How Long Can Big Money Keep Democrats In The Charter School Camp?

Jeff Bryant

It’s obvious 2016 is an election year when Democratic candidates need to draw a bright line to differentiate themselves from Republican opponents.

With Donald Trump leading the GOP ticket, and most leaders of his party getting in line behind him, it’s doubtful Democrats will find urgent need to “meet in the middle” on issues such as civil rights, women’s reproductive health and equal pay, immigration, minimum wage, gender equity, and climate change.

There may be some issues that still tempt Democrats to collude with conservatives in order to woo mythological “swing voters.” But the number one fear among top Republican strategists is that Democrats will run “a base campaign, directed toward liberals, maximizing that vote, and electing a devastating ticket.”

How then, do you explain the results of the recent California primary?

A Toxic Mix

As Harold Meyerson recently wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, while the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ran on populist platforms denouncing “the corrosive role of money in politics” and “condemning the plutocratic consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision,” many Democratic Party candidates down ticket funded their campaigns with big money from two corporate interests.

One interest flooding the election with campaign donations is hardly new to the scene. For decades, the petroleum industry has stuffed the coffers of candidates in both parties to ensure legislation continues to favor oil consumption, stall alternative energy sources, and ensure lax environmental regulations.

The other source of corporate cash in Democratic politics is much newer: charter schools.

As Meyerson explains, in the California Democratic Party’s primary race – where only the top two candidates, from either party, move on to the general election in the fall – many Democratic Party candidates relied on money from the petroleum industry and “education reform” advocates backing charter schools to win their contests over “more progressive” candidates.

According to Meyerson, the combo of big oil and education reform mustered at least $24 million in donations to back candidates who opposed “Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to halve motorists’ use of fossil fuels by 2030” and who supported “expanding charter schools.”

Meyerson spotlights a number of races around the state where candidates who benefitted from the big oil-education reform combo defeated more progressive Democrats.

Across the Golden State, reports LA School Report, “Education reformers spent big ahead of California’s primary … The millions paid off with all of the candidates they supported advancing to November’s general election.”

That article cites a source stating, “State campaign finance records show that about one-third of a record $27.9 million spent … by independent expenditure committees in legislative races statewide came from three groups supporting education reform.”

How did the charter school industry get mixed up with big oil to gets its way in Democratic Party contests?

Big Money Behind Charters

As education historian Diane Ravitch explains on her personal blog, “Public education in California is under siege by people and organizations who want to privatize the schools, remove them from democratic control, and hand them over to the charter industry.”

Ravitch points to Eli Broad, who made his money in the home building and insurance industries, Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, and Michael Milken, of junk bond industry fame, as members in a group of “billionaires” who push legislation to expand charter schools and limit regulation of the industry.

The big money, top down campaign to expand charter schools in California is well documented in a recent series of articles by Capital & Main. One article in the series adds the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy related to the family that owns the Walmart retail chain, to the list of charter “power brokers” who invest billions in creating and expanding these schools.

Big money from these foundations and philanthropists, according to the report, pours into the charter industry to direct fund charter schools, pay for “academic studies” that promote charters, and create “grassroots” organizations that make charter school advocacy look like a parent-led movement.

To influence policy, these same organizations finance “powerful political lobbies such as the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and “contribute millions of dollars to school board elections in order to replace those perceived to be anti-charter with pro-charter board members, as seen in recent elections in Los Angeles and Oakland, two cities where charter-expansion partisans have been particularly aggressive.”

Democrats Vs. Democrats

In California and beyond, charter school advocates also team up with big finance to influence Democratic Party candidates in state and local elections.

According to a report from the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization calling itself Democrats for Education Reform has been effective in a number of states at getting Democratic candidates to team up with traditionally Republican-leaning financial interests to defeat any attempts to question rapid expansions of unregulated charter schools.

According to the CMD study, DEFR is a PAC “co-founded by hedge fund managers” to funnel “dark money” into “expenditures, like mass mailings or ads supporting particular politicians, that were ‘independent’ and not to be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns.” The organization and its parent entity also have ties to FOX’s Rupert Murdoch and Charles and David Koch

Colorado is another states where local elections often pit “Democrat versus Democrat” in campaigns where the interests of big money oppose progressive candidates who question the need to expand charter schools and exempt them from transparency laws.

In Tennessee also, the interests of right-wing organizations such as Americans for Prosperity often overlap with Democratic government officials intent on expanding charter schools.

Even in traditionally liberal states such as Massachusetts, progressive Democrats assailing the state’s conservative Republican governor for his push to “privatize” education with more charter schools are opposed by DEFR and other big money interests who declare support for charters, because these schools have had the backing of the Obama administration and, well, it’s about “kids.”

A Down Ticket Debate

Although, the issue of charter schools has barely been addressed in the presidential contest, there’s little doubt the subject is clearly a matter of intense and bitter debate down ticket, where the results of electoral contests can have the most impact on people’s lives.

No doubt, charter school advocates will say their causes’ overlapping interests with big business and  conservative policy ideas is a good thing as it shows opposing sides can “come together” for “the kids.” They’ll insist it’s time those who question these schools to get in line with the big money backing their industry.

But so far this has been an election season that often defies conventional wisdom.

As Matt Taibbi explains in Rolling Stone, this year’s presidential primary had the unusual turn of events where “the all-powerful Democratic Party ended up having to dig in for a furious rally to stave off a quirky Vermont socialist almost completely lacking big-dollar donors or institutional support.”

Taibbi sees many convincing signs that, “People are sick of being thought of as faraway annoyances who only get whatever policy scraps are left over after pols have finished servicing the donors they hang out with.”

Clearly there are enough voters in the Democratic Party base who feel this way to convince some of their party’s candidates and current officials to challenge the wide leeway the charter school industry wants. So maybe more Democratic candidates who’ve tapped charter school money will have some explaining to do.

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