Portland national advocacy group says big-money donors don't guide agenda

A day after the Tribune reported online that Portland's Stand for Children had landed in the hot seat, dozens of parents are weighing in on the complex role of money and politics in education.

A recent video from the Aspen Ideas Festival and a Washington Post blog that put Portland's Stand for Children on the hot seat - a story the Tribune reported online on Tuesday - touched off a debate focusing on the million-dollar question: Do big-money backers drive an organization's agenda?

For example, is it cause for concern that two of the biggest education philanthropists gave money to promote Stand for Children's efforts last year? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $3.5 million and the Walton Family Foundation gave $1.3 million.

According to Oregon Stand for Children Communication and Policy Director Kim Melton, Stand's national organization received the Gates money, but the Oregon chapter 'did not receive any of the money and did not benefit directly or indirectly from it.'

'Thus far, Stand for Children in Oregon has not utilized any money from the Walton Foundation,' Melton says. 'However, this year it is possible that Stand in Oregon could receive up to $30,000, a fraction of the organization's total budget.'

Parent Steve Rawley, founder of the PPS Equity blog, has voiced concerns for years about the role of big money in education.

Skeptics are tossing around a new term, 'Astroturf' organization - which are pseudo-grassroots groups driven by an agenda set by their well-heeled donors.

Defenders of Stand for Children, however, adamantly dispute that and say the organization has maintained its independence and success as a true grassroots organization, with a list of legislative successes that speak for themselves.

'I think it's healthy to be cautious,' Dana Hepper, Stand for Children's Oregon advocacy director told the Tribune on Tuesday. 'I was a teacher, I understand how frustrating it can be to teach under No Child Left Behind and not have the autonomy you want. There's both a healthy skepticism and an unhealthy skepticism. If people can look at the work we have done and make decisions about how they feel about the work, that's healthy. We welcome it.'

No change in direction

Hepper, who has been Stand for Children's lobbyist since 2007, says typically the group forms a task force with members from around the state to discuss potential legislative priorities. That was not the case in the fall, since she was on maternity leave.

Instead, she says, she put together a list of 20 or so potential agenda items and asked about two dozen teachers for their feedback. Half a dozen teachers came to the final meeting, where she presented the final agenda.

'That group felt confident saying this is our legislative agenda,' she says.

The list went to Stand's state strategy team, which includes representatives from the eight local chapters, from Portland to Medford. They agreed, she says.

Finally, she passed it on in a survey of Stand for Children members, 250 of which responded. 'There wasn't anything in the feedback that made us change direction,' she says.

As for Stand's backers, Hepper says: 'I don't have conversations with the people on our national board or our Oregon board about what's on our legislative agenda.'

Any accusation that big-money backers lead the organization's political direction is just 'odd,' she says.

Sarah Pope, Stand's deputy director, agrees. She says she would not have stayed with the organization since starting as an organizer in 2005 if it was not still a truly grassroots group with 2,000 members statewide who contribute financially, and 125 volunteer leaders. The group mobilized advocates to send 700 e-mails to legislators in the final month of the 2010 session, and hundreds of people testified on legislation during the session.

'I have a firm belief in bringing people together to make changes,' she says. 'The process we've used for organization has not changed since 2005,' she says. 'We're working on some different issues, but the process has never left.'

For many local teachers, however, Edelman's words from the Aspen Ideas Festival video clip have left their mark.

Bill Bigelow, a longtime Portland teacher and an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine in Milwaukee, Wis., doesn't often speak out on local school politics. In this case, however, he says he was offended by the talk of 'busting unions' in Chicago and Illinois.

'Thanks to the political influence that Stand for Children has bought, Illinois school officials can now lengthen the school day, tie evaluations to test scores and get rid of teachers whenever they feel like it,' Bigelow says. 'But why is bullying teachers good for children? Now that Edelman has gone public in his Aspen Institute talk, he's free to rename his organization 'Stand Against Teachers.' '

Edelman did not respond to the Tribune's requests for comment on Tuesday.

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