Public schools serve the 99 Percent, but in too many places these days, the powerful forces that drive education policy are the One Percent.
The campaign for Question 2, on the ballot this fall in Massachusetts, is a case in point. If Question 2 passes, it will lift a legislative cap on the number of new charter schools that can be started up each year. As Charles Pierce explains, in a critique for Esquire, “If Massachusetts has done charters better than, say, Ohio or Florida, it is because the state has exercised… excellent rigorous oversight… and the cap has been an essential part of that oversight. The current campaign to eliminate the cap is not being done to benefit poor children. It is being waged to benefit the charter school industry, which wants to demolish… excellent, rigorous oversight….”
When Families for Excellent Schools (FES), an example of the new kind of IRS-defined “social welfare agency,” came to Massachusetts from New York in 2014, Jobs with Justice Massachusetts explained: “Unfortunately, we may never know exactly how much money Wall Street is pumping into FES. By taking advantage of its dual 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) structure, FES skirts political lobbying disclosure laws to ensure its donors remain largely anonymous.” Families for Excellent Schools is one of those “dark money” groups that wield enormous political power while claiming to promote social welfare. It began as a promoter of charter schools in New York City but has now expanded into New England.
Investment to promote Question 2 is lavish. Jonathan Pelto, a Connecticut blogger, reports that “the charter school industry is on track to dump up to $18 million into a record breaking campaign….” The Boston Globe identifies five organizations underwriting it. None of them is required transparently to list its donors:
- “Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy is chaired by Paul Applebaum, principal of Rock Ventures LLC, an investment firm in New York.
- “Education Reform Now Advocacy is an arm of Education Reform Now, a national organization that promotes charter schools. According to 2014 tax records, the most recent available, the president is Joe Williams, a former director of Democrats for Education Reform, and the policy director is Charles Barone, another staffer at that organization.
- “Strong Economy for Growth has been active in Republican politics.
- “Great Schools for Massachusetts‘ president is Jon Clark, codirector of operations of the Brooke Charter School network; the treasure is Christopher W. Collins, a cofounder of First Atlantic Capital….
- “Expanding Education Opportunities was set up July 1 by Bryan Jamele and Valerie Boyns, two employees oft the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, which is regarded as the state’s most powerful private business group.”
Early in August, Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, reported on his own investigation of the dark money behind the $2.3 million television advertising campaign launched during coverage of the Olympics: “The first thing we see is that the ad was paid for by Great Schools Massachusetts, a ballot committee registered with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. The top five contributors to the ballot committee are Great Schools for Massachusetts; Education Reform Now Advocacy; Expanding Education Opportunities; Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy; and Strong Economy for Growth.” Through an extensive search of records of these organizations, he discovered: “There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this… They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Blaupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy… They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t… No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever.”
Cunningham concludes: “I think it’s terrible for democracy. ‘Secretive cabal’ and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say, ‘Let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,’ that imperils us going forward. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that we have to make a choice: ‘We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’ To me this campaign is about democracy vs. unlimited wealth.”