Astroturf and Education


A threat to democracy

In the past, conservative groups like FreedomWorks have been pilloried for organizing and advocacy tactics called astroturf. These organizations imitate grassroots citizens’ organizing campaigns, creating a false, misleading impression that citizens are independently rising up to support a cause, when instead, money is being spent to create just such an illusion.

It isn’t tough to see why tactics like paying staffers to post comments or posing as a supporter to catch an NPR executive saying something stupid on camera ought to be seen as a threat to open and honest political dialog. Just as importantly, this type of fake activism creates an atmosphere that allows politicians and public policy makers to remain uninformed about the public’s true perspective on an issue. It’s manipulation of public information at it’s devious best, mixing up even honest politicians with confusion over where the public stands.

In the worst cases, astroturf organizing pollutes the debate on an issue to such a severe extent that it’s impossible to discern where public opinion falls. A vicious cycle ensues where leaders respond to their mistaken perception of public opinion, rallying more support for policies and causes that are favored only by the monied few. This is precisely what is happening in education with Michelle Rhee’s new organization, StudentsFirst. The current policy featured on her homepage, and one of the group’s major initiatives, is ending what’s called “last in, first out” (LIFO) lay-off policies, which is the law of the land in most states.

The way the issues are framed by Rhee and her compatriots around the country is starkly similar to the way opponents frame the contrary position. Both parties claim their side protects great teachers and treats them more fairly. Of course, opponents are interested in protecting teachers writ large, with the understanding that most teachers are good, hard-working professionals–while Rhee and her astroturfers only look out for the young, well-educated teachers with less than 4 years of experience–the population that is affected most directly by LIFO. It advantages these (usually) young people, along with budget and finance officers and edu-privatizers, at the expense of highly-qualified, experienced teachers; not incidentally, these teachers are better paid and therefore more expensive than their younger counterparts. The fact that they have earned salary increases as a result of years of service educating children and improving their practice seems immaterial.

Many good arguments have been penned to oppose the destructive reforms that Rhee has proposed, perhaps none better than this thank you note rebuttal, from an educator in Michigan who unwittingly signed a petition in support of Rhee’s movement. It’s clear that the writer, Michael Paul Goldenberg, had no intention of supporting Rhee, and he inadvertently signed on due to malicious tactics employed at, with Rhee and StudentsFirst as the primary beneficiary.

Along with Care2, another internet petition service, Rhee and StudentsFirst have utilized to manufacture support for an unpopular shift in personnel policies in school districts nationwide. This is troublesome, but it isn’t the full extent of Rhee’s manipulation of public opinion to support her agenda. Recently, the organization has taken things a step further, hiring experienced social media professionals to become active in supporting her cause. That step is actually wise business, and not cause for concern…until you realize that the folks she has been hiring have been making comments online in support of her agenda, without identifying themselves as employees. This is the standard operating procedure of astroturf.

This is wrong on so many levels, but most of all because it waters down and damages the real conversations that we must have to improve public schools. There is a legitimate debate to be had on lay-off policies, particularly during a time of great budget uncertainty. Yet, the needed democratic exchange, over this issue and similarly controversial changes, devolves into screaming matches and lawsuits rather than productive conversations.

Education is about learning how to discuss disagreements in an adult way, not in a childish fashion more akin to kicking and screaming than a professional exchange. We can and must disagree without being disagreeable–and also without being underhanded. Until we reach the point a point of more open, honest debate, the future of our public schools appears grim.


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