Billionaires Target Teachers—and Take the Gloves Off in Illinois... Labor Notes focuses on what's at stake in 'Performance Counts' legislative battle in Illinois

A billionaire gang headed by Bill Gates and Eli Broad wants to convert America’s public schools, with its $600 billion in annual public expenditures according to the Department of Education, into a corporate-owned test-score factory. Their plan faces teacher resistance, and nowhere more so than in Chicago, where a feisty new leadership is making the Chicago Teachers Union among the most effective in the country.

Billionaire Bill Gates was feted by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) leadership at the union's national convention in Seattle despite his growing record of funding union busting privatization schemes like Stand for Children. Above, Gates on the jumbo screen on July 10, 2010, at the AFT Seattle convention. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The billionaires have decided to go toe to toe with CTU and with Illinois’s 200,000 unionized teachers. The battleground is the state legislature and a draft bill called the Performance Counts Act. The bill would gut teachers unions, maximize the firing of teachers at will, and ensure that no organized voice remains to advocate for quality public schools. The repercussions for all public employees — and all of organized labor — are clear.

Mysterious Group Arrives

Jehan Gordon ($100,000) and Keith Farnham ($50,000) each received major campaign contributions from Stand for Children during the final five weeks before the November 2, 2010, general elections. Both Gordon (left above) and Farnham (right above) supported the strange testimony of the witnesses for Stand For Children and Advance Illinois during the December 15, 2010 hearings. Gordon's failed to examine any of the witnesses who testified on behalf of the "Performance Counts" law, then bashed Peoria public schools in remarks later in the day. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Last October, journalists noticed that candidates for Illinois legislative seats were receiving unusually large checks. “It’s not every day that a group almost nobody has ever heard of gives $175,000 to a single state legislative candidate,” remarked an Illinois Times contributor. Another reporter observed that “a national education reform group has quietly dumped more than $600,000 into key Illinois legislative races.” He added that “the source of much of that money is a mystery,” because of the unusual path it took to arrive in Illinois.

The mysterious political action group is called Stand for Children. Based in Portland and with affiliates in seven states, SFC is an enormously well-funded and sophisticated “grassroots” organization whose largest single funder is Bill Gates: he gave the group nearly $3.5 million in 2010.

Originally, SFC did have a strong grassroots orientation, and its focus was demanding better funding for public schools. The organization grew out of a “Stand for Children Day,” a big 1996 rally in Washington, D.C., headed up by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks addressed that rally: “If I can sit down for justice, you can stand up for children.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis testified on December 16, 2010, along with state union leaders Dan Montgomery (IFT, center) and Ken Swanson (IEA, right). Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Edelman’s son Jonah Edelman afterwards established SFC in Portland and mobilized with teachers, the Service Employees union, and community groups to demand adequate funding for Oregon schools. But after a few years, SFC broadened its horizons from simple funding to “reforming education policies and practices.”

The vision it chose, though, is in sync with that of the billionaires and politicians who today are driving school “reform” in America: blaming teachers for educational problems that inevitably result from slashed budgets, unemployment, and poverty; subjecting children to dreary regimens of standardized tests; stripping teachers of job security and tying their pay and future employment to their students’ test scores; and diverting public funds into charter schools and contracting out of services.

Union Smashing

Witnesses for Stand for Children and Advance Illinois had earlier told the committee they "coordinated" their testimony and were the only groups recognized by the committee as being part of "School Reform." The lurid narratives shared by the "Reform" witnesses (above, on December 16) included self-serving personal stories that no one on the committee checked and dubious claims of data that misrepresented Illinois and Chicago public schools. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.While SFC materials generally avoid the subject of unions, or imply a friendly collaboration with them, SFC is fiercely anti-union, especially when the unions do not endorse its notion of school reform. The group promotes Geoffrey Canada — Harlem education entrepreneur and hero of the documentary movie “Waiting for Superman,” in which teachers unions are the scourge of education. Canada was SFC’s first board chair.

SFC’s legislative achievements include Arizona’s SB 1040, which ties teacher pay partly to student test scores. With its current initiative in Illinois, however, SFC is trying out its most virulent strain of anti-teacher union tactics yet.

House Speaker Mike Madigan has created a Special Committee on Education Reform, two of whose members received contributions from SFC this fall ($50,000 for Keith Farnham of Elgin; $100,000 for Jehan Gordon of Peoria). The committee is considering draft legislation which SFC describes as a “historic opportunity to help Illinois students.” The Performance Counts Act, which is also pushed by another corporate-backed education policy group, Advance Illinois, would “help” students by attacking teachers and their unions:

• Teachers’ performance evaluations would be closely linked to standardized test scores, an historically poor measure of learning.

• With a single unsatisfactory evaluation, a tenured teacher could be returned to probationary status or dismissed. A teacher with three unsatisfactory evaluations within a 10-year period would be dismissed and could never teach again in Illinois schools.

• Unions would be prohibited from bargaining over a broad scope of issues affecting student and teacher welfare—contracting out; layoffs, reductions in force, school closures; class size and class staffing; length of the school day or work day; pilot and experimental school programs; use of technology. Unions could not even bargain over the effects of these policies on members or their students.

• Teachers’ right to strike would be virtually nonexistent, and an unlawful strike could mean the union’s decertification.

