Thursday, June 13, 2013

Parent Advocacy Group With Ties To K12 Inc. Takes Me On

I received a very interesting comment on my most recent post about K12 Inc.  It came from Esthere Tolbert, the mom who testified before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools and participated in a demonstration for legislators. 

Tolbert participated as part of a group called My post pointed out that this group is directly linked to K12 Inc.. It was widely reported that K12 Inc. hired Princeton Public Affairs Group (PPAG), the "largest state lobbying firm in the country", to lobby for them in NJ. PPAG recently established a public relations firm called Princeton Strategic Communications, (PSC) "a full-service public relations, branding, and graphic design firm."

Norris Clark is a managing partner at PSC and also just happens to be the head of, which is also listed on the PSC website as a client. Unsurprisingly, it was that organized parent testimony and a demonstration for legislators. 

It is not therefore a stretch in any way to conclude that K12 Inc. paid for an astroturf parent advocacy group to influence the legislature. 

Just who AM I crusading for, anyway?

Nowhere in my post did I say a single word to disparage Tolbert herself, and certainly not her son. In fact, I didn't even mention either of their names.  Her name only came up in the post because I re-posted a snippet of a comment Norris Clark left on NJSpotlight regarding Cerf's decision to deny K12 Inc.. 

Here's Tolbert's comment on my blog in it's entirety.
Esthere TolbertJune 11, 2013 at 9:05 PM
Mother Crusader, Please do not belittle me, my son or the many other parents who form NJ Public School Options as "astroturf." Providing legislators with a demonstration of how well virtual learning works for my son, is something we "volunteered" to do, because we know how well it works,and we were proud to demonstrate it for them. We want this as a public school option for ourselves and others as an educational choice. Simple as that!

We have used our own resources, time, money and energy to independently deliver testimonies and presentations to our legislators because we believe in the excellence of education. I want to be perfectly clear, at no time did we ever receive stipends or compensation from any source for our efforts! I would never accept payment for a cause that to me, comes naturally as mother who desires the best education for my child.

As a mother who uses virtual learning on a daily basis to teach my son, I am glad such a dedicated professional as Norris Clark, can help us get things organized, post our concerns on a web page and Facebook as I prefer to spend my time educating my son! It's people like Norris that help us direct and communicate our concerns on educational options for our children. He works for us, and we are working for our kids. You just don't get it, this is not some made up movement, this is an exodus of families in favor of better options for our children.

And just who are YOU crusading for?

- Esthere Tolbert 
Someone please find where I belittle, or call Tolbert or her son astroturf in my post. Calling astroturf and calling a mother and child astroturf are two radically different things. Similarly, nowhere do I state that she took money for her involvement, which makes her vehement denials a bit odd.  

At least Tolbert makes it clear that Norris Clark is indeed a professional, not an advocate.  And while Tolbert may feel like Clark is working for her and her son, he REALLY works for (and is paid by) PPAG.  And PPAG works for K12 Inc.. 

The last line of Tolbert's comment is a direct challenge to me, and one I am happy to answer.

Who am I crusading for?  Certainly, for my own children, just like Tolbert.  But there seems to be one big difference in what inspires our advocacy work. I'm not doing this JUST for them, but for ALL children that rely on public schools to receive a quality education.  

Perhaps NJVACS leader Lorna Bryant said it best in the following video produced by, K12 Inc.. Go to the 3:20 mark, and you will hear her admit that 99% of children will do well in the "traditional" model of education.  So I assume that means she thinks the other 1% are best served virtually.

Ms. Tolbert, I am crusading not only for the 99% of children in the public schools, but also for the large portion of the 1% served by virtuals who DO NOT have a supportive parent such as yourself to serve as both their mom and their "coach," making them "homemade lunches" and chocolate chip cookies while they learn at home.  

MANY of THOSE kids are being failed by K12 Inc..  

