Stand for Children: A Hometown Perspective of its Evolution

by Susan Barrett  

I recently stepped down as a volunteer co-leader of a Stand for Children (SFC) team in Portland Oregon, the headquarters of this organization.  Being a SFC member has meant fighting for the needs of children and better public schools for all students in this state (see this pdf.) However, things have started changing here in Oregon, and I worry that SFC is headed down the path that disaffected parents, like me, identify as the corporate reform movement.

I was prompted to write this piece for a couple of reasons: One, I have seen characterizations of SFC as one of the “astroturf” organizations that have recently sprouted up like weeds, generated by the fortunes of billionaires and hedge fund managers to push their particular preference for implementing business strategies in education, attacking teachers and their unions, and promoting privatization. SFC is not astroturf, and that can make them perhaps more deceptive if we are not paying attention.

This leads to my second reason for writing this: I want to make sure that people pay close attention to who is on the SFC board, where their money is coming from, and think critically about whether or not the agendas they are promoting will bring the results parents and community members hope for in public education.

As I read blogs and articles from across the nation, it seems that many people have already determined that SFC has a top-down, corporate reform type agenda. Here in SFC’s home state, it is not that simple to classify the organization. SFC holds a special place for many activist parents and community members in Oregon. You have to understand that they didn’t storm into the state with millions of dollars to influence election outcomes like they did in Illinois. Here, they had far more humble beginnings.

The organization was inspired by a Stand for Children Day Rally in 1996 in Washington, D.C. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, enlisted the help of her son, Jonah Edelman, to help organize this event. With over 300,000 people attending, Jonah wanted to keep the spirit alive and continue to work on issues attendees were passionate about.  He and a co-founder set up a home base in Oregon, and worked on smaller issues with positive impact such as after-school program funding and emergency dental care for uninsured kids.  Many parents like me who joined SFC a while back still remember how it was an  organization fighting for the Portland Children’s Levy, which provided funds for early childhood education, foster care, child abuse prevention programs, and a variety of other programs centered on children.

Because this is part of the organization’s history, it makes it that much harder to believe how much it has changed. Parents and community members most likely do not know that SFC now has private equity investors and venture philanthropists on the board, making decisions for the organization as it grows new chapters. And, grow they will, as they have announced the need to hire a National Expansion Manager, having raised over a million dollars in funding from the Walton Foundation, and over three million dollars from the Gates Foundation.

My fear is that unwitting parents and community members will join SFC because they want to rectify the problems they see every day in their children’s public schools, such as underfunding, lack of arts programs, large class sizes, and cuts to the school year, only to find that they get roped into very different goals. With SFC inspiring many of its members to run for school board seats, and the funding it gives through its PAC, I worry we will lose a truly democratic discussion and action on education weighted in favor of corporate reforms.

Before I go further, let me just clarify, that those of us who are not on board with the “corporate reform agenda” don’t think everything is just peachy.  We are not “defenders of the status quo” as we are often accused, but we just don’t see how the Arne Duncan and Bill Gates-type reforms are providing tangible, worthwhile outcomes for kids.

I first became familiar with SFC in 2001 when I worked in affordable housing and community development. Our organization’s parent network was invited to be the first SFC team in Portland. It was an incredibly powerful experience for the low-income parents we worked with to feel like they could band together to make changes for quality, affordable childcare. SFC was not working on school issues at that time.

When my oldest child started kindergarten in 2007, I looked at the myriad of ways to be an involved parent. I decided to join our school SFC team because I wanted to put my efforts into a cause that would improve the education of all schoolchildren in Oregon. Since I had familiarity with the group from my past work, I felt this was the right choice.

When I joined, SFC fought for more school funding and endorsed pro-education candidates for elective office. Our elementary school parents were passionate about lowering class sizes and enhancing our crumbling school facilities. A “grassroots” organization like SFC was the perfect fit for parents like me who wanted to work on these issues. Team members grumbled when some decisions seemed to come more from the top than from the bottom-up, but since those decisions were articulated as “standing for children” it was hard to put up a fight.

About three years ago, some team leaders at my school became uncomfortable when they were asked to engage in what they considered to be tacky conversations with teachers around hiring practices.  When a fellow parent and I were asked to take over as the new team leaders for this school year, we were cautioned about this, but otherwise, we all assumed SFC was working to enhance public education, and this was just a minor mistake along the way.

Well, SFC definitely knows they made a mistake because they recently commissioned a consulting firm to work on better “teacher messaging” which provided them with a list of what to say and what not to  mention when talking to teachers (such as, “Don’t reinforce that there are not many teachers involved with Stand chapters.”) That was a red flag, but now as I look back and connect the dots, I see so many more.