An Irony

The audience on December 16 (above, while Karen Lewis of the CTU testifies) numbered more than 200, while a little more than 100 were present on December 17 in Aurora. The "School Reform" committee as of December 27 was refusing to make public any transcript of the hearings, making one of the most significant pieces of education reform legislation in the USA a virtual secret from most Illinois voters and citizens. House Speaker Michael Madigan, who established the school reform special committee, is reported to be pushing for passage of the "Performance Counts" legislation before January 11, 2011. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Stand for Children claims to offer hope, particularly to poor students and children of color who are widely denied access to quality and equitable education. Ironically, it is the children of poverty who stand most to lose because of SFC and its wealthy backers.

Their agenda defunds public schools, and, as education historian Diane Ravitch points out, the charter school alternatives have a lower commitment than public schools do to serving the neediest students — academic poor performers, students with learning disabilities, or English language learners.

Finally, the billionaires seek to weaken, if not destroy, the organizations that are best equipped to fight for quality public schools. Case in point: CTU is Chicago’s lead organizer against school closures, mass firings of teachers, and slashed school budgets.

Teachers and supporters of public education, beware: the fight in Illinois against the billionaire gang’s initiatives may well be yours in the year to come. 

[This article was originally published at Labor Notes by Howard Ryan on Tuesday, December 21, 2010 3:34pm].


January 3, 2011 at 3:06 AM

By: Dana Campbell

Performance Counts is a bad idea.

Performance Counts appears to be the best way to legalize “Public School Vouchers”. Remember when the Supreme Court ordered schools to be desegregated and “Public School Vouchers” were introduced to give tax breaks to those parents who wanted to send their children to segregated private schools. We don’t need to experiment with schools, but just look at Finland as the best model in the world today. In Finland teachers are well compensated, Masters Degree educated, and staffed appropriately for the academic needs of the students. If you think US students are failing now, just wait to see what type of teachers you get if Performance Counts passes. Are we so naive to think that administrators care more about students than their own agendas? The US Congress and Senate proved how little dedication they have for the public interest when they all refused to reject “public earmarks” in the last tax cut bill for the rich and middle class (not the poor - you must have some money or you get no tax break). School Administrators will not put my child’s education before their own agendas.

January 4, 2011 at 9:15 AM

By: Kathleen Garcia

Performance Counts

I have been a teacher and a counselor for 26 years. My dedicated colleagues and I have worked long and hard for all of our students. We work for a dedicated administration in our school. We are always studying and taking course to improve our instruction. Many of us are Baby Boomers and will retire within the next ten years. We need to attract the best and the brightest to fill our shoes. This bill destroys all incentives to become a teacher. For our state, our country, our future please defeat this proposal.

January 4, 2011 at 1:30 PM

By: Lu A'Ku

The root cause of student failure.

Home is the first school and parents are the first teachers. By and large, that's where the rubber's not meeting the road. On a mass scale, schoolteachers cannot counter miseducation at home. Performance starts at home and Performance Counts does nothing to address the root cause of student underachievement--poor parenting. As usual, schoolteachers are an easy target (whereas parents are not). A more productive household makes for a more productive student! Let's talk about the reality: parents aren't being confronted because they are the voters and the consumer base. Beating up teachers is safe and maybe looks good to ignorant people even if it's not productive. If you think America is hurting now just wait and see what the workforce is like two decades after Performance Counts is passed. The merits of old-school education that made this country great are being dismissed and teachers are being thrown under the bus. The more technically accurate or correct America becomes the more wrong it seems to make itself. Just wait and see. What comes around goes around.

January 4, 2011 at 9:10 PM

By: Danielle C

"Root Causes"

It's easy to blame parents, but until we get some radical change in society, things won't radically change in that area. In my few years of teaching, I've met lots of parents who are active in kids' lives and school but their kids still don't "test well."

However, there are a lot of things that could use some changing and be done better in our school systems that we can actually work towards and fight for -- such as truly integrating teachers in the trenches in the conversations about how schools should be run instead of pushing them further and further out, labeling them as a "special interest group," or straight up attacking them. Especially if you've never worked in the classroom and aren't even qualified to teach yourself!

January 5, 2011 at 12:12 AM

By: I'm not a Circus Monkey

Who's Performing?

A friend visiting from England and I compared notes about education. He was amazed that children were not required to be in school until age 7, "What do they do until they're 7?" England has what they call reception which starts at age 4; then at 5 it's 1st form; 6, 2nd form; etc. But they don't test children all the time. There's a test in 1st, then in 5th form, and one or two more. How facinating to see the growth over time. How much growth can we expect to see if we test so much here in the US?

January 7, 2011 at 11:03 PM

By: Ben H


"Stand for Children," "Performance Counts," and "Advance Illinois" are anything but what their labels suggest. They are quite the opposite. Consider ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ALL, a proposal from IFT, IEANEA, and CTU. Here is a link to a summary of the proposal:

January 7, 2011 at 11:03 PM

By: Ben H


"Stand for Children," "Performance Counts," and "Advance Illinois" are anything but what their labels suggest. They are quite the opposite. Consider ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ALL, a proposal from IFT, IEANEA, and CTU. Here is a link to a summary of the proposal:

January 7, 2011 at 11:03 PM

By: Ben H


"Stand for Children," "Performance Counts," and "Advance Illinois" are anything but what their labels suggest. They are quite the opposite. Consider ACCOUNTABILITY FOR ALL, a proposal from IFT, IEANEA, and CTU. Here is a link to a summary of the proposal:

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