Jeff Bryant writes that while we were all celebrating the pending departure of Betsy DeVos, the usual suspects were buying control of local school board elections. We are all aware of her efforts to direct federal funding to private schools and charter schools. But, he warns, we should pay attention to the “threat to democratically governed schools that preceded DeVos and will continue when she is long gone.”

In midsized metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and Stockton, California, parents, teachers, and public school advocates warn of huge sums of money coming from outside their communities to influence local politics and bankroll school board candidates who support school privatization. In phone conversations, emails, and texts, they point to a national agenda, backed by deep-pocketed organizations and individuals who intend to disrupt local school governance in order to impose forms of schools that operate like private contractors rather than public agencies—an agenda not dissimilar from that of DeVos.

In the 2020 school board election in Indianapolis, local teachers and grassroots groups the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the IPS Community Coalition backed four candidates against a slate of opponents whom locals accuse of representing outside interests. At stake, according to WFYI, was “an ideological tilt” over whether the district would continue to “collaborate with outside groups and charter organizations” or “return to more traditional methods of improving struggling schools.”

Both sides raise the banner of “improving struggling schools,” but locals say what’s really at stake is whether voters retain democratic control of their public schools or see them turned over to private, unelected boards and their corporate supporters and funders.

Similarly, in Stockton, the clash between opposing slates of candidates in the 2020 school board election included controversies over charter school expansion and the influence of outside money in the district.

The controversy broke into public view in July 2020 when 209 Times reportedthat “[p]aid operatives” connected to Stockton’s outgoing mayor Michael Tubbs and three school board members were engaged in “a coordinated campaign of undue influence from outside of the city whose aim is… charter school expansion” into the district.

In both elections, candidates backed by outside organizations and individuals massively outspent candidates supported by local teachers and public school advocates.

In Indianapolis, WFYI reported that political action committees supporting the candidates aligned with charter school interests had contributed more than $200,000 into the election by October 9, while the “[f]our candidates backed by the IPS Community Coalition… [had by then] raised less than $20,000 in total.”

In Stockton, 209 Politics reported independent expenditure committees supporting candidates favoring charter school expansion outspent their opponents 25 to 1.

While the language used by these outside organizations and their benefactors is different from the rhetoric DeVos wields—substituting a message of rescuing struggling schools for DeVos’s calls for libertarian autonomy—the result is much the same: local citizens see democratic governance of their schools being swept aside as private actors get more control to do what they want.

This effort to squelch local democracy is funded by the usual billionaires:  the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart fame; Arnold Ventures, the private foundation of former hedge fund manager and Enron trader John Arnold; and the City Fund, a nationwide organization providing financial support for city-level charter school expansions.

The City Fund is a relatively new organization of experienced charter school promoters that started on day one with $200 million from billionaires John Arnold and Reed Hastings. Its mission: to use the money to undermine democratic control of local school boards and to see that charter-friendly candidates are elected.

The other organization used by the billionaires to funnel money into the Indianapolis school board election was the notorious Stand for Children, which has played the same role in other districts. “Stand” worked closely with the Mind Trust, a local cheerleader for privatization, also funded by billionaires who don’t like local control or democracy.

Bryant reports that another PAC, aligned with Stand for Children, entered the race on behalf of the Alice Walton and Michael Bloomberg, neither of whom lives in Indianapolis or in Indiana.

Bryant relies on the careful research of Thomas Ultican, who has been documenting the billionaires’ determination to take control of urban districts. Their strategy is to promote the “portfolio model” of schools. This is basically a rightwing business agenda that aligns with a corporate model of governance. Outsource management and control. Close low-performing schools, open new schools; repeat.

In the Indianapolis contest, the billionaire-backed candidates outspent the teacher union-backed candidates by a margin of 11-1. All four of the charter-friendly candidates won.

In Stockton, the teacher- and community-backed candidates won.

Please read the article. There is much to learn from it as a cautionary tale.

Here’s the question that lingers: Charter schools are no longer an innovation. The first charter school opened in 1992, almost three decades ago. There is no evidence that charters as such have produced miraculous improvement. Some get high test scores, but typically because they can choose their students and kick out the ones they don’t want. Some are far worse than the public schools they replaced. Some close mid-year, either for financial or academic reasons or low enrollment.

Why are these billionaires so devoted to imposing their ideas on local communities without regard to results? Is it because they disdain democracy?