"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pots, Kettles, and Ben Austin's Unconscionable Hypocrisy

There's nothing the matter with teachers that a little less unionization and more COMPETITION couldn't cure. — Ann Coulter (racist reactionary right wing pundit)

It would force the district to learn how to run great schools by forcing them to COMPETE. — Ben Austin (Executive Director LAPU/Parent Revolution)

The foppish millionaire from Benedict Canyon, school privatization pusher and poverty pimp Ben AustinFew people are more despicable than Ben Austin, Executive Director of the so-called Parent Revolution (née Los Angeles Parents Union - LAPU) school privatization junta. After all, anyone mendacious enough to claim they're a parent with children enrolled in school when they have no school age children is lacking of any scruples. [1] Moreover, a man who can walk into impoverished neighborhoods like Boyle Heights or Compton and tell parents "I'm just like you" when he has chosen to live in a community that's "87.5% white and has a median household income is $169,282" goes beyond being amoral, he's downright immoral.

Of course Austin's ongoing campaign of dishonesty and pressing scorched earth policies for public education have made him more than just a pariah in Los Angeles. He and profiteering organization recently joined the ranks of fellow reactionaries like Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Glen Beck, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter on the world famous "Crooks and Liars" website.

Public education advocates like myself have been following the Green Dot Public [sic] Schools' LAPU/Parent Revolution spinoff since its inception, and have beem following the vile Ben Austin since he first took [2] the helm of the privatization pushing organization. We've seen them do cynical things like having their well to do white male Deputy Director Gabe Rose pose as a Compton parent in order to deceive real Compton parents. We've heard parents from Garfield High School tell us paid organizer Mary Najera used to go monolingual Spanish church services with English only petitions and tell unwitting parents to sign the petition if they wanted their children to go to college — those petitions were actually to turn Garfield over to the Green Dot corporate charter chain. The list of Austin and his organization's lies, deceit, and duplicity goes on and on, and one would think that there's no lower depths that they could plumb.

They've found a way to sink lower.

A couple weeks ago, in preparation for last week, when the California State Board of Education (SBE) was about to vote on revisions to the deceptively named "Parent Empowerment Act," right wing reactionary "parents" Lydia Grant, Bruce Wasson, Monica Jones, and Carolynn Martin, with pro-bono legal support from the "Parent Revolution's" deep pocketed plutocrat backers, filed an ethics complaint against SBE member Patricia Rucker. Their claim? They stated that Rucker's employment with the California Teachers Association constituted a conflict of interest and that they would only drop their charges if Rucker would recuse herself on voting on the privatization regulations.

One wonders where these parents were when Parent Revolution's foppish millionaire leader was sitting on the selfsame board, voting on the very same regulations, but the hypocrisy of these "parents" and their "revolution" goes much deeper than that.

Kettles and Caldrons

Let's look at the first "parent" on the list of privatization plaintiffs against Ms. Rucker, the loathsome and imposing [3] Lydia Grant. The one thing all the mainstream (read corporate) media left out regarding Grant is that she is a long time board member of the so-called Parent Revolution. Yet she can speak about conflicts of interest. Aside from being nearly as detestable, Grant shares another quality with Ben Austin — she too has no children currently enrolled in the school she is attacking. Libertarian Grant is also a follower of right wing libertarian Ron Kaye and is a member of his "SLAP" project.

The loathsome and imposing Lydia Grant, volunteer poverty pimp and privatization pusher.Grant's claim to fame is that she turned a personal beef with Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) Mount Gleason Middle School's principal into a festering vindictive campaign to oust them. She began signature gathering with Austin's blessings to have the principal removed. Of all the Sunland/Tujunga area parents I spoke with that knew of Grant, only one sympathized with her, and the rest described her as a pariah that browbeat many parents into signing petitions with her overbearing and abrasive personality.

My one encounter with the snarling, mean spirited Grant was outside the Beaudry Building at a LAUSD meeting where she was accosting and haranguing hardworking teachers. The woman's seemingly sociopathic resentments run deep, and I was somewhat taken aback listening to her bark at anyone not wearing the blue t-shirts identifying themselves as members of the reactionary school privatization groups Families That Can and Parent Revolution. I took these photos of her at that event, and even at that proximity I couldn't believe the vitriol spilling out of her mouth. Grant will be the subject of an upcoming article when time permits.

Parent activist Scott M. Folsom, whose popular 4LAKids blogs chronicle all things LAUSD, had the following to say about Grant being on the list of plaintiffs at the behest of her puppet-master Austin:

smf: One of the "four California parents", Lydia Grant, was the Parent Revolution Community Organizer of the Month for Oct 2010.

Parent Revolutionary-in-chief, PR Executive Director, Parent Trigger author, former Green Dot and Mayor Riordan staffer Ben Austin (whose 'day job' is Assistant LA City Attorney @ $119K per year) was removed from the State Board of Ed (Can you say 'Conflict of Interest?') in Brown's ascendency. Austin lobbied for the Parent Trigger Law in the State Board of Ed and also in the legislature.

But, hey - it's not personal!

