From Diane Ravitch’s blog on education, authored by Virginia parent and public education activist, Michele Boyd:
Why Has a Corporate Education Reform Group Affiliated with Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, Donated $25,000 to Tom Perriello’s Campaign?
by Michele Boyd, a parent to two children and a public education activist
For those of us who care deeply about K-12 public education – whether we are students, parents, educators, or concerned citizens – the stakes are high in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. In the current anti-Trump environment, the odds are in our favor that who we nominate on June 13th will become the next Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It is therefore paramount that we choose wisely. The 1,253,482 children who are currently enrolled in Virginia’s K-12 public schools and slightly over 100,000 teachers who teach them are depending on us to get it right.
The media narrative that has emerged in this race is Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello are both progressives and the policy differences between them are insignificant, including K-12 education. On the surface, this appears to be true. (Read here for Northam’s education platform and here for Perriello’s.)
There’s more to this story, however. The candidates differ significantly in one aspect that, in my opinion, overrides everything else: Tom Perriello has deep ties to the corporate education reform movement and Ralph Northam does not.
As a busy mom who works full-time, I was hoping that The Washington Post or other media outlets would scoop this story. It’s telling that Mr. Perriello chose not to disclose these ties at an education roundtable that myself and 15-20 others attended on January 31st in Manassas. With two children in public schools who have endured a learning environment of high-stakes testing that creates stress and anxiety, I cannot remain silent. Democratic primary voters deserve to know the facts before casting ballots on Tuesday.
There are many unanswered questions about Mr. Perriello’s past and current affiliations to the corporate education reformers – a select group largely financed by millionaires and billionaires – but the most pressing one is this: Why has an education reform group, the Emerson Collective, located in Palo Alto, California, donated $25,000 to Mr. Perriello’s campaign? What interests could this Silicon Valley Limited Liability Company (LLC) have in Virginia’s public schools?
I’ll start by saying this much, when Mr. Perriello boasts that he has the support of Obama Administration officials, we should believe him. As it turns out, former U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) Secretary, Arne Duncan, is Managing Partner at the Emerson Collective.
Former Secretary Duncan’s seven years of service from 2008-2015 can best be described as contentious. He once apologized for saying that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” viewing the disaster as an opportunity to usher in a market-based approach, which led to the firings of 7,500 unionized teachers (who sued for wrongful termination) and the establishment of America’s first all-charter district. Oddly, when he left USDOE and returned to Chicago, a public school system where he was once superintendent, he enrolled his children in private school. He later joined the Emerson Collective in March 2016, to work on issues regarding unemployed youth and education.
What is the Emerson Collective? Founded by billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs (wife of Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs), the Emerson Collective makes investments and grants in education and other areas. The New York Times described it as one of several “top tier technology investors” in AltSchool, a network of small private schools that “use a proprietary learning management system that tracks students’ activities and helps teachers personalize their learning.” Ms. Powell Jobs is also a board member of several education reform organizations, including Teach for America and the NewSchools Venture Fund. You can learn more about the Emerson Collective, its $100 million high school redesign contest, and Ms. Powell Jobs in this October 2016 New York Magazine article.
In choosing the Emerson Collective, Mr. Duncan joined one of his former top aides at USDOE, Ms. Russlyn Ali. Mr. Duncan worked together with Ms. Ali at USDOE on the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT), which offered stimulus money to states as an incentive to adopt the Common Core standards and assessments, expand charter schools, and use test scores to evaluate teachers – all ideas promoted by the corporate education reformers. Here is a video of Mr. Perriello sharing his thoughts on RTTT in March 2012 as President and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Thankfully, in 2011 Virginia withdrew its RTTT application and became one of only five states to not adopt the Common Core, avoiding the acrimony and backlash experienced in many other states. We were also fortunate to preserve the integrity of our system of traditional public schools and limit the growth of charters. Given that at least two studies from 2009 and 2010 found that charter schools performed no better and often worse than traditional public schools, this was a wise decision. By maintaining our independence, our state sent a bipartisan message to Mr. Duncan and the privitizers that Virginia’s public schools were not for sale.
There is reason to believe that Mr. Perriello and Mr. Duncan are personal friends and political allies. Mr. Perriello once described Mr. Duncan as a “visionary”, urging President Obama to “find the Arne Duncan of economic development” for Treasury Secretary. Press accounts show that Mr. Perriello hosted Mr. Duncan in Charlottesville for his “A Call to Teach” speech at the Curry School of Education at UVa on October 14, 2009. Mr. Perriello also paid a visit to former Secretary Duncan’s office with constituents to discuss education issues, including merit pay incentive programs. In 2010, Mr. Perriello secured a grant from USDOE’s Public Charter Schools Program to establish a rural charter school in the Fifth District. A few years later, the project was cancelled and the school never opened. Press reports also describe them as campaigning together in Mr. Perriello’s bid for reelection in 2010.
How did Mr. Perriello and Mr. Duncan become allies? Most likely it was through the political arm of a PAC formed by Wall Street hedge fund managers in 2005 called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER seeks to change federal, state, and local education policy to fit its agenda of choice, competition, and accountability through “supporting reform-minded candidates for public office.” DFER co-founder Whitney Tilson is quoted as saying that “hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital.”
