Stand for Children's Jonah Edelman under fire for videotaped comments that reveal hardball tactics

By Ken Libby of Portland, Oregon. Ken is a Democratic activist and education policy blogger. Learn more at his blog, Schools Matter.

Recently, the CEO of a Portland-based nonprofit found himself criticized for remarks he made at a major conference.

Jonah Edelman, leader of the Portland-based education advocacy organization Stand for Children, spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the organization's work in Illinois. He summarized Stand's work in the state, particularly their efforts to revamp teacher hiring, evaluation, and termination practices. Aspen posted a video of the event and, for a variety of reasons that are clear to any viewer, it attracted a great deal of attention from those in the education field.

Here are two essential clips. The first includes nearly 15 minutes of Edelman's controversial comments. The second shorter video includes a legislator talking about Stand's threats against candidates, as well as some of Edelman's comments.

Here is a link to the full video.

The three unions involved in the negotiation of the bills issued a terse response. Illinois Senator Kimberly Lightford, who led the negotiations around the bill, slammed Edelman in a the Sun-Times.

Edelman eventually offered an extended apology for what he said.

Why did this video cause such a stir from a variety of people across the educational spectrum? On the jump...

First, Jonah's account is a badly distorted version of what happened in Illinois. In reality, Stand influenced the process mostly by proposing a truly awful bill, which forced unions and others to craft a far more reasonable piece of legislation. Here's what really happened:

Stand entered Illinois late last year, established a PAC, and quickly raised over $3 million from wealthy donors. Along with another advocacy organization, Advance Illinois, Stand proposed an aggressive piece of legislation called "Performance Counts." The bill would have stripped away tenure (which is the right to due process, not a job for life); outlawed the use of seniority in layoff decisions; and effectively eliminated the unions' right to strike. The bill had a few highly publicized hearings, but ultimately did not pass during the 2010 lame duck session.

In response, a coalition of unions, business groups, and advocacy organizations crafted a piece of legislation called "Accountability for All," also known as SB7. While some teachers were upset with the bill, particularly the provisions that make it difficult for the Chicago Teachers Union to strike, SB7 was a major improvement over the earlier bill pushed by Stand and Advance Illinois. Seniority remains a factor in layoff decisions, but is not the only factor; teachers retain their tenure; and unions retain the right to strike. It should be noted, however, that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for CTU to strike since 75% of all members - not 75% of voting members - will need to approve. In other words, just as Bill Sizemore tried to stop school levies with a double-majority requirement, Stand worked to stop strikes with an even tougher standard.

Second, the comments show the hardball politics Stand plays. They not only threatened lawmakers as described by Senator Langford in the video above and used them as "political vehicle[s]," but they also used their substantial finances to hire an army of lobbyists. Edelman boasts that Stand "hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them."

Third, Edelman's tone and attitude about unions came though quite clearly. For some, the fact that he boasted so publicly (and inaccurately!) about some behind-the-scenes sausage-making leaves one wondering why he couldn't simply tell the truth about Stand's role. For others, including most teachers, it's the unforgettable and palpable anti-union sentiment reverberating through his remarks. While there is room for criticisms of teachers' unions and the teacher evaluation process, these criticisms must be based on mutual trust and a genuine desire to help teachers improve their craft. Suffice to say, any trust that existed has been broken, and Stand will have a much more difficult time convincing teachers that they're trying to improve the profession.

While most of the video and surrounding media storm has focused on his remarks about Illinois, Jonah offered a brief comment about a few northwest states, too:

"Unfortunately, Washingon, Oregon, and California, you got to play win-lose politics because of the way the unions operate. So you can't be shy about that."

Jonah may find it necessary to play "win-lose" politics in Oregon, but that strategy may seriously backfire. Recently, a parent volunteer stepped down from her role as a co-leader of a Stand team in Portland. She cited Stand's diminishing support for stronger education funding and increased focus on questionable reform proposals as reasons for her departure, including Stand's at least tacit approval of a tax cut on capital gains income that would primarily benefit the wealthy while taking millions away from schools and other public services. Other volunteers and supporters have expressed their concerns about Stand's recent involvement in education issues, including their work as a social media and outreach partner for "Waiting for 'Superman,'" support of the research-challenged (to put it kindly) Race to the Top program, and some of the ultra-conservative, big money backers supporting Stand.

