The Power of Money in Public Education Policy

Last week Politico Magazine published a stunning  excerpt about public education from Bob Herbert’s new book, Losing Our Way.  This blog covered that piece hereThe excerpt was so good that I went right out, bought a copy of the book, and began reading. The book covers far more about public education than the short excerpt that was reprinted; it also covers public education in the context of a number of other big problems—our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, a long and tragic employment crisis, our propensity to engage in debilitating wars—all in the context of the “poisonous effects of wealth and income inequality.”  Herbert writes:

“The corporations, banks, hedge funds, and other wealthy interests had powerful armies of special pleaders—lobbyists, lawyers, fund-raisers, public relations executives—fighting day and night to shape government policies to their liking.  Those armies and the endless billions of dollars in campaign contributions and other favors so lavishly distributed by the elites have corrupted the democratic process to the extent that ordinary individuals have virtually no say in how the nation and its economy are run.” (Losing Our Way, p. 63)

I remembered this passage as I scanned recent news about education—

A new post on Diane Ravitch’s Blog, The Astonishing Cost of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies: According to Ravitch, a Freedom of Information Act request has turned up information that, because of a law passed by the New York legislature last spring, the New York Public Schools must house charter schools for free or pay rent for the charters in other facilities.  New York City will lease space at a rate of $39 per square foot in a former Catholic high school for Success Academy Washington Heights and pay the same rate for space to house Success Academy Harlem Central, because the school district does not have public school classrooms to spare in the neighborhoods where these charter schools are to be located. According to Ravitch, charter schools in New York receive annual public operating funds at a rate of $13,777 per student, and the rental expenditures will be added on top of the already generous per-pupil set-aside.

From Joy Resomovits, the education writer for the Huffington Post: “Success Academy, the high-profile chain of charter schools famous for its clashes with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), is taking its fight beyond the nation’s largest school system.  After a tumultuous year, filings show that Success is being represented by lobbyists in Washington… According to lobbying disclosures posted this summer but not previously reported, the schools hired two affiliated Washington-based firms, EdNexus Advisors and Thompson Coburn, L.L.P.  The expenditure for EdNexus is listed as ‘less than $5,000,’ and Thompson Coburn’s is $10,000.  Those are relatively small expenditures, suggesting that Success might be trying out the firms.  The disclosures specify lobbying around the components of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that concern charter schools… Several sources in Washington said they expect the well-funded school organization to use its newly established presence in Washington to advocate for an increase in federal charter school funding.  Sources also suggested that Moskowitz could be looking to get Success accredited as an independent certifier of teachers.”

Here is a short history of key news about Success Academy charter schools in recent years:

October 2014:  In New York, Eva Moskowitz—the politically connected former city councilwoman, the darling of  hedge fund tycoons, and the CEO of the Success Academies that pay her an annual salary of $500,000—just got 14 more schools authorized to open next year.  According to the NY Times, “The state’s charter schools committee, part of State University of New York’s board of trustees, approved 14 new Success Academy schools, which will bring the network to a total of 50 schools serving 16,300 students by 2016…”

First week of October 2014:  The approval followed a half-million dollar TV advertising campaign, Don’t Steal Possible,  that splashed across New York before the vote by the SUNY trustees.  And once again, Moskowitz had closed her schools in early October and staged a major rally of students, parents, and teachers.

March 2014: When New York City’s new mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to deny co-location privileges for two of Moskowitz’s schools into already crowded public schools where the charters would displace programs serving the public school students, Moskowitz closed her charter schools for a day, took thousands of students and parents and teachers to Albany to protest, got donations from wealthy benefactors that enabled her to spend $3.6 million for a lavish TV advertising campaign, and got Governor Andrew Cuomo to pressure the  legislature to pass the law that requires the New York City schools to find space for charters in public school buildings (rent-free) or to reimburse the charters for the rent they must pay in other facilities.  Many have wondered why Governor Cuomo was so anxious to speak up for charters, when the majority of the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students (and parents across the state of New York) depend on traditional public schools.   For the answer to this question it is essential to follow the money.  Cuomo has depended on the pro-charter PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  DFER was founded by hedge fund managers who have been among the strongest supporters of New York City’s charter schools.  According to a January 2014 report from Chalkbeat New York, DFER had (by that date) contributed $35,000 to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign.  John Petrey,  a co-founder of DFER had donated $35,000 and Whitney Tilson another co-founder of DFER, $12,000.  Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC, Great Public Schools, had donated $65,000.  Members of the board of Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter schools who had already contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign include Sam Cole ($30,000), Bryan Binder ($15,000), Jill Braufman ($57,500), Dan and Margaret Loeb ($29,367), Joel and Julia Greenblatt ($75,000), Dan Nir ($35,000), Charles Staunch ($15,000), Jarrett Posner ($2,500), and Andrea and Dana Stone ($75,000).

