Mercedes Schneider: Parents Defending Education: Prefab “Grassroots”
There’s a new reformster group in town, using the magic word “Parents” in their title. Mercedes Schneider has tracked down some of the sources of this newest piece of astroturfing. These folks are already busy, inserting themselves into a variety of court cases around the country. Reposted from her blog with permission.
On March 30, 2021, a new ed-reform kid on the top-down block, Parents Defending Education, introduced itself to the public on Twitter as follows:
“Launch today.” That sounds very new– and very odd because this org purports to do the nonsensical– “build a grassroots army of parents.”
Grassroots is not “built” from the top down. But a new ed-reform org surely could exploit the term “grassroots” by having members in different locales so that it might engage in litigation in the name of a local, “grassroots” interest.
That is just what this come-lately ed-reform group appears to have done.
Eight days prior to announcing its “launch” on Twitter– on March 22, 2021– Parents Defending Education had already stepped into a New York education lawsuit about high school integration, positioning itself as eligible to “intervene as a defendant”— and making it sound as though the org– here identified as a nonprofit– is an established grassroots org– and therefore having a right to insert itself into the litigation at hand:
Movant (petitioner), Parents Defendant Education, is Plaintiffs’ counterpart. Movant is a nationwide, nonpartisan, grassroots organization, whose members are primarily parents of school-aged children. Its mission is to prevent—through advocacy, disclosure, and, if necessary, litigation—the politicization of K-12 education. Movant has many members with children who are currently enrolled in, or will apply for, the City’s G&T programs or selective schools….
Here is what Parents Defending Education wants from this New York lawsuit:
Plaintiffs are IntegrateNYC, a nonprofit membership organization, and several parents with students who attend City schools. Plaintiffs want this Court to force the City to hire more employees of color and to adopt a race-focused curriculum. But their main goal is to eliminate “the G&T middle and high school admissions screens currently in use.” … Plaintiffs claim that these screens are illegal because more white and Asian-American students are admitted to G&T programs than Black and Latino students. It does not matter to Plaintiffs that the screens are strictly race-neutral, or that the City adopted them with no racially discriminatory intent. … The disparate impact alone is supposedly enough.
If Plaintiffs obtain their requested relief, Movant’s members will suffer immediate and substantial harms. If the criteria for G&T programs are changed, many of their children (who qualified under those criteria) will be denied these valuable programs. And if admissions, curriculum, and staffing decisions are made on grounds other than merit, Movant’s members believe the quality of their children’s current education and future opportunities will decline. Movant’s members also believe their children should be judged based on their individual merit, not defined as members of a racial group or blamed for the collective sins of others, and thus oppose Plaintiffs’ desire to inject more race-based decision-making into the City’s schools. Movant therefore seeks this Court’s leave to intervene as a defendant.
Without offering any psychometric evidence, Parents Defending Education uses the term, “race neutral,” to describe admissions tests.
If the outcome of a selective admissions test demonstrates a systematic preference for certain racial/ethnic groups above others, psychometricians need to investigate test bias. Furthermore, testing might favor certain students over others due to availability of experiences and resources that leverage better scoring outcomes for those who have them over those who don’t.
On March 31, 2021, I asked Leonie Haimson, founder of NYC-based Class Size Matters, about how she would respond to someone who says, “If all students take the same test for admission to NYC’s selective admission high schools, doesn’t that ensure that the most qualified students are admitted, and wouldn’t it be unfair to them to focus on race/ethnicity rather than qualification?”
Here is her response:
There are real problems with using high stakes tests for admissions to any public schools. Not only are the SHSAT (Standardized High School Admissions Test) exams for admission to the NYC specialized high schools unreliable, the exams never have been evaluated for racial or gender bias.
Moreover, NYC is the only district in the country in the country that bases admissions to any school solely on the basis of one high stakes test, and we have eight of these schools. We need to get rid of these tests as soon as possible.
On December 20, 2016, the Gotham Gazette published an informative piece about New York’s SHSAT and the leveraging of resources and experiences of some students over others in order to produce “narrow readiness.” Some excerpts:
In New York City, the clear majority of students are assigned elementary schools that are within their zip codes. For many students of color, this means that they attend schools that face a myriad of problems, including: less funding and resources, less experienced and effective teachers and overcrowded classrooms. …
Next, because entry to middle school is based on those aforementioned metrics, low-income students and students of color are substantially less likely to attend honors or screened programs. … And, analysis shows that between 2005 and 2013, 88 middle schools, 76 of which were honors or screened, were home to 85% of total student offers to SHSAT schools. …
…It would be a mistake to assume that the SHSAT itself is color- or income-blind. Analysis reveals a flawed exam. Like all standardized tests, critics argue that the SHSAT does not test for ability and potential.
Rather, the test is basically an indicator of income and narrow readiness more than anything. Parents who can afford to invest in expensive preparatory courses and high quality private tutors to give their children an advantage — often added upon prior advantages. Test-prep companies and private tutors are keenly aware of how the test works and impart significant help.
If the outcome of the above-mentioned leverage benefits students of some races/ethnicities at the expense of others, then the outcome attests to the inputs– which are anything but “race neutral.”
As for Parents Defending Education, it seems that a principal goal of this come-lately manifestation of manuactured grassroots is to be able to draw on token “parent” presence wherever it needs to across the nation in order to fabricate standing in any number of educational lawsuits, including those challenging racial inequities. No matter the school or district, cleverly-named Parents Defending Education could have a parent available to position in litigation in the name of “race-neutral” (but in practice, racially-biased) policies.
