Political Patronage for Green Dot Public Schools' Chief Propagandist

 

CALL YOUR STATE SENATOR AND TELL THEM YOU VEHEMENTLY OPPOSE BEN AUSTIN AND ALAN ARKATOV'S STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION NOMINATIONSOn Saturday, April 24, 2010 one of the most pernicious enemies of public education will be sworn in as a member of the California State Board of Education. At 5:00pm at a small church on 129 S. Gless St. in Boyle Heights, Benjamin Austin (AKA Ben Austin AKA The Beverly Hills Barrister) will be rewarded with a post he couldn’t be less qualified for. The Green Dot Public Schools - Parent Revolution (née Los Angeles Parents Union or LAPU) executive is being rewarded for loyally serving the interests of corporations, the wealthy, and forces of school privatization.

Ben Austin and fellow school privatization profiteer Alan Arkatov were recently appointed to the post by fellow Milton Friedman/Ayn Rand acolyte — Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s not too late for Californians to avert this tragedy, as the California State Senate still needs to confirm these unfortunate appointments. Before contacting your State Senator and letting them know you’re vehemently opposed to these nominations, here are some arguments to have ready for use in persuading your legislator to deny Austin and Arkatov’s confirmations.

The distinguished Ralph Shaffer, Professor Emeritus, History at Cal Poly Pomona, makes a cogent case for a generalized reason why these appointees should be denied:

We need to remove the monopoly grip charter schools have on the state board of education. There’s probably no more powerful, and certainly no more successful, lobby in California than that which promotes the interests of charter schools. Consider the biographies of those currently serving on the state board. Four of the nine are deeply involved in charters. That’s why they are on the board. The governor has just appointed two more charter advocates - one of whom has been the head cheerleader for the most powerful charter school corporation in the state, in not the county. Charters have no more than 5% of California’s students, yet with these appointments they will have a lock hold on the board. Who will speak for the overwhelming majority of our students, the 95% of our kids that the state board is slighting with its rush to expand charters, who already are draining the state education budget to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

This stance, which is also fully endorsed by Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Leonard J. Martin, speaks truth to some very well financed power. Dr. Shaffer’s arguments make good sense, letting the foxes run the henhouse has never been good policy.

Having spent over a year writing and organizing in an effort to thwart Austin’s reactionary agenda here in Los Angeles has given me some unique insight as to many more reasons why Austin should not be confirmed. Ever the political and social chameleon, Ben Austin has done a masterful job of remaking his image into that of a disgruntled LAUSD parent who “couldn’t take it any more” and has “organized” fellow parents [1] into a grass roots force. Much like the “Connecticut Cowboy” George W. Bush who put on a front of being a rugged, ranch roving, self-made Texan, rather than a spoiled, foppish Ivy League brat from New Haven, Austin’s self styling as the LAUSD parents’ champion is just as much a lie. Let’s look at a sampling of Austin’s legendary mendaciousness.

Lying about being a LAUSD Parent
In DFER/DLC friendly articles like a recent piece in Neon Tommy [2] Austin tricks the author into considering him a LAUSD parent. The problem with this is that Austin has no school age children. The Austins have two daughters, Eloise and Fiona, the former an infant, the latter a preschooler. While Austin could argue that he has the potential to become a LAUSD parent sometime in the future, it is way beyond disingenuous for him to misrepresent himself as such now. Especially given where he lives.

Lying about where he lives
Austin has denied living in Beverly Hills on several occasions whenever it was politically untenable for him to tell the truth. After all, walking into a school in the Crenshaw District or Boyle Heights and proclaiming “I’m just like you” doesn’t ring true when you’re from somewhere as opulent as Beverly Hills. In fact, it’s highly likely that if the Austins don’t send their children to private schools, they’ll almost invariably send them to the school district nearest their home — which isn’t necessarily LAUSD. This is important considering the Beverly Hills School District’s recent decision to exclude all non-residents (ie. brown children) from their elite schools, would make Austin’s snow jobs in our communities all the more difficult if people knew he was from that city.

So while I and several social justice activists have reported on Austin living in Beverly Hills, he has successfully denied it with help a a sycophantic mainstream press. Later when initial news of Austin’s appointment came to light, his biography in the San Francisco Sentinel clearly lists Beverly Hills, so there’s been some confusion over which one is right. Let’s set the record straight. The 2007 Green Dot Educational Project (AKA Green Dot Public Schools) 990 Form in Part II-A lists Ben Austin’s address in conjunction with documenting he made off with a cool $94,475 of the loot in the guise of consulting. Although it’s public record, I don’t want to be responsible for huge protests in front of the man’s house, regardless of how reprehensible and repugnant he is. After all, he is a family man, albeit not a LAUSD family man. What I will say is that Ben Austin lives just East of the intersection of Benedict Canyon Drive and Easton Drive in the ultra-exclusive Benedict Canyon region of — here it is — Beverly Hills. His Zip Code is 90210-1416. Like the oligarchs of Holmby Hills and Bel Air, Benedict Canyon residents put on certain aristocratic airs. No wonder Austin has wanted to cover this up for so long.

