Plutocrats in NYC Wielding Power, Buying the Airwaves, and Trashing Public Schools Again

Public schools are among the primary institutions that serve the families in the 99 Percent.  As primarily middle class institutions, they are coming under attack from the One Percent, the plutocrats—both Republican and Democrats—who control the levers of power.

In a piece earlier this week the NY Times profiled 158 families across the country who have provided nearly half of all the early money that has been underwriting the campaigns of the candidates currently vying for the 2016 Presidential nominations. The reporters quote the political analyst and demographic expert Ruy Teixeira: “The campaign finance system is now a countervailing force to the way the actual voters of the country are evolving and the policies they want.”

Last week, the NY Times op-ed page printed a commentary by Thomas Edsall on the same subject.  Edsall describes the conclusions of political scientist Martin Gilens on the impact of our increasingly plutocratic system: “The majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.  When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose… Gilens notes that policies popular with the middle class but not with the affluent rarely win enactment: The majority are redistributive policies including raising the minimum wage or indexing it to inflation, increasing income taxes on high earners or corporations, or cutting payroll taxes on lower income Americans.  Conversely, policies opposed by the middle-class but backed by the affluent include ‘tax cuts for upper income individuals, spending cuts in Medicare, and roll-backs of federal retirement programs’—policies that have been adopted.”

So what does all this mean for education?  One need only look at television in New York City to get a sense of the power of money.  If you are a parent or a teacher or even a teachers’ union, you are unlikely to be able to run television ads in support of the public schools.  But if you contribute to the secretive Families for Excellent Education, nobody will even know that you are spending your money to undermine Mayor Bill deBlasio’s proposals to improve the traditional public schools that serve over 93 percent of New York City’s children and adolescents.

Families for Excellent Schools is what Politico NY calls a “charter school advocacy group,” affiliated for several years now with Eva Moskowitz’s chain of Success Academy Charters.  Politico explains: “Charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools is attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio in a television ad for the second time in just a few weeks, this time by targeting his K-12 education agenda.  The new ad, called ‘Reality,’ started airing on Friday and attempts to rebut the educational policies de Blasio announced during a recent speech… FES, which is closely aligned with Success Academy and its CEO, Eva Moskowitz, has been one of de Blasio’s most relentless antagonists over the last two years.” This is the third anti-public schools ad aired on television by Families for Excellent Schools in the past 18 months.

Here is what Families for Excellent Schools is attacking in its new ad.  In a recent major address, De Blasio committed to extending school improvement well beyond his vast expansion of pre-school over the past year.  Well over 65,000 children in New York City are now enrolled in pre-K programs, including many low income children, even children living in shelters for homeless families.  The district is also engaged in the ongoing transformation of New York City’s lowest-achieving schools into full-service, wraparound Community Schools.  In the recent address de Blasio promised to ensure reading specialists across the city’s second grades and access to algebra for all students by ninth grade.  He also promised that all of the small high schools created by Mayor Bloomberg will offer courses in advanced sciences and math.  Many of these schools that have offered a more personalized education have not, until now, provided a curriculum with enough courses for students to earn a Regents diploma.

So, who are the contributors to Families for Excellent Schools, the organization that is attempting to undermine the mayor’s progressive education agenda?  Nobody knows, though everyone suspects it is the hedge fund supporters who are known to support Success Academy Charters.  Chris Bragg reported a year ago for Crain’s NY Business: “Lobbying records… show how Families for Excellent Schools was able to shield its donors’ names.”  Critics have called it the “hedge-fund loophole.”  “Founded several years ago by business executives including four Wall Street players, Families for Excellent Schools has two components: an apolitical 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit and a politics-focused 501(c)(4).  The group’s 2012 tax returns reflect a heavy overlap between the staffs of the two entities, which share an office suite… New York’s 2011 ethics law requires issue-oriented nonprofits that spend more than $50,000 a year on lobbying to disclose sources of funds of more than $5,000… But the bulk of Families for Excellent Schools’ spending is not by its political arm but rather its 501(c)(3)—which does not have to disclose donors under state law.”  Much of the organization’s expenditures have been for television advertising, but Bragg points out the ads do not explicitly advocate for legislation, and hence skirt the law.

More recently in the Albany Times Union, Bragg reports that in 2014, Families for Excellent Schools spent $9.7 million without disclosing its donors. He explains that at a meeting in February of 2015, the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics acknowledged that some organizations have been able to “construct funding mechanisms that may avoid disclosure while still technically complying with the law and the regulations.”  Bragg adds that, “David Grandeau, an attorney for Families for Excellent Schools and former top state lobbying regulator, has maintained that the IRS definition of lobbying is far narrower than the one found in New York law, a distinction that he says makes the heavy New York lobbying spending by the group permissible under federal regulations.”

We know that political advertisements distort the views of political candidates, but what if it became widespread for people to run TV ads focused on distorting the work of core civic institutions?  Consider what it would be like to live in New York City these days with a bunch of wealthy plutocrats sponsoring political ads designed to trash your community’s public schools.  Mayor de Blasio has committed to making significant improvements in the way the city’s public schools serve over 90 percent of the city’s young people. What are a few rich friends committed to helping Eva Moskowitz grow her charter network doing undermining the public interest?

This blog has covered the impact of hedge fund lobbying to promote charters and undermine public education here, here, and here.