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.

Hillary Clinton’s Stark Education Policy Dilemma

What is Hillary Clinton to do about public education policy?  Clinton has close ties to New York, where opinions among Democrats on public education policy are perhaps more polarized than anywhere else in the country.  Public schools are the quintessential institutions of the 99 percent, but they are threatened in these times when the 1 percent seems to be able to dominate our politics.  As this blog described last week, New York is the epicenter of this conflict. In New York, hedge fund tycoons from Wall Street seem to have successfully pushed Governor Andrew Cuomo to support charter school funding, blame school teachers, and threaten what he has begun calling “government monopoly schools.”

Consider the Main Street needs in a place like Gloversville, New York, a place like so many Northeast mill towns that saw better days a long, long time ago.  Gloversville is upstate—past Albany, Schenectady, and Amsterdam and almost on the border of Adirondack Park.  Described in an article in yesterday’s NY Times, it is a faded town, trying to raise enough money to fix up and modernize its Carnegie Library, built in 1904. Gloversville, which used to produce 90 percent of America’s dress gloves, has lost its industry and even been forced to close its swimming pool and city recreation department.  But Richard Russo, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of novels like Empire Falls, Nobody’s Fool, and Mohawk, grew up in Gloversville, and he has agreed to chair a campaign to raise enough money to rehabilitate the public library.  In a recent speech, he declared: “I’m a product of public education, government-backed student loans, and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library. If you’ve lost faith in them, you’ve lost faith in basic democratic principles.”

The contrast between Gloversville and Wall Street captures the dilemma for Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who is expected to win her party’s nomination for President.  Hillary has a residence in New York and formerly represented that state in the U.S. Senate.  On Tuesday, the NY Times devoted an article to what promises to be the dilemma for Hillary on education.  Reporter Maggie Haberman explains: “Now, as she prepares for a likely second run at the white House, Mrs. Clinton—who largely avoided domestic policy when she was secretary of state—is re-entering the fray like a Rip Van Winkle for whom the terrain on education standards has shifted markedly, with deep new fissures in the Democratic Party.  Already, she is being pulled in opposite directions on education.  The pressure is from not only the teachers who supported her once and are widely expected to back her again, but also from a group of wealthy and influential Democratic financiers who staunchly support many of the same policies—charter schools and changes to teacher tenure and testing—that the teachers’ unions have resisted throughout President Obama’s two terms in office.”

Haberman paints Clinton’s dilemma as between her allegiance to her friend Randi Weingarten (and the American Federation of Teachers) and one hedge fund PAC in New York, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  But it’s not so simple.  In New York support for attacks on teachers and privatization of schools goes way beyond DFER to the much bigger hidden donor organizations—New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany and Families for Excellent Schools, which has spent millions on several occasions during this year for the “Don’t Steal Possible!” TV advertisements that trash public schools and promote charters.  Haberman is correct, however, that Clinton faces polarization in New York and across the country as prominent Democrats have become starkly divided on education.  Supporting an agenda dominated by school closure, promotion of charters and privatization, and student-test-based evaluation of teachers—a philosophy once promoted by Republicans like President George W. Bush and governors like Bobby Jindal (LA), Scott Walker (WI), John Kasich (OH), Rick Snyder (MI) and Bruce Rauner (IL)—is a growing group of business-friendly Democrats like President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Rahm Emmanuel (mayor in Chicago), and Andrew Cuomo (NY).  In New York alone, business interests have invested buckets of money in getting Cuomo to support their interests such as Success Academy Charters and attacks on public school teachers.  Juan Gonzalez recently reported for the NY Daily News—in an article titled, Hedge Fund Executives Give ‘Til It Hurts to Politicians, Especially Cuomo, to Get More Charter Schools—that, “Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers have shelled out nearly $40 million in political contributions in New York State…. The single biggest beneficiary has been Andrew Cuomo, who received $4.8 million from them.”

In a long piece on big money buying policy among Democrats in New York, George Joseph of The Nation magazine reports: “Cuomo has banked his gubernatorial legacy on a budget that would again fail to meet the state’s public-school funding requirements, instead increasing the privatization of New York’s education system and weakening New York State’s once powerful teachers’ union, NYSUT.  Cuomo’s education reform proposal would tie 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student test scores, based on a controversial practice called Value-Added Modeling, drastically weaken teachers’ opportunity for tenure, expedite the firing of teachers, make room for a hundred more charter schools, and promote state takeover of ‘failing’ (or poor) school districts—a tactic that has been used to expand charter school growth without the consent of elected school boards across the country.  In his 2014 re-election bid, Cuomo declared that as governor he would work to enact long-term measures to ‘break’ public education, which he called ‘one of the only remaining public monopolies.’… The consensus that New York public schools do not require more funding is curious, given the landmark 2006 Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling and subsequent statewide resolution ordering the state to correct its inequitable school funding formula…”

Joseph describes the lavish expenditures of hedge fund interests as buying influence in Albany: “In the 2014 election cycle, no two groups dominated Albany more than the pro-education reform Families for Excellent Schools (FES) and the anti-tax Super PAC New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany.  Cuomo’s policy proposals come straight out of FES’s playbook… This rapid purchase of this influence is unprecedented.  As Capital New York reported, last September and October alone Families for Excellent Schools spent nearly $2.9 million, more than doubling the previous spending record for that period and making ideas like a 50 percent test-based teacher evaluation suddenly conceivable… Families for Excellent Schools will have spent $13.4 million in 2014, the largest single-year lobbying spree in New York State history.”  “It is almost certain that Families for Excellent Schools and New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany are funded and organized by the same small network of people: the same nine New York hedge-fund billionaires.”

Joseph summarizes the results: “From a purely business standpoint… such cost-effective education reform proposals do make sense for the hedge-fund community, especially given the alternative education reform option: the legally required equitable funding of New York public schools, as mandated by the state’s highest court in 2007.  Low-income New York school districts haven’t received their legally mandated funding since 2009 and the state owes its schools a whopping $5.9 billion…. Yet somehow in this prolonged period of economic necessity, billionaire hedge-fund managers continue to enjoy lower tax rates than the bottom 20 percent of taxpayers.  As a recent Hedge Clippers report pointed out, the hedge-fund community has achieved these gains over the last decade and a half by buying political influence and carving out absurd breaks and loopholes in the New York state tax code.  Since 2000, 570 hedge fund managers and top executives have poured $39.6 million into the campaign coffers of New York state politicians.  Thus, despite New York’s progressive reputation, its school-district funding-distribution system is actually one of the most regressive nationwide, similar to that of states like Texas, North Carolina and Missouri.”

Whose interests will Hillary Clinton support when it comes to education?  I hope she will listen to the wisdom expressed by Richard Russo as he tries to raise money for the renovation of the public library in the upstate community of Gloversville:  “I’m a product of public education, government-backed student loans, and publicly funded institutions like the Gloversville Free Library. If you’ve lost faith in them, you’ve lost faith in basic democratic principles.”