MEDIA WATCH: Catalyst becomes an official front group for Astrotufers... Catalyst is anti-union, and its workers don't have a union, but should Substance readers add it to the SCAB List?

Journalism lesson below. After reading the Catalyst article on "Democrats for Education Reform" answer the following questions about the reporting. (1) Where does the Catalyst version of reality end and the straight DFER propaganda begin? (2) How much are the local leaders of DFER paid this year? (3) How much did the DFER — and Stand for Children — ads cost? (4) Why was one of the DFER staff people up at the July 27 Board meeting as a person from "Stand for Children" and then (later) as a "parent" who was angry with Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey? (5) and last. How many articles has Catalyst published in the past year reporting accurately the actual work being done by the Chicago Teachers Union, versus how much reporting has been done touting Rahm Emanuel's version of "school reform" and the Astroturf groups backing Rahm?

Less than a week after Chicago's leading Astroturf organizations — Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, and Ed Reform NOW! — spent more than $50,000 of plutocratic money on a massive radio ad campaign and a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune attacking the Chicago Teachers Union, the groups, whose budgets come completely from Chicago's wealthiest anti-union people, got free coverage from Catalyst — the supposedly "independent" voice on Chicago's school reform. This touting by Catalyst followed a similar move recently in which the editors of the Chicago Sun-Times gave a prominent Op Ed spacing to note the arrival of "Democrats for Education Reform" on the Chicago scene. Corporate Chicago is pushing its own.

But the Catalyst angle of this needs to be noted carefully by Chicago teachers and Substance readers, because there are still a handful who will give Catalyst the benefits of their doubts when they know that the Tribune simply plies its way through ruling class propaganda, recycled as "news." Catalyst, some still pretend, is different, even though for a generation it's not been so.


For the Record: Democrats for Education Reform, By: Rebecca Harris / June 28, 2012

Photo: Democrats for Education Reform Policy Director Angela Rudolph (left) and State Director Rebeca Nieves Huffman (right) say they have mistakenly been called anti-union outsiders.

Staff members at the Illinois branch of Democrats for Education Reform assert that, amid a contentious season of negotiations between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union, they’ve been mislabeled as anti-union outsiders.

Illinois Policy Director Angela Rudolph taught at McCorkle Elementary, then worked at the Urban League, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and as an education program officer at The Joyce Foundation.

State Director Rebeca Nieves Huffman, who most recently worked at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, grew up in Humboldt Park and stayed in the city to attend Columbia College because, she says, her traditionalist Latino parents wanted her to keep living at home until she got married.

When Huffman saw Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to change the school system, she lobbied the national Democrats for Education Reform group for months in an effort to pique their interest in Illinois. By January, it had worked, and she landed a full-time job. The group was expanding; a Washington state chapter launched at the same time. Now, the group is 5 years old and has spent over $31 million. It has chapters in 12 states.

But in an effort to avoid news coverage focusing on who the Democrats for Education Reform’s donors are, representatives of the group won’t discuss them -- other than to say that “national donors” funded the group’s expansion into Illinois. Now, Democrats for Education Reform is funded by a combination of local and national money. The Chicago Tribune has reported that the firm that placed radio ads for the group is closely tied to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The group has three arms – Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee; Education Reform Now, a nonpartisan 501(c) 3; and Education Reform Now-Advocacy, a 501(c)4. Though finances are separate, the staff members in Illinois are shared among the three organizations.

The group’s strength, Huffman says, is in the networking and information sharing between different statewide chapters. Chicago’s recent radio campaign, which featured radio ads critical of the Chicago Teachers Union’s decision to hold a strike authorization vote, was based on a similar radio campaign that aimeed to end “last in, first out” tenure rules governing layoffs in New York.

The radio ads in Chicago netted over 1,500 texted petition signatures. The group also gathered 3,200 petition signatures in support of Emanuel’s longer school day.

