Two groups not considered friendly to public education–StudentsFirst and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO)–have apparently closed shop in Alabama.
StudentsFirst is the brain child of one-time Washington, D.C. school system chancellor Michelle Rhee. After resigning this job, Rhee announced on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010 that she was starting the group and planned to raise $1 billion in the first year to fund it. (This goal was later changed to a five-year target.)
My first recollection of StudentsFirst in Alabama was in 2012 when the legislature attempted to pass a charter school bill. I attended a meeting of about 25 people in Montgomery lead by a lady who was a former teacher in Florida She claimed that StudentsFirst had more than 17,000 Alabama members at that time. I wondered why none of them showed up for her meeting.
I went on the StudentsFirst web site and signed up to be a member in Alabama and was told I would get info about activities in the state. I do not recall ever getting such.
We do know that the organization spent about $200,000 on Alabama legislative and state school board campaigns in 2014. However, you cannot find any of their financial info on the Secretary of State web site because they did not file any. Instead, you have to dig it out candidate by candidate.
We know they gave Senator Del Marsh, who pushed hard for the infamous RAISE Act, $20,000. Even more interesting is that they contributed $60,000 to the Foundation for Accountability in Education. This is a group set up by Senator March to promote the benefits of the Alabama Accountability Act.
Earlier this year they had six lobbyists registered with the Ethics Commission. One of them was Josh Blades, former chief of staff for convicted Speaker Mike Hubbard and a witness in Hubbard’s recent trial. Their web site said that the state director was Blake Harris, an attorney and political operative in Birmingham. Charlotte Meadows, one-time member of the Montgomery County school board was also an employee.
But now the web site only says FORBIDDEN when you look at it. And their Facebook page says it is a “closed” group with only three members.
Records from the Secretary of State indicate BAEO filed organizational paperwork on March 29, 2012. Duncan Kirkwood, a native of Buffalo, NY worked for this group. However, he posted “goodbye” on their Facebook page on Dec. 31, 2015 and is now back in Buffalo as Western New York Advocacy Manager for the Northeast Charter Schools network.
Though it has been around longer, like StudentsFirst, BAEO has had its share of controversy since being founded by Howard Fuller, one-time superintendent of the Milwaukee, WI school system. BAEO is a strong supporter of charter schools and vouchers and has been criticized by some within the black community for being funded by right-wing foundations such as Walton and Bradley.
The Black Commentator referred to BAEO as “A phony ‘movement’ invented by rich, racist while men in Milwaukee.”
So what happened? Why did these two groups shut down in Alabama?
I can only speculate. But my best guess is that it had a lot to do with the lack of success with new legislation in the 2016 regular session. We had a virtual tsunami of bills introduced. The one that got most attention was the Rewarding Achievement in Instruction & Student Excellence (RAISE) Act that eventually morphed into the Preparing & Rewarding Educational Professionals (PREP) bill.
There were also bills to create Educational Savings Account, create a statewide Longitudinal Data System, to allow the governor to appoint the state superintendent of education, to eliminate the Alabama College & Career Ready standards, to make sure children are taught cursive writing, an amendment to appoint–not elect–the state school board, etc.
(Of these, only the cursive writing bill passed.)
However, I do not think leadership promoting the RAISE Act had any clue of how much pushback the bill would get. After all, they crammed the accountability act down the throat of public education in 2013, as well as the charter school bill of 2015. So what was to prevent them from doing the same with RAISE?
But finally the education community woke up and made it quite clear that “enough is enough.” Legislators across the state were inundated with messages from superintendents, principals, teachers and concerned citizens. Those who supported Senator Marsh’s position were taken to task time and again.
Efforts by a small army of lobbyists came up short. Since returning to Buffalo, BAEO’s Duncan Kirkwood wrote, “A few years in Alabama taught this upstate New York kid a few things about the ‘good ole boy network.'”
Who knows. Maybe the good ole boys figured out that when some folks tell you it is raining, they are really just peeing on your leg.