Richard Brodsky was one of New York’s most enlightened state legislators. He is currently a senior fellow at the Wagner School at New York Univetsity.
In this article, he describes the new politics of education: the policy debates are now dominated by hedge fund managers and rightwing billionaires.
When people like me say these things, the corporate reformers say derisively, “Conspiracy theory.”
Brodsky is a level-headed veteran of state politics. This is what he says:
“The usual participants [in legislative debates about education] have been school boards, parents, unions, the education establishment and the occasional adventurous elected official. Starting a few years ago, and more so now, there are new players in New York. The brawny and outspoken new kid is the hedge fund community.
“Say what? Well, there are millions in hedge fund dollars now floating around. Generalities are a little dangerous, but it’s fair to say that a lot of it is from conservative, big money, Wall Street hedge fund types like Home Depot’s Ken Langone, head of Republicans for Cuomo, who says, “Every time I am with the governor, I talk to him about charter schools. He gets it.” The newest entry is something called “Families For Excellent Schools.” While there certainly are “families” involved, the organization is led and funded by hedge fund managers and assorted right-wing billionaires. They’re very anti-union, anti-tenure, pro-test and pro-charter school.
“Right-wing billionaires and hedge fund managers have a right to be heard. And sometimes they may offer intriguing and important insights. There are valid critiques of many of our current practices. And teachers unions can be criticized. But the issues are too important to be left to attack ads and lawsuits funded by wealthy elites.
“What’s worse is that huge amounts of public education dollars are involved. It turns out that hedge funds are using taxpayer subsidies to fund the charter school movement. Under President Bill Clinton, a tax break called the “New Markets” tax credit has provided a 39 percent tax break for hedge funds that invest in charter schools in underserved communities. Like Albany, for instance. It’s one thing for the financial community to speak out against teachers unions, to fund lawsuits against tenure and to push high-stakes standardized testing as a matter of corporate citizenship. It’s another matter when there are big tax subsidies at stake.
“If the candidates for governor won’t talk about how these things impact New York, we’re left with big corporate money, with a real financial interest in the outcome, dominating the debate.
“In the end, the charter school movement challenges the existence of public schools, not just some of its policies. The drive to privatize education is part of a national attack on government and the empowerment of large corporate interests.
“To me, a healthy debate about the policies could be a good thing. But if we’re going down a path of privatizing public education, I’m worried. Public schools created the American national success story. Whatever their real shortcomings, they need to be strengthened and they need to be funded. And I don’t want that fight to be distorted by huge tax subsidies going to charter schools, even as we reduce federal and state aid to public schools. That’s the wrong kind of financial aid to education.”