How Much Influence On Education Policy Does Rodel, Delaware Charter Schools Network and the DE Business Roundtable Really Have?

“The Markell Administration and the Delaware Department of Education led a number of initiatives aligned with and supported by the Rodel Foundation and Vision Coalition.”

Melissa Hopkins with the Rodel Foundation wrote a very long article recently about the non-profit company’s outlook on the first half of the 148th General Assembly.  You can read Rodel’s Legislative Update article and see which bills they openly supported.  Aside from House Bill 50, which Executive Director Dr. Paul Herdman openly opposed, what other legislation did they fight?  By announcing in this article what legislation they supported, it is very easy to find out what legislation they opposed.  By going to the Public Integrity Commission website for Delaware, you can actually download all the lobbyist activity for all legislation.  I did just that and found all the bills Rodel has registered as a lobbyist for.

Rodel sees itself as some sort of policy-maker and thinks they have the ability to “align” the field with their own interests.  This is very dangerous in the education arena.  They are a non-profit designed to disrupt public education as we know it, and their ultimate goal, along with the other “reformers” is to create more and more charter schools.

What always concerns me about Rodel, as well as the Delaware Charter Schools Network and the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee, is how much lobbying influence they have.  Yes, that is the whole point of being a lobbyist.  But it just seems whenever these three get going on certain legislation, there are always problems.  The biggest bills all three of these groups opposed this year were House Bill 50 (the parent opt-out bill) and House Bill 186 (the charter school post-audit accountability legislation).  The good part is these lobbyists have failed to sway enough legislators to prevent these bills from moving forward.  These groups are experience waning influence as the voices of  parents and educators are rising.  But they have certainly made their mark in providing disruption and getting parts they want added to bills.

Take the Delaware Charter Schools Network.  With Senate Bill 33, the IEP Task Force legislation, this bill was destined to make a clean sweep through the Senate and the House.  But once DCSN got their hooks in, the bill found itself tabled, with two amendments, later stricken, and a 3rd one added in.  You can also see what legislation they lobbied for here:

The very fact that the Executive Director of DCSN was able to get 600 emails sent to legislators to oppose House Bill 186 is very worrisome.  Did these 600 “opposers” get all the facts?  No, they received the very tainted and biased views from the same organization that made every attempt to gut this bill like a fish.  As charter school fraud and financial abuse spreads throughout the state, this bill is a no-brainer.  It passed the House of Representatives in Delaware, and will next go to the Senate Education Committee in January.  To openly oppose legislation like this does not seem like the best public relations move, especially knowing that even more reports like the recent Academy of Dover one are forthcoming.

It seems like every time I am at Legislative Hall, I see the same faces: the lobbyists from Rodel, Delaware Charter Schools Network and the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee.  The last of these is the most concerning to me.  The Delaware Business Roundtable is a group of businessmen in Delaware who meet to determine how education should be in Delaware.  They aren’t educators, they are big businessmen, with more accumulated wealth than the gap in Delaware’s anticipated FY 2017 budget.  They have no official website, and they are not a public entity.  So you can’t see minutes of their meetings or what they talk about behind closed doors.  In fact, on the Delaware lobbyist website, it shows this:

Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee, Inc.

c/o Rodel Foundation of DE
100 West 10th St., Suite 704
Wilmington, Delaware 19801

I reported last November, based on the Delaware Business Roundtable Education Committee’s non-profit tax forms, that Rodel runs the show for this organization.  They file the taxes for them, get the mail and act as a management company for this organization.  When I tried to find a listing of their current membership, a simple Google search yielded no results.  This is a level of non-transparency and secrecy beyond the realm of normalcy.  The Roundtable may be great at running their prospective businesses, but I don’t think they should be influencing State Departments and legislators for how education ought to be, especially when we don’t even know who they are.  But if I were a betting man, I would assume most of these companies have someone sitting on this “roundtable”.  But education is not King Arthur’s Camelot.  Big business getting involved in education led us to the creation of high-stakes assessments with funds flowing out of the classroom and into the waiting arms of “consultants” who will “fix” the problem.  But nothing ever gets fixed.

Their lobbyist firm is The Byrd Group.  With the Roundtable, it seems like they send the same three people in for a certain amount of legislation whenever they go to Legislative Hall.  Are they meeting with legislators all at once, or taking turns, picking and poking along the way?  Find out which bills they lobbied for!

Of particular concern to me is the amount of lobbying done on bills sponsored by State Rep. Earl Jaques and State Senator David Sokola.  As the Chairs of the House and Senate Education Committees, these two legislators have a tremendous amount of influence with education bills.  But how much of the direction of the bills under their jurisdiction are influenced by these three organizations?  And who is the fourth factor involved in all of this who is always at Legislative Hall but is not considered a lobbyist because she actually works for the State of Delaware?

