Zephyr Teachout, whose candidacy against incumbent NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo was surprisingly strong, wrote an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes titled “Legal Bribery“. The column decries the effects of Citizens United on the way business is conducted in politics. Using the recent arraignment of Speaker of the House Sheldon Silver as a springboard for her analysis, Teachout describes the way campaign contributions can impact political decision making and lead to outright bribery:
Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.
I read this on the heels of reading a recent blog post by Diane Ravitch about campaigns in Douglas County, CO, where pro-privatization candidates won elections and began to dismantle a schools system that was not encountering any serious difficulties. That led me to post this comment:
There is an effect of campaign finance that should disturb public education advocates like Ms. Teachout: investors in privatized public education are underwriting the campaigns of “reform” candidates who favor the replacement of “failing” public schools with for-profit charters. If you don’t think this is happening now read Diane Ravitch’s blog where you’ll see many examples… this one for example:
And state residents must wonder why “school reform” is a front burner issue in NY, NJ, and CT whose schools are performing far better than headlines and their governors want you to believe. Perhaps a look at campaign financing could shed some light on this issue as well.
I realize that there are differences between the kind of campaign contributions Teachout cites and the ones frequently recounted in Diane Ravitch’s column.
- Governors and state legislators oversee a wide array of functions and, therefore, have many more opportunities to receive campaign funds with implicit quid pro quos.
- Their elections, particularly those of Governor, tend to generate more coverage and, therefore, engage a higher percentage of the electorate.
- Contributors interested in providing privatization services need to spend more money to get a state official elected than getting a local official elected.
All of this makes local school board elections and/or elections of “undercard” positions like State Board or State or County Superintendents a relatively cost-effective way to make inroads in privatization. And these “investments” have two benefits: they are completely transparent and, therefore, more defensible; and they can achieve results more rapidly.
Candidates who run on “reform” campaigns are often clear about their intentions and appeal to those who want to be certain their taxes will not increase. By promoting the virtues of the marketplace and the “failure” of public schools candidates can run on platforms that make it clear they are advocating privatization and, if they choose to or need to, accept donations from any number of enterprises that will offer privatization services with a straight face. The campaign contributions in this case mirror the explicit principles of the candidate. They are, in effect, no different than the Sierra Club contributions received by a pro-environmental candidate.
Most importantly to an investor in privatization, once a school board has a majority of pro-privatization candidates, change can occur democratically AND rapidly. By raising hands at a board meeting it would be possible to replace “failing” public schools with for-profit charters or possible to institute some form of vouchers within the constitutional framework of the state, or possible to close all the schools and replace them with for-profit charters. There will be pushback from those who opposed the candidates platforms— especially those who neglected to vote and especially those who would be effected by the closure of schools.
This direction for public education is difficult to reverse once it gets started… and, unfortunately, “the train has already left the station” in several states. As the analysis above indicates, campaign reform won’t necessarily fix the problem: only voter engagement will work… and voters seem to be slow to recognize the demise of their locally controlled public schools.
Earlier this week, the US edition of The Guardian posted an article by Sarah Smarsh on the state of public education in Kansas. As reported in earlier blog posts, KS finds itself in a funding crisis because their Governor has lowered taxes to entice the expansion of business and recently lost a Supreme Court case filed by a parent who felt that KS was not sufficiently funding its schools and that lack of funding resulted unconstitutional inequities. The Guardian suggests that the Governor or the legislature, which is sympathetic to his cause, might offer a solution that would not only please the court, but would also please privatization advocates like the Koch bothers who live in KS and the large number of fundamental Christians: vouchers. If the legislature closed public schools and offered vouchers to parents that could be used in any school at all, fundamentalists could open private academies to address their concerns about the secular humanism rampant in public education and the Koch brothers’ kindred spirits could open for profit charters and taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay any more money at all. It would be a win-win-win for the taxpayers, the fundamentalists, and the profiteers… but it would be dreadful for the very students whose parent filed the lawsuit because it would end public education as we know it today.
Smarsh notes parallels between Brown v Board of Education in 1954 and this case today, one of which was that the plaintiffs in both cases were pastors of churches. She writes:
It was a good legal strategy that a longtime Christian clergyman became the namesake for Gannon v Kansas (the lawsuit seeking funding equity), a lawsuit bent on increasing funding for a secular institution. Similarly, in Brown v Board some 60 years ago, Topeka dad Oliver Brown took the title spot for being a respected pastor. The two cases contain plenty more parallels, and if there was a poor people’s movement to match the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century today, people would be marching in the streets – not to desegregate schools but to keep them open.
Unfortunately for those of us who want to see a strong and vibrant public education system, the poor people whose children are being shortchanged cannot see how the system is working against them and taking tax revenues to either promote religion or increase profits. The war against the poor is subtler than racism but every bit as pernicious… and seemingly as intractable.
Earlier today Diane Ravitch wrote a post noting that Lamar Alexander quoted progressive blogger and administrator Carol Burris at the hearing he was leading on the reauthorization of ESEA. This resulted in a lot of positive comments from readers.
Throughout the day, though, she had several blog posts excoriating Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech where he slammed public schools and proposed preposterous “reforms” to the teacher and school evaluation system based on his misguided belief that teachers and the “public school monopoly” are the problem and dismissal of bad teachers and introduction of market forces in schools is the answer. This resulted in a lot of negativity about Cuomo, the Regents, and the privatization movement.
And here’s the problem: based on everything I’ve read about Lamar Alexander’s thoughts about the ESEA reauthorization he wants to decentralize accountability by moving it back to the states where he thinks it belongs… which means that Cuomo and his ilk will be able have their way— which is VERY bad news. That led me to leave the following comment:
I’m VERY skeptical and fearful about where Lamar Alexander is heading… I believe he will be using the RTTT/CCSS overreach as the basis for arguing that STATES should define standards and develop accountability models…. and if that is the case I dread seeing what happens in NJ, MI, IN, WI, OH, and NYS when it comes to deciding how much input to receive from teachers and parents and how much standardized tests will play a role in teacher evaluations. I’m also skeptical and fearful about what the science standards will look like in States where evolution and global warming are called into question. And I’m MOST skeptical and fearful about what will happen when vouchers are offered in states (like NY) where the governor’s have convinced voters that the “government run public school monopoly” needs to be replaced with something that gives the parents a choice. That “choice” idea started in the South during the 1950s when Brown v.Board of Education was filed. I urge everyone who reads this to write your Federal legislators expressing your thoughts on the reauthorization of ESEA.
As noted a week ago, I wrote to both Senators and my house member as well as Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch in VT, both of whom are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Please do the same… and soon!