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This story appears in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
This year’s election season gave us some textbook examples of how corporate education reformers use their personal fortunes to contaminate the democratic process.
Let’s begin with the little state of Rhode Island, where former hedge fund owner and charter school champion Democrat Gina Raimondo, was elected governor with 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race—one in which there was an unprecedented level of campaign spending.
Raimondo, who as Rhode Island’s state treasurer won national acclaim from conservatives for successfully dismantling the state employee pension fund, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors associated with funding the education reform movement and profiting from the charter school industry. Her running mate, Cumberland mayor Daniel McKee, one of the state’s most vocal supporters of charter schools, was elected lieutenant governor with help from many of the same donors.
Over the course of her gubernatorial campaign, Raimondo collected checks from many of the major players in the charter school and “education reform” movement, including donations from billionaires Eli Broad and members of the Walton family. (The Broad Foundation and Walton Foundation, along with Gates Foundation, are the primary funders behind the overall education reform movement.)
Another billionaire, former Enron executive John Arnold, along with his wife, not only donated directly to Raimondo’s campaign and her political action committee, called Gina PAC, but the couple’s $100,000 check made them the largest donors to the American LeadHERship Council, a Super PAC affiliated with Raimondo. The second largest donor to the Super PAC was Eli Broad with $15,000.
A proponent of doing away with public employee pensions, Arnold also donated as much as $500,000 to an advocacy group called Engage Rhode Island, which spent approximately $740,000 lobbying for Raimondo’s successful assault on public employee pensions. Over the past three years, the John and Laura Arnold Foundation has donated more than $100 million in support of charter schools and entities involved in the corporate education reform industry, including being one of the largest contributors to Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence.
Raimondo’s success in raising funds from the charter school industry includes at least $50,000 from the members of the board of directors of Achievement First, Inc., the large charter chain that recently opened a school in Rhode Island, adding to their existing schools in Connecticut and New York.
Jonathan Sackler, an investment manager and heir to the Purdue Pharma fortune, is not only a founding member of Achievement First, Inc. but a founder of a national charter school advocacy group called 50CAN. One of 50CAN’s related entities, 50CAN Action Fund, dumped $90,000 to run TV commercials to help Raimondo’s running mate win his primary race.
As a result of the Citizens United case and IRS regulations, the 501(c)(4) Foundation 50CAN Action Fund can accept unlimited donations from contributors and can participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as its primary activity is “the promotion of social welfare.”
Massive amounts of money flowed to Republican governors Scott Walker and Rick Snyder, helping ensure the education reform effort continues to expand in Wisconsin and Michigan.
In New York and Connecticut, the corporate education reformers strengthened their control of public policy with the reelection of Democrats Andrew Cuomo and Daniel Malloy.
In other states, like Illinois, where both the Democratic and Republican candidates were supporters of school privatization, the big money behind the education reform movement couldn’t lose.
Getting control of governors’ offices wasn’t the only target for the education reformers. Races for mayor and school board also attracted unprecedented levels of campaign spending.
In Minneapolis, charter school advocate Don Samuels lost his bid to become mayor of Minneapolis in 2013. However, with the help of record amounts of out-of-state campaign contributions, Samuels won a seat on the Minneapolis school board. As in Rhode Island, the 50CAN Action Fund spent significant amounts of money in support of Samuels.
Over the course of the campaign, donors to Samuels and the political action committees supporting him included an impressive list of out-of-state corporate education reformers, among them: California billionaire, Teach for America board member, and Rocketship Charter School chain investor Arthur Rock, who donated more than $100,000; former New York mayor and charter school advocate Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $100,000; and California charter school investor Adam Cioth, who added tens of thousands more to the campaign effort. Even Achievement First’s Jonathan Sackler dropped in $25,000 to help the cause.
While the corporate education reform industry was extraordinarily successful across the nation, it came up short in its largest effort, which was to defeat Tom Torlakson, California’s state superintendent of education, and replace him with Marshall Tuck, a charter school executive and leading charter school advocate.
Torlakson won with 52 percent of the vote, despite the fact that his opponent raised tens of millions of dollars from the leading financial backers of the corporate education reform movement, including Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, and the Walton family.
Much of the corporate education reform industry money for Tuck, the poster child of the charter school industry, was funneled through a political action committee with the ironic name “Parents and Teachers for Tuck for State Superintendent 2014.” The largest campaign contributions came from Eli Broad ($1,375,000), Julian Robertson of the Robertson Foundation ($1 million); William Bloomfield ($1 million), Doris Fisher of the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund ($950,000), the Walton family ($950,000), Laurie Jobs ($500,000), Michael Bloomberg ($250,000), John Arnold ($250,000), and Arthur Rock ($250,000).
As the dust settles on 2014, it still isn’t clear just how much the corporate education reform industry pumped into races at the state and local level, but the total was well into the tens of millions and in a significant number of cases, the infusion of huge amounts of outside spending was instrumental in helping the corporate interests take more control of the state and local education policy-making process.
It’s likely to stay that way until either we get money out of politics or parents, teachers, and citizens who believe in the value of education expose those who seek to profit from dismantling the country’s public schools.