“There is a silent majority of parents that supports school reform proposals,” Huffman says. “They trust our elected officials; they trust our school district leadership to get it together.”

Rudolph adds that the district’s Community Action Council process, which has not appeared to lead to any changes on the part of CPS and has angered many participants, actually shows there is buy-in for school reform – but that CPS’ process is the problem.

“If reform is going to be sustainable in our city, we have to address the process issue,” Huffman says.

Despite the ads critical of CTU, Democrats for Education Reform staff say they support teachers unions. “We are supportive of the bargaining rights [teachers] have,” Rudolph says. “What we have been most troubled by is this notion that we are anti-teacher or anti-union. We are a Democratic organization and one of the cornerstones of the Democratic Party is unions.”

She and Huffman are quick to point out that the group collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers to support federal EduJobs funding, which aimed to preserve teacher jobs during the economic downturn.

Huffman adds that she would like to see CPS and CTU compromise on a raise for teachers. “Two percent is ridiculous, and so is 24 percent,” she says.

Group outlines policy priorities

Nationally, Democrats for Education Reform has worked on expanding charter schools in Wisconsin and New York, and has brought out residents who support school turnarounds in New York City. It pushed for legislation in Colorado that served as a model for the “Performance Counts” proposal in Illinois, which later became Senate Bill 7.

The group was also a driving force behind California’s “Parent Trigger” law, which allows parents to sign petitions asking for their school to be turned around by an outside agency. However, the fate of the first school where Parent Trigger was tried is still bogged down in a politically charged court battle. A second school began the process in January.

When the group came to Illinois, Huffman says, they considered trying to enact a similar law here but ultimately decided not to.

“[Parent trigger] comes from a policy perspective of where parents don’t have leverage… and are really desperate for something to happen,” Huffman says. “There is mayoral control here. There is a reform-minded school board.”

However, the group is still planning to screen “Won’t Back Down,” a pro-parent trigger film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal that is slated to come out in September.

Among Democrats for Education Reform’s priorities:

* Improving turnarounds in CPS. “They haven’t gotten it right in the high schools; they have had success in the elementaries,” Huffman says. The group plans to promote best practices by holding a policy forum in conjunction with Mass Insight, a Massachusetts consulting firm that pioneered the concept of school turnarounds.

* “Modernizing charter statutes,” including backing a recent bill to equalize charter school funding.

* Promoting blended learning using technology. The group is planning to take elected officials on a trip to Northern California this fall, likely to visit the nonprofit organization Khan Academy as well as a Rocketship Education school in the San Francisco Bay area.

This article has been updated to reflect that the Last In, First Out policy is still in effect in New York State.


#1 30 year Vet wrote 4 days 20 hours ago

Funny way to support Unions

I may be wrong, but I think running ads that are anti-Union makes you anti-union. You can't have it both ways, DFER . Your ads place the blame for the lack of a contract on the union, and none on CPS. It takes 2 to tango - and the one offering the 2% and nothing better is CPS. It's not like they offered 5% and the union turned it down.

Get real on your purpose . I would respect it more that you just came right out and said the truth, for a change.


#2 College Academic wrote 4 days 20 hours ago

Campus Activity

Democrats for Education Reform are also recruiting students on college campuses through a group called Students for Education Reform. This group is very attractive to naive students who become convinced that turnarounds, merit pay, and testing accountability are positive measures. Please be aware that this may be happening on your campus.


#3 Anonymous wrote 4 days 20 hours ago


What a bunch of anti-union outsiders.


#4 Anonymous wrote 4 days 19 hours ago

Dear WBBM780 and DFER--I'm not a CTU or union member

I am a morning listener to 780. When that ad comes on, my skin crawls. It is phoney, overdone and plays to a stereo-type. I dislike it so much, I switch the station. Read that 780, I now go somewhere else when you play that ad.

A silver lining?--from reading here and Chicago papers, DFER helped the CTU get their 90%.


