Most folks in the Democratic Party have a problem with the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that permitted goo-gobs of corporate and private interest cash to be dumped onto our elections. The party's platform supports amending the Constitution to reverse the decision. President Obama has also called for such an amendment, and Hillary Clinton has said she would consider supporting it.
Most Democrats are also alarmed by the enormous amounts of cash funneled into the electoral process by folks like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers who use corporate and private interest money to overwhelm citizen voice in elections and usurp democracy.
But if you're a Democrat, you should know the influence buying unleashed by Citizens United and perpetrated by people like the Koch brothers are at work – with the blessing and participation of fellow Democrats – in education politics.
Historically, elections that determine public education governance – from local school board races to contests determining state administrative leadership – have been fairly subdued affairs in comparison to mayoral and legislative races.
That's not necessarily a good thing, because education has long been America's most collaborative public enterprise, affecting virtually everyone and determining how we nurture the next generation of citizens, workers, and leaders.
But lately, these contests have grown more animated as a new element – money from big business and private individuals and foundations – is now altering the electoral process in new and fundamental ways.
Examples of this new dynamic have surfaced in the upcoming 2014 elections at both the local school district level and at state level contests, and in each example, the big money often coming from people who associate with the Democratic Party. Further, these wealthy Democrats often collude with conservative Republicans in these school-related elections in ways they never would in other contests.
This confluence of big money is often called "bipartisanship." But the results are apt to be the same we've seen in more popular elections – a distortion of democracy that leads to governance that is less progressive.
Big Money Goes After School Boards
As Valerie Strauss pointed on her blog at The Washington Post recently, "For several years now local school board races around the country have attracted big money from outside the state — and sometimes from across the country — as school reformers and their supporters seek to elect like-minded public officials. In 2013, for example, millions of dollars were spent on school board races in Los Angeles and in 2012, outsiders poured money into a New Orleans school board race."
In that post, Strauss pointed to an article by Minneapolis-based writer and former teacher Sarah Lahm, published by In These Times, describing how big money is arm twisting the democratic process in her local school board election.
Lahm explained how one of the candidates, Don Samuels, is benefiting from "extensive financing and canvassing support … from several well-heeled national organizations, such as the Washington, D.C.-based 50CAN, an offshoot of Education Reform Now called Students for Education Reform (SFER)."
Samuels has out-raised his main competitor, incumbent Rebecca Gagnon, by almost 4 to 1 including "tremendous support from outside of Minnesota. The D.C.-based 50CAN Action Fund filed a campaign finance report in Minnesota showing that it was devoting $14,350 in financial resources to the Minneapolis school board race, as well as in-kind donations valued in the thousands of dollars."
Another report on who is influencing the Minneapolis school board race, from Beth Hawkins on the MinnPost website, described big donations coming into the race from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and, again, 50CAN and Students for Education Reform. That report also mentioned another recipient to the largesse, candidate Iris Altamirano.
50CAN, a nonprofit organization with a stated mission to "advocate for a high-quality education for all kids," was founded and is led by Marc Porter Magee, a former employee of the Democratic Leadership Council’s think tank, a centrist-minded Beltway group carrying a Democratic Party label but supportive of many policies favored by Republicans.
The DLC, as my colleague at the Campaign for America's Future Robert Borosage described, "led the Wall Street-funded, corporate wing of the Party. The New Dems scorned the base of the Democratic Party – labor, feminists, environmentalists, minorities, peace activists. Rather than resist conservative headwinds, they argued vociferously that Democrats should tack to them, adopting a muscular foreign policy, trimming social liberalism, posturing tough on crime and the poor."
According to Wikipedia, early funding for the DLC came from big corporations including "ARCO, Chevron, Merck, Du Pont, Microsoft, Philip Morris and Koch Industries." A more recent report, from The American Prospect, adds a whole slew of corporate money and influence into the DLC make-up.
So now 50CAN – with funding from the likes of Google and lots of rich private foundations including those of Bill and Melinda Gates and the Walton family of Walmart fame – has emerged as a DLC clone with a mission to determine the results of local school board elections.
Despite what 50CAN states as its mission, the organization seems clearly more geared to a political strategy than it is to developing high-quality schools.
In an interview featured on the website of a conservative D.C.-based think tank, Magee has stated his intentions of "breaking up the old ways of thinking in the Democratic Party … by asking: How could we solve conservative problems with liberal means, and liberal problems with conservative means?"
Apparently, that recipe includes using the "conservative means" of big money to influence the "liberal problem" of education policy.
Students for Education Reform is a similarly minded group loosely linked to the Democratic Party label but more often at odds with progressive causes. As a recent article in The Nation described, "SFER has received $1.6 million from Education Reform Now, whose PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), shelled out $1 million to attack the Chicago Teachers Union. DFER worked with the Koch brothers and ALEC to push Proposition 32, which if passed, would have blocked labor unions from using automatic payroll deductions for political purposes. Though SFER claims neutral territory, its motives are laid bare by its rallying around the funding of charter schools, the issue of limiting tenure, and its strict focus on testing."
