Politics as Unusual: ‘Ed reform’ cash makes Connolly biggest threat to BPS

I didn’t plan on writing about schools this week. I already had another column mostly finished when I woke up today and found a whopper in the Boston Globe titled, “$500,000 push for Connolly planned.” It’s a piece about how Stand for Children, an Oregon-based nonprofit that alleges to foster education reform, plans to help elect City Councilor John Connolly as the next mayor of Boston. I’ve covered SFC extensively—particularly its alarming ties to the likes of Walmart and Bain Capital—but no one seems to be listening. So here I am, cleaning vomit off my morning paper, and writing yet again about our looming education crisis.

Before I explain why Connolly just became the biggest threat facing Boston Public, let’s first take a moment to address the euphemism that is “education reform.” With schools across the country still suffering as a result of punitive “No Child Left Behind” policies implemented by the George W. Bush administration—many of which were piggybacked by President Barack Obama—more than a few folks are shopping for a change. Some people, namely teachers, say that public institutions need more resources; that’s hard to deny, considering problems like the lack of basic technology in classrooms nationwide. But a handful of voices—the self-appointed “ed reformers”—believe that schools must be improved by increasing charter opportunities, eliminating tenure as a basis for promotions, and, in the words of leading ed reform critic Diane Ravitch, adhering to “strict free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students).”

The tipping point for so-called ed reform came in 2011, when SFC CEO Jonah Edelman—while sitting next to investment billionaire Jim Crown—announced at the Aspen Ideas Festival his plans to cripple Illinois teachers unions. “We hired 11 lobbyists, including the four best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them,” Edelmann told the crowd. “I can tell you there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers’ unions . . . that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats.”

Edelmann was wrong about Chicago; though he was able to affect anti-union legislation at the state level that lengthened school days and made it easier to fire bad instructors, his prediction that teachers wouldn’t reach a new strike vote threshold—set by the SFC measure—proved inaccurate. Months after the contentious new laws passed, 90 percent of union teachers in Chicago moved to picket. More than a year later, Windy City schools remain a mess; to make matters worse, in 2012, the Walton Family Foundation—Walmart’s philanthropic arm—gave Chicago $3.8 million to shutter public schools and build charter alternatives.

A force with funds to burn, SFC has itself taken millions from the Walton Family Foundation. The nonprofit also has support from the Boston-based New Profit, Inc., whose board members include executives from Bain Capital and the Monitor Group, the latter of which handled public relations for Moammar Gadhafi. All things considered; as they promise to pump half-a-million dollars into what one advisor in the Globe story calls a “full-frontal attack” for Connolly—television spots, door-knocking, mailers—it’s important to ask why private equity and retail millionaires galore are suddenly so interested in Massachusetts schools.

While there’s the obvious perk of hero points that can be earned by saving poor kids, it seems as if these corporate honchos also see school budgets as cash cows. Bain Capital, for one, owns a Massachusetts-based subsidy called Bright Horizons that, in addition to running publicly subsidized daycare centers, has begun to build for-profit elementary schools. As Republicans and Democrats have mutually propped the idea of charters, companies have rushed toward ownership; as I noted in a previous column, in New Orleans, one school is actually named after Capital One bank. Connolly taught at a charter school in New York City, and has passionately pleaded for the cap on the number of such institutions to be lifted. It doesn’t take a valedictorian to see where this is going.

This day was bound to come. As the Mission Hill Gazette reported earlier this month, SFC already ruffled feathers by scheduling a forum on the future of BPS without inviting anybody from the school district, and by using the Boston Centers for Youth & Families logo without permission in advertising the event. In June, the group also hosted a mayoral summit at the Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale. Before that, SFC spent the first half of last year pushing a commonwealth-wide ballot initiative dubbed “Great Teachers, Great Schools”; after building support through an effective and deceptive ad campaign and spending more than $300,000 to collect signatures, the nonprofit, to use the phrasing of its CEO, cornered teachers and jammed anti-union legislation “down their throats.”

It’s fantastic that our mayoral candidates ostensibly care deeply about public ed. With that said, many of the frontrunners are forgoing underlying needs in favor of Hail Mary heaves; in 2013, for example, it would be a good starting point to put a laptop or tablet in the hands of every student. For this trend I also blame reporters and some forum moderators; if we can’t get past haranguing candidates over whether they will keep the appointed school committee, then we’ll have little clue which hopefuls can best answer for the pledges outlined in their policy proposals. The school committee question is a critical one, as Boston’s one of only 10 U.S. cities where the mayor yields such despotic pedagogical clout. But it’s not the only issue, especially now that the guy who might win the power to appoint has a bundle of Bain bucks behind him.

Editor’s Note: Connolly later said he would not accept the financial support of Stand For Children in the mayoral race.

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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