Over the past few years, Stand has undergone some major changes. This was an organization that used to focus on adequate school funding, child health issues, affordable child care, ensuring small class sizes for students, and other truly progressive improvements.

Nowadays, Stand is more likely to parachute into a new state in support of highly-questionable education legislation than to advocate for any of the aforementioned reforms. This is a very unfortunate change, and one that has not received adequate attention.

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    Stand has played an important role here in Oregon and children are better off for their work. But they do play hard ball politics at times in ways that don't benefit their agenda. They've become so much a part of the political establishment that at times I'm concerned they don't recognize the insider game they play sometimes make them part of the problem and not the solution. As an ally with Stand on many issues (but not all), I remember with fondness how they began their work by building coalitions. They should return to that model and work closer with our teachers and parents, churches and others who share the concerns and admire their passion.

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        Even Stand asserts that it is going through changes. According to Sue Levin, Executive Director of Stand for Children-Oregon, "2010 was a year of laying foundations. Last year, Stand for Children transitioned from an organization focused primarily on education funding to a pioneer of Oregon's education reform movement."

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        I worked with them alongside churches and other advocacy groups on the Children's Investment Fund when it first came before voters. That was a good example of coalition building.

        But clearly, you have more experience with them.

        My most recent experience with Stand, in 2010, was not very good. I found them overly political and off their game, as it turned out.

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        I had heard a long time ago that the org was actually "Stand for Jonah."

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      They should return to that model and work closer with our teachers and parents, churches and others who share the concerns and admire their passion.

      I think many of the people concerned about Stand's direction would agree.

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    I think there is now a great need in Oregon Democratic politics for education reform organizations that, while supporting more funding for education, and even playing hardball politics, condition that additional funding support on significant reforms that the teacher unions do not now support. The Democratic Party should not just be the party of a better funded but still status quo education system.

    I’d urge Stand for Children to broaden the issues they support to include more online education, stronger foreign language programs, and high school study abroad programs (all changes resisted or opposed by teacher unions). These are all, in many ways, more transformative and significant to student futures than tenure, evaluation, layoff and strike issues.

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    I predict Oregon's Stand for Children leadership team will carefully review the incident. Until they have the opportunity to do so I'll withhold comment.

    Questioning Edleman's motives and judgement by the leadership is certainly in order as well as the advisibility of him remaining in his current role.

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    What must his mother have thought?

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    For years Stand for Children has gone down to the legislature and fought for more money for schools. Great! But then they have come back to Portland and played a major role (maybe the major role) in creating the inequiites in Portland Public Schools which made it much more difficult for poor children to get a decent education. It is nice to see their true colors coming to light for everyone to see. They don't just need a return to their roots, but a complete overhaul to make sure they are not just a tool of the more political segments of Portland's school politics but an organization which cares about all children, not just the children of the politically astute.

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    Substance News describes SFC in this way:

    a front group for the wealthiest people in the USA, the same people who are pushing the privatization agenda to wreck public schools, vilify teachers, and privatize the public’s wealth, adding to the personal wealth of men like James Crown (and his family), Kenneth Griffin (and his entities), and Chicago’s infamous Pritzker tribe of billionaires.

    I have asked the Oregonian several times over the past couple years to do a story about SFC. When I called them earlier this week to talk about the video, Betsy Hammond said she would do a story sometime in the future (distant future) but didn't think the video was worthy of a story at this time. My concern is that many parents and educators do "remember with fondness how they began" and continue to donate to an organization that does real harm to children and teachers. You can read more about Jonah E. at the Great Schools for America blog.

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      didn't think the video was worthy of a story at this time

      That's hilarious. Regardless of what one thinks of Stand for Children, there's clearly news here.

