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.