Thursday, November 3, 2016

Following the money: Vote No On Massachusetts Question 2. Part II.

Is it free-market indoctrination, or just plain
union busting? For 
whichever purpose, corporate America is dropping a ton of cash on Massachusetts ballot Question 2.

In an earlier post I described the support of Massachusetts ballot Question 2 as being ``corporation laden.’’ The relatively superficial digging I’ve done reveals that the pro-Question 2 forces have pumped millions of dollars into their campaign.

If the referendum passes the limit on the number of charter schools that can be established in the commonwealth will be lifted; as many as 12 new charters would be allowed each year. Those in favor say that Massachusetts is loaded down with under-performing schools, and that charter schools are high-quality alternatives.

In August, The Boston Globe interviewed UMass Boston political scientist Maurice T. Cunningham, who had been doing research to find out who the Question 2 backers are. He likened the process to opening a Russian nesting doll.

“You open one doll, and then you open the next one, and the next one, and we can’t actually find out who’s writing the check,” the Globe quoted Cunningham as saying.

Using records from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign Finance’s Web site, I’ve discovered that one of those dolls is philanthropist Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who put in $710,000. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, president of the software company Bloomberg LP, contributed $240,000.

Of course, that comes to only $950,000, which doesn’t come close to the $13.4 million referendum opponents raised last month.

The opposition, a ballot committee called Save Our Public Schools, relies on union support. ** The Massachusetts Teachers Association contributed almost $6 million. The American Federation of Teachers kicked in $820,472.  Save Our Public Schools received another $6.4 million from labor organizations based in Washington, D.C.

Question 2 supporters managed to close the $12.5 million gap.
Some $106,460 was ponied up by employees of Fidelity Investments, which has headquarters in Boston.  Of that, $40,000 came from CEO Abigail Johnson.

In the grand scheme, Fidelity’s total contribution is small. I mention Fidelity, however, because it is one of the investment firms that, according to a report published last month, has taken profits from teachers’ pension funds and contributed it to the anti-charter school effort.

On Oct. 26, David Sirota writing for the International Business Times, reported:

When Massachusetts public school teachers pay into their pension fund each month, they may not realize where the money goes. Wall Street titans are using some of the profits from managing that money to finance an education ballot initiative that many teachers say will harm traditional public schools…. Donors to groups supporting the ballot measure include executives linked to eight firms doing business with (the Massachusetts Pensions Reserves Investment Board):  Fidelity, Summit Partners, Highfields Capital, Berkshire Partners, State Street, Bain Capital, Apollo Global Management, and Charles River Ventures. Together with Charlesbank Capital Partners and Centerbridge — which have other connections to the ballot initiative...

The Massachusetts pension reserves board invests around $61 billion for the state’s retirement system, the Times noted.

Fidelity’s contributions went to Great Schools Massachusetts, the largest of the five ballot committees backing Question 2.
To the pro-charter school campaign, Great Schools Massachusetts has put in $15 million – 85 percent of all contributions combined.

Other investment firms to Great Schools Massachusetts cited by the Times article, and what they coughed up:

·         Bain Capital, the job-killing venture capital outfit started by 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, $80,000.
·         Berkshire Partners, $300,000.
·         State Street Global Advisors, 3,000.
·         Highfields Capital Management, 40,000.

Looking at the campaign office’s data, we can that  the bulk of funding in support of Question 2 is coming from outside Massachusetts.

As of October 28, Great Schools Massachusetts had received $17.5 million in contributions.

Of that, $13.8 million came from three contributors that report having the same address in New York City: Families for Excellent Schools, Families for Excellent Schools, Inc., and Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, Inc.

Education Reform Advocacy Now, which lists an address in Brooklyn, put in $298,127.

The remaining funds came from entities that list addresses in Massachusetts:

·         Expanding Educational Opportunities. Boston. $5.7 million.
·         Strong Economy for Growth, Inc. Lynnfield. $650,000.
·         Great Schools for Massachusetts. Boston. (This entity is separate from Great Schools Massachusetts.) $251,000.
·         Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools. Brookline. $100,000. (This group donated $100,000 to another Question 2 ballot committee, Advancing Obama’s Legacy on Charter Schools Ballot Committee.)

So why all the corporate interest? I haven’t found an answer that satisfies me.

In her blog, Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, says,

The free market has been very good to hedge fund managers, and they think that public schools should compete in a free market too. They are not in the game to make money, but to promote their ideology of free-market competition.

I have a hard time imagining that the faculties at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School or the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School spend much time if any lecturing their students on the virtues of the free market.

Another argument, that charter schools evade local control and use non-unionized teachers, makes more sense to me. When  I read between the lines of ``schools should compete in a free market,’’ I think or union-busting.

There are a few other organizations worth mentioning:

·         Democrats For Education Reform, comprised of ``hedge fund managers, business executives, and privately-run corporations,’’ part of whose purpose is to defeat teachers’ unions, according to a recent investigation. The authors write:

 DFER billions fund local, state, and federal political races and use “the sky is falling” rhetoric to fuel their continued efforts to control public education. As a result, we have seen elected lawmakers, funded by DFER money, work to slash school aid budgets.  DFER continues to ignore that equity funding is essential to help our most struggling students and schools… The policies DFER lays out for education… are all smoke and mirrors for an agenda that seeks to privatize public education in order to generate massive amounts of profit for their wealthy founders and investors.

·         The American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. ALEC holds secret meetings in which lobbyists and legislatures determine the content of legislation before it is proposed publicly.  Ravitch writes that ALEC’s ``model legislation’’ is intended to show

…how to replace public schools with charters and vouchers, how to get rid of unions, how to get rid of teacher certification, how to get rid of teacher tenure.

A footnote:  Wal-Mart, whose Alice Walton donated $710,000 to the cause, ended its ALEC membership in 2012. Said spokeswoman Maggie Sans, "We feel that the divide between these activities and our purpose as a business has become too wide.’’

Whatever that means.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for a moratorium of new charter schools in the United States.

In January, the NAACP’s New Area Conference announced it would intervene in a lawsuit that, if successful, would end the limit on charter schools. The Boston Globe reported that the NAACP, along with seven Boston Public School students and the Massachusetts Lawyers’ Committee, argue that charters

divert millions of dollars from traditional public schools each year, but serve far fewer students with disabilities and who are English language learners, as well as impose harsher discipline on students of color.

Enrollment in charters is disproportionately non-white. During the 2015-’16 school year:

·         African-Americans comprised 29.2 percent of enrollments; statewide, they accounted for 8.8 percent.
·         Hispanics made up 30.3 percent of charter school enrollment; statewide they were 18.6 percent.
·         ``Economically disadvantaged’’ students, 35.5; statewide they comprise 19 percent of students.
·         Students whose first language was not English, 25.3 percent; statewide, 19 percent.
·         In the meantime, white students accounted for 32.4 percent of charter students. Statewide, 62.7 percent.

Keep in mind that one percentage point accounts for almost 10,000 students.

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Steven Miller

* I am a substitute teacher at three public school districts in western Massachusetts. As such, I am not part of a bargaining unit. 
** Statistics regarding contributions to ballot committees, spending on advertising, etc., are taken from the Office of Campaign & Political Finance Web site. Information pertaining to the number of charter schools, enrollment demographics, and so forth is taken from the Web site of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
All figures are as of late October.

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