To understand the attack on public education in Pennsylvania, begin with Rachel Tabachnik's comprehensive report on the partnership between far right-wing funders like the DeVos family with Michelle Rhee's national StudentsFirst organization, and the Pennsylvania StudentsFirst organization, which shares the same name as Rhee's group, but has very different people running it.
The Pennsylvania Students First organization is actually an affiliate of American Federation for Children (AFC), chaired by Betsy DeVos, as it states on the website. A donation to Students First PAC was received from Joel Greenberg, a board member of AFC, on the date the PAC was formed. Approximately 5 million dollars from Greenberg, a co-founder of Susquehanna Investment Group (SIG), and two of the other SIG co-founders, Jeffrey Yass and Arthur Dantchik, would follow between March 10 and May 11, 2010. Most of this money was, in turn, contributed to the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony H. Williams. Graphic at right is the AFC board of directors.
It would be simple enough to dismiss the Pennsylvania organization as a cynical effort to piggyback onto the national Rhee organization, which still seems to meet with the approval of liberals who aren't paying attention, except that Michelle Rhee is bear-hugging projects of that organization and gracing them with her appearance and support. For example:
- Rhee visited Lincoln Charter in June of 2011, with Gov. Corbett, Ed. Sec. Roy Tomalis, and Jeffrey E. Piccola. The school choice bill in Pennsylvania is Piccola's number one priority, and Governor Corbett is in lockstep with that goal. DeVos' StudentsFirst PAC donated $50,000 to Piccola, so it's reasonable to conclude they're expecting some results for that donation.
- Rhee spoke to teachers at the Mastery Academy charter school in Philadelphia on Sept. 22. Dawn Chavous, a board member at a Mastery School, is also an employee at the DeVos-funded StudentsFirst PAC.
- Finally, there is the now-infamous appearance with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at the gala sponsored by American Federation for Children, the DeVos organization which spawned Pennsylvania's StudentsFirst organization.
From this evidence alone, it would be easy enough to conclude that Rhee is either amoral or Republican. Take your pick, but I'm leaning toward Republican with her latest new hire. With the Pennsylvania school choice bill still stuck in the ever-grinding gears of legislative activity, Rhee has decided she needs a lobbyist to give it a jumpstart, and that lobbyist is a Republican strategist by the name of Ray Zaborney, former campaign manager for Lynn Swann's gubernatorial bid. Zaborney is also currently advising Republican Tim Burns' bid to unseat Senator Bob Casey in 2012.
It wasn't immediately clear that Zaborney's registration applied to the Rhee organization, rather than the DeVos organization. But a check of the mailing address for StudentsFirst.org -- 406 7th Street NW 2nd Floor, Washington, DC 20004 confirms that it is the Rhee organization's Washington, DC mailing address.
Zaborney was scheduled to give testimony at the Pennsylvania House Education Committee hearings about the efficacy of charter schools and how best to expand them. He was to appear alongside Dawn Chavous, of the DeVos StudentsFirst.org group, according to this published agenda:
1:15-1:45 Unite PA-Sharon Cherubin and Don Adams
1:45-2:15 Philadelphia Archdiocese-Sister Edward Quinn, IHM and Mr. Jason M. Budd
2:15-2:45 Freedom Works
2:45-3:30 Students First Dawn Chavous, Raymond Zaborney
However, transcripts indicate he did not, in fact appear at those hearings.
It appears that Zaborney is keeping a low profile on whatever education activities he is undertaking on behalf of Michelle Rhee. But his prior public statements are anything but ambivalent: He is a full supporter of vouchers, ending teacher tenure and other hot-button issues Rhee advocates.
There is no question school reforms are needed. What isn't needed is private schools run by fundamentalist religious groups with more of an eye to conversion than education. For Michelle Rhee to continue to present herself as some sort of non-partisan crusader for reform without acknowledging who her partners are and what their agendas are is a dangerous thing.
Pennsylvania's tea partiers are pretty angry about stalled school reform. It was one of their top-ticket items, and they're expecting action. It looks like Rhee is there to help them deliver.
Update: Thank you to Bruce E Wilson for his pointer to this video:
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