In Winner-Take-All Politics, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson describe the impact of organized money on our national politics: “The foremost obstacle to sustainable reform is the enormous imbalance in organizational resources between the chief economic beneficiaries of the status quo and those who seek to strengthen middle-class democracy. Powerful groups defending the winner-take-all economy—business coalitions, Wall Street lobbyists, medical industry players—are fully cognizant of the massive stakes involved, and they are battle-ready after years of training.” (p. 291)
Last weekend the NY Times launched a series of articles that demonstrate the power of organized money in state politics as well. Powerful organizations, able to designate themselves as not-for-profit, are wielding enormous political influence as money is bundled and distributed to skirt even the political funding regulations of the most careful states. Such funding has permitted political groups to “flip states,” contributing to the reality that 36 states are now run by one-party—one political party holding majorities in both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Today 13 state governments are controlled solely by Democrats and 23 by Republicans.
The NY Times reports, “Both sides rely on interlocking networks of political action committees, party organizations and nonprofit groups, often based in states with forgiving campaign finance rules, that work in concert to raise contributions and shuffle money to thousands of local races around the country. In some states, liberal or conservative donors have established political nonprofits that function like shadow parties, often exempt from the contribution limits or disclosure requirements that apply to candidates and traditional parties… Campaign contributions that would be banned or restricted in one state can be sent to a state where the rules allow money to flow more freely, often scrubbed of the identity of the original donor.”
The Center for Media and Democracy has also exposed the role of the State Policy Network of conservative state foundations all linked in a well-staffed national network and working in tandem with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pairs member legislators and business lobbyists to craft model laws that benefit business and promote privatization, and that can be introduced in several state legislatures all at once.
Public education has been targeted in one-party states that now lack bipartisan checks and balances. In this blog I have recently written about what is happening to public education in some of those states . Closest to my heart, of course, is my own state, Ohio, where I have been tracking very closely issues around school finance for 25 years.
Only recently, as Ohio politics has been entirely dominated by big money and one party rule, have I seriously believed that engaged citizens—including the public school teachers and parents who know the most about what is happening in their communities’ schools—can have virtually no impact on what happens in Columbus. It is a frightening feeling as we watch state funding reduced year after year—school nurses and librarians cut; school social workers eliminated in Cleveland, a school district with more concentrated poverty than most American cities; and students pay to play sports or join the debate team even in relatively wealthy suburban school districts.
And yet Ohio’s charter scams continue unregulated. Ohio takes more from public school districts to pay for students in charters than the state aid allocated per child in traditional public schools. And William Lager and his Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow siphon millions that ought to be flowing to the state’s public school districts.
This week brought another report of lax oversight. The Columbus Dispatch reports that 17 charter schools closed last year in Columbus alone. All were authorized by something called the North Central Ohio Educational Service Center (ESC), based not in Columbus but instead in Marion and Tiffin. Jim Lahoski, the superintendent of the ESC told the Dispatch that, “he doesn’t think the ESC is particularly at fault. It was a difficult market, and some of the operators simply weren’t ready to handle running a school.”
When the Dispatch asked the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) whether the ESC, that seems unable effectively to vet charter school plans, ought to be sponsoring charter schools, ODE spokesman John Charlton replied that Ohio law does not give the ODE the real power to regulate the sponsors of charter schools: “The way it works right now is, if a school has a sponsor and they sign a contract, that school can open. We don’t have any approval or denial power.”
During 2013, when 17 charter schools closed mid-year in Columbus, 250 students had to find other schools on short notice. Nine of these schools lasted only a couple of months into the fall, but neither the state nor the school districts whose money had followed children to the charters were able to recoup the money. “The state spent more than $1.6 million in taxpayer money to keep the nine schools open only from August through October or November.”
There is no discernable movement in the Ohio legislature, however, to strengthen regulation of Ohio’s worst charters or to regulate their sponsors. Steve Dyer, a former member of the Ohio House of Representatives and former chair of the House Education Subcommittee of the Finance Committee, explains: “Nearly $888 million is being spent on Charters this school year—a 7.7% increase over last school year’s record amount. Between Charters and Vouchers, Ohio now spends more than $1 billion a year on privately run schools.”