Yet another interesting post from Ken Libby at DFER Watch. Democrats for Education Reform founder and hedge fund millionaire Whitney Tilson has released a documentary (produced by venture capitalist Robert Compton) in which he explains that Walmart heir John Walton was an inspiration for the group’s founding. Based on the transcript below, Tilson and his allies felt that while they agreed with Walton’s views, turning down Walton Foundation money was necessary to avoid being connected with Walmart’s anti-union reputation — even while DFER itself pushed to weaken the voices of teachers and their unions in public school reform. The Walton Foundation seems to have had better luck, however, in persuading DFER ally Thomas Carroll to proudly accept Walmart money to support his charter real estate business.
[DFER was started] …with a few other friends that are involved with a couple other charter schools, and they were money managers like me involved with a couple similarly high-performing charter schools, we finally decided to create a little guerrilla movement within the Democratic party. Interestingly, it came about as a result — what really catalyzed it — was a conversation with John Walton, who passed away a couple years ago in a plane accident, as you may be aware. But he, through his foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, has been one of the most generous supporters of KIPP and other charter schools and school reform in general. And he was a big backer of a group called the Alliance for School Choice. So we saw him speak at the Harvard Club, a couple of my friends and I, went to talk to him afterwards and he invited us to come join this organization and so we participated in a few calls. And what we discovered was that we were the only Democrats on the call or in the room, and it was largely backed by well-known Republicans like John Walton and Wal-Mart and so forth, and they were quite successful at persuading Republican politicians to support whatever legislation and so forth but were having a lot more trouble getting traction with Democrats.
And the reason became clear to us very quickly. It was because their sources of funding and who they were — all Republicans — when they came to talk to Democrats, the Democrats were sort of like, “What are you doing in my office and why should I listen to anything you have to say? And this is some sort of Republican conspiracy to kill our schools and voucherize everything and harm the Democratic party. The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name — and the name was critical — we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view, and this is an issue that for decades, the entrenched forces of the status quo have successfully resisted change by making this issue a Republican vs. Democrat issue, and it’s not. It’s a people who like the existing status quo and will fight fiercely to preserve it vs. people who are looking out for the kids that are not being served well by the status quo. That’s the real issue here. But in order to even have that conversation, in order to change peoples’ minds on the Democratic side, you had to be a Democrat yourself. So we told John Walton, “Thank you, you’ve inspired us to do this and we’re going to create an organization with quite a similar mission to what you’re doing, not voucher focused so much, but a broader mission, but we can’t take any of your money.” That’s probably the first time in his life anyone had ever said, “You’re our friend. We’re doing something you would support, but we can’t take a penny of your money.” Because the moment we take any Wal-Mart money — that’s anti-union, etcetera, etcetera — then it becomes a partisan issue again.