I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Michelle Rhee: The Reformy Lobbyists' Best Friend!

I'm sure folks will have plenty to say over the next few days about Michelle Rhee's corporate money funnel, StudentsFirst: Joy Resmovits of the Huffington Post just published the group's latest IRS report:
The national lobbying group that aims to spread the education-reform gospel of former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is hauling in significantly more cash but has so far failed to meet its own fundraising goals, recently filed tax documents obtained by The Huffington Post show. 
When Rhee launched StudentsFirst in December 2011 in an appearance on "Oprah,"she said her goal was to raise $1 billion in one year. StudentsFirst then adjusted its projection, saying it aimed to raise that hefty sum over five years.
The group still appears to be falling short. In the fiscal year starting August 1, 2011 and ending July 31, 2012, StudentsFirst raised $28.5 million, more than tripling its $7.6 million fundraising the previous year. During that period, the group's political 501(c)(4) arm raised $15.6 million and spent $13.4 million. Rhee herself drew a salary of about $300,000. [emphasis mine]
Hey, she's doing it for the kids...

I've been combing through the From 990, and some interesting things have emerged. As Resmovits reports, StudentsFirst is giving a lot of money to the lobbying-industrial complex:
The documents show how the organization has spent its money. StudentsFirst spent about $638,000 on Change.org petitions and paid $302,000 to lobbyist Bradley Tusk and $2 million to the public relations firm SKD Knickerbocker. According to blogger Alexander Russo, the group gave candidates $3.7 million in campaign contributions in 14 states -- 42 percent to Democrats, 58 percent to Republicans.
More on those campaign contributions later; for now, let's take a look at the lobbyists, starting with Bradley Tusk. We here in Jersey know this character far too well; here's the Star-Ledger from 10/27/11:
One of every three dollars of private money spent so far in Newark’s bid to reform its schools has gone to consultants and contractors, many with ties to Mayor Cory Booker and acting state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, records show. 
The second biggest recipient of the Facebook money is Tusk Strategies, a New York political consulting firm that managed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign. Cerf left his post as a deputy education chancellor in Bloomberg’s administration to serve on the campaign. 
Calls to Tusk were not returned, but according to founder Bradley Tusk’s online biography, the group was responsible for creating and advising PENewark, the heavily-criticized campaign to gather public input on the school reform effort in Newark. 
When PENewark first began its work last November, Booker said only $1 million would be spent on the effort — roughly $500,000 for salaries and $500,000 for advertising. Tusk was paid more than $1.5 million between October 2010 and April 2011, according to the e-mails. Taylor said Wednesday the cost of the PENewark initiative was $2 million. [emphasis mine]
Hey, he was doing it all for the kids...

Tusk is merely one of a gaggle of Cerf's buddies who have done very well for themselves since old Chris managed to insert himself into the NJDOE. Of course, Tusk hasn't limited his self-enrichment to this side of the Hudson, as Leonie Haimson has documented in nauseating detail:
Tusk is the former Lt. Governor and right hand man to former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who is now serving a 14 year sentence for corruption. Subsequently, Tusk became the manager of Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign, which spent $109 million and won by only 4.5  percentage points, after inundating NYC voters will hundreds of mailers like those being sent out about Hagel.  Tusk’s website also takes credit for running the campaign that lifted the cap on charters for DFER/ERN and the hedgefunders, and states that he now works for Michelle Rhee’s StudentFirst NY and Eva Moskowitz’s chain of Success Academy charters:

With StudentsFirst, led by Michelle Rhee, we have played an integral role in the first comprehensive attempt to pursue and implement education reform across the country. This includes launching full campaigns in target cities and states across the nation. With the Success Charter Network, Tusk Strategies has helped introduce high performing charter schools to new neighborhoods across New York City.
More about Eva's links to this little playgroup in a second. We know Tusk studied at the feet of Blagojevich; who else does he hang with?
His website brags that he helped organize an education forum in October 2011 during the Presidential campaign,  with four GOP candidates, co-hosted by the College Board and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation:  “While all of the GOP candidates were invited to participate, only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum attended in person, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Cain speaking via satellite.”  Who moderated?  None other than our former chancellor, Joel Klein.
Murdoch? That's interesting: according to Steve Brill, Murdoch is one of StudentsFirst's biggest funders; the website RheeFirst claims the amount could be as much as $50 million. Of course, Joel Klein has been Murdoch's consiglieri in the NewsCorp phone hacking scandal, and now runs Murdoch's education arm, Amplify, where he is utterly shameless.

That's quite a crew for a "liberal" like Tusk to be hanging with, don't you think?

Haimson also recounts Tusk's jihad against the confirmation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel, which Tusk claimed was financed by LGBT groups Hegel angered. Problem was, it didn't appear Tusk was being straight (sorry...):
Though Tusk claims this campaign is being funded by progressive members of the gay community, LGBT groups have criticized Tusk for keeping his donors secret, and Rachel Maddow has suggested that it’s most likely funded by right wingers disguising themselves as liberal. The NYT article suggests that this campaign is really being financed by GOP forces allied with hawks on Israel and who may want to hand Obama a defeat.  According to the NY Times:
In an interview, Mr. Tusk would only identify its financiers as Democratic “gay and L.G.B.T. people who have been active in campaigns around the country.” Yet federal records show that Use Your Mandate uses Del Cielo Media, an arm of one of the most prominent Republican ad-buying firms in the country, Smart Media, with clients that have included the presidential campaigns of former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah and Senator John McCain of Arizona; the 2010 Senate campaign of Christine O’Donnell, who was known for positions against homosexuality, in Delaware; and, as it happens, the Emergency Committee for Israel. 
So Tusk organized a debate between four of the biggest homophobes in the Republican party, then claimed he was working for LGBT donors, then used an ad buying firm that represented even more Republican homophobes.