In Minnesota, as Lahm reported, the state branch of SFER "received $26,000 in outside money, some of which it spent on such things as paid canvassers and campaign infrastructure, and $4,350 of which it passed along to the 50CAN Action Fund for 'walk literature." These effort by 50CAN and SFER on behalf of two candidates in the race have been bolstered with more money coming from Republican donors and charter school advocates, Lahm explained.
But to what ends, Lahm asked? Minneapolis is being "primed" Lahm contended for charter schools expansions.
Samuels’ campaign in particular, Lahm found, "appears to support the proliferation of charter schools in Minneapolis." Altamirano, the other candidate benefiting from the outside money, supports charters as well.
As Lahm noted, "the outside money flowing to the Samuels campaign follows a relatively recent national pattern that’s played out in places such as Texas, Oregon, Colorado and New Jersey, where local school board races have been heavily influenced by the political and financial heft of outside groups." In the 2014 election, you can add Indiana to that list.
But big money coming from Democratic Party advocates for "education reform" is targeting state elections as well.
Big Money Floods A California Superintendent Race
Education historian and public school activist Diane Ravitch recently called our attention to the race for state superintendent of school in California where Marshall Tuck, running against educator Tom Torlakson, got a late infusion of huge campaign contributions" from many of the same entities influencing the Minneapolis school board race – Michael Bloomberg, the Waltons, and other heavy weight private foundations.
As Poltico's Stephanie Simon explained, the contest is between two Democrats – incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former teacher and veteran legislator, and a former Wall Street and charter school executive Marshall Tuck.
The Torlakson campaign is "backed by all the traditional constituencies of a mainline Democratic campaign, Simon explained, "including public sector unions, environmentalists, reproductive rights groups and even the party apparatus itself
Tuck, on the other hand, "has been endorsed by every major newspaper in the state – and by a bipartisan array of wealthy donors," including the above mentioned Bloomberg and Walton as well as mega-wealthy Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and numerous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, all of whom register their political leanings to the Democratic Party.
For that reason Simon claimed, "The race has become a highly symbolic fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party – and is shaping up to be major test of waning teachers union power."
Calling it, "a campaign that echoes the same 'Main Street vs. Wall Street' divide that has roiled the Democratic Party in recent years," Simon noted Tuck's negative stance on teacher tenure and his strong support for charter schools compared to Torlakson's opposition to unfair teacher evaluations and over-emphasis on testing that have been imposed by the Obama administration.
An analysis of the two candidates at Education Week highlighted the divergence in their assessments of what current school policies are achieving. Whereas Tuck prefers the language of failure – saying, "We have a status quo that has been broken for kids for a long time, that's failing kids" – Torlakson talks about recent accomplishments, including "California 8th graders' significantly higher scores on the NAEP reading test in 2013, a record-high graduation rate of 80 percent for the class of 2013, and a new funding formula intended to provide more resources and power to school districts."
Simon noted that Tuck is particularly eager to take on the California Teachers' Association, the state teachers' union, calling it too influential, while Torlakson has defended hard-won union contractual agreements with the state.
As the education news outlet EdSource noted, both candidates have raised about the same amount of money, $2.5 million for Torlakson and $2.4 million for Tuck. But with total spending likely to hit $25 million, according to Simon's report, most of the money is coming from outside the candidates' efforts.
As the EdSource report explained, "There are no limits on donors to outside groups, identified on campaign disclosure reports as 'independent expenditure committees.' These committees have intensified their efforts in the past few weeks," mostly in a rush of support to Tuck.
Democracy Gets Lost
What's getting lost in the flood of money into both these and other similarly afflicted races is the integrity of the democratic process.
When a small group of private individuals get such an out-sized ability to control the conversation, the voices of the electorate are drowned out.
Those who welcome the big money coming into these contests from corporate and private interests are quick to note that labor organizations have long used their money to influence education-related elections.
They are quick to cast these contests as being referendums on the power of unions, as Politico's Simon did, and argue that these are merely two equivalent interests duking it out on a level playing field.
But that in fact is a false equivalency, as Simon herself seemed to admit in a recent Twitter exchange with me.
Teachers unions are fundamentally democratic organizations, as Matt Di Carlo has explained on his blog at the Albert Shanker Institute. "Teachers’ unions are comprised of members who are teachers, they’re led by teachers (many still in the classroom) who are elected by teachers, and union policy positions and collective bargaining agreements are voted on and approved by teachers," he wrote. "When you hear 'teachers’ unions,' at least some part of you should think 'teachers.'"
Furthermore, union influence can't hide behind the secrecy that outside PACs and independent expenditure committees enjoy.
That's different from what you should think when you hear about organizations working to undermine the interests of teachers – like 50CAN and Students for Education Reform – whose sole constituency is comprised of a few very wealthy people.
What you should think instead, at least if you are a Democrat, is Citizens United and Koch brothers.