Back in 2012: Moskowitz got the SUNY authorizing board to grant a 50 percent increase in the tax-generated per-pupil management fee to Success Academy Charter Schools despite that the Success Network had posted a year-end surplus of $23.5 million and spent nearly $883,119 on publicity and student recruitment in that year including fees of $243,150 to SKD Knickerbocker, a prominent pubic relations firm led by Anita Dunn, the former communications director for the Obama White House, and $129,000 to another Washington, D.C. consulting firm.

While I have just begun reading Bob Herbert’s new book, and although I have not yet reached the chapters that cover the current state of public education, I think he is onto something: “The corporations, banks, hedge funds, and other wealthy interests had powerful armies of special pleaders—lobbyists, lawyers, fund-raisers, public relations executives—fighting day and night to shape government policies to their liking.  Those armies and the endless billions of dollars in campaign contributions and other favors so lavishly distributed by the elites have corrupted the democratic process to the extent that ordinary individuals have virtually no say in how the nation and its economy are run.”

Remember, once the 14 new Success Academy charter schools just authorized by the SUNY board of trustees are up and running, Success Academy Schools will have the capacity to serve 16,300 students.  The New York City Schools are responsible for serving 1.1 million students. Too often the advocates for these 1.1 million children lack the kind of resources Moskowitz can summon to promote her much smaller network of schools.

Bob Herbert Explains “How Millionaires and Billionaires Are Ruining Our Schools”

Did you see Bob Herbert’s wonderful new article, The Plot Against Public Education, in Politico Magazine?  If not, you should read it.  Bob Herbert was a regular New York Times columnist between 1993 and 2011, when he left to join Demos and to write the book, Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, from which this article is excerpted.  The book was published this week.

Herbert’s subject is the role of money and the power of elites to shape education policy in America these days.  Herbert skewers Bill Gates: “When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen.”  And he notes that when  Bill Gates’ “small high schools” experiment utterly failed, there weren’t the kind of consequences we might see if a public school district, for example, failed in a similar school restructuring. “There was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C’est la vie.

“This hit-or-miss attitude—let’s try this, let’s try that—has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years… But if there is one broad approach… that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools…  Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow.  They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.  None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools.  In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous.”

Acknowledging Bill Gates’ good intentions, Herbert then tells the story of a number of school “reformers” who have been in it for greed—including Ron Packard the CEO of K12 on-line learning, a company whose founding was underwritten by Michael Milken, the junk-bond king.  And there are others.  “It was easy to lose sight of the best interests of children as corporations throughout the country did all they could to maximize profits from public education. Consider for example, the Rupert Murdoch-Joel Klein connection.”  And there is Jeb Bush, who with former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, “started an organization called Digital Learning Now!, which took on the task of persuading state legislators to make it easier for companies to get public funding for virtual schools and for the installation of virtual classrooms in brick-and-mortal schools.”  We are also reminded about Cathie Black, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hapless schools chancellor, a socialite who served for 91 days until it became clear that running a school district with 1.1 million children might be complicated. “Black had had no previous experiences with the public schools.  She hadn’t attended them… She hadn’t taught in them.  She hadn’t sent her children to them.  In one of her first public appearances after the appointment, she said, ‘What I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed.'”

Herbert concludes: “The amount of money in play is breathtaking.  And the fiascos it has wrought put a spotlight on America’s class divide and the damage that members of the elite, with their money and their power and their often misguided but unshakable belief in their talents and their virtue, are inflicting on the less financially fortunate.  Those who are genuinely interested in improving the quality of education for all American youngsters are faced with two fundamental questions: First, how long can school systems continue to pursue market-based reforms that have failed year after demoralizing year to improve the education of the nation’s most disadvantaged children?  And second, why should a small group of America’s richest individuals, families, and foundations be allowed to exercise such overwhelming—and often toxic—influence over the ways in which public school students are taught?”