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Something Stinks in Sacramento

Papering Over Public K-12 School Reform

by SETH SANDRONSKY

Private interests are busy paying for political favors from lawmakers at the state Capitol in California, writes Dan Morain, a columnist with the Sacramento Bee

According to him, what we know about Sen. Ron Calderon, a pro-business Democrat representing Montebello, and snared in an FBI sting operation recently, is just the tip of the dollars-and-politics iceberg.

The good senator has ample company, Morain continues. He mentions other actors and forces in the fetid pay-to-play of California state politics.

Yet his column omits the donor role of a leading public K-12 school reform group under the state Capitol dome. What is going on?

Al Jazeera America’s Oct. 31 unveiling of an FBI affidavit that alleges Sen. Calderon’s multiple alleged wrongdoings includes his brother Thomas Calderon’s meeting with star education reformer Michelle Rhee’s lobbyists. Her StudentsFirst group operates from a national headquarters in Sacramento.

The affidavit alleges that StudentsFirst lobbyists met with Sen. Calderon’s brother on Feb. 20. On Feb. 21, Sen. Calderon introduced a teacher-reform measure, Senate Bill 441 that Rhee’s group supports.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Rhee’s husband and never a classroom teacher, backed Sen. Calderon’s SB 441, which failed to pass out of committee. The mayor’s education non-profit, Stand Up for Great Schools, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that accepts hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the big-box retailer, also supported SB 441, which teacher unions opposed.

As Trevor Aaronson of Al Jazeera America reports: “Ronald Calderon’s push for the education bill came after Rhee’s organization provided critical financial support to the political campaign of his nephew Ian Calderon. In May 2012, state records show, StudentsFirst funneled $378,196 through a political action committee to Ian Calderon’s successful campaign for the California Assembly”.

Rhee’s donation to Ian Calderon represents just over eight percent of StudentsFirst $4.6 million of donations to its 501(c)(4) nonprofit. That figure comes from its Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service, for the tax year ending July 31, 2011. 

Operating in 34 states now, the IRS allows 501(c)(4) groups such as StudentsFirst to engage in political activity, or lobbying: “Seeking legislation germane to the organization’s programs (as) a permissible means of attaining social welfare purposes.” Oh, and the donor names to StudentsFirst’s 501(c)(4) are secret.

One of the states where StudentsFirst operates is Tennessee. There, Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is a GOP governor’s appointed state head of public schools.

StudentsFirst’s political donations have swayed lawmakers to evaluate teachers based on their pupils’ standardized test scores. This policy fits with American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) model legislation for education reform.

Back in the Golden State, SB 441 was a bid to amend the state Education Code. Accordingly, Sen. Calderon’s bill would have potentially changed the education of 6 million kids attending California’s public K-12 schools.

Comparing ALEC’s “Teacher Evaluations and Licensing Act,” part of its “Indiana Education Reform Package,” approved at the 2011 ALEC yearly meeting ( “chapter 3″ of an omnibus bill) with Sen. Calderon’s SB 441, one sees similar phrases and words. As we know, ALEC is pushing forward across the U.S. with public K-12 school reform bills, using language that corporate lobbyists write and lawmakers vote on.

We turn to Connections Academy, a for-profit online learning enterprise that began in Houston, Texas. Once upon a time, this company co-led ALEC’s education task force.   

Enter Pearson, Inc., a $7 billion publicly traded, global firm that profits shareholders through certifying teachers, grading standardized tests, publishing textbooks and providing digital curriculum on iPads. Pearson Connections in August 2011. Connections left ALEC soon after, said Brandon Pinette of Pearson in an email.

However, the state bills that Connections, the second largest online school company nationwide to K12 Inc., supported on ALEC’s education task force are still operative, said Rebekah Wilce, a researcher and reporter for the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy. K12 Inc., the biggest cyber school firm and formerly owned by Kaplan, Inc., the giant test preparation company, remains a member of the ALEC education task force, according to her.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee financially backs Mayor Johnson’s nonprofit St. HOPE (Helping Others Pursue Excellence ) Development Company. Johnson’s nonprofit, with help from the local school board and billionaire philanthropists such as Eli Broad, converted Sacramento High School to a nonunion charter school after pupils’ scores on high-stakes standardized tests fell in 2003.

Sacramento Charter High School has an enrollment of 900 students now according to Jim Scheible, superintendent of St. HOPE Public Schools. Before its charter conversion, 1,800 pupils attended Sacramento High School.

On a related note of making private what was public, Johnson, a Democrat, is leading the current charge to construct a downtown sports/entertainment arena via bonds funded with public parking revenues for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The Sacramento Bee, the city’s lone daily paper, backs this taxpayer subsidy.

On the other side of money and power are ordinary citizens “Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork.” STOP activists are gathering signatures on petitions in a bid to place an arena financing measure on a city ballot for an up or down vote in 2014.

Speaking of stopping, there was none of that in blanket coverage of a new minority owner of the Kings, Shaquille O’Neal, the retired NBA center. (The majority owner of the Kings is Vivek Ranadive, chairman and CEO of Tibco Software Inc.).

As the Sacramento Bee repetitively reported O’Neal’s visit in Sacramento, the paper ignored the capital city talk of author and education blogger Diane Ravitch, according to a progressive columnist. She spoke in Sacramento on a tour for her new best-seller, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, which details myths and truths of public K-12 school reform.  

There is a pattern here for the Sacramento Bee, a solid supporter of charter schools and public K-12 school reform generally. When Ravitch spoke in Sacramento after her previous book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, published, a reporter with The Sacramento Bee described the audience as “hundreds of teachers”: 

A poster of a YouTube video counted the attendees of Ravitch’s 2012 talk as a “few thousand,” (me included), in a main exhibit hall of the Sacramento Convention Center: 

You could not make this stuff up, folks.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento-based journalist. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com