Austin school board campaigns stage national educational battleground
Something has changed in education politics, and Robert Schneider has seen the shift. Twelve years ago, when he first ran for District 7 in the Austin Independent School District, "It was the PTA folks who ran for the board." That means, a decade ago, a candidate like former Austin Council of PTAs president Monica Sanchez would have romped home in District 6. Instead, this time she was third in a three-horse race, not even making the run-off. In part, Schneider ascribes such upsets to changing demographics in the electorate. He said, "We have more tech folks, we have more younger folks." That change has an unintended consequence. "It's an opportunity for people with very deep pockets to buy seats in the school district."
He should know. Schneider has always faced stiff competition in his southwestern district. But this time around was a little different. Education advocacy group Austin Kids First doubled down on his opponent, Yasmin Wagner, dropping roughly $40,000 in contributions and in-kind expenditures into her challenge. Why target the veteran trustee? Wagner always said on the campaign trail that it was because he was unresponsive to his community. Maybe that was what motivated her, but, Schneider thinks there's another reason why Austin Kids First came after him. "They've got a political agenda, rather than an education agenda," he said. "I'm not a big radical reformer like they are."
Before we proceed, there are three organizations you need to know – starting with Austin Kids First. Founded in 2012, its declared purpose is to get voters engaged in AISD board elections, and encourage high-quality candidates to run. Leadership for Educational Equity does basically the same thing, at the national level. And then there's Teach for America, the national organization that puts recent college grads into struggling schools.
It all seems quite noble. Great teachers. Great schools. Enthusiastic young people, doing a couple of years of energetic teaching, simultaneously becoming more rounded citizens. But, according to Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the school employees' union, there's a big catch. "It's all the same vague comments about 'the best schools' and 'the best teachers' – the broad strokes that everybody wants, but they never define what a good teacher is or a good school or a good trustee."
There's a line in The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." In the case of the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union coalition known as the "education reform" movement, the greatest trick was grabbing a suitably nebulous name (or group of names), and promoting their cause through equally nebulous, feel-good terms. Zarifis is far from sanguine about their intentions. "When I hear 'reform,' the first word that comes to mind is destruction," he said. "They want to take public education out of the hands of the public, and control it themselves. It comes from billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, who don't understand what it's like to be in a classroom with 35 kids for 90 minutes, and spending every one of those 90 trying to make sure they learn something."
The suspicion is that there's a game plan, and groups like AKF, TFA, and LEE all play a role. Reformers push metrics like school "accountability" standards that serve to make perfectly acceptable schools appear to be chronic failures. Groups like TFA air-drop student teachers into the neediest school districts and claim that they're "saving schools" – with the implication that existing teachers, with their contracts and experience and training and union protections – are just serving their self-interests. Then charter groups and voucher advocates gin up talk of "school choice," and cream off the best students, leaving public schools with the most struggling students, diminishing finances, and demoralized teachers.
Invest Nationally ... Vote Locally
How does a candidate get the Austin Kids First endorsement? According to Executive Director Stephen de Man, the process is utterly transparent, "with the purpose of getting trustees who are about putting kids first. Thus the name." Candidates fill out a questionnaire, then meet with board members, and an endorsement – with resulting contributions – is made. "Everything's super-transparent. But we look for certain qualities that go beyond litmus-test issues."
In the At-Large Position 9 race, AKF backed Kendall Pace. She now faces UT program director Hillary Procknow in the run-off, and she has the AKF blessing and cash to help her. Pace said she modeled her campaign on that of Trustee Gina Hinojosa in 2012, even using the same commercial firm for her TV spots. When it came to AKF, she filled out their candidate form, and then met with de Man and John Armbrust, the executive director at charter group Austin Achieve Public Schools, at Cherrywood Coffeehouse. After that, AKF donated $35,000, which she used to pay for her TV time. However, that was not the end of their assistance. "People came up to me afterwards and said, 'Oh my god, I like your flier.' I'm like, 'what flier?'" AKF had actually paid for two different mailers on her behalf and, in keeping with state campaign "non-coordination" laws about such dark money expenditures, they had never informed her that they existed.
Beyond legal restrictions, the group has pretty strict rules about contact with candidates. No donor that contributes more than $500 can take part in the endorsement process, and then the group has no contact, beyond normal board operations and meetings, with trustees outside of the election. That's not their purpose, de Man said. "We're not issue-driven: 'Are you pro-this or anti-this?' Two years ago, it was hard for people to understand. How can a group have this money, spend this money, and not have an agenda?"
Austin Kids First at least appears indigenous. But there's nothing local about Leadership for Educational Equity – the D.C.-based group that spent almost $6,000 on District 1 candidate David "D" Thompson, who's in a run-off with UT-Austin department chair Edmund "Ted" Gordon.
