Seth Sandronsky

Democratic Education Reformers

The recent and expensive 2012 election is over. However, public school education reformers on the Democratic side of the aisle are still pushing ahead across the US.

Take the US Conference of Mayors. In the blue state of California, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a Democrat, is USCM Second Vice-President and Education Reform Task Force Chair

In his USCM capacity, Johnson signed a statement about the teachers’ union in Chicago and the Windy City’s public schools after a late summer 2012 labor action ended. It is worth noting that like the USCM, the Chicago teachers’ union also backs education reform in public schools.

It is just that the union’s ideas for reform are at odds with those of the USCM, a nonpartisan group of elected officials such as Johnson and USCM President Philadelphia Mayor Ray Nutter. For instance, the Chicago union won the right for teachers to make their own lesson plans, not a concept of education reform that Johnson favors.

On that conceptual note, when Johnson spoke in Connecticut last fall calling for an appointed Board of Education in Trumbull and Fairfield to replace an elected one, John Bagley, a former NBA player like Johnson, protested in a Connecticut Post column.

It is unclear if Johnson, a member of the Democrats for Education Reform, was speaking on behalf of this group, as he has done at its national forums. Crucially, in its statement of principles on US public schools, students and teachers, the DFER makes no mention of childhood poverty rates.

Such poverty, of course, indicates the nation’s problem with economic injustice. According to the US Census Bureau, “21.9% of children under 18 (16.1 million) lived in poverty in 2011,” statistically unchanged form 2010. Census figures for 2009 childhood poverty rates are: 17% for whites, 35.3% for blacks, 13.6% for Asian and Pacific Islanders and 32.5% for Hispanics.

Asked to explain how Johnson’s speech in Connecticut helps public schools in Sacramento, his former spokesman Joaquin McPeek said the mayor was in Bridgeport to support his fellow US Conference of Mayors colleague, Mayor Bill Finch, in his education initiatives.

“As Chair of the USCM Education Reform Task Force, Mayor Johnson is often requested to speak about education issues to diverse audiences around the country,” McPeek said in an email. He added that no taxpayer dollars were involved in Johnson’s travel to Bridgeport.

In Bagley’s column, he writes: “Maybe ‘KJ’ and his `reformers’ can explain why the city of New Haven, which has an appointed board, has more failing schools than Bridgeport. This is true, despite the presence on their appointed Board of Education of the former director of CONNCAN, the Connecticut leader of takeover policies.”

If a mayor appoints members of a local school board of education then citizens lose their right to vote for their representatives. Meanwhile, a mayor’s power over education policy surges.

The DFER and USCM reformers’ vision of education reform prioritizes high-stakes tests that compel teachers to drill pupils in preparation throughout the school day and year. Schools with low test scores are at-risk of takeover.

Takeover means upending public schools with low test scores. Typically, the takeover agent is a charter school operator who receives public tax dollars.

Mayor Johnson knows. He was involved in 2003 as CEO of the nonprofit St. HOPE (Helping Others Pursue Excellence) Development Corp. that, with funds in part from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft Corp.), took over as charter operator of Sacramento High School after students’ reading and math scores on standardized achievement tests fell.

Johnson co-wrote an editorial with members of the black church: “If we truly believe that education is the civil rights issue of our time, we must step up to the plate and demand justice. And by encouraging legislatures to put measures in place that will empower parents and guarantee great teachers in the classroom, we have the ability to educate every child in our communities, regardless of ZIP code.

“In addition, we should utilize the Stand Up and StudentsFirst websites as resources for learning more about how to advocate for education reforms in our communities.”

StudentsFirst is the anti-union tax-exempt, nonprofit education reform group that Johnson’s wife, Michelle Rhee, helms in 34 states. Stand Up for Sacramento Schools is the 501 (c)(3) non-profit school reform group that Johnson founded in 2009 with a commitment of $500,000 from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

Between Jan. 19 and June 5, 2012, the Walton Family Foundation, philanthropic arm of Walmart, Inc., the global retailer, donated a total of $500,000 to Mayor Johnson’s school reform group. Such corporate funding makes him and fellow Democrats forces to reckon with in the battles over reforming the nation’s public schools.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2013

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