Photo by 401(K)2102 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6757879327/)
Teach for America scored big in Minnesota recently, with an Election Day, under-the-radar purchase of two suburban Minneapolis school board seats.
Purchase might be a strong word, but Teach for America and its affiliates definitely threw moneyed support behind Richfield, Minnesota school board candidates Crystal Brakke and Paula Cole. Both Brakke and Cole have served as TFA alums, and Brakke has stayed with the organization in executive positions. Currently, she works as TFA’s ombudsperson, based in Minneapolis.
Campaign finance reports for both candidates reveal a surprising influx of out of state dollars, primarily for Brakke:
- California-based venture capitalist Arthur Rock, who has become notorious as a funder of TFA-affiliated school board campaigns, gave both Brakke and Cole around $600.00 each. Rock is a TFA board member, an investor in KIPP charter schools, and has used his fortune to prop up the controversial Rocketship Charter School chain, which seeks to promote large class sizes with fewer teachers and more educational technology.
- New York resident Michael Buman also gave $600 each to Brakke and Cole. Buman is the Executive Director of Leadership for Educational Equity, or LEE, which is Teach for America’s more overtly political, and famously secretive, spinoff. In a 2014 article, writer Stephen Sawchuck noted that, in the span of just a few years, LEE went from a tiny operation—with a handful of staffers—to a coordinated team of 60 people, managing a budget worth close to $4 million. LEE’s stated mission is to “develop leaders” while “growing a movement.” Important note: Arthur Rock has paid $500,000 to place TFA alum in policy positions on Capitol Hill.
- Alex Johnston, another East Coast resident, donated a relatively modest amount--$100--to Brakke and Cole, but his education reform pedigree should not be underestimated. Johnston is the former CEO of “ConnCAN,” which is part of the hedge fund-supported 50CAN franchise. At ConnCAN, Johnston deployed an elaborate marketing campaign to promote a now-familiar list of preferred reform strategies, such as expanding charter schools and evaluating teachers using test scores. Today, Johnston runs “Impact for Education,” which advises “forward-thinking philanthropists” on how to push for “systemic change in public education.”
Brakke also raked in thousands of dollars from Teach for America members in California, Indiana, and Georgia. In fact, only three of the forty-seven donors listed on her October campaign report had a Richfield, Minnesota address.
In the end, Brakke’s campaign was flush with over $5,000, while Cole had a more modest war-chest of just under $2,000.The only other Richfield candidate to file a campaign report was Erin Rykeen, who reached just over the $750 reporting threshold. The report shows just one donor to Rykeen’s campaign—herself. She did not win a spot on the school board.
Brakke and Cole came in second and third, respectively, securing spots on the school board alongside incumbent John Ashmead.
Brakke and Cole also benefited from a lack of in-depth media coverage of their connections to Teach for America, and, in Cole’s case, its affiliated reform group, Educators for Excellence. The local Richfield paper, for example, continuously referred to Teach for America as an “educational equity” organization, with no mention of its less PR-worthy attributes.
But this is not the end of Minnesota’s Election Day 2015 story. Just across the Mississippi River, St. Paul residents also had a school board election on their hands. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers backed its own slate of locally funded parent candidates, and all four of them won. They called this effort the “Caucus for Change.”
Here’s how they did it.
First, according to St. Paul Federation of Teachers president Denise Rodriguez, the union has been building relationships, and trust, with the community since their last negotiating session with the St. Paul Public Schools in 2014.
“We’ve learned we have to build relationships with the community from the beginning, and not just when we’re in crisis,” Rodriguez acknowledged in an interview. To accomplish this, the union took its negotiating campaign straight to the community, so that parents and other interested parties could help shape union priorities. Then, the union insisted on holding open bargaining sessions with the school district.
The advantage of this? Rodriguez says they had parents standing beside them, advocating powerfully for such things as smaller class sizes. “We had a second grade parent who described how hard it was to volunteer in her child’s classroom, because it was so crowded. There was literally nowhere to move, with so many desks crammed into the room,” Rodriguez recalled.
The union was successful in winning class size limits and other concessions from the district, and this helped cement an important point: Parents and teachers are stronger together.
Rodriguez said the success of this experience paved the way for the Caucus for Change, which coalesced around candidates Zuki Ellis, Mary Vanderwert, Steve Marchese, and John Schumacher. All four are current or former St. Paul Public Schools parents, and all received the endorsement of the local Democratic party.
None of the three incumbent school board members were endorsed by the Democratic party, and Marchese says he thinks this is because the desire for change had been building within St. Paul for a while. As an involved parent of two kids, Marchese says he started noticing “a lot of things parents couldn’t have an impact on” that were affecting the climate within the St. Paul schools. “It seemed like more and more decision-making was happening at the district’s Central Office, and that the listening sessions the district held were more like ‘sell jobs,” Marchese recalled.
Marchese noticed a piling on of initiatives with little thought to how they would be implemented, such as a new plan to mainstream more special education kids. “I am all for mainstreaming, but it has to be done with support in place. The way it happened in St. Paul, there was no plan. There was no support for teachers or students,” he argued.
This, along with a problematic iPad roll out in St. Paul, compelled Marchese to run for the school board.
This process--of parents and community members deciding to seek office on their own--was a perfect match for the union’s Caucus for Change, according to Lynne Bolton.
Bolton, along with Patrick Burke, was brought on by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers in January, 2015, to act as an organizer for the upcoming school board campaign. Bolton says that she knew right away that, for the campaign to be successful, it had to be “led by parents, and people who are not normally part of the political process.”
“We led with issues, not candidates,” says Bolton. “It was a simple but profound strategy. We tapped into what already existed in the community, and that was the feeling, among parents and educators, that the school board and district were not responsive to their concerns.”
The Caucus strategy was “organized and purposeful,” Bolton claims, and this was key to its overall success. The union funded the Caucus campaign, and, once the four candidates earned the Democratic endorsement in April, 2015, they each received funding and support from the union. A look at the four candidates’ campaign finance reports reveals that not one of them received money from wealthy, out of state donors with ties to national education reform organizations.
This was purposeful. In the back of everyone’s mind was what happened in Minneapolis in 2014, when a jaw-dropping amount of money--close to $300,000--flooded into the city’s school board race. Most of it came from the kind of funders who propped up Brakke and Cole’s campaigns, such as Arthur Rock, along with big name reformers like former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“The threat of outside money was real,” Bolton maintained. “You can’t not worry about it, given the way things are happening around the country,” she said, in reference to the growing national trend of big money involvement in local school board elections. (This was detailed in a January, 2015 article in the Progressive, called “How the Corporate Education Reform Industry Buys Elections.”)
Marchese, too, admits that the possibility of outside money coming into the St. Paul race was “very much” on his radar. “For a while, most of us were waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he recalls, and “wondering when the outside money might show up.”
But it never came, and Marchese thinks he knows why: “I think our four person approach undermined the opportunity for that to happen. We built a strong narrative and had strong grassroots and institutional support.” It was parents, the state and local teachers unions, and the Democratic party that joined together and presented a united front, making it tougher--if not impossible--for outside groups with silk purse strings to consider making a play for St. Paul’s school board.