While states continue to spend less money on public education than they did in 2007 prior to the Great Recession, lots of people are spending lavishly to promote what is frequently called the corporate school reform movement that features various forms of privatization. It is virtually impossible to follow and master all the details of what is happening. Every once in awhile, however, this blog highlights some examples of the ways money is being spent to buy the policies that shape the education of our children. This is one of those posts.
The recent and startlingly lavish publicity campaign against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to reign in the excesses of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s favored charter schools is a good place to start. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported that in the past three weeks a not-for-profit organization called Families for Excellent Schools has spent $3.6 million airing TV ads that attack Mayor de Blasio for denying Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools the right to co-locate three schools into public school facilities in New York City. Mayor de Blasio had granted co-location rights to the majority of Moskowitz’s schools that applied for free space, but denied these three because they would endanger very young children by placing them with much older students in high schools or would infringe on the rights of students with disabilities by taking the rooms used for physical therapy and other special services. To provide a little context, the Daily News reporter described the $3.6 million add buy: “the amount candidates typically spend in three weeks of a heated mayoral primary.”
So… what is Families for Excellent Schools and who are its financial supporters? In March 2014, Robert Lewis, of WNYC News, reported: “Families for Excellent Schools’ most recent tax filings are from 2012, so it’s unclear how much they’ve raised in recent years or where that money is coming from. The organization is technically two entities—a standard charity and a tax exempt group that can accept anonymous contributions for advocacy.” Managed by the 27-year-old Jeremiah Kittredge, Families for Excellent Schools shares an address with New York’s affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. According to Zoe Carpenter, writing for The Nation, Families for Excellent Schools is chaired by a venture capitalist named Paul Applebaum, although its website lists neither its board members nor its funders. Stu Loeser, former spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is now the organization’s press official. Lewis reports that Students for Excellent Schools has received grant funding from the Walton and Broad Foundations, although from the organization’s website one can discern neither what its standard charity functions are nor how the organization’s money is allocated for charity and advocacy.
New York City is not the only place where big money is being used for political advocacy and where the donors of that money are hidden today by the tax code. Thomas Edsall, writing for the NY Times, explains: “The explosion in secret financing of political advertising has turned tax-exempt nonprofit organizations into the weapon of choice for those who want to influence elections without leaving fingerprints. Campaign spending by these groups, which do not disclose donors, has grown from a modest $5.8 million in the 2003-4 election cycle to $310.8 million in 2011-2012, an increase of more than 5000 percent with further growth expected in 2014 and 2016… Most of the money raised from undisclosed contributors flows through nonprofits claiming tax-exempt status under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code…. The most common tax-exempt organizations are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups, although there is also substantial political cash channeled through 501(c)(6) groups, which are nonprofit trade associations like the United States Chamber of Commerce.”
Writing for The Center for Public Integrity, Rachel Baye traces the role of secretive big-money donations to so-called “social welfare” groups that support privatization of education and that are not required to report their donors: “StudentsFirst—created by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee—is leading a new wave of ‘education reform’ organizations, funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers’ unions and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in dozens of states… Among the biggest spenders: the American Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform… They have been funded by a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. However, the full list of funders opening their checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so called social welfare nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S, tax code.”
This blog explored a new web campaign, Stinktanks.org, from Wisconsin’s Center for Media and Democracy—a campaign designed to expose the quiet linkage through an organization called the State Policy Network, of a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good. Many of the state think tanks described by Stinktanks.org and the State Policy Network itself are promoting privatization of public education. Once again in many instances, the donors are shielded by the tax code.
Rachel Baye quotes University of Wisconsin professor Michael Apple’s explanation of why so many powerful people are donating to the “social welfare” 501(c)(4) agencies that are investing in the political campaigns of local school board candidates and state legislators who seek to privatize public education: “‘If you look at Broad, Bloomberg, they’re in favor of strong mayoral control of education. Some of it is also this belief that the corporate sector is the last remaining set of institutions that form the engine of our society.’ But changing the way public education functions also opens windows for private corporations and individuals to make a profit, which is likely a factor in at least some donor’s decisions to open their wallets, he said.”
Potential for profits is huge, according to Baye: “In 2002, the education sector spent an estimated $146 million on technology. By 2011, that number was estimated at $428 million…”