Hey, he was doing it all for the kids...

But it actually gets worse, because Tusk was taking money from Mark Zuckerberg, who turned out to be one of NJ Governor Chris Christie's biggest supporters. As I said earlier this year:
- By now, everyone in New Jersey knows that Mark Zuckerberg is throwing a big fundraiser for Chris Christie's re-election bid. No one is more responsible for keeping marriage equity from coming to the Garden State than Christie, yet Zuckerberg still supports him.

But here's Tusk, indignantly claiming the LGBT community is outraged at Hagel's nomination, even though Tusk happily took money from the guy who empowers New Jersey's biggest bigot. 

I wouldn't expect Tusk to give the money back at this point, but I would dearly love to hear him chastise Zuckerberg for supporting Christie, openly and publicly. Think he'll do it? If his clients really are “gay and L.G.B.T. people who have been active in campaigns around the country," they should be thrilled to hear his condemnations of Zuckerberg for backing Christie.
Trust me - that never happened.

So that's the story on Tusk; what about SKD Knickerbocker? Well...
The Success Academy Charter Schools Inc., run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, applied in April for an increase from $1,350 to $2,000 in the annual per student payment it receives from the state to run 10 of its charter schools. 
Last year alone, the network spent an astounding $883,119 on "student recruitment" - much of it for glossy flyers mailed to hundreds of thousands of parents; bus stop and Internet ads and an army of paid recruiters to go door-to-door soliciting student applications.
That includes internet ads that run on this very blog - thanks New York taxpayers! Aren't you happy you're subsidizing me?
Even other charter schools rarely spend more than a few thousand dollars on student recruitment.
Meanwhile, Moskowitz's network spent another $1.3 million on what it described as "network events and community outreach."

It paid $243,150 to SKD Knickerbocker, a high-powered public relations firm, to supplement its own in-house press people, and another $129,000 to a Washington consulting firm founded by President Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod.
Hey, they do it all for the kids...

SKD Knickbocker got the original $100K contract to do Rhee's Extreme Makeover - Reformy Edition back when she was fleeing from the wreckage she had caused in the Washington, D.C. schools. But that's chump change compared to their real business: selling access to the neo-liberal corporatists at the Obama White House:

As we’ve reported, SKDKnickerbocker is led by a team of former Democratic operatives and key White House figures. But instead of promoting a progressive agenda, or even an Obama agenda, these consultants score huge contracts by helping corporate interests lobby for policies that are not in line with the public interest. Many SKDKnickerbocker employees, including Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director, are also frequent White House visitors.
We’ve compiled a partial list of SKD Knickerbocker’s clients. Since the firm refuses to register as an ordinary lobbying firm, we don’t know their full roster of clients:
-– SKDKnickerbocker was hired by Kaplan Education to block Obama’s reforms on for-profit college companies, an industry plagued by low quality education, false promises to students, and fraudulent business practices.
– SKDKnickerbocker consults for Students First, a lobbying group aimed at destroying collective bargaining, and replacing public education with a mix of charters, private schools, and online learning companies. According to documents revealed the blog At The Chalk Face, Students First helped craft bills in Michigan to break teachers unions by severely limiting collective bargaining.

Hey, they do it all for the kids...

So, what's the point of all this? From where I sit, two things:

- How much more proof do we need that the Democratic party infrastructure has sold out public education, teachers, and their unions to corporate money funnelers like Rhee? When fraudulent liberals like Tusk and the SKG Knickerbocker crew happily suck up money from the likes of StudentsFirst, any notion that the party insiders continue to have allegiance to public education is patently false. Don't let anyone try to tell you that the center-left is pro-public education, pro-teacher, and pro-labor; they aren't.

- There are a lot of people making a lot of money off of education "reform." So let's once and for all drop the cant about how these people have some higher, morally superior motive:
"The one really important difference is that the people we represent are the kids and the families," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of the policy arm of the group [B4K]. "I know everybody says it's all about that. We have no financial interest in public education, at all. Every other group does. I don't say that in a way that's meant to disparage anyone. We can be about pure activism because we don't have anything to gain from the success of the agenda other than that kids get better educational opportunities."
That is a steaming pile of dung. People are making money left and right by bad-mouthing teachers, bad-mouthing unions, and, yes, bad-mouthing students:

Don't fool yourself, folks: this cheap shot, courtesy of Rhee, StudentsFirst, and all of their "advisors," is mocking our children. It is designed to sow seeds of doubt about our students' accomplishments with the specific goal of raking in cash so the people around StudentsFirst can get fat and happy.

They are not doing it for the kids.

I need more money to buy more erasers!

COMING UP: Speaking of B4K and StudentsFirst...

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