Who Controls Education Policy? The Power of the One Percent versus The Power of Educators

This blog will take a one-week summer break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, July 31.

For a long time it has been clear that the policy agenda for school privatization is being underwritten by the One Percent, while traditional public schools are the quintessential institution of the 99 Percent. During this spring and summer, we have been reminded of the role of organized teachers for reminding us about the needs of public schools’ powerless constituents—our children.

First we watched the teachers’ walkouts all this spring across far-right, tax-slashing states which have been starving their public education budgets.  Then in June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against teachers unions in the case of Janus v. AFSCME , a decision that will threaten the viability and power of public sector unions to advocate on behalf of the public institutions staffed by the members of these unions.  The Janus decision will discourage union membership and deny public sector unions money for organizing and bargaining. Who was behind the case? The Chicago Tribune explains the role of wealthy Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who worked with well-endowed, private libertarian organizations—the National Right to Work Foundation, the Illinois Policy Institute and the Liberty Justice Center—to bring the case and litigate it.

The Illinois Policy Institute is the Illinois member of the State Policy Network (SPN) of far-right, state-by-state think tanks which collaborate with the American Legislative Exchange Council to promote far-right bills across the 50 statehouses.  The Center for Media and Democracy describes the State Policy Network: “The State Policy Network (SPN) is a web of so-called “think tanks” that push a right-wing agenda in every state across the country. Although many of SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, an in-depth investigation by non-profit, non-partisan investigative reporting groups, the Center for Media and Democracy and Progress Now, reveals that SPN and its affiliates are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.”

The role of the One Percent to drive education policy is much broader than its role in promoting the Janus case.  For Jacobin Magazine, Molly Gott and Derek Seidman map the role of “corporations, banks, and billionaires” driving a far right agenda across the states: “The teachers’ strikes… represent a major pushback by public sector workers against the right-wing agenda of austerity and privatization… The key forces driving the austerity and privatization agenda are similar across all the states that have seen strikes: Billionaire school privatizers. A small web of billionaires—dominated by the Koch brothers and their donor network, as well as the Waltons—have given millions to state politicians who will push their pro-austerity, pro-school privatization agenda… Regional corporate forces.  Major corporations in each state, often from the fossil fuel industry, are key drivers and beneficiaries of the pro-austerity, tax-cutting policies that have gutted school funding…. Koch-backed think tanks. A slew of state-level front groups—many tied to the State Policy Network, a national network of think tanks funded by the Kochs, Mercers, Waltons, and other billionaires—serve as a key PR wing for the anti-teacher, privatization agenda.”

Gott and Seidman trace the collaboration of this coalition to cut taxes and undermine public education in each of the states where teachers walked out this spring to protest their rock-bottom salaries and the deplorable conditions in their schools.  Remembering that public schools serve the 99 Percent (Quite literally 90 percent of America’s children are enrolled in public schools.), one learns from Gott and Seidman who is really behind public school policy in many states.

  • In Arizona: “Arizona governor Doug Ducey is a longtime Koch ally…. The Koch brothers poured $1.4 million into Ducey’s 2014 gubernatorial run, and he recently headlined a Koch donor retreat. Ducey’s chief of staff used to be president of the Koch-funded Americans for Responsible Leadership… The Koch donor network also funds the Goldwater Institute, Arizona’s anti-teacher SPN affiliate. Trump backer Rebekah Mercer is on the Goldwater board, and a former Ducey official now heads up the Institute… Arizona corporations fund the Arizona Education Project, which spent more than $1 million on pro-Ducey education ads before the teachers’ strike.”
  • In Oklahoma: “The fossil fuel industry drives the state’s austerity agenda. Three companies—Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, and Continental Resources, whose CEO Harold Hamm is worth $18.8 billion—succeeded in getting an ultra-low tax rate of just 2 percent on new drilling wells for the first three years of operations.” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has close ties to the Koch network and to ALEC.
  • “West Virginia has steadily slashed corporate taxes since 2006… Oil, gas, and coal dominate West Virginia and are key pushers of austerity… The Koch-backed SPN has two affiliates in West Virginia—the Cardinal Institute and the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.”