In fact, it was just reported that the Colorado Virtual Academy (COVA) will part ways with K12 Inc..
Brian Bissell, head of the COVA board, confirmed the change Tuesday. It will go into effect during the 2014-2015 school year. COVA has struggled with poor academic performance in recent years amid questions about K12 Inc.’s management of school resources—including teacher understaffing.
Bissell, who is a K12 Inc. shareholder and has three children enrolled in COVA, says that the school could still use K12’s curriculum but says school leaders have decided that new management is the best option.
“It became clear that at certain points in COVA history the interests of COVA—that is our students and their families, their teachers and Colorado’s taxpayers—these have not always been aligned with K12’s interests,” he said. (emphasis mine)
See, not ALL kids in virtual schools are being well served, Ms. Tolbert.  YOUR son is being well served because, well, he has YOU! And for that I congratulate you.

But Bissell is also a K12 Inc. parent AND he's a stockholder, and he seems no happier with K12 Inc. than I am. He is clearly stating that K12 Inc. is not serving ALL of the students he is responsible for as the head of the COVA board, so they've gotta go.

I'm just trying to avoid this disaster for the kids and taxpayers of NJ. And I couldn't give a hoot about K12 Inc.'s shareholders.

I'm glad your son has such a dedicated and passionate mother, and you've found something that works for him and for you. If all kids had the kind of love and support you are able to provide him there would be little reason to even have this debate. I do not see you as an adversary and my post was not directed at you personally. I sincerely apologize if you felt it was. 

My post was directed at K12 Inc., and their ability to use their money to influence the legislature. 

Simple as that. president wants a piece of me, too!

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Tolbert wasn't just taking me on mom-to-mom.  Much of her comment on my blog was re-posted on the website as part of a blog post attributed to Beth Purcell, the President of

Purcell backed up Tolbert, and further misrepresented my post as an attack on the "collective voices" of "other parents in my state."
The fight to grow and expand public school options is hard work and it takes courage. As parents, we are proud to work so hard for an issue as important as our children's education.  There is no other place we would spend our precious time, energy and attention.  But, sometimes, this courage puts parents under attack by our opponents who want to maintain the status quo.
When students and families were recently handed down the tough news that New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf did not approve two virtual charter schools, passionate parents had a lot to say and needed somewhere to say it.  Ironically ... and ... disappointingly, another parent's blog came out against our collective voices.
Esthere, a member of the New Jersey Chapter is a strong parent who proactively took on this ironic attack. Esthere appropriately states, "Please do not belittle me, my son or the many other parents who form NJ Public School Options as "astroturf." Providing legislators with a demonstration of how well virtual learning works for my son, is something we "volunteered" to do, because we know how well it works, and we were proud to demonstrate it for them. We want this as a public school option for ourselves and others as an educational choice. Simple as that!"
Our coalition has enlisted help along the way to help our state coalitions be more effective and ensure they are getting our collective voices heard at the right time, by the right audiences. Just look at photos and stories throughout our blog that show the size, scale and scope of some of our outreach efforts.
We want to work hard and also work smart. Experienced professionals that we have brought on board along the way have helped our parents find a platform to tell their stories and speak out.  Without guidance and support like this, we could still be idling on the sidelines as education policy and funding decisions are made without our input. After all, the forces we are up against are well-funded and have been at this along time.  We are strengthened by providing this support - I cringe at the thought of where we would still be today without being smart about our work to put students first.
In the meantime, we still aren't sure why one parent blogger thinks her voice is legitimate but at the same time attacks other parents in her state for doing the same. (emphasis mine)
Beth Purcell
Looks like Norris Clark has wised up, and now he's leaving the posting to the actual parents.  

While that's a step in the right direction, it doesn't change the fact that K12 Inc. paid a lobbying firm with a newly launched PR arm to influence the legislature, and instead of doing it directly, they did it under the guise of 

To then attempt to pit parents against each other is ugly and unnecessary.  

Ms. Purcell, I ask you, when did I attack a fellow parent?  I called out Mr. Clark for being a hired gun for K12 Inc..  

But Ms. Purcell, I'm confused by something. Hopefully you can clarify.

I've reviewed Princeton Public Affairs Group's Lobbyist Reports for 2011 and 2012 . K12 Inc. has shelled out over $60,000 per year for PPAG's services, but I don't see on their list of clients. Here are images from the reports in case you don't feel like clicking the link and searching the reports.



Does your organization pay Mr. Clark to help parents "tell their stories and speak out" or does K12 Inc.?

Just a simple question.


  1. Thank you for watching them (all of them).

  2. Here's an interesting article about virtual learning and very young students.