Ohio Voucher Promoters Mislead: EdChoice Vouchers Eat Up Local Dollars and Ruin District Budgets

On Tuesday evening,  the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the American Federation for Children—the group affiliated through the years with Betsy DeVos—sponsored a meeting at my local public library, where the speaker, representing School Choice Ohio, promoted Ohio’s taxpayer-funded, EdChoice school vouchers.

Ohio’s EdChoice Vouchers are available to students living in the attendance zones of what are considered “failing” schools.  Ohio is emerging from a three year “safe harbor” period following a change in the high stakes test by which Ohio judges school quality. Next fall, the number of EdChoice voucher-eligible, so called “failing” schools will double—to 475 across the state—reports Patrick O’Donnell of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The list of local public schools whose students will be able to qualify for the vouchers next fall is nearly 12 pages long and includes a mass of schools in every big city and a growing number of the state’s inner-ring suburbs. (Cleveland schools do not appear on this list, because the state maintains a separate voucher program in Cleveland.)

The meeting on Tuesday night at the Cleveland Heights Main Library offered coffee and donuts along with several packets about the voucher program and information for prospective voucher parents about School Choice Ohio’s counseling services to help parents qualify for a voucher.  Alyson Miles was Tuesday’s primary speaker.  She is not currently listed on the staff of School Choice Ohio but appears instead as the Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the Ohio office of the American Federation for Children.  She is also, according to the website of School Choice Ohio, one of the three members of  School Choice Ohio’s board of directors.  The other board members are Rabbi Yitz Frank, the Ohio Director of Agudath Israel of America in Cleveland Ohio, and Ann Riddle, Executive Director of the Northwest Ohio Scholarship Fund, located in Sylvania, Ohio—a suburb of Toledo.

In Ohio, to qualify for an EdChoice Voucher, students must have been enrolled previously in a public school unless they are entering Kindergarten. Once a Kindergartner receives a voucher, the student can keep it for twelve years of schooling as long as he or she reapplies every year.

Tuesday’s speaker, Alyson Miles emphasized an odd quirk of Ohio’s law: Students moving to Ohio—families new to the state—can qualify for an EdChoice Voucher without ever having been enrolled in an Ohio public school as long as they move to the attendance zone of one of the qualifying “failing” schools.

Miles provided mistaken information to those in attendance on Tuesday night in one respect.  She repeatedly insisted that vouchers in Ohio are entirely made up of state dollars allocated by the Legislature for that specific purpose.  After she was questioned, Miles repeatedly explained that the vouchers do not drain locally voted school levy dollars out of any school district’s budget.

Miles is wrong.   In many Ohio school districts, an EdChoice voucher—worth $4,650 per K-8 student and $6,000 per high school student—is more than the amount of state per-pupil funding allocated to the school district by the state funding formula. School districts must make up the difference out of locally voted levy dollars.

In a paywalled, September 14, 2018, On The Money report, a legislative update from the Hannah News Service, the Ohio Education Policy Institute school finance expert, Howard Fleeter explains: “EdChoice vouchers are worth up to $4,650 for students in grades K-8 and up to $6,000 for students in grades 9-12.”  He continues, explaining that while the money ostensibly comes from the state, EdChoice is “funded through a ‘district deduction’ system… The deduction system means that the voucher student is counted in the district of residence’s Formula ADM (Average Daily Membership) and then the voucher is paid for by deducting the voucher amount from the district’s state aid. This can often result in a district seeing a deduction for the voucher greater than the state aid that was received for that student, meaning that the district is in effect subsidizing the voucher program.” (Emphasis is mine.)

The amount of dollars carried away from a local school district can be substantial—especially as Kindergarten classes matriculate through the grades.  In the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, where Tuesday’s meeting was held, the amount lost to the public schools has been growing by about a million dollars a year—from $1,237,990 in FY16 to $2,256,017 in FY17 to $3,214,454 in FY 18.

