Privatization’s Collateral Damage: School Board Races Now Influenced by $$$
Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism blog featured a post she wrote earlier this week recounting the founding of Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) by Witney Tilson, a Teach For America alum who made a fortune as a hedge fund manager and decided to use his time, energy and money to reform public education. In the mid 2000s he created DFER, a “grass roots” organization underwritten by “…a number of other highly educated, wealthy investors to build a political instrument to simultaneously advance pro-charter education reform and beat back what they saw as oppressive teachers unions.” And being a shrewd investor, he identified some like-minded Democrats to join him: Barak Obama and Cory Booker.
Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then–Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions. DFER was instrumental in convincing Obama to appoint charter-friendly Chicago Superintendent Arne Duncan as secretary of education, and it spent a lot of time and money lobbying the administration to pursue reformist education policies like Race to the Top and Common Core. Tied to Obama’s coattails, DFER was now one of the most influential political players in the ascendant education-reform movement.
“All of a sudden, there were politicians all over the country who were willing to back education reform,” Tilson says. “We were able to raise more money, but there were also a lot more fields to play on.” As it found tremendous success at the federal level, DFER tried to maximize its newfound influence to leverage reform in local politics.
Which brought Ms. Smith to Indianapolis, where DFER and the “reform” crowd decided to devote time, energy, and— yes— money in political races beginning “around 2010”. The description of how DFER replaced parent board members who organized campaigns around kitchen tables with “reform” candidates who spent thousands on mailings, phone banks, and PR is at once frightening and disgraceful. Ms. Smith then describes how DFER is expanding it’s operations by focussing on school board elections:
The same scenario playing out in Indianapolis has become increasingly common in school districts around the country, as national organizations—mirroring DFER’s strategy—have expanded into more and more states.
DFER currently has active operations in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Students First, a group launched by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, is operating in ten states. Stand For Children has 11 state chapters. The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN) works in seven states so far. All of the groups have put school board races in their crosshairs.
he thought that Tilson’s “reformers” have limitless funds to throw at school board races is scary… especially given this tidbit:
The flood of outside money that’s become a new normal in many school board elections is troubling for several reasons. And the stakes of 2016 couldn’t be higher. This year alone, 640 of the country’s largest school districts by enrollment are holding elections, with nearly 2,000 seats up for grabs, according to Ballotpedia. All together, these districts educate around 17 million students—about 34 percent of all the K–12 students in the nation.
Mr. Tilson contends that his organization and others like it are “...writing the checks, but… not dictating everything that’s going on”, and Shavar Jeffries, DFER’s National President asserts that State chapters of the organization “…are staffed by local political organizers and education experts that are overwhelmingly from the communities they work in.” But, as Ms. Smith notes:
…the financial influence of the outside charter-boosters is an ill-kept secret. The pushback against outside pro-charter money in local races has been steadily growing as more and more cities are impacted. That anger likely becomes more visceral when it becomes clear to voters that out-of-state billionaires are trying to tip the scales in their own backyard.
While the media is consumed with Trump’s tax returns and HRC’s emails and the inevitable mud-slinging that will take place over the coming months, will it become clear that “out-of-state billionaires are trying to tip the scales in their own backyard”… or will DFER succeed in quietly orchestrating the take over of public education school boards and the subsequent privatization of schools. There’s a LOT more at stake in 2016 than the Presidential election!