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!