Recently in the Washington Post, the director of the National Education Policy Center, Kevin Welner and researcher Julia Daniel explained: “Here, we need to step back and confront an unpleasant truth about school improvement.  A large body of research teaches us that the opportunity gaps that drive achievement gaps are mainly attributable to factors outside our schools: concentrated poverty, discrimination, disinvestment, and racially disparate access to a variety of resources and employment opportunities…  Research finds that school itself has much less of an impact on student achievement than out-of-school factors such as poverty.  While schools are important… policymakers repeatedly overestimate their capacity to overcome the deeply detrimental effects of poverty and racism….But students in many of these communities are still rocked by housing insecurity, food insecurity, their parents’ employment insecurity, immigration anxieties, neighborhood violence and safety, and other hassles and dangers that can come with being a low-income person of color in today’s United States.”

Ohio’s theft of money for vouchers and charters right out of school district budgets punishes the state’s most vulnerable school districts and leaves wealthy exurban districts largely untouched.

Dale Russakoff Describes Arizona Cannibalizing its Public Schools

It can be hard to notice just how sick a person—or a valued institution—is becoming. The patient gets weaker, but we deny that we’re watching the progress of a fatal disease until it may be too late. Even though teachers in Arizona had observed their colleagues leaving for nearby states, the size of their classes ballooning, and the building conditions and equipment deteriorating, many didn’t realize they could to stop the collapse until one day last spring when they watched colleagues in West Virginia and Oklahoma standing up. Then they realized they had to do something. That is the process Dale Russakoff describes in an extraordinarily well researched and well written article that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine.

Russakoff sets her Arizona story against the nationwide policy backdrop many people struggle to conceptualize: “Public education is a $650 billion national enterprise, comparable to the U.S. defense budget, except that the federal government pays only 8.5 percent of the cost.  States and local school districts split the rest in varying proportions but each state finances it differently. Texas and Louisiana tap plentiful oil and gas revenues; Northeastern states like Massachusetts and New Jersey rely on high income and property taxes.  Arizona, which hasn’t raised income taxes in more than 25 years, counts more on sales taxes and other revenues generated by a growing economy.  However they pay for it, K-12 schooling is the biggest single expenditure for all states, accounting for 36 percent of general-fund budgets on average. The Great Recession devastated education funding in every region of the country.  With tax revenues plummeting, legislators and governors desperate to slash spending turned inexorably to public schools… In half the states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher pay adjusted for inflation was lower in 2016 than in 2000… Few states were hit as hard as Arizona, where the sun, low taxes and wide-open spaces had drawn transplants from around the country, fueling an economy heavily based on real estate development.”

After the housing bubble burst and property values fell, what happened to Arizona’s school funding? “Jan Brewer and the Republican Legislature cut funds that districts relied on to pay teachers, maintain buildings, update curriculum and technology and much more.  Salaries were frozen, funding for all-day kindergarten was eliminated and class sizes climbed year by year as teachers left for higher-paying jobs and principals were forced to combine orphaned classes. By last year, Shannon Connors, a sixth-grade teacher in a high-poverty, 98 percent Latino school in Phoenix, ended up teaching two classes at once—50 students—when a succession of long-term substitutes failed to teach one of the classes effectively.”

Arizona typifies states bent on cutting taxes: “Similar situations had unfolded in every state where teachers walked off the job last spring.  A 2017 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—scenes of the largest teacher walkouts—were among the six state that cut the most aid to local school districts in the last decade.  All are solidly Republican and all have embraced small government and income-tax cuts… In Arizona, state funding per pupil has been below the national average since 1975, falling particularly after the mid 1990s, when lawmakers embarked on an almost unbroken streak of annual cuts in personal and corporate income taxes…. Even in the depths of the recession, Brewer and the Legislature cut corporate income taxes 30 percent—roughly $550 billion a year—in hopes of stimulating the economy, but without success.  Voters approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax hike in a 2010 referendum, with proceeds designated primarily for education, then decisively voted down a permanent extension in 2012. The leader of the 2012 opposition to the sales tax was Doug Ducey, now the governor of Arizona, who was then the state treasurer.”

