When corporate interests want an attack dog, they turn to Rick Berman, the verbal hitman for hire to the highest bidder.
Instead of attacking teachers' unions, someone on the right has hired paid public relations bully to go after AFT union president Randi Weingarten personally. The lastest attacks on Weingarten are intended to put a face on the more amorphous "teachers unions" and create an image in people's minds of someone they can focus their fear and loathing upon. Hence the billboard in Times Square sporting Wiengarten's picture, a barrage of op-eds and anti-teacher union spew from Berman and his organizations, and a new website. AFTFacts.org focuses specifically on Weingarten as the cause for all of public education's woes.
In an op-ed last month, Berman used recently released international test scores to go after teachers in general and Weingarten by name. In Berman's bought-and-paid-for opinion, our schools would be the best in the world if only they were governed by free-market principles and that nasty union thug Weingarten were out of the way. Aside: If you've met Randi, you know she is a fierce speaker and advocate, but hardly meets the stature requirements to qualify as a thug.
By free-market principles, Berman means charter schools, even if they lock kids in padded cells for misbehavior, deliver mediocre results, have underpaid staff and crumbling facilities, and are controlled by corrupt officials receiving kickbacks for directing students into the charter system.
Follow the Money
Because Berman is a paid hit man for whoever writes the check, it's very difficult to know who is behind his attacks. Berman's Center for Union Facts is the ultimate AstroTurf site, funded by anonymous donors hiding behind the cloak of non-profit status. Their 2011 IRS reports list income received in the form of donations, the sale of op-ed material, the sale of "studies", and a "grant review service." Your one-stop shop for right wing messages, voodoo academia, and fund funneling to other right wing organizations.
Berman's operation is the ultimate "buy publicity and academic opinion" shop. Billionaires are eager to partake in his dogged attacks labeled as civic education, whether it be on the Humane Society or Randi Weingarten and the AFT.
There are so many choices, and Berman is so adept at covering his tracks, that it's difficult to know which billionaire or billionaire puppet might be paying for this one. Here are my top candidates for the Five Horsemen of the Edpocalypse:
- Charles and David Koch - Is there anything the Kochs don't feel the need to corrupt with their billions? The Kochs are rabidly anti-union and Americans for Prosperity has made Common Core standards one of their primary targets for the past year or so. The Kochs union-bust on general principle, as they tried to do in California in 2012, with their support of Governors Walker and Kasich in 2010, and via ALEC, their legislative tool for school privatization efforts.
- Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein - Rupert Murdoch and his sidekick Klein are less ideologically motivated. They are about pure profit, which Murdoch stands to gain if he can just get a toehold in the "market." Murdoch is also unafraid to indulge and pay for personal attacks on his opponents, as long as they don't point directly back at him. Joel Klein is the former chancellor of New York Public Schools, a position he left to head up Murdoch's education division. A board member of StudentsFirstNY, he's the face of Murdoch's dream to make billions on the education of American children.
- The Walton Family - The heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune are driven by ideology and profit, while controlling wealth in excess of the combined wealth of 40 percent of American citizens. They're also not afraid to put their money where their ideology lives, spending millions every year to influence public education policy, fund charter startups, pay for even more Teach for America teachers, all while opposing any increase in the minimum wage anywhere. The Waltons imagine public education to resemble Wal-Mart's marketing ideals. Pay less, get less, but at least "adequate."
- Dan Loeb - Loeb's name might not immediately come to mind when thinking of education reform, but that's because his focus isn't on the quality of education as much as getting his hands on those pension funds teachers have set aside for their retirement. Loeb also has a personal axe to grind with Randi Weingarten, after she called him out for his work with StudentsFirst's efforts to convert teachers' pensions to 401k plans while simultaneously bidding to manage those same funds.
- StudentsFirst and Michelle Rhee - You may have noticed that the one consistent thread running through the first four Horsemen is StudentsFirst. Every one of the Horsemen has either funded or is on the board of that organization. While StudentsFirst is carefully packaged to appear non-partisan and indeed, even liberal in origin, it has one single goal: Kill teachers' unions by promoting charter schools. Rhee has partnered with the American Federation for Children, a Betsy DeVos project to privatize education and bust teachers' unions. I include StudentsFirst as a proxy for the other, less obvious corporate interests backing all efforts to break the AFT and other unions, like the US Chamber of Commerce, and hedge fund billionaires. StudentsFirst speaks for them.
If you have ideas not listed here, let me know in the comments.
Teachers Soldier On
Whoever is funding Berman's newest smear efforts must feel very threatened by teachers' renewed commitment to reclaiming public schools. We are in a public education revival. Teachers unions across the country are joining together to serve their communities and promote the idea of public education as the center of community success and revitalization.
Parents, teachers, students and community groups are taking their schools back. The American Federation of Teachers, along with community partners across the country, is exposing this failure and driving solutions that work. These groups are taking public education in a new direction – with early childhood education, project-based learning, wraparound services, teacher autonomy, professional development, parent and student voices, fair funding formulas and more.
The billionaires can't have that, so they're pulling out their wallets in order to do whatever it takes to try and get the upper hand in a march toward profits, rather than community.