Lying about his income and wealth
Austin has also on several occasions denied that he is very well to do. From insisting on telling detractors at the LAUSD Board meeting that he wasn’t rich, to going to the lengths of stating he’s not a millionaire in a LAPU/PR blog entry responding to being caught pandering to white flight [2], Austin makes it a point to hide his wealth and privilege. While no one has suggested that the Austins are multi-millionaires (they just work for them), they do live in a million dollar home and sport a combined income that puts them in the millionaire category.

Let’s start with their charming 1936 home in Benedict Canyon. Highly respected real estate site Trulia.com lists the Austins having bought their home in June of 2006 for a whopping $1,210,000! The payments on a 1.2 million dollar note are pretty high, but the well heeled, well connected Austins have it well in hand. Before reviewing Austin’s scandalous conflict of interest and moonlighting, let’s turn our attention to Mrs. Austin.

Guess who knows who, and who is down the street from who, etc.
One day while pouring through the pro-Austin writings of right wing libertarian Ron Kaye, I noticed a piece discussing Austin’s aborted LAUSD School Board candidacy which quoted Tracy Austin (Ben’s wife). This did two things. First, by acting as a spokesperson for Ben’s political campaign, she made herself a public figure. Second, the article also mentioned Tracy was “a political consultant.” It didn’t take much after that to find Austin Egoscue Development, a consulting firm whose client list is a veritable rogues gallery of right wing DFER/DLC Democrats, including that other sworn enemy of public education and union basher extraordinaire Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. That’s the very same Mayor who hosted closed town halls with Ben Austin to pitch school privatization. Coincidence? Did I mention that Austin Egoscue Development’s offices are a five minute walk from the school privatization puppet-master Eli Broad’s plush headquarters? Coincidence?

Eureka, striking gold through privatization advocacy!
While there’s no way of knowing how much Tracy Austin pulls down from her lucrative gig, most political operatives I spoke with said fundraising consultants average between $80,000 to $250,000 a year. Let’s be conservative and say she makes the low end of the spectrum. We already know Ben’s day job at the City Attorney’s office pays him roughly $120,000. So by the most conservative estimates we see the Austins were pulling down close to $200,000 a year. This is important because we’ll see how much their income increased when Ben suddenly became the darling of the DFER “ed-re(de)form” circle, which increased their fortunes by nearly double. We saw earlier how Green Dot was shelling out $94,475 to Austin as a consultant. When LAPU was falling apart under Ryan Smith, and Smith decided to join fellow Green Dot miscreant Marshall Tuck at PLAS, Green Dot asked Ben Austin to step in and fill the void. Step in he did. LAPU/Parent Revolution’s 2008 Form 990 Part VII shows Austin pulling down roughly $15,000 in just one month with the organization. Multiply by twelve months and that means Austin was making $180,000 alone just from his moonlighting job deceiving people and selling charter school snake oil. This is assuming of course, that he hasn’t gotten a raise in the past year. Since LAPU/PR still hasn’t filed their 2009 990 Form, we’ll have to wait and see if Petruzzi and Barr paid their top lobbyist, propagandist, and charter charlatan more than he garnered in 2008. This also doesn’t include money form sources like residuals from the charter-voucher infomercial Austin did with Bill Cosby, or honoraria Austin gets for poverty pimping and pitching privatization at various speaking engagements.

CALL YOUR STATE SENATOR AND TELL THEM YOU VEHEMENTLY OPPOSE BEN AUSTIN AND ALAN ARKATOV'S STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION NOMINATIONS

“The idea of the parent revolution is to say fuck you.” — Ben Austin [2]

No background in K-12 or Higher Education
Suddenly it’s clear why this man, with absolutely no experience nor expertise in K-12 pedagogy suddenly puts himself at the head of an “astro-turf” movement! Like all the other charter-voucher vultures, Austin saw an opportunity not only to gorge himself at the public trough, but being ever the opportunist, gleaned a chance to resurrect his moribund political career. Austin boasts of working for ethics skirter Rob Reiner on early childhood issues, and was deputy mayor under Republican Richard Riordan, whose bumbling attempts at union busting consisted of the same backward, regressive, and ineffective policies advanced by Riordan’s fellow Eli Broad acolyte, arch-reactionary Michelle Rhee. Neither Austin’s work with Riordan or Reiner qualify him so much as to even open his mouth on K-12 or higher education policy issues, but poverty pimping is good business, and Austin, like fellow snake oil salesman Steve Barr is making a fortune off the lucrative charter-voucher industry, while disenfranchising and disempowering working class people and communities of color. As I wrote some time ago:

[W]hen [Austin] gets up in front of the school board and talks about “our schools,” and “our kids, our communities, and our collective futures” he’s using a very rhetorical our. That’s because he knows nothing about our communities, schools, or children. Steve Barr, Marco Petruzzi, and Ben Austin don’t live in working class neighborhoods, have working class jobs, or working class concerns. Nor do any of them possess degrees in education. What they do have is a very lucrative CMO with sycophantic press and close allies in the Democratic Party’s DLC and DFER, all of whom seem bent on increasing their already substantial wealth. So much for “putting kids first!”

