When I opened up the mailbox today, I was greeted by a postcard from a group called the Education Action Group urging me to vote against the “union puppets” running for the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board. The mailing says that the Grand Rapids teachers’ union “wants expensive health insurance and a 6-10 percent raise.” According to the post card, that’s something that the district can’t afford and we need to vote to stop the “union takeover.”
Of course, it’s open knowledge that the Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Grand Rapids Education Association are engaged in an ongoing dispute over the state of the contract between the union and the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Even as the candidates seek to talk about other difficult issues facing the district, the media is largely defining the race based on the contract dispute.
A lot has been said about the Education Action Group and its agenda elsewhere. But it’s worth noting once again that the organization is engaged in a statewide campaign to undermine the Michigan Education Association and to attack teachers’ unions. To that end, it has a secret donor list that funds a variety of outreach activities including these mailers, videos featuring the rather slimy consultant Dick Morris, travel expenses, and it pays an organizer to oppose teachers’ unions across the state.
The Education Action Group claims to be “a struggling group fighting for our children” that is heroically taking on the unions in defense of the proverbial “little guy (or gal).” They say they are advocates for the silent majority that opposes the teachers unions. They claim to be “an independent, non-partisan organization.”
However, they have close ties to the Republican Party and the rightwing establishment in Michigan. The group’s head–Kyle Olson–was paid $29,000 by the group to lead its efforts. Olson’s a Republican and he was a lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Realtors, he managed Republican Gerald VanWoerkem’s campaign for state Senate in 2002, and he ran unsuccessfully for the Muskegon Board of Commissioners. He was also on Republican Mitt Romney’s Michigan presidential campaign.
The Education Action Group doesn’t divulge its board of directors or donors, but there are links to other prominent rightwing groups in Michigan. The organization’s incorporator, Eric Doster, is on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project a group that is part of Dick and Betsy DeVos’ ongoing efforts to promote school vouchers and attack public education. This has fueled speculation that the Education Action Group might have ties to the DeVos family and the rest of the anti-public education forces in Michigan. Kyle Olson’s brother Ryan Olson, was Director of Education Policy at the rightwing Mackinac Center which has long been critical of public education in Michigan and that advocates a wider agenda of privatization. Back in 2000, it was involved in a failed effort to adopt a statewide school voucher campaign.
For those who want a more balanced look at the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board election, check out the voters guide produced by the League of Women Voters.