After teachers walked off the job in May, Ducey promised a 20 percent raise by 2020: “There would be a 10 percent raise this year, and—if future Legislatures approved the funds—5 percent in 2019 and again in 2020. ”  Striking teachers, choosing to call themselves Arizona Education United: “called the raises unsustainable without new taxes.”  Teachers spent the early summer gathering thousands of signatures for an Invest in Ed ballot referendum to raise taxes, but on August 29, the Arizona Supreme Court “invalidated the petitions signed by more than 270,000 Arizonans to put the tax increase on the November ballot.”  Ducey had expanded the size of the state’s supreme court by two members—both appointed by him.  Many accused him of packing the Court and others pointed out that the lawsuit that eventually invalidated the initiative had been brought by the Chamber of Commerce.

Over a year ago, another group of Arizona citizens had noticed something seriously amiss in Arizona: a new initiative to expand school vouchers for privatized education at public school expense. In the summer of 2017, a group of parents and teachers organized as Save Our Schools Arizona and got another ballot initiative certified for the November 2018 ballot. Thanks to their work, voters will have a chance to stop the vast expansion of Arizona’s Education Scholarship Account neo-vouchers, Arizona’s version of what are known as Education Savings Accounts. The ballot initiative challenges the expansion of the program to make each of the 1.1 million school-age children in Arizona eligible—though there would be an initial cap of 5,500 new students accepted into the program each year until after 2022.  Here is how Russakoff describes the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: “Under the voucher program, the state loads an average of $5,700 onto debit cards and issues them to parents to use for private schools, home instruction and other alternatives to public schools.”  Racing to challenge the program, members of SOS Arizona have pointed to other states which immediately lifted enrollment caps—allowing the number of debit-card-carrying-students to grow much sooner than expected, along with a rapidly growing theft from the state’s education budget.

What has driven political leaders in Arizona to collapse the state education budget, cut taxes, and expand school privatization?  Russakoff explains: “In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law issued a report called “Secret Spending in the States,” finding that dark-money political contributions in Arizona increased from about $600,000 in 2010 to more than $10.3 million million in 2014, the year Ducey was elected governor…  In his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Ducey ran on a pledge to cut taxes every year and drive income tax rates in Arizona ‘as close to zero as possible.’  That year, six dark-money groups spent almost $3.5 million supporting him or attacking his opponents… In 2017, the Koch brothers’ political advocacy arm, Americans for Prosperity, named the Arizona voucher-expansion bill its No. 1 education-reform priority in the country.  The American Federation for Children, another bundler of anonymous contributions, funded by the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and focused on expanding school choice through charter schools, vouchers and private school scholarships, made it their top priority in the state… For weeks after leaders of Save Our Schools delivered their petitions to the secretary of state, a phalanx of activists from Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children submitted multiple daily objections to individual signatures…. When the state nonetheless certified more than enough signatures as valid, lawyers representing the Koch network filed legal challenges that went all the way to the State Supreme Court but ultimately failed.”

Russakoff quotes Kelly Berg, a 20-year high school math teacher from Mesa and lifelong Republican, describing her sudden realization last May—as she sat through an all-night deliberation of the State Legislature—of the enormous barrier she and her colleagues face: “We were told to sit down when we stood in agreement…. We were told to remain quiet when applauding when a teacher, who was in tears, was pleading for support for our classes and our students… We were disrespected. We were mocked. We were listened to, but not heard. That’s what radicalized me… As the kids would say, ‘I’m woke.’ ”

Please do read Dale Russakoff’s fine article.  She connects all the pieces of this story—school funding—the role of taxes for buying public services—the impact of tax cuts—the role of far-right money buying politics—the ideology of privatization—and the cost to state budgets and to local school districts when a state undertakes to run a system of private tuition neo-vouchers along with a system of charter schools along with the state’s public school districts all out of one fixed pot of money.