#5 Mad As Hell wrote 4 days 19 hours ago

DFER is a JOKE!!!

"When Huffman saw Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to change the school system, she lobbied the national Democrats for Education Reform group for months in an effort to pique their interest in Illinois. By January, it had worked, and she landed a full-time job"........HAHAHA!!! So basically you lobbied for your job and now you do the mayors dirty work. You solicit parent and employee phone numbers and email accounts so you can bombard them with critical information that the pied piper has told you to say.

And then you say "The group also gathered 3,200 petition signatures in support of Emanuel’s longer school day." HAHAHAHA!!! again. That's great we all agree with the longer day, but we are not working for FREE!! Your Anti-Union group that's hiding behind radio ads really need to let the public know why the ads are saturated in the black communites and on black radio stations. I have not heard one ad on any of the white stations except for one and that's on the AM dial. You people and the mayor make me sick to my stomach. Thank goodness we voted to authorize a strike vote. Chicago is a different kind of animal and believe me, what worked in California and New York City simply won't happen here. So take your scumbad politics and tell the mayor to go shove it up his ass with that missing finger!!


#6 Concerned citizen wrote 4 days 18 hours ago


In a May 3, 2012 article in the Sun Times, director Huffman says:

"Strikes are extremely dangerous, which is what makes them effective as political tools. This is why it is so upsetting that the Chicago Teachers Union has been so reckless about playing the strike card. This does not sound like a union that has any respect for the principles of collective bargaining, where both sides work in good faith at the bargaining table. Rather, union bosses like Karen Lewis seem intent on thuggery and intimidation to get their way outside of the process. "

"Union Bosses?" "Thuggery?" Does this seem like support for the teachers union? Are these Democrats talking?


#7 Anonymous wrote 4 days 17 hours ago

Rhee Wants Some of That, Too

Interesting coincidence? Michelle Rhee wants to be friends with unions now too.


#8 Kesi Foster wrote 4 days 13 hours ago

Last in, First Out New York City


I don't believe "last in, first out," was eliminated in New York City. The bill backed by Mayor Bloomberg passed in the republican majority NY Senate but never passed in the Assembly, and never got the support of Governor Cuomo.


#9 Vinicius de Mello wrote 4 days 11 hours ago

DFER.. Corporate Big Money Tools

First they need to take Democratic off their name and change Reformer to DEFORMERS. Simple, none of their proposals has any backing by research. Ridiculous!


#10 Anonymous wrote 4 days 3 hours ago

That's very mean.

That's very mean.


#11 Ed Dziedzic wrote 4 days 2 hours ago

Democrats for Corporate Takeovers

Rudolph, Nieves-Huffman, Brizard. The billionaires have bought your souls. Cheap.


#12 close observer wrote 4 days 2 hours ago


So why is DEFR reluctant to disclose their donors? Just speculating, but my guess is that if the donors were exposed, the hypocrisy of using the title "Democrats" would be too evident. Check out the current Reader article about Emperor Rahm and his Republican buddies.


#13 Don wrote 3 days 22 hours ago


I've been a DFER supporter for a year. From my non-teacher point of view they have their policies and priorities just about right.

Few democrats believe the CTU has any real solutions to improving CPS schools. (Not that there's much faith in CPS solutions either)

But I think DFER is somewhat disingenuous about a strike being deeply damaging. A few weeks less school next year isn't going to make much difference. I think the potential strike gives them a reason to run ads and increase exposure.


#14 xian wrote 3 days 21 hours ago


If CPS doesn't relent on some of their crazier positions, a strike would be overwhelmingly beneficial to CPS students.

In almost every single strike in history, any missed instructional time is made up later in the year. Since that time would be conducted with better teaching and learning conditions as won through the strike, students would benefit.


#15 Vinicius DeMello wrote 3 days 21 hours ago

Sorry Don, DFER suffers from Lack of Research to back policies!

