaps the most disappointing is the author’s implication that smart, professional women are not capable of independent thought, that their values and motivations are defined by who their fathers are. Emma Bloomberg and Tyler Whitmire are great advocates who are thoroughly capable of making their names for themselves. We are proud to work with them.

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