      The founder of an Oregon-based advocacy group is under fire - including possibly pressure to resign - because of (at minimum) ill-timed and untoward comments... sorry, but that's news.

      And I'm quite certain that other journalists in this town are on the story, even if Ms. Hammond isn't.

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    I have a friend who was recently on the verge of being hired part-time to teach practical woodworking in an area high school district until the union intervened. It was the contention of the union that since none of the laid-off teachers were qualified to teach hands-on shop, the subject should not be taught. Instead a laid-off teacher was hired to sit in study hall with students who could actually have been learning something.

    Incidents like this lend credence to the accusation that unions are far more interested in keeping jobs for their members than they are in advancing the educations of students.

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      It's also true that stories like this often get passed along person to person, changing along the way, until they no longer resemble the facts.

      Unless there are names attached, and documentation included, I tend to ignore anecdotes as evidence of, well, anything.

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        ....and I should mention that I don't intend to assert that your story is false. Just that for every story like this one, there's one on the other side.

        And without either verifiable details, or a statistical analysis, these "I have a friend/cousin/guy-I-once-dated" stories just aren't persuasive to me.

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          I don't disagree with your premise. And I don't believe for a minute in John Stossel-style journalism - expanding an anecdote or two to confirm a broad contention. On the other hand, as I informed Ms. Reynolds-Ward, his is not my story to tell. I'm not going to risk his future employment possibilities by providing details that would allow a union official or a school district to blackball him for going public.

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        For example, one possibility that didn't get passed on is that it wasn't necessarily the union but the district office that discovered they'd have potential liability issues unless they had a certified, licensed teacher teaching that class. But the official word is that "the teacher's union objected" rather than "the district insurers" or "the district lawyers" objected, as part of a spin management ploy.

        Another kicker is that this is described as a "high school district." I don't believe any such individual districts exist any more, thanks to the consolidation measures that passed during the last big waves of Kitzhaber reforms. That makes me wonder about the validity of the story.

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          He is a certified licensed teacher who has taught at Lewis & Clark, left teaching for private industry for a couple of decades, came back to teaching, got re-certified, worked for a year at a Portland HS, got laid off and has been doing fill in jobs for two years applying for teaching jobs. This one in, Columbia County, was his first real shot.

          Your post is snotty, condescending, and accusatory. I do NOT make things up to call the teaching profession into question. The greater problem here is funding for schools and I acknowledge that but I'm not about to rat out this man's name or the specific school because that would damned well put an end to ANY possibility he'd find a teaching job in the greater Portland area.

          So, stuff that in your pipe.

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            Given the location, I'm still suggesting that the union may not be the one at fault but rather nepotism within the district. Does exist, sadly enough.

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    Dena, interesting, SFC gives poor kids in Portland dental work while disrupting and wrecking their educations.

    P.S. Most of what you supported in the legislature either has nothing directly to do with children, mostly aimed at adults, or makes education in Oregon worse.

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    I am a long time and disgruntled Stand member. I have actually been "punished" by them nearly two years ago for vehemently (and internally) opposing some aspects of their move to reform. But I do agree with Dena Hellums that there are a great many dedicated local leaders still active in the organization and who have contiuned to do good things in Oregon even as the national movement has gone pretty much "rogue" in its relationships to teacher's unions. I, too, look forward to hearing from Oregon staff on these issues.

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      Dena and Rex, I think your comments are a good caution. Jonah clearly blew it (though I am reminded of Michael Kinsley's definition of "gaffe" - when a politician accidentally tells the truth).

      But it's worth giving local leadership a chance to react and weigh in before everyone gets tarred with the same brush. (And they are welcome to submit a guest column here.)

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        The local leadership, particularly the Portland chapter, is doing what it can to whitewash the Washington Post article that came from one of the two recently resign co-leaders of the Laurelhurst chapter, which by the way is one of the most (if not the most) active chapters in the state.

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    This reeks of ALEC.

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    Is there a written transcript of the above videos?

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