At first glance, it seems ironic that a political climate that has produced disagreement for the sake of disagreeing with one’s enemies would also produce a “consensus” around education reform, however misguided. It seems odd that a group calling itself Democrats for Education Reform would be full of so many people supporting Right wing ideas like vouchers, or that purported Democrats would be lining up so eagerly to collaborate on edreform issues with George W. Bush or his brother.
It makes more sense once we stop and consider that these leaders, regardless of party, are by and large among the wealthiest and most powerful Americans. In that light, it’s unfortunate, but not all that surprising, that they would support policies that typically don’t improve educational outcomes, but do allow them to look like they’re doing something about an important social issue. This, while not requiring themselves or their corporate donors to make any real sacrifices, like paying their fair share in taxes to support excellent public schools for all children. (ETA: When you have time, check out this recent report on how our public school system has been starved over the years. It’s heart-breaking.) It’s not Left vs. Right that matters; it’s the 1% vs. the 99% (or rather, the 20% vs. the 80%) lens that’s more relevant.
What still makes no sense to me, though, is when supposedly progressive organizations enable them.
A few months ago, parent activists started raising the alarm about being tricked into signing petitions sponsored by Michelle Rhee on Change.org. Education advocates are rightfully skeptical of Rhee; in addition to aggressively pushing education policies that don’t work, she’s also known for colluding with (mostly right wing) politicians who have attacked education funding and workers’ rights. Parents Across America member Michael Paul Goldenberg wrote to them to complain, and was disappointed with the response:
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this. We fully realize the current education debate is a complicated one, with many people that feel strongly about Students First — both in support and opposition. As an open platform that enables social change organizations to promote causes to people around the world, Change.org doesn’t take a position on the means or tactics those organizations use to achieve their goals. You can read our full client policy here:
Thanks again for getting in touch about your concerns. I’ve made sure your communication was shared with the appropriate people on our team.
A few months later, teacher-blogger Nancy Flanagan decided to follow up with Change.org, too, after angry supporters of the Save Our Schools March contacted us to say they’d been tricked into signing Rhee’s petition after signing ours. In doing so, she found out that they were being paid to promote Rhee’s petitions, and that at least some members of the Change.org team had some qualms about doing so:
So I spoke with Change.Org. It turns out that you can have a free petition at Change.Org. Or you can pay Change.Org to help build your initiative’s client base by letting them serve as connection point for “related” causes. I asked why Change.Org thought StudentsFirst was a progressive cause–the kind of initiative that pushed real democracy forward. There was a pause. Then the nice young man I was speaking to said, “Well, there was actually a lot of talk around the office about that.” Discreet.
In the end, StudentsFirst becomes a revenue stream for Change.Org–$1.75 for every signature-cum-email they snag, according to Nice Young Man. So the 7000 SF “members” who live in Georgia and were willing to click on an e-mailed petition to the Georgia legislature back in April cost Michelle $12,250.
Despite the e-mails and complaints from parents and teachers, nothing has changed. More recently, activist Aaron Krager wrote about and started petitions against both Change.org and Care2 on their own sites, calling them out for this practice.
I was reminded of all of this a couple of days ago, while I was talking to an #OccupyDenver friend about how the 1% vs. 99% battle is playing out in schools. We got to the subject of what could be done about it, and I actually stopped myself from recommending an online petition because I knew it was likely he’d end up on Rhee’s by accident.
It makes me sad that I have to think of that now. Here are two tools that people have used to promote the greater good, that have positioned themselves as progressive platforms. Yet, they’re maintaining a really odd stance on their “open platform” status. I can’t, for instance, imagine them promoting a petition by a right wing governor pushing to weaken teachers’ rights. So why promote Michelle Rhee’s organization for doing the same thing?
Just for the money? I hope not…