It’s clear that this man who has no formal education regarding, experience around, or even the political acumen with K-12 schools or pedagogy in general, is nothing but a rank opportunist who jumped in the charter-voucher pool for fortune and fame. Austin’s income increased significantly in 2007 when he began his stint with Green Dot and has grown into six figures on top of his existing six figure income during his tenure with the privatization “nonprofit.” It wouldn’t be surprising to see him making close to a quarter million whenever last year’s 990 is finally filed by LAPU/Parent Revolution. However, Austin’s insatiable greed is exceeded by his epic opportunism, and Schwarzenegger sees a staunch ally in pushing through reactionary policies that will make even the right wing kooks on the Texas Board of Education blush.

A preference for a “certain kind of folk”
Just as a quick review we need remember some of Austin’s claims to fame in Los Angeles that cemented his reputation as a ruthless right wing ideologue when it comes to certain issues in and around education. We will address his union busting rhetoric in a different article soon. We’ve discussed Austin being a protege of Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute’s Andy Smarick. While Austin at first denied this, he recently quoted his reactionary ideological muse on the LAPU/Parent Revolution Blog [4]. So much for not knowing who Smarick is. Rather than reinvent the wheel for discussing some of Austin’s other right wing ideas, let me quote a recent work here that addresses these issues in full:

While I’m discussing the shadier side of LAPU/PR, I may as well bring up what can only be called “questionable” tactics. In fact several journalists including Caroline Grannan, Rachel Heller, and myself, have questioned Ben Austin’s seeming class and ethnic biases in picking the schools he considers “failing.” There are many articles available discussing this darker side of Austin and his organization’s unsavory operations, here are three:

Given LAPU/PRs close ties to the CCSA, there are some real questions about their relations to CCSA Steve Poizner, whose recent CPAC speech has the immigrant rights community up in arms.

Racist Anti-Immigrant Speech from California Charter School Association’s Steve Poizner

I was going to create a set of pie charts demonstrating the Warner versus Emmerson issue Caroline Grannan brings up, but Sharon Higgins table and prose explaining this should suffice. See the About Ben Austin, the Executive Director of the Parents Union heading in her piece The “Parent Trigger” and its connections to the phony LA Parents Union, Green Dot, Steve Barr, and Eli Broad. One thing is clear from looking at the numbers, the criteria that makes Ben Austin declare you have a “great school” can only euphemistically be said to be those attributes typically associated with lilies or snow. Well that and no organized labor.

Record on education issues
We’ve seen Austin’s financial and ideological motivations, but is there a slim chance that he actually cares about public education? We shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand, after all it’s remotely possible. Since we can’t read minds, all we can do is observe actions. The past 12 months in Los Angeles have provided a plethora of opportunities for so-called parent advocates and education “reformers” to prove they aren’t just part of the extremely lucrative charter-voucher industry. Let’s examine some of the watershed moments in recent memory to see if Austin and his little band of well financed poverty pimps at Los Angeles Parents Union Parent Revolution really care about education issues other than those that line their pockets.

AUSTIN LAPU/PR’S RECORD
Action or Event Participation Social Justice Activists Ben Austin LAPU/PR
Wildly successful one hour strike in Spring 2009 against the budget cuts held by UTLA in conjunction with parents YES NO
Volunteer Summer School for LAUSD students after Board cancelled summer school YES NO
Defense against her capricious charter and fundraising for valedictorian Aurora Ponce YES NO
Defense of Liechty MS students against the vindictive Monica Garcia YES NO
Support Los Angeles parents, students, and teachers against the budget cuts through the brave hunger strikers and campers at Liechty, Miguel Contreras, and Beaudry YES NO
Attend protests against the LAUSD RIFFs YES NO
Condemn Flores and Garcia’s motion to all but eliminate public comment, community engagement, and democratic participation in LAUSD YES MEH*
March 4, 2010 Protests and Statewide Day of Action against the budget cuts YES NO
Protest the closures of leased LAUSD Adult Education Schools YES NO
Attend the recent South Central Forum on school closures YES NO
Support students, parents, and teachers against Green Dot Public Schools vicious decision to shutter Ánimo Justice Charter High School YES NO
Promote Yolie Flores’ self serving CCSA market share grab resolution to increase corporate charter profits NO YES
* Austin gets a “MEH” here, because said condemnation was only after I wrote a well publicized open letter to him regarding Monica Garcia and Yolie Flores anti-democratic scheme, he had little choice but to endorse what I was saying. After all, a self-styled maverick who claims the parent advocate mantle could hardly endorse Villaraigosa’s closest LAUSD Board allies’ scheme to exclude communities without loosing face. The fact that the Mayor and the woman he co-wrote the corporate choice resolution with didn’t have the courtesy to give Austin a heads up on this speaks volumes to the opportunistic streak common to all these of DFER/DLC snakes.