Gott and Seidman provide similar details about Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina, where massive political power is wielded by Art Pope, founder and CEO of Variety Wholesalers, a chain of discount stores.

Big money investors are not all supportive of tax-slashing and austerity budgeting. But they do tend to support privatized alternatives to traditional public schools. The Associated Press‘s Sally Ho traces Bill Gates’ role as the driver of the expansion of charter schools in the state of Washington. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported a pro-charter think tank, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at a University of Washington branch campus but spreading its ideology of charter school expansion across the fifty states through its network of “portfolio school reform” school districts.  Gates has not only invested in think tanks and foundation driven research; he has also invested politically in the expansion of charter schools in his home state of Washington:

“Dollar for dollar, the beleaguered movement to bring charter schools to Washington state has had no bigger champion than billionaire Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder gave millions of dollars to see a charter school law approved despite multiple failed ballot referendums. And his private foundation not only helped create the Washington State Charter Schools Association, but has at times contributed to an entire year’s worth of revenues for the 5-year-old charter advocacy group. All told, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given about $25 million to the charter group that is credited with keeping the charter schools open after the state struck down the law, and then lobbying legislators to revive the privately run, publicly funded schools… (Gates) gave at least $4 million to help pass a state charter school law, though the concept had failed three times at the ballot.  Voters eventually approved a charter school law in 2012, making Washington one of the last states to adopt the schooling model.  After the state’s highest court ruled in 2015 that the charter law’s funding model was unconstitutional, the Gates-backed state charter group shepherded almost $5 million to keep the lights on at six charter schools and urged legislators to pass a new law.  In 2016, its political arm called Washington Charters Action was created, and an affiliated political action committee has already given small amounts to dozens of state lawmakers up for election this fall.”

Finally we can turn to the New York Post, where Melissa Klein reports on the investment by hedge fund billionaires in New York City’s charter schools: “The city’s 227 charter schools are privately run, but get public money for each student and also raise private donations.  Nearly half belong to nonprofit management organizations like the Success Academy network.”  Success Academies is supported by the Success Academy Foundation: “The foundation was set up in 2012 with a mission to support the Success Academy schools.  It has taken in $1 million in donations in the last two years—with the cash coming each year, all from a single undisclosed donor. A Success Academy spokeswoman said the foundation’s sole function was ‘supplementing the compensation of the CEO.'”

Eva Moskowitz is the CEO of Success Academies, and her compensation is extraordinary.  Klein reports: “Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the 46-school Success Academy network, received a pay package totaling $782,175 in 2016.  The nonprofit network paid Moskowitz $195,000 in base compensation and she received another $255,000 in salary plus a $300,000 bonus from the affiliated Success Foundation.” Richard Carranza, the new chancellor of New York City’s public schools that serve 1.1 million students, earns an annual salary of $345,000—less than half of Moskowitz’s pay package.

In a society where the One Percent controls the public policy shaping the schools where 90 percent of us send our children, I am grateful for the power balance provided by teachers unions through their organizing power and policy advocacy.  Teachers unions represent over 5 million teachers who work every day with the mass of our society’s children.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes the recent annual meetings of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, meetings where leaders, “are coming out swinging after a Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to labor organizations’ ability to collect fees. Even as conservative groups are waging a social media campaign to persuade teachers to drop out of their unions, the presidents of the National Education Association, the largest public union in the country, and the American Federation of Teachers delivered tough speeches this month at their annual conventions… The Guardian newspaper recently published a story saying: ‘Documents obtained by The Guardian reveal that a network of radical conservative think tanks spanning all 50 states is planning direct marketing campaigns targeted personally at union members to encourage them to quit.'”

The NY Times Erica Green adds: “Conservative groups that bankrolled the Janus case have begun a nationwide push to inform public workers of their new rights to opt out… ‘This is a game-changer, a tremendous victory for worker freedom,’ said Erica Jedynak, the New Jersey state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by Charles G. and David H. Koch.  Americans for Prosperity is among the organizations working with a Michigan-based conservative group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to focus on states that have high numbers of public workers, such as New York, New Jersey and California.”

The battle will continue. The stakes are high as teachers unions push to retain their dues-paying members and their power as the only real balance for the giant voice these days of the One Percent.

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.