From 2008 to 2010, despite the worst economy in decades, SFC nearly tripled its fundraising revenue to take in more than $10 million a year. To say the least, the track records of many of their contributors alarm those who'd like to see venture capital kept out of public schools. Among the marquee donors was Boston-based New Profit, Inc., whose board comprises three Bain executives, as well as players from such enterprises as Summit Partners, whose holdings include the for-profit online teachers college Trident University, and also Monitor Group, which last year came under scrutiny for contracting with Muammar Qaddafi to polish the international image of the late Libyan dictator's regime. New Profit contributed more than $1 million to SFC in 2010.
Jason Williams, the executive director of SFC's Bay State chapter, dismisses criticisms of his organization's funding as "political rhetoric," and tells the Phoenix: "Instead of our opposition debating policy, it's evolved into an attack on our organization. It's awful to see it immediately devolve into [claims that SFC is leading] an attack on unions, because that's not what this is at all."
Williams insists that hard economic times for schools are behind his group’s efforts. But while he claims to personally support unions, those funding SFC’s mission don’t likely share the sentiment. One of SFC’s chief supporters is the Walton Family Foundation, a/k/a Walmart, pumping in more than $1.1 million last year alone. Other than the company’s eternal stifling of organized labor — and its selling anything a school could need, from beverages to chalkboards — it’s anyone’s guess as to why Walmart wishes to wield influence on education. As for the role of unions in all of this, for now they seem to be the only force standing between some of the wealthiest, most powerful companies on earth and hundreds of millions of dollars in public-school funding.
In the commonwealth, SFC organizers spent 2007 and 2008 working with struggling communities like Worcester and Gloucester. In those cash-strapped districts, the group successfully helped secure increased funding for schools. But soon the relationship between SFC and many of its key Massachusetts organizers strained, as the former's focus shifted toward test-based teacher evaluations and increased charter-school spending — two postures that a number of parents and teachers eschewed, but that many others, including legislators, conservative reformers, and especially the media, applauded.
SFC has had legislative success along similar lines across the country. The "Bipartisan Education Package," passed in Oregon in 2009, increased funding for charters. State Senate bills in Texas and Colorado wielded comparable influence. But it was in Illinois that Edelman and his funders secured their biggest victory yet, when in 2010 they helped pass legislation that requires teachers unions to reach a 75 percent voting majority in order to strike legally.
Edelman's about-face spurred an exodus among longtime affiliates in Massachusetts. Teachers in particular were livid that the group supported Governor Deval Patrick's school-reform proposal. Among other controversial aspects, the legislation called for lifting the cap on charters — a move certain to route more funding away from traditional schools. Though popular with pols on both sides of the aisle — and despite enthusiasm by many parents for innovative institutions that answer more to boards and parents than to unions and their members — any mention of charters is enough to get labor fuming. Nationally, the Center for Education Reform puts the failure rate for charters at 15 percent. In Massachusetts, charter adversaries point to specific examples like the Seven Hills School in Worcester and the Gloucester Community Arts School, both of which have been plagued by mismanagement and even corruption.