March 26, 2018

Long before an education privatization campaign heads to the ballot corporate investors develop a portfolio of organizations to prepare the field of battle. The funders are the principals and the organizations their agents. Such is the relationship of the Walton Family Foundation and Massachusetts Parents United.

It’s easier to notice the agent hired as a public front but it’s more useful to look at the principals so let’s take a deeper look at not just Walton, but MPU funders the Longfield Family Foundation, the Barr Foundation, and the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation

As I noted in Massachusetts Parents United: Old Wine in an Empty Bottle, MPU commenced operations around February 2017 and offered several different creation stories, though each was consistent with the theme of a handful of plucky parents coming together to advocate for their children. Soon the plucky parents had a website, services of two political communications firms, several thousand members (so-claimed), and projected income of $1,500,000 and expenses of $800,000 for 2017. MPU operated under a sponsorship agreement with Education Reform Now, which bankrolls the millions that enables Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts to fertilize state politics with dark money. MPU’s state director, who also served in that capacity for Banned-in-Boston Families for Excellent Schools, is on the Advisory Council of DFER Massachusetts.

In the Empty Bottle I spelled out some of the contributions made by MPU’s funders to the 2016 charters campaign. Let’s update that first with contributions from WalMart heirs. Jim Walton gave $1,125,000 into the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Schools. Alice Walton provided $710,000 to the Yes on 2 Ballot Committee and slipped another $750,000 of dark money into the coffers of the now Banned-in-Boston Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy. Thus the Waltons spent down the inheritance by $2,585,000 for Question 2.

But the Walton Family Foundation, a tax deductible organ of the Walton family, had been putting upstream money into the Massachusetts charters effort for years. From 2010 through 2016, WFF gave over $12,000,000 to Education Reform Now (the Walton family sustaining the funder of a Democratic front is, uh, what?). WFF gave nearly $14,000,000 to the collapsed-in-corruption Families for Excellent Schools, almost half of that in the 2015 run up to the ballot question. Across those years WFF slid over $900,000 to the Pioneer Institute.

Then there is the Longfield Family Foundation and its benefactor Chuck Longfield. In Empty Bottle I noted that Chuck Longfield had contributed $125,000 to two pro-charter ballot committees. When OCPF forced the disbanded-in-disgrace Families for Excellent Schools to disclose its donors, it revealed that Longfield had given another $600,000 in dark money.  He also contributed to the weird Mekka Smith situation, which was also bound up in charters.

The Barr Foundation is the charitable foundation of Amos Hostetter, who funneled $2,000,000 in 2016 dark dollars through the invested-in-iniquity Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy.

The largest giver of dark money to formed-in-fraudulence Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy was its office mate engorged-in-effluvia Families for Excellent Schools Inc., which laundered $3,700,000 through FESA to Great Schools Massachusetts.  On May 26, 2016 the Davis Foundation sent $100,000 to FESI and on November 2, 2016 another $10,000, and also invested $20,000 in Pioneer for “Project to Expand Educational Opportunity in MA.”

Charters were killed off in 2016, you say? In Washington state charters failed at the ballot box in 1996, 2000, and 2004 before squeaking by on a fourth try in 2012, and that was with the help of the Gates family. Privatizers play the long game. Money never sleeps.

So when asking what purpose Massachusetts Parents United serves to its financial backers, look to charters and other privatization schemes.

When FES arrived in Boston its CEO (later fired as a prelude to its hedge fund Board shutting down the place) claimed “We will be doing a ton of organizing — a lot of old-fashioned community organizing. We build neighborhood chapters, and the neighborhood chapters will drive activity.” But that phony claim went nowhere.

MPU is positioning itself to look more authentic. As an organization aimed at Latino and other parents of color, it somewhat mimics the Libre Initiative of the Koch Brothers Network, instituted “to do community outreach as well as political agitation among Latinos” according to the political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. One aim of the Finance Privatization Cabal is to drive a wedge between minority and union supporters of the Democratic Party. For instance, in 2016 Pioneer hosted a forum “exploring the conflicting interests of the teachers unions and the largely minority communities often served by charter schools.” In 2015, WFF shipped over $400,000 to Pioneer, a sum double that of any other donation in recent years.

Pioneer agitating for more charters can only go so far. But the Finance Privatization Cabal would be well-served if “the largest parent advocacy organization in the Commonwealth” as MPU markets itself should call for the very things the Cabal desires. The membership claim is already being publicized by – who else? – the Walton Family Foundation. The political consultants engaged by MPU with Walton’s money will be working hard to get the press to bite on it. Meanwhile, MPU is busily building good will for the real action later.

Without the mega funders from Walton and Strategic Grant Partners there would have been no Question 2 campaign because public demand was nearly non-existent, a fact that was reinforced when charters struggled to outperform Donald Trump on the 2016 ballot. So there has to be some legitimate-appearing parent front down the line that calls for more charters. Voila! Massachusetts Parents United.

Ignore the agents. Focus on the principals. Follow the Money.

"Why wait for popular opinion to catch up when you could portray as ‘reform’ what was really slow-motion demolition through privatization?" – Professor Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Plan for America.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Keri Rodrigues, Massachusetts Parents United, Families for Excellent Schools

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