THE BLOG
10/21/2014 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

A Tree Without Roots: Astroturf and Corporate Education Reform

The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, reportedly compensated counterprotesters in Philadelphia on Thursday in a failed effort to give the appearance of popular support for the recent move by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) to abrogate the contracts of Philadelphia teachers. This is yet another sign of the dangers of corporate education reform and the lengths its proponents are willing to go to stifle dissent and subvert democracy, including resorting to the use of astroturfing, or "fake grassroots" demonstrations and groups.

When their plan was uncovered, a spokesperson for the foundation was forced to admit that the organization officially engaged a dozen people to hold signs and distribute literature backing the actions of the SRC and attacking the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) union. "We will be there, not to counter-protest but to inform the public of how the PFT has failed teachers and students," said Cindy Hamill-Dahlgren, Director of Strategic Communication, trying to spin the group's actions.

Hamill-Dahlgren nevertheless failed to address why her organization would not just be transparent. The answer, of course, is that the Commonwealth Foundation is desperately afraid of the real grassroots support for PFT not only in Philadelphia but across the country -- support highlighting the decision by the SRC as both unnecessary and unpopular.

In spite of efforts by the Commonwealth Foundation and various other entities to paint teachers as the bad guys, a poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in September of 2013 found that 31 percent of residents placed responsibility for the crisis in the Philadelphia School District on the Republican-controlled state legislature and governor. Another 31 percent blamed the Democratic mayor and city council, and 21 percent blamed school administrators and the state-controlled State Reform Commission. Only 11 percent of those surveyed held the union or teachers responsible.

This is ultimately why the Commonwealth Foundation likely felt the need to hire counterprotesters. The fact that they were willing to go to this extreme was of little surprise to Philadelphia teachers. They know that much of the drama in the city has been orchestrated by shadowy behind-the-scenes organizations with popular-sounding names but funded by billionaires who have been very clear about the agenda to destroy the teachers' union on their road to dismantling the public schools. Their broad reach extends through state and local politics and knows no party bounds. Both Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, have received support from them -- apparently in exchange for supporting the corporate education reform agenda, including privatization of schools in the city of brotherly love.

In the summer of 2013, for instance, Philadelphia news sources reported how an astroturf group called PennCAN secretly financed a poll that encouraged Corbett to blame the city's fiscal crisis on the PFT in a play to gain statewide support among conservative voters as he prepared to launch a bid for reelection.

PennCAN, like its sister organizations in other states, is Pennsylvania's arm of 50CAN, a national corporate education reform astroturf institution, amply funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that has been the chief proponent for privatization efforts, school closures, and the promotion of the use of school vouchers that allow tax dollars to be diverted from public education to pay private school tuition.

There is a lesson for all of us in the perils of playing in astroturf that applies as much to the synthetic grass as to fake grassroots organizations. Experts have identified five potential dangers. They include injury, infections, overheating, poisoning and the presence of carcinogens.

While trying to give the appearance of popular support for their destructive actions, astroturf organizations like PennCAN and so-called "think tanks" like the Commonwealth Foundation actually cause injury. Budget cuts that resulted in the loss of school nurses and contributed to the deaths of two students is one aspect of that injury. The financial uncertainty that communities are forced to contend with is another, as every school year they confront the possibility of more teacher layoffs and school closures, not to mention larger class sizes and the loss of wrap-around service.

Infections are also common to AstroTurf. All kinds of nasty germs and diseases breed in the imitation materials that it comprises. Similarly, it would not be a stretch to suggest that the disease of indifference currently afflicting the Philadelphia schools was partly born of the desire of the corporate education reformers to wring profits from what they see as nothing more than a vast untapped market: our public schools. Their funding of astroturf organizations and think tanks and even the hiring of actors to push their agenda illustrates this.

AstroTurf is also subject to overheating. Unlike natural grass, Astroturf burns hot and stays hot long after the sun had faded. Last summer, when the Philadelphia Teachers Union, which, by all accounts, attempted to negotiate in good faith, offered a proposal that would have saved the district money and ensured a safe and timely opening of schools, the SRC, supported by the astroturfs, rejected it. They clearly preferred torching the union and, by extension, the schools and the communities they serve rather than engage in compromise.

Experts have noted how AstroTurf can lead to poisoning of the environment from chemicals in its fibers released during normal use. Fake grassroots organizations likewise poison the political environment by undermining democratic practices and eroding people's faith in the integrity of elected officials and the political process. They send the message that our democracy is for sale and that everything has a price, including the future of our children.

Although the jury is still out on whether AstroTurf contributes to cancer, there is no question of the cancerous effects of groups like PennCAN and the Commonwealth Foundation. It may be years before we know the full range of the damage they have inflicted on our children and schools or how long it will take to repair that damage. One thing, however, is clear: Philadelphia teachers and students deserve our interest and support. We should all be observing carefully how events are unfolding there before the fake grass rug is pulled out from under another community, thereby exposing the hard, unfeeling and community-killing corporate education reform concrete that lies beneath.