As Russakoff narrates Arizona’s story, she is also providing an account of what has been happening in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Indiana.

“Don’t It Always Seem to Go that You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone?”

“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”  Joni Mitchell was prophetic when she sang those words back in 1970.

Back then, for example, if you drove across the Indiana Turnpike, you’d stop at the James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, or Ernie Pyle rest stop. Plain, basic concrete buildings, but also racks of maps, clean restrooms, something to eat and some sense of the heritage of Indiana. All gone today: Indiana’s turnpike—under Governors Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence—has been turned over to an Australian investment consortium that pledged improvements at low cost. Now you can stop at gas station-style convenience stores with 47 kinds of potato chips and some beef jerky. Someone flips hamburgers at a tiny grill and there are five or six tables crowded together where you can sit if there’s room. Dirty, minimal restrooms. Although the old places had fallen into disrepair, today’s version is a reduction, a diminishment.

The late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the implications for all of us of the reduction of government’s role and the kind of privatization of public services represented by the Indiana Turnpike: “There is today a disastrous confusion between the moderate and mostly well-founded claim that flexibly regulated markets remain the most efficient instruments of economic productivity and wealth accumulation, and the zany, overblown claim that naked, wholly unregulated markets are the sole means by which we can produce and fairly distribute everything human beings care about, from durable goods to spiritual values, from capital investment to social justice, from profitability to sustainable environments, from private wealth to the essential commonweal. This second claim has moved profit-mongering privateers to insist that goods as diverse and obviously public as education, culture, penology, full employment, social welfare, and ecological equilibrium be handed over to the profit sector for arbitration and disposal. It has also persuaded them to see in privatization not merely a paring knife to trim the fat from overindulgent state bureaucracies but a cleaver with which democracy can be chopped into pieces and then pulverized.” (Jihad vs. McWorld, p. 239)

What is the appropriate role of government—the role the libertarians seek to erase?  Here are political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson: “Why does it take a lot of government to get and keep prosperity?… Effective government makes prosperity possible. It can do so because government has unique capacities—to enforce compliance, to constrain or encourage action, to protect citizens from private predation—that allow it to overcome problems that markets can’t solve on their own… Economists use the term ‘market failure’ to describe many of these problems….  Many important goods in a society are ‘public goods’: They must be provided to everyone or no one… The second big case of failure—and it is really big—involves markets that produce large effects on people who are neither buyers nor sellers. Economists call these external effects, well, ‘externalities.’… When externalities are present, market prices will not reflect the true social costs (or benefits) associated with private transactions.” (American Amnesia, pp.73)

Today with 25 all-conservative, all-Republican statehouses—House, Senate and Governor, all-Republican—along with a Congress seriously considering the budgetary and health care proposals of the libertarian, Tea-Party, House Freedom Caucus—it is becoming clear what reducing government will mean and evident that the consequences will be far more serious than the lack of aesthetics, literary history, and comfort at the new convenience store, rest-stops on the Indiana Turnpike.

The Flint water crisis, which began in 2014—and nobody told Flint’s residents about until 2016—was America’s wake-up alarm. For a long time Michigan has been governing its poorest municipalities and school districts with austerity budget management instead of addressing the needs of the citizens. Michigan’s governor has the right to appoint a fiscal manager who can override elected officials and even abrogate union contracts; there are no checks and balances.  In Flint, Michigan’s appointed emergency fiscal manager, Darnell Earley, approved a plan to save money by taking water out of the Flint River instead of buying already treated water from Detroit. Chemicals to prevent release of lead from old, corroded pipes were not added to the water when Flint began taking water from the river; the pipes corroded all over town; and the children in Flint tested positive for lead poisoning on an epidemic scale. Emergency fiscal managers were first authorized by state law in Michigan in 1988. After voters overturned the emergency manager law by referendum in the November 2012 election, the lame-duck, all-Republican legislature came back in the middle of the night with a tougher law that was referendum-proof. The 2012 law supposedly limits the tenure of austerity-budget emergency managers, but Governor Rick Snyder has found a way to extend austerity management long-term. Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan explains: “(T)he managers were given extreme unchecked authority… (T)hey were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out. And so there was an 18-month time limit put on their terms. Except that this governor is exploiting what amounts to a loophole in that law… (T)hese emergency managers serve for 17 months and 29 days, and the day before their term expires, they resign. A new emergency manager is put in place, and the clock starts ticking all over again. And they just shuffle them from one place to another.”  Hands-off, no-regulation-government let down the children of Flint.