This table could go on and on, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll stop here. What’s conspicuously obvious is that Austin and his henchmen only support things that increase charter-voucher market share, enable hostile takeovers of public schools, hamper organized labor, and boost the charter-voucher industry’s chances of increased profits. Forget about what’s best for the community or something that effects public schools (you know, that other 95% Dr. Shaffer was discussing above). Some child and parent advocate. Austin and his group didn’t even have the dignity and courtesy to support the Ánimo Justice community — one of their own, in their greatest time of need!

This list of Austin’s actions (or in most cases, inaction) provides real insight into how Austin really views public education. While it’s no wonder Schwarzenegger would pick a man like Austin for California State Board of Education, anyone viewing the table above should retch with anger that such a person would be handed the post.

Austin has lied about being a LAUSD parent. He has lied about where he lives. He has tried to obscure his already considerable income which has increased exponentially since he began pushing school privatization aboard the charter-voucher steamroller. His lack of honesty is actually somewhat infamous. He has some very questionable views on race and class. He has an open case (Case # 2010-36) with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission [5]. He has no qualifications for the Board of Education, nor knowledge of pedagogy and K-12 schools. He hasn’t supported a single education cause in the City of Los Angeles outside of trying to increase market share for the lucrative charter-voucher industry.

A man as mendacious as Austin doesn’t deserve to sit on the California State Board of Education. Moreover, the citizens of California don’t deserved to be robbed blind by Austin and his fellow charter charlatans.

Please contact your State Senator today and tell them NOT to confirm Ben Austin’s nomination.

——
NOTES

[1] Which typically means Austin’s minions making a phone call to the CCSA and Broad’s other astroturf group, the poverty pimps and privatization pushers “Families That Can” http://www.familiesthatcan.org/ in order to make LAPU/Parent Revolution events actually look like they have a base. We’ve discussed LAPU/Parent Revolution infinitesimally small base before.

[2] http://blogs.uscannenberg.org/neontommy/2010/03/trigger-law-gives-parent-revol.html this one sided pro-privatization article quotes Austin as saying “The idea of the parent revolution is to say fuck you.” While we already knew that was how Austin felt about our communities, poor people, and people of color, to hear it coming from the wealthy white charter profiteer’s mouth was quite startling.

[3] “I do solemnly swear that I neither am, nor have ever been… a millionaire” Ben Austin SO I GUESS WE TOUCHED A NERVE http://www.parentrevolution.org/index.php/blog/index_ee.php/P60/

As a side note, at a LAUSD Board meeting in August of 2009, a heckler shouted out the Austin was a “melt millionaire,” to which he was visibly angered by.

[4] Austin quoting Smarick (in a gushing, positive light by the way) http://www.parentrevolution.org/index.php/blog/entry/on_molding_consensus/

[5] I last emailed City Ethics on March 24, 2010 for an update. I haven’t heard back from them yet.

[6] I know, there is no six, but I wanted to sneak this tidbit in: the 2006 Green Dot Educational Project 990 lists Marco Petruzzi’s insatiable former school privatization profiteering outfit — R3 School Solutions — as having raked in $141,500 of the public’s money via the Green Dot cash cow. Another win for the kids. Putting kids first. A kids centered agenda. No adult agendas here whatsoever.

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Political Patronage for Green Dot Public Schools' Chief Propagandist

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Robert D. Skeels is a social justice writer, public education advocate, and immigrant rights activist. He lives, works, writes, and organizes in Los Angeles with his wife and cats. Robert is a U.S. Navy Veteran, and a proud member of Veterans for Peace. He attended Glendale Community College and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), majoring in Classical Civilization. Robert is a committed member of Public Education & Social Justice Advocacy, Coalition for Educational Justice, and the International Socialist Organization. In addition to advancing working class struggles, Robert is an adherent of Liberation Theology. He devotes much time towards volunteer work for 12 step, church, and homeless advocacy. Robert’s articles and essays have appeared in publications including Schools Matter, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Daily Censored, Echo Park Patch, The Los Angeles Daily News, and Socialist Worker.