Thompson's platform is laudable: "Having incredible teachers in East Austin, focus on gaps [between] our low-income and high-income students, and between our white students and students of color." But that's the kind of bland rhetoric that drives critics of the reform movement (like Zarifis) crazy. Doesn't everyone want all of that? Moreover, doesn't it imply that the current advocates for schools aren't doing everything they can to reach those goals? During the first round of this election, eyebrows were raised that Thompson – co-founder of the Austin branch of KIPP Charter Schools and a TFA alum – suddenly wanted a spot on the AISD board. Thompson countered that this was less fox guarding the hen house than poacher turning gamekeeper.
And now, the revelation that LEE systematically supported his campaign with about 60 in-kind contributions – from software expenses to email costs to candidate coaching – has become fodder for the run-off.
Why would a D.C.-based 501(c)4 nonprofit get engaged in an Austin school district election? Thompson says it's simple: He's a TFA alum and a LEE member, and they take care of their own. "Leadership for Educational Equity is an organization made up of current and former teachers, educators, and leaders who care about educational equality." The group is not dedicated to any set policies, just to candidates who "are dedicated to putting kids first." There's one addendum: All those teachers, educators, and leaders are TFA alums.
AKF's de Man described LEE's relationship to TFA as like "an alumni society for a university." He should know. Before joining AKF, he was LEE's Texas regional director. Yet while LEE denies any ideological bent, its backers may have other ideas. In the last year, there have been only three donors to its Texas operation: Wal-Mart heir Steuart Walton, tech investor Arthur Rock, and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. All three are stalwarts of the "reform" movement, all three major advocates for the charter movement.
It's a similar story over at AKF. For the past two AISD board elections, their major donors have been Professional Janitorial Company owner and Republican donor Rex Gore, Silicon Labs co-founder David Welland, and former Dell CTO Eric Harslem (plus John Armbrust who gave $1,000 in the last cycle). That trio alone has infused tens of thousands of dollars into an organization that wants to be a major player.
Backbone and Boiler Room
LEE and AKF: two seemingly separate entities – but the connecting tissue is Teach for America. LEE's stated aim is "empowering Teach for America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders in their communities and help build the movement for educational equity." Meanwhile, AKF was founded by TFA alumni Ben Maddox and Sean Flammer, and its current board is comprised of all TFA alums. Moreover, in 2012, when the group first appeared on the scene, it faced immediate accusations that it was little more than AstroTurf, a local variant of the near-identical Dallas Kids First, for which Maddox was a registered lobbyist (see "We're All About the ... Kids!" Oct. 19, 2012). Its leadership is uniformly TFA alumni, and with charter operators like Armbrust interviewing candidates, there are obvious links between AKF, LEE, charters, and the reform movement, all stretching back to TFA. Former Education Austin president, now secretary-treasurer for statewide teachers union Texas AFT, Louis Malfaro said, "Teach for America is the backbone, the hiring room, think tank, and boiler room for the charter movement."
The links run deep into the personnel. Prior to replacing Flammer and Maddox as AKF's head, de Man was TFA's recruitment director, its director of Alumni Affairs, and then Texas regional director for LEE. Beki Bahar-Engler, LEE Texas' treasurer and vice president of its D.C. office, was previously TFA's vice president of strategy.
Then there's Thompson's former employers at KIPP. At its highest level, the charter group and TFA are in bed together – literally. TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp is married to Richard Barth, president of KIPP. And that's where the real purpose of TFA and LEE becomes clear. In 2011, Kopp declared that TFA is a "leadership development organization, not a teaching organization." That makes LEE the next step in that leadership trail.
Yet there are undeniable differences between LEE and AKF. Moreover, it's hard to paint AKF's endorsed candidate list as strictly pro-charter, pro-reform. In 2012, it was easy, since they primarily backed the candidates that voted to hand Allan Elementary over to IDEA. This time, they're supporting Pace in the At-Large race, who is running on a platform of more aggressively countering charter recruitment of AISD students. They e ven endorsed two of the same candidates as Education Austin: Gordon in District 1 and Julie Cowan in District 4.
Moreover, LEE and AKF found themselves on opposing sides in District 1. AKF formally endorsed Gordon, while LEE effectively ran its Texas office as a second campaign office for Thompson. Since midsummer, LEE hasn't spent a red cent in Texas except on Thompson. And this wasn't a one-off contribution. Instead, it was a series of small expenditures, from candidate training to email expenses and software costs.
But Zarifis wonders how serious AKF was about backing Gordon. All told, the group dropped roughly $40,000 into Wagner vs. Schneider, but only $2,500 into Gordon's campaign. That's the same as they spent on Julie Cowan, although her District 4 win was a foregone conclusion. "Austin Kids First had minimal involvement in the Ted Gordon race, even though they endorsed him," said Zarifis. "While they have a lot of money, they haven't spent much to counter the out-of-state money coming into that race."
Ask de Man, and it's a question of priorities. First off, his group decided to take a knee in District 6. Then, considering that both Gordon and Cowan were sweeping the endorsements, and had the support of both AKF and Ed. Austin, it seemed that they were foregone conclusions – a conclusion that, at least in Gordon's race, he admits was woefully premature. That just left the At-Large Position 9, and District 7. "So that's why Yasmin got so much support."