Then just a month ago, on June 14, another alarm went off in Britain, which has also been experimenting since the Thatcher era with austerity along with libertarian thinking.  NY Times reporters explain: “Residents of Grenfell Tower had complained for years that the 24-story public housing block invited catastrophe. It lacked fire alarms, sprinklers and a fire escape. It had only a single staircase. And there were concerns about a new aluminum facade that was supposed to improve the building—but was now whisking the flames skyward… The facade, installed last year at Grenfell Tower, in panels known as cladding and sold as Reynobond PE, consisted of two sheets of aluminum that sandwich a combustible core of polyethylene… (B)y 1998, regulators in the United States… began requiring real-world simulations to test any materials to be used in buildings taller than a firefighter’s two-story ladder… Business-friendly governments in Britain—first under Labor and then under the Conservatives—campaigned to pare back regulations. A 2005 law known as the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order ended a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire codes, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing. Governments adopted slogans calling for the elimination of at least one regulation for each new one that was imposed, and the authorities in charge of fire safety took this to heart.”

The third example, of course, is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s experiment to prove that tax slashing will grow the state economy. It didn’t, and last month outraged constituents finally forced their elected representatives to raise taxes.  But the damage can’t be overcome so easily.  Here is Justin Miller in a fine analysis for The American Prospect: “What Brownback’s tax cuts have accomplished is to have created a crisis of catastrophic proportions for state residents. The tax cuts blew an immediate hole in the $6 billion state budget, as revenue levels fell an astounding $713 million from fiscal year 2013 to 2014…. Brownback has also allowed a long-standing public school shortage to metastasize into a full-blown constitutional crisis… More than half the state’s general fund is dedicated to funding K-12 public education… In 2006, Kansas settled a lawsuit with school districts and committed to significant increases in funding over a three-year period. The state did increase funding, but when the Great Recession hit, then-Governor Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, made deep cuts to the education budget.  The cuts were supposed to be temporary, but upon taking office in 2011, Brownback opted for his tax cuts rather than restoring the schools’ funding.  Between 2008 and 2013, state school funding fell by 16.5 percent when adjusted for inflation. In 2015, Brownback cut $28 million more from the state K-12 education budget. A month later, he signed legislation that scrapped the state’s long-held school financing formula, substituting a block-grant system that essentially locked in those cuts for the following two years… The failure to restore pre-recession funding has disproportionately impacted urban school districts like Kansas City’s and Wichita’s.”

In a recent short analysis for the Economic Policy Institute, Does Corporate America See a Future in the United States?, economist Gordon Lafer explains that the new fiscal austerity and removal of government regulation in the U.S. is the result of a lobbying assault that promotes intentional reduction of government as a check and balance on business: “President Trump’s budget proposal follows the playbook that corporate lobbyists have long pushed in state legislatures: tax cuts for companies and the rich, coupled with dramatic cuts to services that benefit everyone… In recent years, states and localities across the country have made drastic cuts to essential public services…  Budget cuts were particularly devastating in the country’s school systems. In 2010, the national student-teacher ratio increased for the first time since the Great Depression; and seven years after the onset of the Great Recession, most states had still not restored per-pupil spending to pre-recession levels. Most striking about these cuts: the legislators who enacted them and the business lobbies that championed them treated them not as temporary tragedies to be repaired when revenues bounced back, but as long-desired permanent cuts to public services. Indeed, many legislatures locked in poorer tax bases by enacting new tax giveaways to corporations and the rich while slashing funding for schools, libraries, and health care. In the same year that Ohio ended full-day kindergarten, legislators phased out the state’s inheritance tax—which had only ever affected the wealthiest seven percent of families.”