Pots, Kettles, and Brewing Free Market Fantasies

Next, let's consider that when the reactionary Milton Friedman worshiping former Governor of California wanted a way to help his good friend and fellow charlatan Jed Wallace, of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), increase market share with as little resistance as possible, he brought in two well known neoliberal opponents of public education: former State Senator and current Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) California Director Gloria Romero, and Ben Austin of Green Dot's LAPU/Parent Revolution. In what was a perfect storm of Rand/Friedman ideologies, neoliberal principles, naked opportunism, greed, Heartland Institute and Hoover Institution fantasies, and lucrative charter market share grabs, Schwarzenegger, Austin, and Romero crafted a vile piece of legislation that became colloquially known as the "parent trigger." The law allows for well financed charter-voucher advocacy groups, like say, Parent Revolution, to drop into impoverished neighborhoods to bamboozle, browbeat, and bribe a bare majority (ie. fifty percent, plus one) of parents from the school in question, and/or the feeder schools [5] into "triggering" one of the four punitive provisions from Rod Paige and arch-reactionary George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Of course the only provision Schwarzenegger, Austin, and Romero were ever interested in is the charter conversion clause, in which publicly financed schools are handed over to privately run corporations. The law could be most appropriately referred to as the corporate charter trigger, as it has nothing to do with empowering parents.

For his enthusiastic participation in co-authoring the charter market share growing law, Austin was granted a seat on Schwarzenegger's hand picked SBE, which was already stacked with charter school executives, vendors, and other profiteers. Austin, as a highly paid spokesperson for the charter-voucher industry, was a perfect fit, and his job was to insure that the so-called Parent Empower Act be implemented without a hitch, and that both market share and profitable side enterprises of the lucrative charter sector grew to satisfy their investors. Austin was all at once, the bill's author, biggest advocate on the SBE, and the sole stewart of how the regulations were being written, and rest assured he was making them as friendly to charter advocacy groups like his own as he could. There were no cries of conflict of interest then. No astroturf "parents" lodging complaints. No accusations in the mainstream press of ethics violations. No cacophony calling for Austin to recuse himself from the proceedings.

Austin knows a quite a bit about conflicts of interest and ethics violations, he was under investigation by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission (Case # 2010-36) when he was collecting a check at the City Attorney Office while being a full time charter school advocate (and part time Green Dot Employee) at Los Angeles Parents Union (aka Parent Revolution). He was also using his connections to host closed meetings with his political connections garnered from his City job, like with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

But Austin's own myriad conflicts of interest and ethics violations while on the SBE pale in comparison to his recent transgression. His hypocritical and self serving attacks on Patrica Rucker will look at the more reprehensible in the following section.

Pots Calling the Kettle Black, Austin Illegally Lobbied the SBE

In early March of 2011 an activist showed me footage of Ben Austin speaking at the SBE on behalf of the charter trigger legislation. Bear in mind that by March, Austin and several other of Schwarzenegger's fringe right wing appointees had been swept from the Board by the incoming Governor, and while many charter-voucher industry profiteers remain — like the reprehensible Yvonne Chan — a few of the most egregious members are gone. I knew that former Board members were barred from lobbying at the Board for a period of time, although I thought the span was twenty four months. Astonished that Austin would be so brazen to flout the law and regulations in such a high profile forum, I immediately contacted the State Board of Education and spoke with then employee Regina Wilson.

Wilson confirmed that Austin had indeed spoken and lobbied at the SBE after he had been officially removed from the board. She also informed me that the period they weren't allowed to appear at the Board to lobby was twelve months, rather than what I thought, and that Austin had certainly violated the rules. I told Ms. Wilson I was working on a story, and asked her to get back to me on a few other questions I had, including: "were the other Board members aware of the regulations regarding former Board members lobbying?"

I waited a week for Wilson and called her again, she said she gathering information and would get back to me. I then went on holiday with my wife to visit her family in Korea. When I returned from Daegu, I called Wilson, but was greeted with an answering machine informing me that she was no longer with the SBE [6] and to contact a Ms. Carol Gorman. I called Gorman, discussed the situation with her and was told to expect a call back. There was no call back. After leaving several voicemails, I grew wary of carrying out my investigation verbally and sent Gorman an email on June 10, 2011. Following is her response that contains my original email:

Dear Mr. Skeels:

I am in receipt of your email of this date, and have forwarded it to the attention of our Deputy Executive Director, Patricia de Cos, for her review. Thank you for your patience in this matter.


Carol K. Gorman
Executive Assistant
California State Board of Education
1430 N Street, Suite 5111
Sacramento, CA 95814
916-319-0705 Direct
916-319-0175 Fax

-----Original Message-----
From: Robert D. Skeels [mailto:rdsathene@sbcglobal.net]
Sent: Friday, June 10, 2011 3:54 PM
To: Carol Gorman
Cc: Superintendent ; Rebecca MacLaren
Subject: Ben Austin at SBE meetings before 12 months completed
Importance: High

Ms. Gorman:

I've spoken with you on the phone and left multiple voice mails about this issue. I was in contact with former SBE employee Regina Wilson prior to that.