Is this coincidence, or is there really some grand conspiracy? De Man is quick to defend his old bosses at LEE as strictly non-partisan. "Even when I worked there, I could not gauge my support for candidates according to some litmus test. If Hillary Procknow was a TFA alumnus, she'd get just as much support as D." He points to LEE's support for Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer: a TFA alumnus so opposed to charters and vouchers that Bloomberg et al. threw almost $2 million at his opponent. Zimmer is "probably the most outspoken critic of the reform movement, but he got more support than D."
Political consultant Mark Littlefield met with or worked in an informal capacity with several candidates, including Cowan, Pace, and Paul Saldaña, and is actually a friend of Wagner's since high school. However, he was one of the big recipients of AKF cash, pulling in $15,700 in consultancy fees. He countered any suggestion that the AKF endorsement came with any strings. "Yasmin has no corporate reform agenda. Her agenda was: I'm a parent out here, and I never see Robert." As for LEE's involvement in District 1, he concurred with de Man's analysis, saying, "If any TFA person runs for a school board seat anywhere in America, they're going to back you with everything they've got, and that's their sole criteria. ... They don't have an interest in Austin, and would have backed [Thompson] if he ran in Round Rock or Portland. At least, that's what I'm hoping."
For some, LEE's presence is yet another sign that Austin is no longer a sleepy little college town, but a target of opportunity for reformers. Position 9 candidate Procknow said, "They're setting the stage right now. Austin looks like the kind of city they want to pick. There's a large minority population, it's a charter-friendly state, and there's a lot of money to be made."
Even in pro-reform Texas, vouchers face a powerful coalition of opponents: Democrats, who see them as backdoor privatization, and rural Republicans who fear that they would decimate their already struggling ISDs. However, many Democrats have been swayed by charter proponents' claims that they can cure all ills. Malfaro said, "I remember watching Wendy Davis just gush over [KIPP founder] Mike Feinberg. 'Oh, we know you guys know what you're doing, and you're doing it right.' But Feinberg more and more is opening up and admitting, 'Look, we don't know how to run a whole school district. We're not good at that. We're not even good at coming into a so-called failing school, a high-poverty school where kids aren't doing well because of the tests, and take the whole school over and turn it around.' " The end result, Zarifis said, is "big money doubling down on strategies that haven't really proven themselves out."
Malfaro is concerned that groups like LEE become political spin machines. For Thompson, being able to say that he's been a K-12 teacher is a powerful plus in this election. But that's a claim any TFA-er can make, and Malfaro is dismissive of their classroom time being anything but résumé-polishing. "It's two years, and off to law school."
The Money Trail
But AISD is pushing back. The first big sign that charters were not welcome was the cancellation of the contract with IDEA Public Schools to take over Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High. That's why these elections are so important. Malfaro described the current trustees as "the most progressive school board I've seen in the 20 years that I've been involved." That makes Austin "a flash point for the privatizers. But Austin is ground zero for the community schools movement." He points to the community-led Travis Heights in-district charter, and advocates like Allan Weeks, who created community coalitions to support, not supplant, public schools. He said, "That doesn't fit with [the reformers'] narrative that teachers are the problem, teachers' unions are the problem, tenure is the problem."
But again, why should LEE care about AISD? According to Zarifis, "Because we've been successful in drawing a line and saying we value public schools, neighborhoods schools. We value the families that go to those schools. We push back at charters coming into those schools. That type of success just riles the reformers up because that's not their vision. They want to sell public education to this charter and that charter, upend neighborhoods, and limit choice for kids."
District 6 run-off candidate Saldaña concurs. "I think part of it may be that they see some potential vulnerabilities in AISD," he said, noting that AISD has already lost over 2,000 families to charters. However, he added, with new trustees and a new superintendent, "We have an opportunity to turn the page, to create a new legacy, and one way we have to do that is create a better working relationship with the community and serving the needs of the neighborhood schools."
Moreover, Austin is ground zero for community resistance to what the charter movement has become. And it's that little twist – what the charter movement has become – that is so important. Originally, charters were supposed to be community-led engines for innovation. With a few of the bureaucratic leashes and tethers removed, schools could experiment, and then districts could apply what they had learned to all their schools. Instead, Malfaro argues, they've become Plan B for venture capitalists who thought they'd make a fortune off school vouchers. When communities nationwide turned vouchers into political poison, they changed tack. "Public education is this untapped opportunity for vendors of all kinds," said Malfaro.
All observers expect the battle to continue at the state level. Last session, Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick pushed hard for both vouchers and an end to the cap on the number of charters. It's a foregone conclusion that, as lieutenant governor, he'll push even harder for the same targets. However, he'll face the same opposition he faced last time, both from Republicans and Democrats, as they seek to have charters held to the same accountability standards as public schools. Malfaro said, "If that happens, more charters will close, and it becomes a worse investment. You're going to see these investors pull out of charters. They're not doing this for some altruistic view of education. They're doing this to make money."
AISD Board run-off elections are Dec. 16, with early voting Dec. 1-12. Click here for voting info and Chronicle endorsements.