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Maurice Cunningham: Who Got Suckered? Secretary Cardona or Readers of The74?

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Maurice Cunningham is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts. His specialty is following the gobs of money poured into “education reform.” His exposes of Dark Money in the 2016 charter expansion referendum was a crucial element in turning the public against the referendum (you can read more about him in his blogs and in my book Slaying Goliath.)

In this post, published here for the first time, Professor Cunningham writes about the innocence or naïveté of Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who met with a billionaire astroturf group and thought he was reaching out to ordinary parents and families.

Cunningham writes:

Who Got Suckered, Secretary Cardona or Readers of The74?

“The Pro-privatization education blog The74 recently published To Rebuild Trust with Families, Ed. Dept. Seeks Input from Outspoken Parents Group. The story purports to be about how Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona “seeks” the advice of parents and thus turns to the National Parents Union. But the National Parents Union isn’t about parents, it’s a front for oligarchs with “parents” in the name. So who got suckered here, Secretary Cardona or readers of The74?”

“Let’s start at the end of the post, with The74’s disclaimer:

Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and The City Fund provide financial support to the National Parents Union and The 74.

Let’s not stop there. Here’s an excerpt from The74’s first ever piece of NPU puffery, Mothers of Invention: Frustrated with the Educational Status Quo and Conventional Parent Organizing, Two Latinas Gave Birth to a National Parents Union.”

Marquez and Rodrigues raised seed money and funding for the recent convening from several philanthropies that fund education initiatives: The Walton Family Foundation; EdChoice; the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; National School Choice Week; the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation; and The City Fund, which in turn receives funding from Walton, the Hastings Fund, the Arnold Foundation (now Arnold Ventures), the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ballmer Group.

“Picture this. You’re a parent sitting at your kitchen table thinking about school just like millions of parents across the country. You call a friend across the country and decide to start a parents group. You’ll need some startup money so you divide up possible donors: ‘You call the Waltons, Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, and John Arnold. I’ve got Mike Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Mark Zuckerberg, and Charles Koch.’

“A few months after ‘giving birth’ Ms. Marquez disappeared from her position as secretary-treasurer. No word from NPU or The74 on what happened to her. 

“You’d have to know this to get the irony of The74 writing a headline about rebuilding “trust” with parents. Maybe rebuilding trust with the Waltons, Koch, et al. but not parents. 

“Here’s how The74’s post begins:

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Monday he wants “families at the table” as schools prepare for the fall, offering welcome news to parents who have felt shut out of efforts to help their children recover from the pandemic.

Last week, his staff took steps to fill up the guest list by contacting the National Parents Union, a network of advocacy groups that has been critical of distance learning, especially for low-income and minority students, and has pushed for schools to reopen.

On April 28, Christian Rhodes, chief of staff for the department’s Office of Elementary and Secretary of Education, met with Keri Rodrigues, National Parents Union’s founding president, and Marisol Rerucha, the group’s chief of strategy and partnerships.

Since then, the group’s representatives have been asked to work with the department’s School Climate and Discipline Work Group and the Office of Parent Engagement and Communication, and to be involved in a meeting regarding federal relief funds later this week.

“This is artful. It starts out with an actual quote from Secretary Cardona and then transitions to the only place one could go to hear the authentic voice of parents, NPU. If any of this is true, it is epically bad staff work. We can discuss corporate America’s value in education policy but Gates, Walton et al. have no problem getting a seat at the table. They just shouldn’t get one masquerading as parents. 

“Back to that kitchen table conversation. ‘Oh, and once we line up the Waltons and Gates and those other billionaires, we’ll need a chief of strategy and partnerships. Every parent group needs one of those.’

“Just wondering, who was the source for this information?”

“They feel like we represent a really important constituency,” Rodrigues said. “We were very clear with them. We’re not here just to be disseminating information from [the department]. We need to be informing policy.”

“It appears that the source was Ms. Rodrigues, not only a mother of invention but now able to read the feelings of DOE personnel. It doesn’t look like The74 spoke to any DOE source.”

The department’s invitation to the organization to be part of its “kitchen cabinet” follows accusations that the teachers unions have had greater access to the secretary and the administration than other interest groups. The National Parents Union represents groups that have largely blamed unions for slowing down the reopening process and say schools have failed their children during the pandemic. Parent organizations were not represented during Cardona’s March 24 reopening summit, and in early April, Rodrigues said she was “furious” that the department had not yet reached out to any groups within the network. With states facing a June 7 deadline to submit plans to the department for spending American Rescue Plan funds, some of those local groups now want to have more say in how districts spend that money.

“‘Kitchen cabinet’”? Here is something very basic from the concept of principal-agent theory. A principal, here the lead investor Walton Family Foundation, employs an agent, here Ms. Rodrigues, to pursue the goals of the principal. So you have an agent of the Walton family and its wealthy allies in Secretary Cardona’s “kitchen cabinet.” 

“Let’s continue with that paragraph because it’s really funny: “accusations that the teachers unions have had greater access.” With a link! But the link has nothing to do with accusations about teachers unions, it is to a Today.com story where First Lady Jill Biden is praising teachers for their matchless contributions to children’s development, Jill Biden honors fellow teachers in her 1st official event as first lady. I cannot make this up. 

“So who has made accusations against teachers unions? National Parents Union! Which is exactly what we should expect from an agent working for the anti-union Waltons and Koch.

“States are looking at revisiting what it means to have families engaged,” Cardona said at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference. “This pandemic taught us that we have to be nimble, we have to be flexible and we have to meet families where they are.”

As part of his “Help is Here” tour to local schools, mostly in the Northeast, the secretary has interacted with some parents who don’t represent particular advocacy groups. And Rodrigues said her group is directing the department to other organizations “doing important work.”

Cunningham concludes:

“Wait a minute, Secretary Cardona has already been meeting with real parents? I imagine one of the groups Ms. Rodrigues will be recommending is Massachusetts Parents United, which she also “founded” with millions in Walton backing and where the organizations Form 990 tax return shows that she was compensated $189,000 in 2019. 

“Here’s more artistry from The74, the very next paragraph:

“Rachel Thomas, a spokeswoman for the education department, said working with parents is “critical” to addressing academic inequities made worse by the pandemic.

“It’s with parents’ partnership that we can build our education system back better than it was before, and make sure our schools are welcoming environments that work for all students, not just some,” she said.

“The placement invites the reader to conclude that Ms. Thomas was responding to Ms. Rodrigues. But there’s no evidence she was. It’s just boilerplate. 

“The story goes on some, I provided a link above.

“National Parents Union is a sucker’s game. The question is, who got suckered, Secretary Cardona, his staff, or the readers of The74

“Or all three?”

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, democracy, and oligarchy.]

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