Lafer continues: “This agenda was driven by the country’s premier corporate lobbies: chambers of commerce, manufacturers associations, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and the Fortune 500 companies that have participated in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)… Given this reality, we take this corporate-backed push for disinvestment of America’s public sector as a big, loud early warning signal. ALEC’s agenda is not that of employers committed to their surrounding communities. It more resembles that of a company planning to cut and run. For the rest of us who seek good jobs and future opportunity for ourselves and our children, what’s good for GM is good for GM, period.”

For years and years, Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, has been directly implicated in this agenda in her home state of Michigan. She and her family founded, funded, and have worked actively with the Great Lakes Education Project, a libertarian lobbying outfit that has led the effort to block increased oversight of the out of control, for-profit charter school sector that has threatened the Detroit Public Schools. When, now that she is the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos demands that school accountability be defined as a parent’s right to choose a different school if things are not going well, she is promoting her libertarian bias for lack of government regulation, lack of democratic oversight, and lack of public transparency.  Her mantra is the expansion of vouchers to drive public tax dollars away from the public system that is required to serve all children and protect their rights.

Most of us take our local public schools—overseen and carefully regulated by government to protect the investment of tax dollars and the rights of our children—so much for granted that it is difficult for us to imagine that Betsy DeVos and her libertarian friends at ALEC, the Great Lakes Education Project and Americans for Prosperity can invest enough billions of lobbying dollars to destroy public education. But we ought to pay attention. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone!”

Big Money Politics Distorts Public Education Policy

Before 2002, when the federal testing law No Child Left Behind inserted the federal government deeply into the way public schools operate, it wasn’t so urgently important that people think about the role of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education in making the laws and rules that demand accountability, evaluate teachers and determine whether they can keep their jobs, and even close and privatize schools in particular school districts.  But No Child Left Behind and programs created by the Obama administration—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and other competitive grant programs run by the U.S. Department of Education—have changed all that.  Federal policy is deeply implicated in the creation of a punitive, accountability-based wave of policy that is shaping public schools and neighborhoods all across the country and that is also making some suburbs desirable and accelerating the exodus of families from other communities.

So why does public education policy virtually never get discussed seriously in presidential campaigns or even very much among candidates for Congress?  Why, no matter how hard many of us try to elevate educational injustice into the national political conversation, is there so little serious political conversation about significant reforms that would help children and support public education?  It isn’t as though our population has abandoned the idea of public education. Public schools continue to educate 50 million children.

Here is what Elizabeth Drew explains in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books: “Today a presidential candidate has to have two things and maybe three before making a serious run: at least one billionaire willing to spend limitless amounts on his or her campaign and a ‘Super PAC’—a supposedly independent political action committee that accepts large donations that have to be disclosed.  The third useful asset is an organization that under the tax code is supposedly ‘operated exclusively to promote social welfare.’  The relevant section of the tax code, 501(c)(4), would appear to be intended for the Sierra Club and the like, not political money.  But the IRS rules give the political groups the same protection. The contributions to these last groups have come to be called ‘dark money’ because the donors can remain secret.  The very wealthy can contribute to such dark money groups in the knowledge that people won’t know who is trying to buy a candidate.”

