Politics as Unusual: Corporate ‘ed reform’ sneaks into mayoral debate

What if I told you that Walmart and Bain Capital were sneaking an invisible hand into the Boston mayoral race? Better yet, imagine if I brought news that some of the chief architects behind the mayhem currently engulfing public education in Chicago—last week, it was announced that an unprecedented number of schools will be permanently shuttered in the Windy City—had their sights set on the Hub, their eyes wide and tongues salivating at the prospect of tapping BPS resources to benefit grotesquely bloated plutocrats.

As sorry as I am to bear the bad news, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Nefarious forces have been fixated on Boston schools for some time, and now, it seems, they’re advancing for the kill. On June 5, at the Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale, a so-called ed reform group called Stand For Children—in reality, a front for corporations including Bain Capital, and a staunch adversary of the teacher’s union in Chicago—is co-sponsoring a mayoral forum to be “centered on education.” Like the benevolent-sounding name of the nonprofit itself, the idea appears to be innocent enough, even likable. But lift the curtain, and this story takes a foul turn.

If the SFC name rings familiar, it’s because its operatives have proudly shifted the debate on Massachusetts schools over the past several years (or because John Legend is their mascot). Most recently, in 2012 the group played hardball against state and local teacher unions, pushing them into crippling concessions on issues like seniority rights and evaluative measures. To accomplish this, SFC invested heavily in a campaign called “Great Teachers, Great Schools,” which ironically sought to advance the pro-charter school playbook at the expense of tenured instructors. Needless to say that in drumming up support, the group’s astroturf organizers failed to note all of the education profiteers who serve as SFC board members and backers, and how much they stand to win by demolishing organized teachers unions.

As I reported last year in the Boston Phoenix, the list of SFC’s contributors includes some unsavory actors. There’s the charity division of Summit Partners, whose holdings include the for-profit online teachers college Trident University, and that of the Monitor Group, which came under fire in 2011 for contracting with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to do public relations. There’s also the Walton Family Foundation, run by the family that founded Walmart, which has given in excess of $1 million to the national SFC, and Bain Capital, the Hub-based investment firm co-founded by Mitt Romney. Since 2008, more than half-a-dozen Bain executives have served on national and local SFC boards. This should be alarming for any number of reasons, but especially because Bain owns Bright Horizons, a Watertown-based education services company that builds and operates for-profit charter schools in Florida and California. Massachusetts has already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Bright Horizons for its universal pre-kindergarten care services. Furthermore, the company is expanding in the wake of a successful IPO in January. If you think they’re not interested in starting charters in the home state of their world headquarters, then you’re cuckoo for corporate puffs. Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility; Capital One bank, for example, shamelessly has charters in New Orleans operating under its name. Such developments may not be far behind in the commonwealth, where the zest for nontraditional schools appears to be about the only issue that pols on all sides of the ideological divide agree on.

Education should be a central issue in this race—that goes for busing, curriculum, technology and, yes, even union contracts. In that spirit, it’s actually critical to have such a forum at this early juncture; we’ve already heard lots about schools from City Councilors John Connolly, Rob Consalvo and Felix G. Arroyo, and now that the field is somewhat narrower, it’s important to hear what the others have cooking pedagogically. I’m simply saying that there will be plenty of candidate forums sponsored by businesses, and that’s perfectly acceptable—if the topic is along the lines of commerce, or sales tax, or even school construction. But when it comes to the actual education of children in Boston, it’s probably best for the community if Bain Capital is told to mind its own damn business.

Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.

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