I think about the visits from the Policy Director of the New Teacher Project, and the former aide to New York City charter operator, Eva Moskowitz, who said she was moving to Portland and trying to set up a chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge-fund driven organization.  I think about their push for Oregon to submit a Race to the Top application, (which the state did initially, but it failed); and how the organization acted as the “social justice partner “of Waiting for Superman. and urged parents to attend the film. Only recently did I come to realize that the SFC Portland Director, Tyler Whitmire, is the daughter of Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a book lavishing praise on Michelle Rhee.

This past year, Oregon SFC staff wanted us to press our legislators to pass a “bi-partisan education package,” which basically tied the release of much-needed school funding to the expansion of charter schools, online learning, and other so-called “reforms.”  SFC also pushed to lower the capital gains tax in exchange for “kicker” reform.  (The “kicker” is an automatic tax rebate that significantly restricts state revenue that could be used to improve schools.)    Reforming the “kicker” has been a long-term goal of SFC Oregon members, but apparently SFC now has to compromise, by supporting the goal of lowering the capital gains tax at the same time, which would considerably reduce or eliminate the revenue gained by repealing the kicker.

This stance is a great departure from what people would normally expect of SFC, and only makes sense when you see the wealthy investors on SFC’s National Board of Directors, and how billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Walton Family Foundation are now funding and driving the organization’s agenda.

What is even more frustrating than the reforms they are pushing is what they aren’t pushing for anymore. Oregon has one of the shortest school years and lowest education spending in the nation. All of this has taken away from a focus on working for meaningful improvements in our schools. Even though SFC’s membership has risen over the past decade, Oregon’s per pupil spending has continued to drop. I can’t blame SFC for the economy, but where is the concentrated effort to address this? And, now that they have a national presence, they could actually try to create a national movement around funding an equitable and quality education for all. One of the most prominent charter schools featured in Waiting for Superman was the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies. These schools have very small class sizes, amazing facilities, and wrap around services for students. Those are the kind of “reforms” we should have for all students in our public schools.

Perhaps if SFC replaced their Board Chair, Julie Mikuta, who is also partner at New Schools Venture Fund, which finances charter schools, with someone who has actually made meaningful improvements in public education, they could inch their way back to this work. They could also replace Emma Bloomberg, the daughter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire charter school supporter, as well as Steve Jobs’ wife, and two other board members who are private equity investors, in exchange for people who are stakeholders with a broader perspective and real experience in education.

You would think that with my current frustration I would have withdrawn my membership from SFC. No. I am holding onto it, as I feel at this point I need to keep an eye on them. Interestingly, as I share my concerns with others, I am finding that I am not the only parent who is remaining a member for this reason, and I admit I still hope they will change their path.  But I don’t want to waste my advocacy time in this way, so I look forward to banding together with other parents and community members willing to make meaningful improvements for all kids in our public schools and work for real reform. Anything else, I just can’t stand for.

Any parent in the Portland, Oregon area who is interested in working with Susan on positive, progressive educational change, please email her at barrettpdx@gmail.com

Posted on by leoniehaimson Posted in Uncategorized

37 Responses to Stand for Children: A Hometown Perspective of its Evolution

  1. Andrea Merida

    Susan, stay strong. If Stand is what they purport to be, they need to get back to their roots.

    I would say that in Colorado, Stand the organization is very astroturf. They have almost no popular support, but they have lots of money to impact school board elections and no real teams in any schools at all. They are not who they say they are, and some parents are starting to figure that out.

    Thanks for your courage and for really being about the kids. Keep us posted.

  2. Patrick Walsh

    Dear Susan,
    as a New York City parent and teacher I thank you for writing this. The more people know who is really behind so much “reform” the better. These people, Gates, Duncan, Broad, etc. hold people like ourselves and our children in contempt. They are insidious. And If they succeed they will damage American education for decades.

    Thank you for your courage.

    Patrick Walsh

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  4. Betsy Marshall

    Thank you Susan. I learned where to place a few more of the small pieces in the bigger picture. Public money does not belong in the coffers of private corporate enterprise where the business model demands that share holder profit must always come first.

  5. Tracy Novick

    If you haven’t seen Edelman himself discuss at Aspen what Stand did in Illinois, you can find it here: http://youtu.be/kog8g9sTDSo .
    My experience, and those of many of us in Massachusetts, parallels yours closely, Susan. We, too, had some solid grassroots work with Stand prior to Stand selling out to the corporate agenda in the last two years. We were blindsided, it would be fair to say, by the sudden reversal to an agenda that we were told we would endorse, like it or not. In fact, it was endorsed in our names at the state level. It became particularly clear to me exactly what Stand thought of local members when I was told by a Stand staffer at a public hearing at the State House that I “could not” identify myself as a member of Stand for Children and testify contrary to their position.
    Several local groups voted themselves out of existence. The communities with hired organizers had those organizers turn to new schools. The shame, of course, is that they are in many ways building on good work that we legitimately did–that when people hear “Stand for Children,” they think of us. I, and others, have had to go public with what has gone on with Stand lest people continue to be misled.
    My caution for you, Susan, is that you will continue to be cited as one of Stand’s X number of members, and your name will be used to further their agenda.
    Thanks for posting this.

