Illustration: David McLimans
Last October, a friend called with a question: “What do you know about Stand for Children?” The advocacy organization, based in our hometown of Portland, Ore., was expanding into his state of Illinois, and he hoped to glean some insight into the kinds of reforms the group would support. Just two months later, Stand’s Illinois branch had amassed more than $3 million in a political action committee and unveiled an aggressive teacher evaluation bill.
“Have they always been like this?” he asked.
The short answer: no.
Stand for Children was founded in the late 1990s as a way to advocate for the welfare of children. It grew out of a 1996 march by more than 250,000 people in Washington, D.C. The aim of the march was to highlight child poverty at a time when Congress and the Clinton administration were preparing to “end welfare as we know it.” Jonah Edelman, son of children’s and civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, co-founded the group and continues to serve as CEO. Stand’s first chapter was in Oregon, but the group now operates in eight additional states: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.
According to Susan Barrett, a parent volunteer who recently left Portland’s Stand chapter, Stand started with a genuine focus on improving the lives of poor children:
[Stand] 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 Stand 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.1
Here is a snapshot of Stand’s agenda during that period:
- Health coverage for uninsured children
- Monitoring the impact of welfare reform
- More money for affordable, high-quality child care
- Safe and productive after-school activities
- Schools that have small classes, well-trained teachers, high standards, and involved parents. 2
Fifteen years later, Stand seems to have morphed into something quite different. For Oregonians, the first public indications that Stand had made a striking 180-degree turn in its politics was its support for Race to the Top legislation and its active promotion of the antiunion, anti-public school film Waiting for “Superman.” Stand led a well-financed, intensive campaign for the film, organizing special invitation-only showings for various constituencies.
According to Barrett:
This past year, Oregon Stand 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.” Stand also pushed to lower the capital gains tax.
For Tom Olson, another former Portland Stand member, the final straw was the appointment of a new executive director for the Oregon chapter:
We were appalled that [Sue Levin] had virtually no experience leading grassroots organizations. Instead, we were told that she had a truly impressive background as an “entrepreneur” (a phrase we began to hear [CEO Edelman] use quite frequently during [his] transformation during 2009–10). Levin had been the founder and CEO of a women’s apparel company, Lucy Inc. Prior to that, she had been a women’s sports apparel VP at Nike Inc. Grassroots leadership experience? Absolutely none. Connections with millionaires? A whole bunch. 3
For Stand’s Portland chapter, where the organization is headquartered and one of the few places where it has a significant history of grassroots activism, the changes in Stand’s role have clearly been traumatic for parents and community members who had a very different image of the organization. This is clearly not a local phenomenon. As Stand has expanded, it has followed a similar pattern: In state after state, Stand has made the corporate-driven agenda of expanding charter schools and tying teacher pay and evaluations to student test scores their top priority.
To be sure, Stand has maintained some vestiges of its original focus on children. Stand recently supported bills in Colorado and Oregon that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges; in both states, conservative activists expressed hostility to these measures. The Colorado chapter opposed a proposition and two statewide amendments that would have gutted education funding. The Arizona chapter supported a temporary 1 percent tax increase that avoided significant cuts to public schools. The Tennessee chapter fought an English-only amendment that would have negatively affected schools and families, supported changes to suspension policies that hurt children, and pushed for more pre-K funds.
But, unfortunately, the dominant impact of Stand, everywhere it has a presence, is much more pro-business than pro-children. This was certainly the case in Illinois, where Stand for Children played a part in crafting what they are touting as their biggest victory yet: Senate Bill 7.Standing Against Illinois Teachers
SB 7, which passed the Illinois Senate in a unanimous vote and the General Assembly with a single dissenter, undermines seniority as the basis of teacher job security and specifically singles out the Chicago Teachers Union by severely restricting its right to strike.
Chicago has become a testing ground for corporate education policy. Recent CEOs of Chicago Public Schools have included Paul Vallas (1995–2001), who later became the architect behind the union-busting and charterization plan in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; and Arne Duncan (2001–08), who privatized Chicago public schools at a rate of about 10 per year before becoming Barack Obama’s education secretary. The policies pushed by these corporate reformers have been touted as “miraculous” by business leaders, but have created a horrendous environment for Chicago teachers.
Intensive and strategic organizing in the face of layoffs, increasing attacks on teachers, and school closings led to last year’s victory for the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), which swept the 2010 Chicago Teachers Union elections, winning every single seat. But CORE came to power in the context of an economic crisis in which workers are being forced to bear the brunt of economic sacrifice. The city’s elite became even more determined to break the teachers’ union.
