Public education advocates welcomed the news that Change.org recently decided to drop Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst and Jonah Edelman's Stand for Children as paid clients. Change.org is a powerful platform for individuals trying to correct the injustices they see in the world. Whether it's a young woman angry at her bank over new fees, a bullied high school student taking on an industry association over censorship issues or grieving parents trying to find some sort of redress or justice for their loss, Change.org has proven to be a vitally important tool.
Central to Change.org's ability to help make the world a better place is their client policy, which states:
We accept sponsored campaigns from organizations fighting for the public good and the common values we hold dear -- fairness, equality, and justice. We do not accept sponsored campaigns from organizations that consistently violate these values, support discriminatory policies, or seek private corporate benefit that undermines the common good.
The last line is incredibly important: they do not accept clients for sponsored campaigns that "seek private corporate benefit that undermine the common good." After examining the two groups more critically, Change.org joined a growing number of people and organizations nationwide who are rejecting Rhee and other Astroturf groups who undermine the public good by lobbying to privatize schools, profit off of our nation's students, and limit or eliminate the rights of working people.
Many of these groups choose deceptive names and use carefully crafted language to appeal to wider audiences. The two groups in question, StudentsFirst and Stand for Children, can look great at first glance. But when you look more closely at the policies they push, and who pays to push them, you have to take pause.
Michelle Rhee founded StudentsFirst after quitting her job as Chancellor of DC Public Schools. When touting her record as chancellor, she fails to mention that the achievement gap widened on her watch, or that the DC public schools are under federal investigation for a cheating scandal that resulted from her myopic focus on raising scores on high stakes tests. Rhee's other "accomplishments" in DC include firing and humiliating a public school principal on television and pushing unproven policies like restricting teachers' due process rights and imposing "merit" pay.
After launching her organization, Rhee traveled the country to work with Republican politicians on efforts to end collective bargaining. She went on Fox News to support Scott Walker in Wisconsin, lobbied to pass Senate Bill 5 in Ohio, and promoted several ALEC model bills, including the Parent Trigger. Though she refuses to disclose her full funder list, it's known that Rupert Murdoch -- whose company stands to profit from many of the policies she promotes -- has made a major investment in the group. When a supposed "grassroots" organization won't tell you who funds their work, it makes you wonder how grassroots they are. Either way, pushing ALEC-made policies that increase private corporate benefit, undermine workers' rights and don't improve student achievement undermines the common good.
Stand for Children
Led by Jonah Edelman, Stand for Children started as a grassroots organization that has shifted into a corporate-backed grasstops group. Their funders include the notoriously anti-worker Walton family and Bain Capital (yes, Mitt Romney's Bain Capital). The Oregon-based group opens local chapters in states around the country and pushes corporate reforms, often ignoring the feelings of the local community, which led former Stand activists to pen a letter denouncing them. The two best examples of Stand for Children undermining public education come from Illinois and Louisiana.
In Illinois, Stand created the controversial paid petition campaign that caused Change.org to reassess the organization. The petition undermines Chicago teachers who are currently attempting to negotiate for more art and music classes, playgrounds, libraries, school nurses and smaller class sizes -- critical issues the city refuses to negotiate. Unfortunately, this isn't surprising; Edelman is actually on video bragging about how he has tricked Chicago teachers in the past and how he's gone after collective bargaining rights.
And in Louisiana, Stand for Children is actively pushing Governor Jindal's education agenda, which includes school vouchers. Vouchers may be one of the clearest proposals that undermine the common good. Vouchers take money from already underfunded public schools and funnel it to private, often religious schools.
Change.org's decision marks an important point in our fight for public education, and for America's best interests more generally. When astroturf groups undermine schools and workers, they are not acting in the best interests of children, parents, teachers or the community. This action, and others like it, show that clever names and rhetoric are no longer enough to hide corporate interests from communities determined to protect the common good.
*Note: The Author has worked on labor and education issues for a number of years and recently began working for the American Federation of Teachers.