Don, but you knew that! We don't need corporate tools selling snake oil to us. The have negative affects on students. Just to help you out. Norway and Finland have similar demographics. What is different are the educational policies. Norway has larger classrooms, TFA like teacher development, high stakes exams... Finland doesn't do that BS. Who scores higher? Finland.. Sound research based educational policies are important and make a difference.


#16 urbanteach wrote 2 days 5 hours ago

Reporting the truth versus the spin please

Huffman is a devotee of Milton Friedman. You can click a link on his site to request her appearance. What does her leader (Mr. Market Place) say about teacher unions? You can find this on his site:" In each case, a dedicated group of citizens makes a well-thought through proposal. It initially garners widespread public support. The educational establishment – administrators and teachers' unions – then launches an attack that is notable for its mendacity but is backed by much larger financial resources than the proponents can command and succeeds in killing the proposal." I ask that Catalyst please do the research: How does imposing the market place in the classroom impact learning? I would love for one news source to really do their homework. Huffman can say what she wants but you don't have to believe it.


#17 Anonymous wrote 1 day 5 hours ago

Catalyst Reporting

This is an excellent article. What would we do without Catalyst? I would like many more like. I hope you will examine blended learning from a number of perspectives. Here are a few of them. Thanks!

For example:

Why is DFER promoting the Rocketship Education charter model?

Who is behind Rocketship?

Could they also be behind DFER and SFER?

Hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson is an active proponent of DFER; he has a weekly or so blog he writes promoting DFER and its initiatives. Interview him on his support of DFER, and who his fellow supporters are.

College Connections

Stand's Juan Jose Gonzalez attended Princeton. Where did Huffman go to college? Are they former TFA-ers?

Define how Emanuel envisions blended learning for CPS.

How will it affect class sizes?

How much screen time will children be required to have?

What does the American Association of Pediatricians say about screen time for kids?

What research shows the efficacy of blended learning for K-12 children?

Pls. identify the researchers.

What investment in technology will blended learning require?

In Chicago, and in the nation?

In Chicago, how many schools have the resources to begin blended learning under the longer school day next year? (Keller?)

Describe how blended learning will be incorporated into a typical school day for a K-8 elementary school.

Will Apple I-Pads be the delivery platform?

Who provides the Rocketship curriculum?

Who provides the tests?

Milwaukee just invited Rocketship in.

(Their voucher program is the longest in the nation and not producing better results for students.)

How is Rocketship blended learning going there?

What companies benefit from the major investment in technology required to implement Rocketship Education Charter?

Are any of them contributors to DFER?

Do hedge fund managers like NYC's Whitney Tilson and Chicago's Bruce Rauner invest in these companies?

What private equity and hedge fund managers support DFER?

Is it true that Wall Street projects 30% growth for the for-profit education industry?

Show us the Rocketship curriculum for 3rd, 6th and 8th grades.

Ask kids what they find appealing about it.

Can you guess-estimate how long the appeal will last?

Can you ask Milwaukee students who are using it?

How is it different from the K-12 Inc. Virtual School program that CPS now offers to parents who home school?


How many middle school students will sit in front of a computer for instruction day after day?

We know that virtual learning has a high drop out rate across the country. What is the drop out rate in Chicago?

What makes CPS think kids won't turn off? Any research?

Galvanize Meter:

Is that why Gates has funded the bracelet that he hopes to use to monitor student engagement in learning? (Diane Ravitch, Fred and Mike Klonsky and many others have written about this experiment on our kids.)

Is it b/c he knows that young kids will turn off when forced to cram via a computer program for hours each day, for years?

Is blended learning the real reason why DofE and Emanuel are pushing for public schools to adopt extended learning time -- to accomodate the time the computer programs like Rocketship require from the students?

There is no research that shows ELT alone improves studetn outcomes -- in fact, the opposite. (R.Rossi Sun Timeswrote well on this.)