Bruce Rainer, a Republican venture capitalist, recruited Edelman to come to Illinois and help with this task. Thanks to a speech caught on video and posted on YouTube, we now know the intimate details of how Stand for Children helped shape Illinois’ latest anti-teacher legislation. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, billionaire James Crown and Jonah Edelman caused an uproar with their comments about SB 7.
Their panel discussion, titled “If It Can Happen There, It Can Happen Anywhere: Transformational Education Legislation in Illinois,” began with Crown painting a picture of an all-powerful teachers’ union that consistently blocks education reform and has a stranglehold on Illinois politics. Crown was particularly angry that teachers in Illinois had maintained their right to strike. “In 45 of the 50 states, there is no right to strike by teachers,” he protested. “So this was an incredibly strike-permissive environment with these other efforts by the unions, and so forth, that created an unsustainable structure in our school system.”
Following Crown, Edelman gave a step-by-step account of how Stand for Children worked to undermine teachers’ union rights in Illinois. After explaining how Stand essentially bought a handful of Illinois legislators with campaign contributions—most crucially, Democratic Assembly Speaker Michael Madigan—Edelman explained Stand’s strategy:
After the election, Advance Illinois and Stand had drafted a very bold proposal we called Performance Counts. It tied tenure and layoffs to performance. It let principals hire who they choose. It streamlined dismissal of ineffective tenured teachers substantially—from two-plus years and $200,000 in legal fees, on average, to three to four months, with very little likelihood of legal recourse.
And, most importantly, we called for the reform of collective bargaining throughout the state—essentially, proposing that school boards would be able to decide any disputed issue at impasse. So a very, very bold proposal for Illinois, and one that six months earlier would have been unthinkable, undiscussable. . . .
We hired 11 lobbyists, including the four best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them. We enlisted a statewide public affairs firm. . . . We raised $3 million for our political action committee between the election and the end of the year. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.
And so essentially, what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. I can tell you there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers’ unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance, and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats, the same way the pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier.
Edelman’s comments produced outrage among union and education activists. He issued an apology, saying he regretted that he “left children mostly out of the equation,” and that the speech “could cause viewers to wrongly conclude that I’m against unions.”
For their part, the leaders of Illinois’ three main education unions blasted Edelman in a joint statement:
It’s clear from Edelman’s remarks that Stand’s effectiveness is reliant on a public perception that it represents the interests of parents. But in fact, Stand’s agenda is now closely aligned with those who call for privatization, charters, vouchers, and an end to teachers’ unions.
We heard a lot from Jonah Edelman about power in politics, power over unions, and management power over teachers. Sadly, we didn’t hear anything in that hour-long session about improving education. . . . What’s worse is that these false claims clearly show an organizational agenda that has nothing to do with helping kids learn.
This is true throughout the country. For example, Stand’s most significant work in Colorado was their support of Senate Bill 191, a landmark piece of legislation that bases 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student achievement data. As Dana Goldstein explained in a recent American Prospect article, this may lead the state to test every student, in every grade, in every subject—including art, music, and PE. The poisonous debate around the bill vilified those in opposition and demoralized teachers across the state. One teacher, recalling the negotiations over the bill, told Goldstein, “I’ve chosen a profession that, in the public eyes, is worse than prostitution.”
Stand’s Colorado operations are funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation and the Daniels Fund, two right-wing philanthropies that have pushed for vouchers and charter schools.
Stand entered Texas in early 2011 as the state wrestled with a budget shortfall that could be as high as $27 billion. The dramatic cuts to schools in the Lone Star state will undoubtedly harm children, yet Stand put their might behind a campaign to evaluate teachers. Texas Senate Bill 4 and the companion bill in the House call for basing from 30 to 50 percent of teacher evaluations on test score growth. In addition, Stand supported legislation that would aid Texas charter schools.
To further this agenda, Stand hired nine lobbyists with ties to the Republican Party, including three lobbyists from Delisi Communications. The firm’s president, Ted Delisi, purchased Karl Rove’s consulting and direct mail company when Rove joined the Bush presidential campaign in 1999, and ran the Bush/Cheney fundraising and mailer campaign the following year.
