Sunday, December 19, 2010

The anti-democratic politics of Minnesota's largest philanthropies

A few weeks ago Minnesota's latest education deform advocacy group, called MinnCan, announced its creation and its founding board of directors. Though MinnCann will be a 501(c)(3) organization - a tax-exempt group - it is clear that its primary purpose is to pursue legislative changes to allow a further corporatization and privatization of public education. With only three employees it is unlikely MinnCan will contribute anything substantial to the education discourse or knowledge in Minnesota. Its real aim is to unite the growing professional education deform movement into one coherent voice in the legislature. That makes its primary activity political, which is theoretically illegal for a 501(c)(3), but don't look for the organization to ever be shut down for violating tax laws.

They will be able to get away with this political advocacy because the laws and regulations that should be reining in political activity by non-profits are incredibly porous, essentially allowing them to advocate in virtually any way as long as they don't literally say "vote for x." Lobbying the legislature for "flexibility," "accountability," and "choice" in education may not be "partisan" in the traditional sense, i.e. both parties have jumped on this bandwagon, but it is political.

Even if we set aside the provably failed and destructive policies MinnCan will be advocating for, the notion that elites from the state's biggest philanthropies have lined up behind a political attack on our public schools and their teachers is alarmingly anti-democratic because of the opaque, tax-exempt, and unaccountable nature those organizations.

Take a look at the board of directors for MinnCan:
  • Sarah Caruso of Greater Twin Cities United Way
  • Rob Clark of Medtronic
  • Alex Cirillo of 3M (Retired);
  • Michael Ciresi of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi
  • Gary Cunningham of the Northwest Area Foundation
  • Vernae Hasbargen of the Minnesota Rural Education Association
  • Virginia Hubbard Morris of Hubbard Radio
  • Father Michael O'Connell of the Church of the Ascension
  • Tim Penny of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation
  • Tad Piper of Piper Jaffray
  • Governor Al Quie
  • Carleen Rhodes of The Saint Paul Foundation
  • Sondra Samuels of the PEACE Foundation
  • John Stanoch of Qwest
  • Sandy Vargas of The Minneapolis Foundation
That is not an organization that would need even one citizen to sign up to be effective. The structure of the board ensures a funding stream. The board of course includes the plutocrat Sandra Vargas, who has been putting together this MinnCan effort for some time now. She is the head of the Minneapolis Foundation, which last year gave away some $39 million.

The list of board members is impressive in its recruitment of non-profit, business and political elites, along with representatives of some organizations funded by those same foundations. It has few, if any, teachers, principals or educational scholars. This is typical of the educational deform movement, which does not even pretend to know anything about pedagogy or curriculum, outside an authoritarian focus on math and reading test scores.

The board includes other members of philanthropies that no doubt will be ultimate funders of the organization, such as Vargas, or Sarah Caruso, who is described as being  "of Greater Twin Cities United Way," but who is really the President and CEO of the organization, and Carleen Rhodes, President and CEO of The Saint Paul Foundation.  The board also includes Gary Cunningham, who is the Chief Program Officer of the Northwest Area Foundation, a particularly well-connected individual who also sits on the boards of the University of Minnesota Medical Center, the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, and the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development. The philanthropic section of the board is rounded out by Tim Penny, who is now head of something called the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, and Michael Cirisi, the guy who won all that tobacco company money.

The board also includes people like the corporate/PR types who populate the board of say, ConnCan, or Minnesota Public Radio. This includes Rob Clark, the Sr. Director, Corporate Public and Media Relations at Medtronic,  Alex Cirillo formerly vice president of 3M's company foundation, and  John Stanoch - the Minnesota President of Qwest. There's also Virginia Hubbard Morris of "Hubbard Radio," but really a representative of the Hubbard clan, one of the state's most powerful Republican families.

As Diane Ravitch has written in her book on education deform:
"There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions...They are not subject to public oversight or review as a public agency would be...If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power."
When the proposed policies fail will philanthropic leaders like Sandra Vargas of the Minneapolis Foundation stand up and take the heat? Who will we blame for the bifurcation of our educational system into charter schools and the left-behinds? Who will we blame for the destruction of our larger schools which have served as neighborhood and community cement for generations?  Who will we blame for the destruction and demoralization of a dedicated and talented teaching pool? The people who are leading this movement cannot be unelected, because they aren't elected by anyone, excepting the other wealthy elites who put them in power in the first place. That's not democracy, it's plutocracy.

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