Home > Uncategorized > A Billionaire Can Easily Afford to Spend $200,000 on a School Board Election or a Think Tank or a Technology Initiative

A Billionaire Can Easily Afford to Spend $200,000 on a School Board Election or a Think Tank or a Technology Initiative

As a former mathematics teacher, I am often astonished and dismayed at the lack of understanding the average voter has in grasping the difference between a million and a billion. That lack of mathematical acuity came to mind when I read two recent items relative to the influence of billionaires on public education policy. One, a post by Diane Ravitch, described the impact billionaires had on the recent election in Los Angeles. The other was an article in the NYTimes that described the influence billionaires are having on public school curricula across the country.

In a post titled “96 Billionaires Who Decided to Buy School Board Elections“, Ms. Ravitch offers an excerpt from a podcast by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider who interviewed researcher Rebecca Jacobsen on the influence a cadre of billionaires are having on elections in local school districts. The podcast uses the recent election in Los Angeles, where outside donors contributed over $17,000,000 to pro-choice candidates, as a case in point. But here’s the mathematical reality: From a billionaire’s perspective, a $200,000 contribution is chump change. 

Get your calculator out a you’ll see that 200,000/1,000,000,000 is .0002, or .02%. If you make exactly $1,000,000,000, .02% of your income is $200,000. If you get 95 of your friends who make exactly a billion dollars to contribute .02% of their income you’ve got $19,200,000 to donate to a political campaign… and if you’re making exactly a billion dollars you aren’t even on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans!

On the other hand, if you are making $50,000 per year, .02% of your income is $10.00. If you get 95 of your friends to contribute .02% of their income you’ve got $960 to donate to a campaign. But if you’re making $50,000 per year you might need that $10.00 to help pay down your debt on a student loan…

Natasha Singer’s NYTimes article, “Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools“, describes the massive investments tech entrepreneurs are making in public education… investments that are massive in terms of average wage earners but, again, are chump change to a billionaire. In her article Ms. Singer describes how the contributions of silicon valley billionaires are “…influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental approaches to learning.” She then lists several examples of the donations, which include a $60,000,000 non-profit think tank, $100,000 grants to middle school principals, and donations to “hundreds of schools”. She profiles three major initiatives by Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and Marc Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO. In each case these donations are seemingly high… but when 1,000,000,000 is the denominator it becomes evident that from Benioff’s, Hastings’ and Zuckerman’s perspective the money spent is inconsequential.

It is scary to consider the outsized influence these hobbyists are having on the direction of public education, but here’s what I find to be most annoying: if you’re making a billion dollars a year you’re probably spending a lot of that money to make certain you aren’t paying your fair share of income and property taxes… and you are like the Koch Brothers you just might be spending some of your money to persuade $50,000 wage earners that taxes are an unfair burden on them, that government is evil, and that private businesses can operate public enterprises more effectively than democratically elected boards.

The innumeracy of the electorate results in a gross underestimation of the force that billionaires can bring to bear on public education without really having any impact on their gross wealth… a force that can be used for good and for ill. It also enables those billionaires to exercise their force with relative impunity.

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