Astroturf

They’re heeeeeere! Yes, we’ve been watching the astroturf groups set up shop in Pennsylvania, and now they are here in Pittsburgh. Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass. (For a great example, see this explanation of Parent Revolution, an astroturf group in California funded by venture capitalists interested in charterizing public schools through parent trigger laws.)

The first astroturf group popped up here like a weed last month just as the weather started to warm. Called “Shepherding the Next Generation,” this Washington D.C. based group received money from the Gates Foundation to start working in Pittsburgh. They’re not hiding that fact – it’s right there in small print at the bottom of the flyer they are passing out to local churches in an effort to recruit them (though it’s not on their web site). They call themselves an “alliance of Pittsburgh religious leaders who strongly support community efforts to make sure our children have the best chance at succeeding in school and later in life.” So far, sounds good, right?

Well, first of all, there is no alliance. The group just hired an organizer who has been approaching churches – especially those in our African American communities – to try to encourage them to join. Want a real alliance of religious leaders who have been actively working on public education for the past three years? Try PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, with over 50 area congregational members (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, and everything in between).

What Shepherding the Next Generation is really up to is promoting the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation: “We work to educate our clergy members about the critical elements for improving our schools, focusing on teaching effectiveness and helping kids to succeed. The clergy then, in turn, help educate their congregations and the public. … while also encouraging  Pittsburgh Schools to adopt the most effective ways to hire, retain and train good teachers.” [SNG flyer]

shepherding the next generation p1 shepherding the next generation p2

As we know, the Gates Foundation has been pouring its money into teacher evaluation programs around the country, including $40 million to the Pittsburgh Public School district for teacher evaluation. [See “The VAM Sham”] The problem with this is twofold. First, it focuses on the wrong thing. Gates and the corporate-style reformers who promote teacher evaluation will always say that teachers are the most important “in school” factor affecting learning — but really, this comes out to about 15-20% at most of measurable factors. By far the biggest influence on student learning is out-of-school factors.

And this is where poverty is the real story. So while Gates and others are pumping money into teacher evaluation and trying get “better” teachers, they refuse to acknowledge (or at least downplay) the very real role of poverty and its impact on our kids and learning. A favorite line of the corporate-reformers is that “poverty is no excuse” for student performance. But this is a huge equity issue. What if those organizations put all that money into real poverty programs? It pains me to think about our clergy here in Pittsburgh being urged to talk about fixing education by making teachers better, while ignoring poverty — the issue that should be near and dear to the hearts of all our faith leaders.

Second, even among in-school factors, we have to ask why the corporate-reformers are so focused on teachers. This starts with the assumption that we have a plague of bad teaching. And this is just not what I am seeing. Of course we want good teachers in front of every child. And of course we need to make sure that poor teachers are shown the door. (Though remember the definition of “bad” is a moving target – a “bad” teacher this year might have been great last year, and may be good next year – and much of what we really value in teaching, such as inspiring kids, cannot be measured on a high-stakes-test.) What I am seeing are teachers struggling with massive budget cuts, years of inequitable resource distribution, a drastic narrowing of the curriculum due to high-stakes-testing, and teachers battling a tidal wave of de-professionalization and vilification.

What if Shepherding the Next Generation put its time and resources into fighting for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for our schools? Or lobbied Harrisburg for charter reform that would save our districts millions of desperately needed dollars? What if it helped us have a conversation about the impact of mass school closure on communities of color? What if it worked to help us build local schools into community centers, filled with vibrant resources for the entire neighborhood? Or helped us find creative business partners to fill unused school space?

Even those who are still fans of Gates and his agenda ought to be wary of this astroturf phenomenon. Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy.

Now how about this group: the “Center for Public Justice” is another Washington D.C. based organization that just waltzed into town. In a Facebook invite that went up last week, the Center says it “has embarked on a new pilot program in the city of Pittsburgh called Christians Investing in Public Education.” What that investment will be is not clear. What is clear, however, is the Center’s evangelical religious mission. The group calls homosexuality “abnormal and immoral” and an “unhealthy form of human relationship.” [CPJ website] They oppose gay marriage and don’t believe in reproductive rights.

They do believe in our public taxpayer dollars being used to fund private religious schools, despite the fact that it’s against our state constitution. (See discussion of the Blaine Amendment, under “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”.) The Center believes that “public funding should be offered without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools parents choose.” To this end, the group explicitly promotes vouchers and religious charter schools.

The Center also wants to de-regulate what is taught in school. They argue, “Schools receiving public support, whether via vouchers or directly, should be free to hire staff and to design curricula that reflect their distinctive educational, philosophical, and religious missions.” What this really means, of course, is that teachers ought to be able to teach creationism in science class. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that this violates the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution (the separation of church and state). There is even a 2005 federal decision that came out of a Pennsylvania court case ruling that “intelligent design” and creationism are the same thing and may not be taught in public schools.

This is a hot topic right now, as a Post-Gazette report this past weekend revealed. Almost 20% of science teachers believe in creationism. And a Penn State survey found that despite the law, between 17-21% of teachers bring the concept into their classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 4-28-13] Have you seen the 4th grade “science” quiz making the rounds on Facebook this past month? It shows the astonishing way in which “young earth” creationists (who take the Bible literally and believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) are teaching school children that people and dinosaurs lived together on the planet.

Unfortunately, this Center for Public Justice group planned to host three sessions this week – using Pittsburgh Public School space – to meet with parents, teachers, and school administrators. The Education Law Center verified that the school district has a facility use policy allowing all groups to request space. This is obviously a good thing as far as free speech is concerned. But it also means that our own public schools might be forced to host bigoted groups like this one bent on privatizing them right out of existence. So we have to stay vigilant about organizations that pop into town and ask lots of questions.