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  9. Sarah Pope, Stand for Children

    We’d like to offer our perspective on the blog post above. Please visit http://www.stand.org/or/portland.

    • Brad Wright

      Sarah Pope, your perspective of SFC as you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, is not a perspective at all. You offered no substance what-so-ever to make me believe that Susan Barrett hasn’t told a true story.

      Since when does a board of directors not set the policy of the organization? How do you expect anyone to believe that these board members who give millions of dollars to support the work of the organization are not going to have a say in how it is spent? You did yourself and your organization more harm than good with your silly, distorted perspective.

    • Patrick Johns

      It’s ironic that you complain of Barrett offering distortions and then close the response as you do. Barrett in no way suggested that Whitmire and Bloomberg were “not capable” of thinking for themselves. Far from it in fact.

      I suspect any competent reader will understand her point was that Whitmire and Blomberg are QUITE capable of recognizing that their financial interests are tied to the success of a business model that is advanced by “reforms” linked to legislation lowering the capital gains tax or opening business opportunities for profit seekers. That has nothing to do with their fathers, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they’re women.

      Are you sure, Ms. Pope, that you aren’t the one who doubts the ability of smart, professional women to think for themselves?

    • Tricia

      Sarah,

      Your response is insulting. I think Stand for Children is running scared and knows that the tide is turning here in Oregon. I experienced the same thing as Susan, and quit my membership after reading about what you all did in Illinois. To see the Aspen video was extremely satisfying as it confirmed all my suspicions of SFC. Susan is spot on. SFC has embraced and pushed for ed reform in a time when public schools are fiscally starving. What is SFC doing about that? NOTHING! Poverty is the problem, not teachers.

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  12. Kira

    Does anyone have a list of states and school districts that have been “infected” by “Stand for Children”? Can we disseminate information about their work–the policies they are pushing, and counter act them at a school district, state, and national level ?

  13. Tricia

    Here is a list of their state affiliates. Each state will have a list of district chapters. Read their sites. Look at who is running each affiliate. Many are young and don’t have a lot of traditional public school teaching experience. Also read this link to what they expect of their Executive Director in a job description in Arizona:

    http://www.linkedin.com/jobs/jobs-Arizona-Executive-Director-1727223

    I love how many of their job descriptions use the word “strategic.” Hmmmm….

    • Susan Barrett

      Thanks for replying to this Tricia and adding in more details. I am falling behind on communications due to the shear volume, but am incredibly grateful for all the support and the smart, passionate people reaching out to me who want to work on education advocacy issues. Thanks to all!

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  16. Sia

    In my experience, SFC has always been alienating to low-income parents in Portland. As a low-income parent who participated in the SFC events described by Susan, I must heartily disagree with her assessment of that experience as powerful. It was incredibly alienating and the “regular” SFC volunteers treated us like indentured servants, while using us so that the organization appeared more diverse than it was. The SFC Portand coonstituency is very similar to the Close-the-Gap folks, and thusly, has little to do with the poor folks, or folks of color or folks with disabilities trying to get a fair shake from Portland Public Schools. So while there is some intrigue in this battle between the haves and have-mores, it has little impact on my folks.

    • Susan Barrett

      Thank you, Sia! I think we know each other. I said “powerful” as that was the way it was described by our program director at the organization…which you are familiar with, and there was a sense of excitement in the office about what the parents were doing in regards to the children’s levy. But, it is really good to hear your take, and your voice is exactly what we should be hearing as it has taken way too long for the rest of us to wake up!!

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  19. Former Leader

    It’s time for members of SFC to either take the organization back or leave. This has become a follow-the-money effort wedded to a narrative that says reform can only happen without teachers. Please. Jonah Edelman was handed this organization, built it into a successful grassroots group with some really wonderful wins for kids and then threw it away for cash and to be a player. Truly sad.

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  21. Melanie Harvey

    You NEED to be on Facebook!

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  24. Barbara C. Goodman

    Like Susan I was very involved with SFC. I was part of the MA State Leadership Network and started a local chapter in Arlington Ma. I am so very disappointed in the direction SFC has taken. I have resigned my positions and withdrew by membership. I put my trust and hope in this organization and feel they have deceived the membership. Very Very sad. bg

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