Tangled Webs and Foreign Money

Money is indeed the mother’s milk of politics and in 2014 Alabama added a couple of new cows to the herd.

One was the organization, StudentsFirst of Sacremento, CA. This is the group created by the former chancellor of the Washington, DC school system, Michelle Rhee. To say that Rhee is controversial is a huge understatement. Her only actual school experience prior to being picked as chancellor by Mayor Adrain Fenty was three years as a Teach for America teacher in a Baltimore elementary school. She claimed on her resume’ that 90 percent of her high poverty students performed at the 90th percentile, a claim that cannot be verified.

Her 40 months heading the DC system is probably best described as “slash and burn.” In her first year 23 schools were closed and 36 principals fired. Long time PBS education reporter John Merrow spent three years covering Rhee and creating the documentary The Education of Michelle Rhee. I highly recommend you taking the time to view it. You can even watch her terminate a principal while the cameras were rolling.

Rhee’s regime was devoted to one thing only–higher test scores. Nothing else mattered. USA Today broke a story in 2011 questioning the rapid rise of test scores in the system. An ensuing investigation concluded there had been no wrong doing. However, many questioned the thoroughness and methodology of the investigation and felt that it was unduly influenced by political pressure.

Rhee resigned her position in October, 2010, shortly after Fenty lost the mayoral primary election. Merrow wrote in 2013, “Six years after Michelle Rhee rode into town, the public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure.”

Never one to shun bright lights, on Dec. 6, 2010 Rhee went on the Oprah Winfrey Show to announce she was starting StudentsFirst to catalyze education reform in the US. Her goal was to raise $1 billion dollars and have one million members. For the most part, the fund-raising aspect of this organization has largely been hidden from the public. Though they have spent millions and millions of dollars on lobbyists and political campaigns they claim to be a social welfare nonprofit. As a 501(c)4, they do not have to reveal their donors.

For instance, we know that StudentsFirst spent nearly $200,000 on campaigns in Alabama in 2014 by checking the disclosure records of candidates, but the organization did not file any information with the Secretary of State’s office. Records from the Ethics Commission show they have 10 lobbyists registered in Alabama in 2015. The top legislative candidate beneficiaries of StudentsFirst campaign money in 2014 were: Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh ($20,408); defeated House candidate Charlotte Meadows ($20,000); Senator Phil Williams ($16,052, House member Ed Henry ($15,000); defeated House candidate Steve Dean ($10,000) and Senator Gerald Dial ($10,000).

(Meadows is one of the 10 StudentsFirst lobbyists in Alabama and is the Outreach Director for the organization in Alabama.)

But as the Rhee group spends money to elect people in Alabama who think the Alabama Accountability Act is working and that charter schools and vouchers are the best thing since sliced bread, no one ever mentions that listening to someone advise us on what should be done in Alabama based on their own track record in DC, makes no sense at all.

Since Rhee thinks test results are the only thing that matter, let’s look at scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress for both Alabama and Washington, DC. In 4th grade reading and math and 8th grade reading and math, NAEP scores in Alabama are better than those in DC. A measurement that gets lots of attention is the difference in scores of black and white students. For 4th grade reading, the gap in DC is more than double Alabama’s (25-AL/62-DC) and nearly double in 8th grade math (20-AL/56-DC).

As John Merrow says, “The states that have adopted her (Rhee) approach, and others now being lobbied, might want to make their own data-driven decisions.”

I feel safe in saying that had Michelle Rhee been a high school football coach in the nation’s capital, her record would not have opened many doors for employment in Alabama.

The other entry into the legislative sweepstakes last year was the Alabama Federation for Children, headed by Ryan Cantrell, a former worker in the Republican effort to take over the Statehouse in 2010 and a former staff member for Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh. This group is affiliated with the American Federation for Children out of Washington, DC which is backed by some very deep pockets. Betsey DeVos of Michigan is chair of the national organization. She is the billionaire wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos, who Forbes magazine said in 2012 had a net worth of $5.1 billion. A longtime activist in “education reform,” she gave $100,000 last year to the Alabama Federation for Children.

Vice Chair of the American Federation for Children is John Kirtley of Tampa. He heads Step Up for Students, the largest scholarship granting organization in Florida. Kirtley serves on the board of the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, the SGO created by former Governor Bob Riley. Records show that Step Up for Students is actually the controlling entity of the Riley SGO.

The DeVos group is closely linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Washington-based group known for developing “model” legislation for state legislative bodies. (A 2013 graduate class at Auburn University went through the accountability act thoroughly and found that at least 80 percent of its language came from legislation in other states generated by ALEC.) Rep. Terri Collins and Senator Greg Reed are Alabama state chairs for ALEC. Collins chairs the Education Policy Committee in the Alabama House. She received $12,747 from AFC and $8,346 from StudentsFirst in 2014. Reed, who had no opposition in 2014, did not receive campaign contributions from either group.

In all, the Alabama Federation for Children spent nearly $350,000 on state elections in 2014. In addition to the $100,000 from Betsey DeVos, they also got $100,000 from William Oberndorf in California, chair emeritus of the American Federation for Children and $150,000 from Jim Walton of Arkansas. And yes, that is THE Walton family of the Wal Mart empire. These three were the only contributors to the Alabama effort.

The top five legislative candidate beneficiaries of AFC support last year were: Rep. Mac Buttram ($33,057) who lost to a challenger in the Republican runoff; Senator Jimmy Holley ($29,400); Rep. Jim Patterson ($15,929); Senator Tim Melson ($15,909) and Rep. Becky Nordgren ($15,587).

As you follow this crisscrossing of money and leadership, the first question that comes to mind is WHY?

Why is money from people who don’t know Bridgeport from Bayou La Batre being sent to elect legislators in Alabama? And even more importantly, why are Alabama legislators even listening to these folks who have no vested interest in our children or our schools? Why have we turned our back on our own experts who are teachers and principals and turned instead to wealthy ideologues for guidance? Do our own policymakers think the good people of Alabama are not smart enough to handle our own affairs? Or we somehow supposed to think that a lobbyist from California knows more than a teacher in Andalusia?

Have we become infatuated with people who appear on Oprah and get written about in Forbes? In other words, have we turned our back on our own people and decided to auction our children to the highest bidder?

 

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