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Harold Myerson’s Take on Billionaires and Charters: They Really Want to Make Schools Better

June 1, 2017

Harold Meyerson, the executive editor of the American Prospect and a regular contributor to the LATimes, wrote an op ed piece earlier this week in response to the recent school board elections in Los Angeles giving his take on the reason billionaires are investing in charters. He opens with a synopsis of the LA School Board election:

In the Los Angeles school board elections earlier this month, a number of billionaires, including Eli BroadNetflix founder Reed Hastings and two Walton family siblings, poured millions into the campaigns of two charter-school advocates. These billionaire-sponsored candidates defeated two badly outspent opponents who took a more cautionary stance on expanding charters, lest they decimate the school district’s budget. In total, pro-charter groups outspent teacher unions, $9.7 million to $5.2 million. (In the 2016 state legislative campaigns, the charterizers outspent the unions by a far larger margin, $20.5 million to $1.2 million.)

Mr. Myerson then asks the question: WHY are these billionaires spending so much… and comes up with this response:

One reason commonly adduced is that they’ve noticed something troubling: Public school graduates lack the skills necessary for employment. Many of those needed skills, however, are the kind that students acquire in vocational educational programs, not at charter schools.

But instead of dismissing this argument on the grounds that it is preposterously illogical and offering other alternative explanations, Myerson supports it with a history lesson on the previous generation of magnanimous billionaires:

Andrew Carnegie, who grew mightily rich by building the American steel industry, famously established libraries in thousands of cities and towns. Though, unlike today’s charter backers, he wasn’t draining off funds that could go to public libraries in the process.

What Carnegie and today’s pro-charter rich have in common is a belief in individual betterment — but not only that. They also share a fierce opposition to collective betterment, manifested in their respective battles against unions and, in many cases, against governmentally established standards and services.

Living in separate eras when the middle class was — and is — embattled and the gap between rich and poor was — and is — immense, billionaires have largely shunned the fights that might truly narrow that gap: raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities free, funding sufficient public investment to create genuine full employment, reviving collective bargaining and raising progressive taxes to pay for all of that.

As the billionaires see it, it’s the lack of skills, not the dysfunctions of the larger economic system that they (or their parents) mastered, that is the cause of our national woes. Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself. How very comforting for them.

His closing sentence reveals his true thinking on the billionaires, but the real problem for America is embedded in the bold faced phrases above and, most importantly, in this paragraph in the middle of his article:

Though a number of the billionaires who’ve involved themselves in the charter cause are conservatives and Republicans, the actual election battles they join almost always pit Democrat against Democrat — in part because nearly all big cities are now overwhelmingly Democratic. In California, where Republicans’ numbers have ebbed past the point of power, the lion’s share of billionaires’ legislative campaign contributions have gone to more centrist Democrats, who not only are reliable votes on charter issues but also often oppose environmental and other measures advanced by their more progressive colleagues.

There was a time when progressive minded voters could choose between politicians who explicitly supported “… fights that might truly narrow the gap (between rich and poor)” and those who supported the agenda of the billionaires. There was a time when progressive minded voters could choose between politicians who advocated a government that espoused “collective betterment, workers rights, and standards and services.”   As Mr. Myerson implies, that choice no longer exists. The progressive wing of the Democrat party has been undermined by the neoliberal pro-market wing leaving voters with a choice between “centrist” market-based neoliberal economics and libertarian-conservative market-based economics. Essentially, voters have no choice: either way they end up with market-based economics which favors privatization.

And there was a time when the billionaires like Rockefeller and Carnegie were willing to make contributions that augmented the government and supported democracy. Many of the parklands, museums, and libraries that benefit citizens today were donated by the billionaires in the gilded age. The Rockefellers donated land to the federal government to protect it and keep it forever wild. Andrew Carnegie gave communities library buildings with the notion that town governments would keep them afloat in the future. And many billionaires built museums, opera houses, and theaters that brought arts to the public.

Today’s billionaires have not demonstrated the high-mindedness of their forebears. They want to exploit the resources on the parklands we now own collectively thanks to the generosity of previous donors. They want to replace government supported services like schools and highways with private for-profit services and they want to replace the democratically elected boards that oversee those government services with privately held corporate boards. Today’s billionaires have not demonstrated a desire to help those who are struggling to master the skills needed to survive in the economy they have created. Rather, they’ve demonstrated a desire to make more money by privatizing the public services Americans desperately need and by stripping away the regulations designed to protect them when they do find work.

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