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Why Are Teach for America and a California Billionaire Investing in a Minnesota School Board Race?

Sarah Lahm

Students at Patrick Henry High School, a public school in Minneapolis. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Free The Children)

In the aftermath of a failed 2013 bid for mayor, former Minneapolis city council member Don Samuels is running for a spot on the school board. If he wins, he will undoubtedly be able to thank the extensive financing and canvassing support he’s received from several well-heeled national organizations, such as the Washington, D.C.-based 50CAN, an offshoot of Education Reform Now called Students for Education Reform (SFER), and various people associated with Teach for America, which has been called a political powerhouse” for its growing influence in policy and politics beyond the classroom.

These groups often project an image of grassroots advocacy but are in fact very well-funded, often through the support of extremely wealthy hedge fund managers and large philanthropic foundations. Together, they and like-minded education reform” proponents have dramatically, but not necessarily democratically, altered how public education works throughout the United States.

While August campaign finance reports show Samuels out-raising his main competitor, incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, by almost 4 to 1 through local donations, they also show that Samuels is getting tremendous support from outside of Minnesota. The D.C.-based 50CAN Action Fund filed a campaign finance report in Minnesota showing that it was devoting $14,350 in financial resources to the Minneapolis school board race, as well as in-kind donations valued in the thousands of dollars. Since 50CAN Action Fund is a 501(c)(4), its reports do not have to disclose which candidates it is supporting, but 50CAN Action Fund’s Minnesota chair Daniel Sellers told a reporter in July that the group had spent money on Samuels.

Outside forces, dark money

The outside money flowing to the Samuels campaign follows a relatively recent national pattern that’s played out in places such as Texas, Oregon, Colorado and New Jersey, where local school board races have been heavily influenced by the political and financial heft of outside groups.

Significantly, the 50CAN Action Fund report noted above shows that, of the $14,350 in donations for Minnesota activities, $10,000 comes from the pockets of California billionaire and Teach for America board member Arthur Rock. Rock is also listed on a separate campaign finance report as having given $1,000 to establish the Leadership in Educational Equity” (LEE) Political Action Committee in the Twin Cities. LEE is the political arm of Teach for America, and its involvement in local school board races is documented in James Cersonsky’s American Prospect article Teach for America’s Deep Bench.”

The SFER Action Fund, which also campaigned this summer on behalf of Samuels, filed its own campaign finance report in Minneapolis in August. The report shows that SFER received $26,000 in outside money, some of which it spent on such things as paid canvassers and campaign infrastructure, and $4,350 of which it passed along to the 50CAN Action Fund for walk literature.” Local Republican financier Benson Whitney, chair of the board of the education reform organization MinnCAN (the state-level branch of 50CAN) and a supporter of Samuels, gave $2,500 of the $26,000, while California charter school investor and SFER board member Adam Cioth provided the other $23,500 in funds.

This kind of involvement in local elections is nothing new for either Cioth or Rock. In 2013, for example, Cioth’s group, SFER, was listed in a Progressive magazine article as one of the main funders of the pro-charter school group A Better Connecticut,” which endorsed a slate of candidates for the Bridgeport Board of Education. Cioth is also on the board of the NewSchools Venture Fund, based in California and a leader in what has been termed the venture philanthropist” approach to education: one that emphasizes on technology, data and charter school growth. In the video below, investigative journalist David Sirota zeroes in on the profit motive behind such technology-oriented groups, which, in Sirota’s words, often try … to buy a big-city school board election” in order to more easily tap into what is estimated to be a $790 billion K-12 market.

Rock, for his part, has been investing in school board races for several years now. For example, in Atlanta in 2013, Rock and other high-profile, wealthy investors centered their support on four candidates, all of whom were identified by AlterNet as pro-charter school Teach for America alumni. This makes sense, given Rock’s position on the boards of both TFA and its partner organization LEE, as well as his investment in the Rocketship charter school management chain. Rocketship schools have pioneered a cost-conscious way (described as blended learning”) to educate large numbers of children by relying on big classes, non-salaried aides and computerized instruction; the efficacy of this model was questioned by Education Week in January.

So what might out-of-state investors hope to gain from helping Don Samuels get on the Minneapolis school board?

The answer may lie in the well-documented, billionaire-led push by education reform proponents to privatize the nation’s public school system. This is often accomplished through efforts to expand school choice” through district and charter school competition, with the accompanying goals of weakening or eliminating both teachers unions and democratically elected school boards. The infamous Koch brother-funded American Legislative Exchange Council,” or ALEC, has also used its political muscle to push pro-charter bills through state legislatures across the country.

This movement receives much of its funding from the bottomless bank accounts of prominent billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family — known as the big three.” These billionaires have so heavily shaped current education policy in the United States, from providing generous financial support for Teach for America to the creation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards, that journalists such as Bill Moyers and Joanne Barkan have labeled them plutocrats whose wealth has afforded them a tremendous amount of say in how our public school systems are run.