“We are now at the point,” writes Drew, “where, practically speaking there are no limits on how much money an individual, a corporation, or a labor union can give to a candidate for federal office (though the unions can hardly compete).”  Drew examines the emerging campaigns for the 2016 presidential election: “At this stage of the campaign, while some politicians are ostensibly still agonizing over whether or not to run, the would-be candidates are engaged in setting up the ‘independent’ fundraising groups that will support them; they aren’t even bothering to call mere millionaires.  And the idea that campaign contributions aren’t intended as a quid pro quo is fast crumbling. Fortunately for the candidates, given the way the benefits of the economy are concentrated there’s an adequate supply of billionaires….”  Candidates in both political parties have their billionaire underwriters, and we read here about several of them—Sheldon Adelson; Alice Walton; Marc Benioff; Jeffrey Katzenberg; Haim Saban; Charles and David Koch, who operate the “dark money” group, Americans for Prosperity; John Menard Jr.; Robert Mercer; Norman Braman.  Not exactly household names. While as a group these people lack experience with public education, they and others like them are actively involved in shaping the candidates’ presidential campaign strategies. With business tycoons driving politics, it shouldn’t be surprising that the language of business and privatization dominate much of the conversation about education these days.

Elizabeth Drew’s subject is national politics, but big money operates increasingly at the state level as well.

Drew mentions the 501(c)(4) Americans for Prosperity. At the state level other 501(c)(4) organizations are actively funneling big money into political advocacy, despite that in Drew’s words,  these organizations are supposedly “operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) comes to mind.  ALEC is a membership organization and a sort of matchmaking service that pairs two classes of members—the corporate lobby members and the representatives and senators from the state legislatures. ALEC’s corporate members help the legislators write so-called “model” legislation—template laws that can be adjusted and introduced from state to state. ALEC’s model bills are anti-immigrant, pro-National Rifle Association, and anti-labor.  Stand-your-ground laws come from ALEC.  ALEC’s model state bills that shape policy in education include the Parent Trigger law, laws that institute tuition-tax credits (a form of vouchers), vouchers for special education students, and states’ rating their public schools and school districts with A-F grades. Many of these laws were originally passed in Florida when Jeb Bush, an active member of ALEC, was governor (See Mercedes Schneider’s research in A Chronicle of Echoes (2014), pp. 387-402,  or here.)

Another example of a 501(c)(4) so-called “charitable” organization is Families for Excellent Schools in New York City.  Families for Excellent Schools has sponsored the “Don’t Steal Possible” television ads that promote the Success Academy Charter School Network and have opposed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for improving the public schools. This so-called “charitable organization” has bused thousands of students and parents from NYC charter schools to Albany to lobby for the expansion of charter schools.  Families for Excellent Schools is the project of a group of New York hedge fund managers who support charter schools, particularly those in Eva Moskowitz’s charter chain.  (This post has links to coverage of the activities of Families for Excellent Schools.)

Public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent—families with the 50 million children and adolescents who fill 90,000 public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools across the country.  The moneyed interests buying American politics these days at the federal level are not worrying much about public education in era when high finance, international trade, and foreign policy fill the national news, and increasingly the interests of “big money” oppose government schools which they castigate as bureaucratic and overly regulated.  At the state level the increasingly organized power of money is unlikely to be supportive of a public system of education that was designed in simpler times to serve the needs and protect the rights of a mass of children.

Elizabeth Drew concludes: “As a nation we’ve drifted very far from our moorings of truly representational government.  Because of what has become known about the large sums of money being invested in the candidates by the super-wealthy at an early stage of the 2016 campaigns, the fact that something has gone wrong has begun to take hold.”  What to do about it all isn’t quite so clear, though Drew suggests a couple of beginning steps. I’ll let you read her article to see what she suggests.

Koch Brothers Invest in Local Colorado School Board Race

The Koch  brothers and others on the far right are investing in local school board races this fall as a way to promote privatization and other aspects of corporatized school reform.

Here Stephanie Simon, for PolitioPro, reports on the investment of Americans for Prosperity this fall in the local school board race in Douglas County, Colorado and other local school board elections.  Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and other conservatives are joining the Koch brothers to try to influence the Douglas County school board race.

Last weekend in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I observed the importance of strong local democratic school board leadership as the president of the local school board confronted those in state government who had pushed an “A through F” school ranking system through the legislature.  The Fort Wayne local school board has chosen to boycott the “A through F” rating system because, as the school board president explained, the state is branding and stigmatizing the poorest public schools instead of investing in improving them.