Stand set up shop in Indiana in early 2011 and began advocating for changes to teacher evaluations as Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Republican-controlled legislature passed the most expansive state voucher program in U.S. history, expanded charter schools, restricted collective bargaining, and made serious changes to teacher evaluations. Stand’s advocacy for test-based teacher evaluations included statements that were blatantly false, including: “Studies show that a teacher’s influence on student achievement is 20 times greater than any other variable, including class size or poverty.”
How Did This Happen?
What happened? How did Stand morph from an organization with a focus on children’s health issues, nonschool factors, and research-based school improvements to an organization that pushes core elements of the corporate destruction of public education?
Stand has seen an enormous influx of corporate cash. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation began by offering a relatively modest two-year grant of $80,000 in 2005. In 2007, Stand for Children received a $682,565 grant. In 2009, the point at which Stand’s drastically different political agenda became obvious, Gates awarded a $971,280 grant to support “common policy priorities” and in 2010, a $3,476,300 grant.
Though the Gates Foundation remains the biggest donor to Stand for Children, other players in the world of corporate education reform have also begun to see Stand as an effective vehicle to push their agenda.
New Profit Inc. has funded Stand since 2008—to the tune of $1,458,500. According to its website, New Profit is a “national venture philanthropy fund that seeks to harness America’s spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship to help solve the country’s biggest social problems.”
The Walton Family Foundation made a 2010 grant of $1,378,527. Several other major funders are tied to Bain Capital, a private equity and venture capital firm founded by Mitt Romney.
In a similar time frame, Stand’s National Board of Directors has seen dramatic changes. Lauene Powell Jobs joined the board of Stand for Children in 2006. She also serves on the board of Teach for America. Both Powell Jobs and Julie Mikuta, who joined the Stand board in 2007, are integrally involved with the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools is a venture philanthropy firm, started by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financed by many of the same donors who give to Stand for Children—Bill Gates, the Walton Family—as well as Eli Broad and Gap founder Donald Fisher. NewSchools Venture Fund pours money into charter schools and “human capital” projects with the aim of using market models and corporate management to drastically reshape the education system.
In 2010, Emma Bloomberg, daughter of billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, became the newest member of Stand’s national board. Emma Bloomberg is a program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation, another venture philanthropy organization, whose board of directors is dominated by corporate titans like General Electric CEO Jeffery Immelt and JP Morgan CEO Jes Staley.
Marian Wright Edelman is no longer a board member. In fact, 11 of the 14 board members of Stand for Children and the Stand for Children Leadership Center have joined the organization since 2006.
The education policy environment has changed significantly during the past 10 years. Particularly since the onset of the economic crisis, teachers have increasingly been blamed for “failing public schools.” Major foundations have spent millions in efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, make it easier to hire and fire teachers, and restrict teachers’ rights to due process and to strike. Co-opting organizations like Stand for Children Reshapes the public face of corporate education reform and helps make anti-union and privatization schemes more palatable to liberals and progressives. It’s clear that conservative foundations and corporate-backed operatives recognize that organizing parents is a promising way to further their agendas (see David Bacon’s “Trigger Laws: Does Signing a Petition Give Parents a Voice?” ).
There is a legitimate concern for teacher quality, how layoffs are handled, and the need for greater parent and community involvement in teacher contract negotiations. These are serious issues for low-income families and other marginalized communities, but Stand’s approach fails to bring parents, teachers, and communities together, and instead embraces policies favored by historic opponents of public schools and teachers’ unions.
As Susan Barrett explains:
My fear is that unwitting parents and community members will join Stand 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. . . I worry we will lose a truly democratic discussion and action on education weighted in favor of corporate reforms.
We agree. There is a need for a parent- and community-driven organization that is not directly tied to teachers unions. An organization that pushes for quality early childhood education, adequate funding for the public education system, and attention to childhood health issues would certainly represent a kid-first agenda. It is even possible to critique teacher training, hiring, and firing in such a broad agenda. But putting kids first is no longer the focus of Stand for Children.
Barrett, Susan. “Stand for Children: A Hometown Perspective of Its Evolution,” Parents Across America website: parentsacrossamerica.org/2011/07/stand-for-children-a-hometown-perspective-of-its-evolution.
Goldstein, Dana . “The Test Generation,” The American Prospect. April 11, 2011: http://prospect.org/cs/ articles?article=the_test_generation.
Olson, Tom. “Another Former Stand for Children Member Speaks Out,” Parents Across America website: parentsacrossamerica.org/2011/07/tom-olsen-another-former-stand-for-children- member-speaks-out.