Explain the role that Jeb Bush's digital learning non-profit organization plays in promoting blended learning.

Please interview Tom Vander Ark and former Virginia Gov. Tom Wise on what they see blended learning doing for school district budgets -- once implementation is complete.

What are the start-up costs, typically.

Will savings eventually come from firing teachers and replacing them with aides who monitor the kids during the computer sessions?

Is that how the new programs are supposed to be paid for?

Or will property taxes increase anyway to fund the technology infrastructure required?

Is that what is behind the Chicago Board of Ed's second maximum property tax increase in two years?

Even though Emanuel cut the capital budget by $550 mln to close a $600-700 mln deficit?

Does Wise consider teachers to be the "sages on the stage?" Does Vander Ark believe that if you add two more hours in a school day, and two more weeks in a school year, with blended learning you can subtract two teachers?

(See the Aug. 18, 2011, c-span video archives. They made these statements at Georgetown U. C-Span video on the web site has been edited to remove these statements, however, and to show only the audience reaction that was favorable. On that day the audience was clearly skeptical, but you won't see that on the video, as they only kept footage of a head-bobbing acolyte and cut all critical questions which were asked.)

Finally, mention Gates central rolel in this. It is said that he, like Steve Jobs, has Asperger's Syndrome. Assuming there are social/emotional deficits, could that explain in part the extraordinary initiatives being proposed, which indicate that a computer can easily replace a teacher when it comes to teaching K-12 students?


#18 Don wrote 1 day 4 hours ago

What's with the questions?

The Rocketship model actually encompasses is documented. But hey, if it contains new ideas, and some wealthy people have donated, it must be part of a right wing conspiracy, right?

Rocketship is non-profit, BTW.


#19 Anonymous wrote 1 day 4 hours ago

New ideas

What are the new ideas?


#20 rharris wrote 21 hours 35 min ago

Thank you, Kesi

We have verified that you are correct, and we have updated the story to reflect this.


#21 Corrections wrote 6 hours 15 min ago

With all due respect, Ms.

With all due respect, Ms. Harris, shouldn't Catalyst have verified Ms. Huffman's claims before publication?


#22 Anonymous wrote 58 min 42 sec ago

Please don't forget

This is the second time in recent weeks that an outstanding Catalyst reporter has been manipulated by someone pushing Corporate Education Reform to repeat an inaccuracy.

The first was when Mary Fergus said that ISBE data showed that there were less strikes since SB7 passed and essentially called CTU President a liar. Fergus was the liar. Catalyst when the inaccuracy was brought to light edited the story to cover for Fergus.

Now this.

I hope that Catalyst remembers which sources are credible and which ones are happy to bend the truth to serve their ends.

Incidentally, an apology to President Lewis is probably in order.


#23 CPS Parent wrote 6 sec ago

DFER is tied to Charter School proliferation

That is why they are reluctant to name their donors. Look at their Board which have all cast their lot with the Charter Movement. I'm a fan of reform, but replacing the CTU by closing public schools and opening charter schools is not the answer either, unless charters can also guarantee that special education resources will be included in EVERY charter school, that teachers will receive fair pay in charter schools (and prevent the teacher turnover problem that charter schools seem to be having), and that charter schools who don't cherry pick or skim (even passively) can outperform public schools. When we establish that charters work, let's talk. Am I in support of the longer school day? Yes, as long as it is funded and that time is spent productively. Am I a fan of getting rid of poor performing teachers? Yes, but our performance management models of teacher thus far have been invalid and ridiculous. Am I a fan of tenure? I like the fact that teacher's cannot be fired for teaching evolution vs. creationism, for example. But I don't like that poor performing teachers or "coasting" teachers get retained. I want it both ways, we need to figure that out. I don't like organizations that aren't transparent and that is why the DFER phone call at the end of the school year completely turned me off. I am a Democrat, too. But I hate corporate wonks masquerading as education professionals. I've been both, and I side with the educators.



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