Charter Schools & Dark Money


Charter schools were not on my radar until I heard a presentation by a consultant for the Massachusetts group Save Our Public Schools.

That group is pushing for a “no” vote on Massachusetts state ballot question #2, which seeks to lift a cap on the number of charter schools that can be created each year. A “yes” vote would allow up to 12 new charter schools every year.

The issue became a ballot question because while the state Senate approved a bill that would have passed the question, the House would not. Eventually, the Massachusetts Democratic delegation voted overwhelmingly to oppose the question.

The NAACP has also taken a stand against Question #2; it was at the New England Area Conference of the NAACP that I heard Steve Crawford speak. His presentation was concise and clear, and I agreed with the main points:

  • Charter schools take money away from public schools to the tune of millions of dollars a year.
  • Charter schools have no local oversight, yet are funded by local taxpayers even if they are for-profit schools (and they can be for profit).
  • Charter schools have applications, and the standards by which a child is accepted is not, and will not be, public knowledge. Charter schools brag about their waiting lists, but waiting lists are very easy to manipulate to keep certain people out and certain people in.
  • Charter school teachers need not have state certification. They are not mandated to have special education or ESL classes. They are not mandated to have cultural competency training.

As much of an impression as this made on me, being long an advocate for public education, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I became zealous on the issue. I was eating dinner while listening to Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The chapter concerned the conservative nonprofit, the Bradley Foundation (similar to the Koch Foundation), one of many nonprofit shelters for billionaires through which money is siphoned to local conservative causes throughout the country. Donors to these nonprofits need not be revealed, hence the term “dark money.”

These words struck me in mid-chew: “It was an activist force on the secondary-school level, too. The Bradley Foundation virtually drove the early national ‘school choice’ movement, waging an all-out assault on teachers’ unions and traditional public schools. In an effort to ‘wean’ Americans from government, the foundation militated for parents to be able to use public funds to send their children to private and parochial schools.”

In essence, Ms. Mayer said, though the people behind these foundations do everything they can to get out of paying their fair share of taxes, they also want to give their children a private school education at the taxpayers’ expense.

So the ballot question has been rephrased here in Massachusetts (and this is going on in other states as well). If you follow the money, you will find that donors to the SOPS advertising campaign come mainly from state educators’ unions. The bulk of the money donated to the proponents’ much more expensive ad campaign is from out-of-state investors with ties to Wall Street, according to Maurice Cunningham on WHGB’s MassPoliticalProfs blog, and 501(c)(4)s, nonprofits that do not have to reveal the identity of their donors.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan think tank, did a study of the rise of dark money in six different states in “Secret Spending in the States.” This is how the Brennan Center explains its terms: “The result has been a rise in election spending by entities that do not publicly disclose their donors, commonly known as “dark money,” and also by entities that disclose donors in a way that makes the original sources of money difficult or perhaps impossible to identify, a type of spending this report terms “gray money.”

If you look at Chart #1, notice that in Massachusetts the use of dark money rose in 2014; in Chart #2, gray money rose even more dramatically.

Is it a coincidence that Republican Charlie Baker ran for governor that year? Is it a coincidence that Governor Baker is a strong proponent of lifting the cap on charter schools?

The announcement of his endorsement was accompanied by an endorsement from a group called the Alliance of Business Leadership. Spokesman Jeff Bussgang described the Alliance as a “philanthropical” (excuse my skepticism) business group. Mr. Bussgang works for a business called Flybridge Capital, which happens to have offices on Wall Street as well as in Massachusetts.

Here is a quote from Mr. Bussgang: “Lifting the cap on public charters is a social justice issue. . . Massachusetts may have one of the best public school systems in the nation, but for too long the achievement gap has prevented our kids from reaching their true potential.”

I find this statement self-contradictory but one thing is for sure: More charter schools will not affect the achievement gap for students who are left behind in public schools whose budgets have been decimated to pay for charter schools.

A social justice issue? Then why is charter schools’ record of giving out-of-school suspensions to black and brown children at least as bad, if not worse, than in public schools? Why is it that after a year or two in a charter school, black, brown, and disabled children drop out because they just can’t seem to keep up? Why is it that high school graduation statistics are actually higher for black, brown, and disabled children in public schools than in charter schools?

Something that bothers me even more right now stems from what might be called the “Trump Effect” joined with the Libertarian effect of politicians such as Paul Ryan and other members of the “Do-Nothing” Congress.

It is not a coincidence that two books released this year have to do with genetics and eugenics. It may be a coincidence (or not) that I happened to read them back to back.

Both Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Imbeciles by Adam Cohen address the morally repulsive science of eugenics and the ways in which this country has been complicit in trying to create a society of the “right” sort of people.

Are we now trying to create the “right” sort of child, who will come out of a charter school sounding and looking and acting like every other child coming out of that school? Are we now trying to stifle diversity at its roots?

Public education in this country has been complicit in sidelining black and brown students since its very beginnings. We’ve made great strides and there are millions of people trying to make public education better every day. Lifting the cap on charter schools will eventually mean more charter schools than public schools in this state (and eventually in the country). What then will happen to our children who are left behind?

If you live in Massachusetts, VOTE NO ON QUESTION #2. If you don’t live in Massachusetts, look to see what is happening in your own state regarding charter schools. Keep public education public, and truly leave no child behind.


2 thoughts on “Charter Schools & Dark Money

  1. Sally Bissell

    Here is a quote from Mr. Bussgang: “Lifting the cap on public charters is a social justice issue. . . Massachusetts may have one of the best public school systems in the nation, but for too long the achievement gap has prevented our kids from reaching their true potential.”

    Wow, Cynthia. Totally agree with your assessment of this quote. This kind of doublespeak is mind boggling and it’s happening more and more frequently. It’s right out of “1984.” I already know that Florida – no surprise – is on the very wrong side of this issue. Charter schools pop up overnight and disappear just as quickly. Not sure about Maryland but will look into it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks! And what I didn’t know at the time is that Great Schools Massachusetts, which sponsored the bill that’s becoming the ballot question doesn’t have any actual Massachusetts residents involved. Jerks!


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