About that StudentsFirst tweet…

It never shocks me when StudentsFirst says something ridiculous, but this tweet I came across yesterday is particularly laughable.  

The tweet itself is a quote from an Alexander Russo blurb (which is in direct response to a Politico article) that compares StudentsFirst’s campaign spending to that of the NEA and AFT and their state affiliates.

So to mislead people and attempt to vilify teachers’ unions like they usually do, StudentsFirst chose to tweet Russo’s assertion that, “reform money, however new and on the rise it may be currently, remains substantially less than teacher union money.”

Um, NO. What?? No no no no no. No.

First of all, Russo’s post refers specifically to campaign contributions from one reform organization (SF)–yet he makes an inaccurate and irresponsible leap: that StudentsFirst’s campaign contributions are the only funds behind the “reform” movement–and, further, that StudentsFirst is the only “reform” organization. Let’s be clear: campaign contributions and reform money are not the same thing–at all–and StudentsFirst is aided in its reform efforts by lots of other individuals and groups who have LOTS of money.  So let’s take the two issues separately.

Campaign Contributions:

The NEA and AFT collectively represent about 4 million members. 4 million.  Though the member makeup of these organizations is slightly different (see this Ed Week article to which Russo links), both are primarily made up of teachers. The campaign contributions the NEA and AFT make come from members’ PAC (Political Actions Committee) contributions, which are funds members choose to have deducted from their paychecks–separate from union dues–so unions can pool the funds and contribute to political campaigns. (Also, as a result of two 2010 court decisions–some union contributions also come from Super PACs, which cannot contribute directly to individual candidates or their campaigns.) Imagine that: much of money Russo says that teachers’ unions are spending on campaign contributions comes from teachers who choose (they’re not compelled) to contribute money from every paycheck into PAC funds that their unions use to support candidates who are pro-public education.

And who’s StudentsFirst? They’re a “grassroots movement…designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout the country, and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level. StudentsFirst is a 501(c)4 organization based in Sacramento, CA.” And who’s financing Students First’s campaign contributions?  As Diane Ravitch notes, StudentsFirst does not disclose its political donors–but we can safely assume they’re anti-public education billionaires like the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and the Walton Family.

It’s also worth noting that Michelle Rhee, the organization’s leader, hoped that StudentsFirst would elicit $1 billion in contributions to promote “reform”–so the $62 million it’s has raised to date must be a huge disappointment to Rhee and her reformy friends.  (But hey: Rhee herself makes $350,000 per year–plus $50k per speaking engagement–as head of StudentsFirst…so don’t be too quick to feel sorry for her.)

And let’s not forget that the same people who are financing StudentsFirst are also making political donations on their own–as individual donors–to candidates who support StudentsFirst’s agenda.

So did NEA and AFT, which represent 4 million members, contribute more to campaigns than did StudentsFirst (which is only one of many education reform organizations)?  If we trust the figures Russo cites, then yes. Is “reform money substantially less than teacher union money”? Hell no.

Reform money:

So what’s “reform money”–and who’s behind it?  Billionaires–beginning with Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Waltons.

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money). But three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation—working in sync, command the field. Whatever nuances differentiate the motivations of the Big Three, their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide: choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. And they fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher. Other foundations—Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few—often join in funding one project or another, but the education reform movement’s success so far has depended on the size and clout of the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate.

See this, too, from Jon Pelto:

While exact numbers are hard to pin down, since 2008 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent at least $2 billion, the Walton Foundation at least three-quarters of a billion and the Broad Foundation an estimated half a billion dollars on efforts to “reform” America’s system of education by promoting charter schools, pushing the use of standardized testing, lobbying for teacher evaluation programs based on student’s standardized test results and other corporate-driven initiatives. (Emphasis mine.)

$4 billion dollars from NON EDUCATORS to “reform” education.  Wow–that’s a lot of money! Is Russo not aware of this? And image this: the Gateses, the Waltons, and the Broads aren’t the only ones funding education “reform”!

There are hedge fund executives, who for years have poured millions into the charter school movement— because, well, there’s money to be made there!

There are groups like Education Reform Now, who donated $2.1 million to try to keep Ras Baraka from winning the mayoral race in Newark.  (It didn’t work.) *Adding: see Darcie Cimarusti’s comment below–and her link to another May blog post detailing a twitter exchange she and Russo had about corporate vs. union money in Newark.

There’s Democrats for Education Reform, who plot their reformy activities during exclusive $2,500/person retreats at which teachers and other educators are not welcome.

There are individuals like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, who plan to spend $120 million on education reform in California–despite the fact that the $100 million they shipped to Newark was wildly mismanaged and used to further cripple the city’s struggling school system.

And let’s not forget about groups like Educators 4 Excellence, Teach for America, Chiefs for Change, SUPES Academy, B4K, Connecticut Council for Education Reform, etc.  (There are plenty of organizations I’ve left off this list. But you get the point.)

THIS is “reform money.”  How silly, shortsighted, and misleading of Russo and StudentsFirst to 1) suggest that StudentsFirst is the only “reform” group whose spending (only campaign spending, at that) should be compared to that of teachers’ unions–and 2) that political contributions are the only funds spent on “reform.”

If Russo had simply said that NEA and AFT have spent more in campaign contributions than has StudentsFirst in the past two years, I’d have no argument.  But the bottom line–and in direct contradiction to Alexander Russo’s misleading sentence and StudentsFirst’s promotion of it–is this: “reform” is backed by big money.  Big.  Huge.  To suggest otherwise is absurd.



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5 responses to “About that StudentsFirst tweet…

  1. John Thompson

    Hey, its nice being a part of Teacher Biz.
    I get a kick out of Alexander Russo’s cracks; they give me a chance to rag on him.
    I agree with your entire comment. Regarding the second half, have you seen this?

    • Thank you, John! And yes, I did see your article (and I’ve read many of your other pieces on HuffPost), and I love it. You’re absolutely right: it’s time to escort Gates–and ALL of these non-educators who think they know what’s best for kids–out of our schools!

  2. Yeah, Russo is always quite certain that unions outspend reformers. Here’s our back and forth about the Newark mayoral race. Spoiler alert! Russo was wrong…


  3. Yes, thank you, and I agree. I so appreciate your reasoned, well-thought out, logical and truthful arguments. Keep up the good work and keep fighting the good fight.

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