The money behind the successful lawsuit against teacher tenure in California was never a mystery: The bulk of funds came from David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, who I've written about here.
But now, as a similar lawsuit moves forward in New York, spearheaded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, there are questions and controversies about where the money is coming from.
While I speculated recently that David Welch's organization, Student Matters, might expand with new funding to finance suits in New York and elsewhere, Welch's outfit doesn't seem to be putting up any money for Brown's suit. (Although he has offered Brown advice, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.)
So who is? Well, when queried by a reporter for Politico, Brown declined to name the donors to the advocacy group she's started, the Partnership for Educational Justice, except to say that they come from both political parties.
Carl Korn, a spokesperson for New York State United Teachers, told Politico that PEJ was an "astroturf" group funded by right-wing “extremists," and added that "Campbell Brown ought to disclose her donors who are funding this attack on working people and the rights of teachers... We will vigorously defend due process and seniority rights against these attacks by billionaire hedge fund managers.”
It could literally be years before we know where PEJ's money is coming from. Or perhaps never, given that nonprofits don't have to disclose their funders and there's also no requirement for individuals to publicly disclose where they donate funds, assuming they don't channel those gifts through a foundation.
In all likelihood, though, the donors behind PEJ—which, by the way, has only four staff, including Brown, and has recruited a pro bono legal team—are the usual suspects. It will be the same donors who give money to pro-charter and ed reform groups, particularly those with a big presence in New York: Teach for America, Achievement First, the New Teacher Project, and so on. (Reshma Singh, the executive director of PEJ, previously worked for both Teach for America and Achievement First.)
By and large, these donors are not conservative ideologues, as Korn suggests. Many are centrist, and some would even consider themselves progressives. Before David Welch took on the teacher tenure fight, his biggest donations had gone to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a liberal environmental group, and he has never made any political donations to Republican candidates. Many of the donors to Teach for America and Achievement First also donate to organizations that have a progressive agenda.
The reflex in today's polarized political climate is to analyze every issue and every funder along a traditional left-right axis. But education reform work defies such analysis and, in particular, has split the Democratic coalition. Going after teacher tenure is likely to be even more popular with some Democrats than promoting charter schools, since the rigid work rules governing teachers strike many people as, well, crazy.
And, yes, the managerial class that has wealth is likely to be especially open to an appeal by somebody like Campbell Brown to take on tenure, since anybody who has run an organization, whether in business or the nonprofit world, could never imagine having to go through extensive administrative hearings to lay off an employee, being forced to fire the most junior staff first or raising salaries based strictly on seniority.
But Carl Korn is absolutely right about one thing: Campbell Brown should disclose her donors. As a former journalist, she should value the public's right to know. And doing so would surely reveal a list of donors that contains few surprises.
One last thought: While the specter of private money seeking changes to public education through litigation may or may not unsettle you, it's definitely not a new tactic in New York State or elsewhere. The Education Law Center, funded by a variety of major foundations, has been using this strategy for many years, and sponsored the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which challenged how New York finances its public schools.
Interestingly, ELC also has an Education Justice program, with a website with a very similar URL to PEJ's. You can bet that they'll be some confusion about these two entities in the weeks and months to come. So just to clear: The funders behind the ELC, like the Ford Foundation, are not also behind PEJ.