This is not how grassroots works. This is how an organization with an agenda exploits the facade of grass roots to achieve its goals.
The president of Parents Defending Education, Nicole Neily, started the Washington, DC-based nonprofit, Speech First, near the end of 2017. According to its 2018 tax filing, Speech First spent over $1.4M on education litigation related to free speech:
SPEECH FIRST DEFENDS STUDENTS’ FREE SPEECH RIGHTS ON CAMPUS THROUGH LITIGATION, ADVOCACY, AND EDUCATION. IN FY 2018, SPEECH FIRST FILED FEDERAL LAWSUITS AGAINST THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN (IN MAY) AND THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS (IN DECEMBER), ALLEGING THAT VARIOUS POLICIES VIOLATED STUDENTS’ FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS THROUGH OVERBROAD, VAGUE POLICIES DESIGNED TO CHILL STUDENT SPEECH AND EXPRESSION. PRESIDENT NICOLE NEILY APPEARED ON TV 13 TIMES, DID 75 RADIO INTERVIEWS, PLACED 4 OP-EDS, WAS QUOTED IN 150 NEWS ARTICLES, AND SPOKE AT 4 STUDENT CONFERENCES. ONA REGULAR BASIS, NEILY SPEAKS AND MEETS WITH STUDENT GROUPS AND INDIVIDUAL ACTIVISTS AND VISITS CAMPUSES AROUND THE COUNTRY.
Neily was paid $162K by her nonprofit for her not-so-grassroots activism, which included $10,000 in “bonus or incentive compensation.
Neily’s Speech First startes in late 2017, and the next year has $1.4M to spend.
Hardly grassroots. And not even Neily’s first nonprofit.
In 2016, Neily became president of the nonprofit, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Its mission statement:
THE MISSION OF FRANKLIN CENTER IS TO PROMOTE SOCIAL WELFARE AND CIVIL BETTERMENT BY UNDERTAKING PROGRAMS THAT PROMOTE JOURNALISM AND THE EDUCATION OF THE PUBLIC ABOUT CORRUPTION, INCOMPETENCE, FRAUD, OR TAXPAYER ABUSE BY ELECTED OFFICIALS AT ALL LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT.
The organization spent $2.8M, chiefly for “online journalism.” Neily was paid $99K for her one year as president. (The nonprofit seems to have undergone a name change in 2017, to Franklin News Foundation, and the contributions and grants were dropping off notably from 2015 to 2017. As former president, Neily received $38K in compensation. That same year, she started the nonprofit, Speech First.)
On her Linkedin bio, Neily indicates that one of her interests is the Charles Koch Institute.
Like all grass roots organizations, Parents Defending Children must (must!) have a vice president for strategy and investigations– one who happens to be a former investigative journalist and mostly independent consultant, Asra Nomani. Now, I see nothing wrong with being an investigative journalist. However, to now hold a title as VP for strategy of anything bespeaks top-downism, not grass-rootism.
And what grass roots organization would be complete without a director of outreach who drew $82K in 2015 as a consultant for an ed-reform blog with millions in its coffers at its outset? That would be Erika Sanzi, and that blog would be Education Post, the billionaire-funded blog initially run by Peter Cunningham at the behest of Los Angeles billionaire Ei Broad, who pushed the project, in Cunningham’s words, “because a lot of reform leaders felt like they were being piled on and that no one would come to their defense.” In its first year(2014), Education Post received $5.5M in contributions from four billionaire families/orgs. In 2015 (the first year Sanzi appears on the Ed Post tax form), it received another $2.3M from three billionaire families/orgs– who also happened to be just your usual grass-rootsy parents, I’m sure.
In 2016, EdPost paid Sanzi $120K for “communications and outreach.” EdPost received $4.6M from five billionaire families/orgs. This time, Bill Gates led in the giving ($1.5M). In 2017, Sanzi’s “communications and outreach” compensation was $131K; Ed Post received $7.4M from eight billionaire families/orgs, but mostly by Michael Bloomberg ($3.4M).
In EdPost’s most recent tax filing as of this writing (2018), Sanzi’s pay was $121K, and EdPost’s wealthy contributors appear to be unwilling to dole out any single contributions hitting a million. The $2M in total contributions came from eight billionaire families/orgs, with Chan Zuckerberg doling out the top contribution of $750,000.
Sanzi is also now a “senior visiting fellow” with the Fordham Institute, mouthpiece for Common Core packaging and promotion. However, forget all of that and just think of her as a parent who lives somewhere and it therefore grassroots.
What is not so obvious just yet is the details on the nonprofit status of Parents Defending Education. The IRS nonprofit search site includes a notice of data update delays. As of this writing, there is no record of an IRS determination letter for nonprofit status of any organization named “Parents Defending Education.” On its website, Parents Defending Education does not explcitly identify itself as a nonprofit, but it does so in the introduction of its NYC legal filing as “movant” cited at the outset of ths post:
Plaintiffs are a nonprofit and parents with children in New York City’s public schools; Movant is a nonprofit whose members include parents with children in New York City’s public schools.
So. Did Parents Defending Education already receive its nonprofit status as of its NYC filing, or did it just say that it “is” a nonprofit without having yet received its determination letter?
To what address will that letter come? The grass-rootsy beltway of Washington, DC?
We’ll just have to wait and see.