In 1996, a 25-year-old nonprofit prodigy named Jonah Edelman helped the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) organize a hugely successful student-advocacy rally in Washington, DC. Edelman is an activist legacy whose mother, Marian Wright Edelman, was an aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and whose father, Peter, was a legislative assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Soon after his massive DC effort, the charismatic and connected Edelman used his props from CDF to help start his own initiative.
In the early 2000s, Edelman's SFC advocated for health care for uninsured children and for well-trained educators, among other things. It was a platform that teachers and parents alike could get behind, and by the mid-2000s SFC was claiming tens of thousands of supporters nationwide. In time, SFC began expanding outside of its Oregon home base and into other states, including Massachusetts.
That all changed in July 2011, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when Edelman placed his group on the side of the one percent. Sitting next to investment billionaire Jim Crown, Edelman fired shots directly at organized educators,bragging about how SFC trampled Illinois teachers' unions via legislation there.
"We hired 11 lobbyists, including the four best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them," said Edelmanin the now-notorious speech. "We raised . . . more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees. . . . I can tell you there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers' unions . . . that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats."
In response to the comments, original SFC backers, including renowned education reformers Tom Olson and Susan Barrett, resigned from leadership positions and issued scathing open letters against Edelman. At the same time, prominent SFC adversary Diane Ravitch commented to Education Week: "I don't know why hedge-fund managers are so interested in controlling education policy, but there is no doubt about their eagerness to commit large sums of money to get rid of due process, seniority, and collective bargaining."
America's most celebrated education historian, Ravitch had become a darling of the left after abandoning her support for George W. Bush's punitive and unfunded No Child Left Behind policies, which she believes drastically undermined education in this country.Now, like many others, Ravitch has become a harsh critic of the corporate bucks behind SFC.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
SFC's list of contributors includes the charity arms of investment firms that could benefit from laws that the group is rallying behind. At the top of that pack is Bain Capital, the Boston private equity investment fund co-founded by former commonwealth governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Since 2008, more than half a dozen Bain executives have served on national and local SFC boards. That same year, the firm acquired Bright Horizons, a Watertown, Massachusetts–based education-services company that builds and operates for-profit charter schools in California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington state.