DFER lobbied President Obama upon his election in 2008 to select its top choice for Secretary of Education, Mr. Duncan. DFER also donated to Mr. Perriello’s 2008 and 2010 campaigns, in addition to holding fundraisers for him both online (see page 7) and in private residences. Mr. Perriello co-sponsored charter school legislation with another DFER-affiliated politician, Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO). In June 2010, Mr. Perriello was recognized by Whitney Tilson as DFER’s “Ed Reformer of the Month,” and featured in an online fundraiser for those who couldn’t attend a “reception in his honor” later that month.
DFER’s embrace of “accountability” and “choice” often aligned with that of conservatives, including many rightwing ideologues. Mercedes Schneider, an educator, author, and blogger has documented DFER’s receipt of $80,000 in donations in 2010 and 2014 from a group founded by Betsy DeVos, the American Federation for Children, and $65,000 in those same years from a nonprofit that Mrs. DeVos chaired, the Alliance for School Choice. The education historian, Diane Ravitch, argued recently in The New Republic that Democratic politicians who supported the corporate education agenda “paved the way for DeVos and her plans to privatize the school system.”
On April 14th, myself and a friend attended a town hall meeting in Montclair to clarify Mr. Perriello’s current position on charter schools, standardized testing, and DFER. Mr. Perriello recognized that some reformers wanted to destroy public education. Mr. Perriello’s interest, however, was that he was willing to try anything to improve public schools. He explained that since the evidence has led him to conclude that charter schools don’t work, he no longer supports them. He also expressed support for Governor Terri McAuliffe’s veto of legislation which would have shifted charter school decision-making authority from local school boards to Richmond. This is good news. If Mr. Perriello should win the Governorship, we will hold him to his word.
Mr. Perriello’s vigorous support for “data-driven education” was more troubling, as well as his explanation of his past DFER ties. He distanced himself from the group, claiming that he wasn’t a “member.” He also stated that he hasn’t received any campaign donations from DFER in his current race, but that he “couldn’t know if anybody who is affiliated with them” has donated. (See here for the video starting at 32:46.)
This is interesting. At the time of the town hall, Mr. Perriello’s first quarter campaign disclosure report had been filed. My friend and I were unaware at the time, and in all fairness maybe he was, too, but Mr. Perriello’s former Congressional colleague and DFER, Mr. Jared Polis, with whom he worked on charter school legislation, donated $3,500 to his campaign. A quick check of DFER’s website indicates that Mr. Polis remains a “featured” DFER. I find it doubtful that Mr. Perriello wouldn’t remember his former colleague and friend.
Although at town halls and in debates, Mr. Perriello has disavowed certain aspects of his past record on public education, in particular his support for charter schools, there remains cause for concern. In addition to the worrisome donations from the Emerson Collective and Mr. Polis, his campaign disclosure reports reveal that he has also received donations from other individuals associated with corporate education reform. One example is venture capitalist Nicolas Hanauer, who donated $1 million to a 2012 Washington State referendum to allow charter schools and $15,000 to Mr. Perriello. It’s reported that Mr. Hanauer is well-known in Washington State political circles as having a combative personality, especially when confronting the teachers union. I recognize that Mr. Perriello and Mr. Hanauer may be aligned on other issues besides education, but until I hear otherwise, I’m worried.
I believe that Mr. Perriello owes an explanation to the public about the donations he has received from entities or individuals who have ties to corporate education reform. Students, parents, educators, and concerned citizens deserve no less. Virginia is one of the few states remaining whose public education system hasn’t been corrupted by the privatization movement and it’s important that we keep it this way. This issue will be on the ballot in November with Betsy DeVos’s surrogate, Ed Gillespie, and as Democrats it’s imperative that we make sure our candidate has clean hands.
Ralph Northam has a public education record that demonstrates his allegiance lies with children, parents, and educators – not with corporate education reformers whether they are from Silicon Valley, Colorado, or Washington State. Dr. Northam has promised to follow in the footsteps of Governor McAuliffe who has vetoed all charter school legislation, made important strides in SOL reform by reducing the number of tests from 34 to 29, and recently signed into law a bipartisan bill which sets policy to raise Virginia’s teacher salaries at or above the national level. Much more remains to be done and I believe that Dr. Northam is up to the job.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet Dr. Northam three times, including once at an education town hall, and I was impressed with his knowledge of the issues, compassion, and unique understanding as a pediatric neurologist of children and how they learn best. Having a wife who is a K-5 science teacher only enhances his credentials.
Dr. Northam has also received the endorsement of the Virginia Education Association, representing more than 50,000 teachers. I feel it’s important as Democrats that we return to our roots and stand up for our educators, giving them the respect and support they deserve. Dr. Northam has pledged to give them a seat at the table.
The questions we need to ask ourselves before Tuesday’s primary is who do we trust more with the awesome responsibility of leading our public schools and looking out for the best interests of our children? Which candidate will appoint individuals who represent Virginian values as Secretary of Education and the nine members of the Board of Education? Who can we count on to ensure that K-12 education spending – which is more than one-third of the general fund – supports priorities that will have the most impact? I have my answer and he is Dr. Ralph Northam.