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Rhode Island: Dark Money Backs “Parent Group” for More Charter Schools

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Maurice Cunningham specializes in digging up the facts about Dark Money (political contributions where the donors’ names are hidden). His expose of Dark Money from the Waltons and other billionaires turned the public against a 2016 state referendum in Massachusetts to expand the number of charter schools, and it was defeated. I wrote about this campaign in Slaying Goliath.

In this post, published here for the first time, he exposes a “parent group” demanding more charter schools in Rhode Island.

Cunningham writes:

Parents who care about public education need to be wary of dark money fronts masquerading as concerned reformers. These are lavishly funded efforts with the goal of privatizing public schools. Rhode Islanders should take a long hard look at Stop the Wait RI.

This operation registered with the Rhode Island Secretary of State as a social welfare organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue on February 25, 2021. That status allows Stop the Wait to engage in a wide range of political activities including spending on political campaigns. The big advantage for a 501(c)(4) is that it can take in unlimited sums from individuals or corporations, spend generously on politics, and never have to disclose the names of the true donors—the real powers hiding behind the curtain. It’s dark money—political spending with the true interests hidden from the public. Stop the Wait’s web page is pretty explicit—its mission is to “preserve and expand school choice—including access to high-quality public charter schools.” Translation: privatization of public schools.

Privatizing fronts often present as an underdog group of grassroots parents. In politics though, power flows to money and so it’s key to know who is funding such groups. That’s tough with a brand new 501(c)(4) like Stop the Wait, but there are clues.

The first name on the Board of Directors is Janie SeguiRodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez works for the charter school chain Achievement First which is underwritten by among others, the WalMart heir Walton family. She is also on the board of a related corporation organized under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Parents Leading for Educational Equity. A 501(c)(3) can do reports, organize, advocate, communicate with the public, but can’t get into political campaigns. Contributions are tax deductible, so taxpayers subsidize this advocacy. Even though PLEE was only organized as a non-profit corporation as of July 13, 2020, only three months later, on October 19, 2020 the Rhode Island Foundation announced that PLEE was one of several organizations it had funded and offered it as an example for its new $8.5 million Equity Leadership Foundation. (It’s a little curious that a foundation funds an organization and evaluate it as a model of success in three months). The Nellie Mae Foundation was more patient—it waited all the way until December 21, 2020 before dropping two grants, one for $40,000 and the other for $120,000 into PLEE’s bank account. Actual check writers often give through donor advised funds, a tax advantaged option that keeps their interest in groups like PLEEever unknown.

Web searches indicate that PLEE has actually been around since 2018. But it couldn’t have taken in sums from foundations until it registered with the IRS. 

Ms. Rodriguez is a political veteran as well. She ran for city council in Pawtucket city wide in 2018 and in ward 5 in 2020, losing both (by two votes in ward 5). Another member of PLEErecently assailed teachers unions in a hearing over reopening Pawtucket schools. Look for more of this from PLEE and Stop the Wait. Across the country similar organizations are funded by anti-worker oligarchs like the Waltons and Charles Koch. Examples of right wing billionaire operations masquerading as parents groups include Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union

Using upbeat sounding front organizations funded by unidentified billionaires is what Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right calls “weaponizing philanthropy.” But communities can beat the billionaires. Ask questions, demand answers, accept nothing less than an accounting of the true interests behind dark money fronts like PLEE and Stop the Wait, publicize your findings, contact elected officials. This is your democracy and your public school system.

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

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