Fortunately, after we started doing just that last week, the Center announced that it is “postponing” its sessions. Who knows if their decision is related or if they will be back? But we better be on the lookout, because these groups with clear privatization agendas and astroturf organizations have found the road to Pittsburgh. They might be surprised to learn that Yinzer Nation is no fan of the fake stuff – even Heinz Field has real green grass for our beloved Steelers. And PNC Park sports the real stuff for our Pirates, too. Astroturf us? Git’aht!

8 thoughts on “Astroturf

  1. Thanks for shedding some light on these two groups, their respective agendas and their tactics. The astroturf metaphor is apt. There is also the astroturf group that is filling my mailbox with anti-UPMC propaganda (which I feel is supposed to somehow be linked to anti-Peduto sentiment, though I can’t figure out why). I hope the Post Gazette and the Tribune Review cover this blog post!

  2. I’m a Christian and I care about social justice. Thank you for alienating me and many others like me by slamming the Center for Public Justice without apparently speaking directly to anyone from that organization. Your movement claims to be inclusive, but it really doesn’t look that way to me.

    • The grassroots movement for public education is full of people of all faiths (and no faith) working together for our public schools — this is exactly what the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) has been doing for several years now here in Pittsburgh. The policies that the Center for Public Justice espouses are harmful to public education. Sending public taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools through vouchers, tax credit programs, and charter schools does NOT help public education. Changing the constitution to permit the teaching of creationism as science does NOT help students. Calling LGBTQI students “abnormal and immoral” does NOT promote social justice.
      I invite you to join PIIN and many other grassroots public education advocates at upcoming events this month: we will be hosting a school board candidate forum on May 8th with A+ Schools and the League of Women Voters. And on May 19th we will be sponsoring a school bus tour of Pittsburgh neighborhoods affected by school closure — disproportionately communities of color — closing with a rally for public education.

  3. Pingback: Astroturf ← NPE News Briefs

  4. I very much enjoy your posts–thanks for raising these issues. I do understand, however, the appeal of teacher effectiveness initiatives. It clearly has SOME relevance to outcomes and seems easier to address than poverty or state funding. We also haven’t done a good job measuring effectiveness. While I agree that 90% of the teachers I’ve encountered in PPS are really good, there are definitely some that are frankly just not good. I’ve switched my kids out of classrooms rather than be in a teacher of low quality, although I always feel guilty about the kids that are left there. So while it’s understandable to question the Gates Foundation’s work in this area, I think there’s value in at least pursuing better measures and using them to help improve teaching quality even more than it already is…at the same time we’re trying to address the larger issues that you talk about.

    • Jason, I agree that there is widespread appeal to the idea of evaluating teacher effectiveness — but I think we have to ask ourselves why *this* has become the sole focus of a foundation big enough to move mountains with its money. Also, using high-stakes-tests to do that evaluation is enormously problematic. I also agree with you that all our kids deserve to have a great teacher (though I would put the % of good PPS teachers higher than 90).

  5. I must begin by saying that I really appreciate your extensive work on justice in the public schools. I will be reading your blog in the future because I care very much about the children of our city (and I think that you wrote an forum piece in the PG that I also really appreciated).

    But one point of clarity within this particular post… the phrase that you pulled out from CPJ’s website about homosexuality is part of a larger quote, “Those who consider homosexuality an abnormal and unhealthy form of human relationship should, nonetheless, work to uphold the civil rights of all citizens, including those who practice homosexuality, just as they would uphold the civil rights of practicing heterosexuals who violate their marriage bonds or engage in premarital heterosexuality.”

    I understand that even this phrase ‘abnormal and unhealthy’ could be offensive, but this doesn’t seem to be the point of the sentence. The point is the civil rights. I suppose that I’m being a little defensive here… I am a Christian and it really frustrates me when we are singled out according to the most hot button issues… i.e. homosexuality and creationism… and even when Christians try to make a nuanced point, we still get slammed. Looking at CPJ’s website as a whole, it seems like you have a lot in common with their emphasis on justice issues. Why not try and work together on the things you have in common?

    • Thank you for reading the blog. I agree that folks of all stripes who care about public education as a social justice issue can and should work together. That is exactly what the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network does every day and why there is already such a strong coalition of faith, labor, and community organizations working together here in Pittsburgh.

      But I must point out that the Center’s agenda for education does NOT promote social justice for students using public schools. Their corporate-style reforms of vouchers, tax credits, religious charters, and curricula re-regulation have done nothing but HURT public school students by draining away public resources and undermining fact-based science education (and remember, the vast majority of students now using vouchers and tax credits were already enrolled in private and religious schools).

      Finally, the Center’s stated views on LGBTQI people most certainly means they are not supporting our LGBTQI students – some of the most vulnerable students in our schools today. Obviously not all Christians share the Center’s beliefs. But the Center tries to equate LGBTQI relationships with “friendships” and says, “There is no reason to single out homosexual relationships for extra public-legal recognition.” It warns that if we were to grant civil marriage benefits to LGBTQI people, we would have to grant it to all friendships. Of course, the center refuses to say “LGBTQI” or even “LGBT” – they are focused on sexual practices they fear and not real people and their identities (including social identities, gender identities, and sexual identities – they are not all the same thing).

      Just after the line you quote, the Center continues, “Abnormal and immoral practices, whether by heterosexuals or homosexuals, do not present a reason for the denial of civil rights to those who act in those ways.” The center may claim they want to protect everyone’s civil rights, but they do not want to grant the civil right of legal marriage (quite apart from religious marriage) to LGBTQI folks. And they are most certainly calling them “abnormal and immoral.”

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