I am a freelance education writer in Los Angeles. I have seen video footage of former SBE member Ben Austin speaking at the board in February or March of this year. I am aware of the rule prohibiting former SBE members from lobbying at the SBE for 12 months.

My questions still remain. Are the SBE members aware that Mr. Austin has broken these rules. Will there be disciplinary measure brought against Mr. Austin.

I am about to publish my article about the incident and have expended due diligence trying to obtain answers from the State board of Education. At this point, and I hate to say this, it seem like a cover up. I was hoping a Governor Brown appointed board with be less opaque than that of our reactionary former Governor. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case.

Mr. Austin has violated ethics, and perhaps even the law in what he did. He should be held accountable for his vile actions.

Advocating public education and social justice

Robert D. Skeels

Note she uses the phrase "email of this date," as if that was our first communication, despite having spoken on the phone with me. There's still been no word from Ms. Gorman although I wrote her again on July 8, 2011 requesting a status on the above email.

Ms. Gorman:

Now that Mr. Austin and company have attacked SBE Board Member Rucker, it's imperative that his and his own organization's clear conflicts of interest and violation of SBE rules be brought to light.

It's unfortunate that the SBE is seemingly stonewalling my efforts to expose Austin's malfeasance, and I am somewhat taken aback by the intransigence of the board regarding this matter. Does Mr. Austin still have this much influence that this entire affair is being swept under the rug? I'm of of the mind to publish all of our correspondence publicly if there is no response on this.

Robert D. Skeels

Clearly a cover up is taking place. The Board is not only well aware that Ben Austin has violated the rules, but seem oblivious that his connections to the well financed charter voucher industry and their plutocrat backers provide him with immunity to consequences for his actions. Meanwhile he sicks his dogs on current SBE members like Patrica Rucker with impunity. Moreover the SBE members are still clearly pawns of the deep pocket charter school sector as evidenced by SBE President Michael Kirst's disgusting pro-privatization comments during last week's vote to ratify the clean up of the corporate charter trigger law deceptively named Parent Empowerment Act.

The hypocrisy of Ben Austin and his school privation organization claiming Rucker has a conflict of interest is staggering. I like to fancy myself an aspiring wordsmith, but lack the vocabulary to describe the scope of this reprehensible, repugnant, and revolting incident in the light of Austin's ongoing unconscionable behavior. The charter industry has a real gem in Austin, since no lie is unspeakable and no scruples are necessary in his orbit. Like I said in my email above "Mr. Austin has violated ethics, and perhaps even the law in what he did. He should be held accountable for his vile actions."

The only way we can stop these crooks and charlatans is to continue real, grass roots parent and community organizing. They have dozens of paid charter drive "organizers" in the field preying on parents looking for answers to systemic problems. We need to expose the Ben Austins, Gabe Roses, and Pat DeTemples for the reactionary agents of privatization they are. We need to point out that the narrative of parents versus teachers has been forced on us by the same Wall Street hucksters who just swindled us all, and are now tricking us into blaming each other. The real battle is communities versus corporations, but as long as charlatans like Ben Austin and Scott Walker push working people into blaming other working people, the longer the corporations will continue to win.

[1] Austin's eldest child, already a preschooler, will probably be starting Kindergarden this fall. Listening to Austin's perfidious rhetoric would lead one to think that she's been enrolled for over decade.

[2] By all accounts Austin first took a consulting position (paying $94,475) with LAPU quite unwillingly, and only after persistent persuasion by his close friend the businessman Marco Petruzzi. Once Austin recognized how lucrative and politically expedient it was to be working for the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate did he, ever the opportunist, agree to take the Executive Director position. Petruzzi is still on the Parent Revolution Board, having ousted Steve Barr from both the organizations Barr founded.

[3] One Tujunga/Sunland area parent I spoke with called Grant "girthsome" and made several other rotund references, but I felt it more appropriate to use the word imposing despite the chance to use my favorite literary devices to follow loathsome.

[4] Green Dot Charter Corporation and Parent Revolution didn't break ties until the Summer of 2010. Until then Green Dot paid LAPU/Parent Revolution's rent and many other expenses. They were still receiving money from the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate, but not nearly as much as they do now. To wit, the bigots comprising the Walton Family Foundation dumped a half a million into Austin's school privatization efforts last year.

[5] "Feeder" schools comprise the school from which the next classes of students at a school will potentially come from. In the example of a middle school, all the attendance boundary elementary schools would be considered its feeder schools. Never mind the fact that those families may move, choose to send their kids to parochial, charter or other private schools, their signatures are as good as gold under the so-called Parent Empowerment Act. Inequitable and unfair that a community's public school could be turned over to a private corporation with only a tiny minority of the community making the decisions? Sure, but the law was to build charter school market share, not empower parents or communities in any way.

[6] So that the rest of the press can reluctantly (given their aversion to public schools and love affair with the profiteers in the charter sector) verify my story, the number I was using to contact Regina Wilson (916) 319-0693. Now that number has a message that says "I'm no longer with the State Board of Education, if you need assistance please call Carol Gorman at (916) 319-0705.

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