Donna Johnson is the Executive Director of the State Board of Education.  Never mistake her for a Delaware Department of Education employee.  She doesn’t like that.  She is at Legislative Hall all the time.  When she isn’t in education committee meetings, she is hanging out with folks, talking away.  She speaks on almost every single education bill that comes before the House and Senate.  But what is very alarming is her very close connection with the three above lobbyist entities.  Is she influencing them or are they influencing her?  Or are they all in cahoots with each other?  I can’t recall too many bills this session that the four were in disagreement with each other over.  Which is very frightening that legislation is made or opposed based on the influence of three non-profits and the woman who runs the day -to-day operations of the State Board of Education.

The legislation that makes a lot of sense, bills that come from folks like State Reps. Kim Williams, John Kowalko, and others tend to be some of the bills that are opposed by the four.  Both Williams and Kowalko are tired of the lack of accountability and transparency by the DOE, and are very wary of the influence the three non-profits have on the state of education in Delaware.

To be fair, there are other lobbyists that hang out at Legislative Hall and do exert influence, most notably Kristin Dwyer with the Delaware State Educators Association.  The organization she works for is charged with looking out for the thousands upon thousands of teachers in our state.  Since so much legislation does revolve around education, and more specifically, the role teachers play in education, I would be shocked if she wasn’t there.  But even DSEA’s lobbying activity on education bills is much less than any of these three.  Other organizations such as the Delaware PTA and some of our universities make appearances.  But these three non-profits are always there.

Parents have no idea how much goes into legislation surround their children in schools, and it astonishes me how much public policy is based around three non-profits sticking their nose in areas where they have a clear conflict of interest.  Even more astounding is the role the State Board of Education and the Delaware DOE play in this quagmire.  Our Governor plays right along, helping to dictate policy and curriculum for our children, oblivious to what is going on in his own state.

An anonymous source, speaking out because they felt it was the right thing to do but was also afraid for their job, said “The News Journal plays right into their hands because if they don’t they lose valuable advertising dollars they desperately need.”

The education four will surely be around in January, fighting the bills that make the most sense, and cheerleading bills that serve their own agendas.  It’s the landscape of education in Delaware now, because we have allowed it to happen.  These are the forces that want Common Core State Standards, Smarter Balanced Assessment, Annual Yearly Progress, Personalized Learning, and Teacher Accountability based on High-Stakes Testing.  We have allowed this “breakfast of champions” to control our children’s lives.

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Pictured are Kendall Massett (back left), Donna Johnson (back right), Rebecca Byrd (front right), and Melissa Hopkins (center front).  This picture was taken at 7:30 in the morning on July 1st, right after Governor Markell signed the FY2016 budget bills following the all-night legislative session.

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Delaware Business Roundtable’s Die-Hard Opt-Out Opposition Is Worrisome, Should Lobbyists Be Allowed To Give Public Comment Like This?

To be fair, this was not the only registered lobbyist at the Senate Education Committee to give public comment in opposition to opt-out, but it was definitely the most biased in my opinion.  Below is Bob Byrd’s public comment, who introduces himself first as a member of his lobbyist firm and not the organization he is representing.

Bob Byrd, Delaware Business Roundtable 27:54-28:55

Thank you Chairman.  My name is Bob Byrd, of the Byrd Group.  I’m here today representing the Delaware Business Roundtable.  I’ve had the privilege to represent the roundtable education reform for more years than I want to tell you.  And we are very much opposed to House Bill 50.  We think it goes in the wrong direction.  We are very much in favor of your joint resolution.  We feel the pain of the parents out there, we understand there’s always questions about testing.  But we think this is the wrong thing to do at this particular time.  We totally agree that we ought to do an analysis of testing and see what’s out there and then come back with legislation next year, maybe doing something else.  And we understand that a lot of people are opposed to the current testing.  But were opposed to House Bill 50 at this time.  I have a letter from our chairman, Ernie Dianastasis.  I’d rather read it, and take up a lot of time but I’m just gonna put it in the record.  But the Roundtable, they’re much opposed to House Bill 50.

I’m sorry, but this guy is a registered lobbyist. If the Delaware Business Roundtable truly felt the pain of parents, they would do much more than oppose a bill that gives them dignity in the face of brutal opposition. These guys are all about the money. Don’t believe a word they say. Of course big business would be against something that wouldn’t provide more money to big business. That’s what it’s all about!