Netflix CEO and fellow Rocketship charter school investor Reed Hastings offers a chillingly transparent look at the reform mission to eliminate locally elected school boards in this recent video, where he notes that, because school boards are an American instiution, simply getting rid of them will be difficult. Instead, he says, pro-charter school, pro-school choice investors must work directly with school districts to grow” the number of students who go to charter schools rather than traditional public schools. Why? Because charter school expansion is tied to the use of public funds, and is an as-yet-largely unregulated way of educating the nation’s children.

The push for charters

Minneapolis, it would seem, is primed for just such an expansion. A makeover of the city’s public schools has been going on since at least 2007, when the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company wrote a strategic plan for the Minneapolis Public Schools, pro bono. This plan, with its admirable but as yet unrealized goal of closing the city’s notorious racial and economic achievement gaps by 2012, bears the footprint of top-down education reform strategies, such as in its recommendation to restructure the lowest-performing 25 percent of schools,” and put them under the oversight of a newly created Office of New Schools.

In 2010, Minneapolis Public Schools signed a District-Charter” compact, joining a program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that receives assistance and assessment from the Center for Reinventing Public Education” (CRPE). This is the type of agreement Netflix’s Hastings recommends as an end-run around the slow, deliberative processes of school board decision-making. This compact stands as an agreement among district and political leaders, as well as local charter school operators, to expand successful schools” in the form of charters and school choice in Minneapolis.

While the compact does not clearly articulate what, exactly, makes a school high-performing,” it says that test scores at successful charter schools should show dramatic gains in student achievement.” The assumption embedded in the compact is that district schools are failing, and what is needed is the rapid expansion of high performing charter networks” and district schools that replicate them.

Judging by Don Samuels’ campaign literature, he appears to support the proliferation of charter schools in Minneapolis. For example, both the education policy brief from his 2013 mayoral run and his current school board literature tells voters that the two best schools in Minneapolis are charter schools: Harvest Prep and Hiawatha Academies. Both of these schools serve highly segregated populations of low-income students and often receive tremendous public and political praise for the high standardized test scores of their students.

To date, however, there has been little systematic analysis of how these schools operate or whether achieving high test scores should be the primary measure of success for such schools. Harvest Prep, for example, has a student suspension rate twice that of the Minneapolis Public Schools, according to data provided by the Minnesota Department of Education.

Outside of Minneapolis, studies have shown that charter schools don’t necessarily do better than public schools. Do Poor Kids Deserve Lower-Quality Education Than Rich Kids?” is the title of an April 2014 report on charter school expansion in Milwaukee by Gordon Lafer of the Economic Policy Institute. The report found that academic performance was falling at Milwaukee’s biggest charter chain, Rocketship, and that the decline was due to Rocketship’s business model of teaching to the test,” using inexperienced, high-turnover teaching staff” and making commercial relationships [with educational software companies that] create a tremendous pedagogical rigidity.” Lafer concluded that charter privatization proposals are driven more by financial and ideological grounds than by sound pedagogy.”

Another frequent criticism of education reform is that it is imposed upon districts without real community input. Replicating high performing” charter schools, for example, has been justification for closing district schools in Minneapolis, and then selling or renting the buildings to charter school operators. There are many instances, however, where such a move has backfired, as in the case of the Minnesota School of Science. In Minneapolis in 2011, a newly built district school called Cityview was shut down for poor performance — against the wishes of many in the community — according to the test-based standards of the No Child Left Behind law.

When Cityview closed, the building was rented to the Minnesota School of Science, which belonged to the charter school network Concept Schools, associated with a Turkish religious group called the Gulen Movement. Even before the FBI raided the Chicago headquarters of Concept Schools in June of 2014 for alleged white-collar crimes, their presence in Minneapolis was controversial. When the Minnesota School of Science took over for Cityview, the charter school soon kicked out the 40 Cityview students with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs who had been receiving services from Minneapolis Public Schools. At the time, a Minnesota School of Science board member said it had not been the school’s mission to serve the needs of all students, as this would interfere with its ability to teach according to a rigorous college prep model. The Minnesota School of Science closed in 2013 after two years.

The November forecast

With the weight of outside money and the momentum of billionaire-led school reform efforts behind him, Don Samuels stands a good chance of getting elected to the Minneapolis school board, as current board member and TFA alumni Josh Reimnitz did in 2012. This is especially true because Samuels has been able to garner high profile support from many of the city’s political elite, such as former mayor R.T. Rybak, who served from 2002-2013 and signed the District-Charter” compact back in 2010.

Final campaign finance reports for the 2014 election will be released in late October, just before the November 4 voting day.

The true question is what a Samuels presence on the school board will mean for the teachers, parents and students who make up Minneapolis Public Schools and depend upon it in many ways.

Correction: In the second reference to donations received by 50CAN Action Fund, this piece originally stated that $14,350 was given to Samuels.” While the fund is spending money on independent campaigning for Samuels, the candidate’s campaign finance statements do not show a direct donation from the 50CAN Action Fund. The story has been corrected to reflect this.

This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

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Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She writes the Midwest Dispatch column for the Progressive magazine, and her work has appeared in other local and national outlets.

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