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On The HotSeat: Pro-Charter PACster Joe Williams

He runs a PAC for pro-charter Democrats.  He used to be a journalist. He's written a book.   Everyone says what a nice guy he is -- except for those who hate him.

Camping_trip_070vAs head of Democrats For Education Reform, Joe Williams (pictured) has been ramping things up since last June and estimates that DFER events have generated "a couple hundred thousand dollars worth" at various fundraising events. In addition to supporting pro-charter candidates like George Miller, Eliot Spitzer, and NY state senator Malcolm Smith, DFER has also given directly to the DCCC and Rep. James Clyburn's BridgePAC.

On the HotSeat, Williams explains what he's learned moving from journalism to politics, gives his account for how charters became Republican, contrasts DFER and EDINO8, complains about having to pay for everyone's drinks, and wishes he'd learned more math in school. He also reveals the nasty consequences if his pick for president doesn't end up winning.

See below for the full interview. 

Previous posts: Hype Alert, Educating Elected Officials Through Their Pocketbooks, An "Emily's List" For Education?, DFER Happy Hour.

What's harder, working for a crazed newspaper editor or rabid anti-ed school person like Whitney Tilson?

JW:  Don't you mean allegedly? 'Allegedly crazed newspaper editor' or 'allegedly rabid anti-ed school person like whitney tilson?' In journalism school they taught us that if you used forms of 'alleged' you could pretty much say anything you want about someone, so I'd go with 'allegedly' here. (That way you can say you are just reporting someone else's allegations if the you-know-what hits the fan.)

How do reporters respond to you now that you've crossed over to the other side into politics, advocacy, and fundraising?

JW:  They expect me to pay for the beer, which kind of sucks because they are the ones with the cushy expense accounts, not me.  Actually, one of my friends from TV news told me she started laughing the first time she saw me quoted in a story. I went all Joe Peschi from Goodfellas on her: "Do I amuse you?"

What do you wish reporters understood about education politics that you've learned since starting in at DFER?

JW:  They need to understand just how scared the average politician is of teacher union leaders. There are politicians who literally whisper sometimes if they are talking about education and they aren't exactly sure what the union's talking points are on that topic. Some of them worry that the union president is going to jump out of the bushes and yell 'gotcha'   if they aren't careful. It makes it an awful lot easier for electeds to just keep their mouths shut and do nothing about the fact that we have thousands and thousands of kids who are getting completely screwed by our school systems.

What do you wish that advocates and fundraisers understood about journalism (or education)?

JW:  That journalists have to play by the newsroom rules. That means you have to quote the school superintendent and then you have to quote the teachers union leader. By the time you've done that, there isn't much room to really get beyond the spin. In the name of fairness, you are forced to reduce very important issues to 'he said, she said' stories, which means readers are forced to wade their way through a lot of bullshit in every story. Editors also like stories to be very black and white – with little nuance. But in education, the gray area is where all the action is. It can be a challenge for reporters to sell their editors on those kinds of stories.

How come you can endorse candidates and all that fun stuff when EDIN08 can't even mention them without worrying about their tax exempt status?

JW:  Our lawyer can kick Roy Romer's lawyer's ass, that's why. No, seriously, DFER is organized as a political action committee. The downside is we are limited in how much we can take in from each contributor for political work. Romer can accept big fat checks because edin08 isn't a PAC.

Speaking of big fat checks, how much money has DFER given the major Dem candidates, and where can good-government types track DFER's campaign contributions?

JW:  I don't have the total handy this second. But they can check the FEC filings.

Who are your picks for the 08 cycle?

JW:  I never bet against Brett Favre when it is below freezing in Green Bay, so I've got the Packers going all the way to the Super Bowl. (And President Obama throws out the first pitch for baseball opening day 2009.)

 When and why did charters turn into such a bad word in Democratic circles, given that it was originally designed as a middle-road alternative to vouchers?

JW:  Generally speaking, we let Republicans act as if charters were their big idea and then we allowed teacher union leaders and school board crazies back us into a status quo-embracing corner.  But not only were Democrats involved in charters from the get go, they are all over the place in the actual charter movement.  If you show up at a charter school conference filled with the diehards, you're as likely to bump into a Socialist as you are a Republican.  It makes for some pretty funky happy hours.

You and Whitney have both announced your support for Obama, so what happens to DFER if and when he doesn't win the nomination?

JW:  It has more to do with what happens to me and Whitney than what happens to DFER. DFER has people who are all over the place in terms of supporting presidential candidates. So DFER isn't in this one, per se. The way it works though, if our guy loses, the DFER board forces us to run laps around the White House wearing nothing but Speedos and bumper stickers for the winning candidate. Some would call it hazing, but we consider it a party-building exercise- 1 lap for every electoral vote that the nominee ends up with. I'm in pretty damned good shape, but i'm a little worried for Whitney if Obama loses California and New York. He'll be sucking some serious wind.

What do you wish you'd known before you took over this job from Amy Wilkins in 2007?

JW:  Math. This job requires a lot more math than i ever imagined. Seriously, in journalism you don't have to know math. That's why journalists become journalists, you see all these people working in newspapers who can't do math and you think – that's the place for me! In politics, it is math 24-7, 365. And it's none of this "new math" nonsense, it is hardcore, take-no-prisoners addition and subtraction kind of stuff. Sometimes you even have to do division! Amy gave me some flash cards, but they don't seem to be helping.

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Great interview, wish you had covered Joe's book......."Cheating Our Kids".

It is a must read and should be required reading for all in education and politics!!

Right on with Obama, Joe, ...............but Patriots will rule the Bowl!!!

Here is a bet for JW, from a neighbor. If Patriots lose their way, I'll till a garden for you, if they win dinner at Casa del Sol on you.

Personally I'm not opposed to charters as long as they aren't driving down wages for teachers. Those charters that keep unions out have the effect of driving down wages if they gain more wide scale acceptance. I don't have a problem with Democrats being involved in charters, but demonizing the unions is sure no way to act like a Democrat.

Most Dems are against charter schools because many of them are cynical profit generating schemes by people like White Hat. That said, if charters are non-profit and are unionized, they can be a way of fostering innovation. Here in Dayton we've seen the best and worst of charters... so I don't think it has to be a partisan issue, and I've not read Joe's book so I'm at a disadvantage. But any pro-charter Democrat needs to recognize that charters have to maintain a quality standard of living for teachers. We can't improve education by driving teachers out of the profession because they can't make a decent living.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.