Archives for category: Billionaires

Fiorina Rodov wanted to teach, and, as she writes, she believed the glowing claims about charter schools as beacons of hope for the neediest students. She saw “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and cheered for the kids who wanted to get into a charter. She believed the movie’s hype about the magic of charters. So she got in 2016 a job teaching in a charter school in Los Angeles.

There she learned the truth about charter schools, or at least the one where she was teaching.

The school was non-union. Teacher turnover was high every year. Student attrition was high.

But the chasm between the hype and reality became evident to me immediately upon starting work. There were high attrition rates of students and teachers. Over the summer, more than half the faculty resigned and were replaced by new teachers. About three-quarters of the students hadn’t returned either, and though new kids had registered, the enrollment wasn’t anywhere near what was needed in order to be fiscally stable, because funding was tied to enrollment. There were legal violations: The special education teacher had 43 students, though the law capped class sizes at 28. The overage made him fall behind on students’ individualized education plans (IEPs), making the school noncompliant on special education requirements.

Rodov also learned about the big-money forces promoting the charter myth. She was in L.A. for the election campaign between charter skeptic Steve Zimmer (chair of the LAUSD school board and former TFA) and charter zealot Nick Melvoin. The charter leaders across the city strongly supported Melvoin, of course.

I learned that billionaires fund local school board elections across America in order to accelerate charter school growth. In District 4 in Los Angeles, Steve Zimmer was financed by teachers’ unions while Nick Melvoin was reportedly bankrolled by California billionaires Eli Broad, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, and Gap clothing company co-founder Doris Fisher, as well as out-of-towners like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Walmart heirs and siblings Jim and Alice Walton, and others in an expensive race...

Furthermore, CCSA [California Charter Schools Association] Advocates donated to an organization called Speak UP, which was a “strong opponent” of Zimmer, according to the Los Angeles Times, and whose co-founder and CEO Katie Braude resides in the Pacific Palisades, where the median home price is about $3.4 million. Braude helped launch the Palisades Charter School Complex, which sought to serve “all students in an ethnically and economically diverse student body,” according to her bio on the Speak UP website. But at Palisades Charter High School, “[w]hite students are 2.8 times as likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class as Black students,” while “Black students are 7 times as likely to be suspended as [w]hite students,” according to ProPublica. In 2016 and 2017, Black students were victims of hate crimes at Palisades Charter High School, and in 2020, a Black teacher sued the school for racial discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” According to the Pacific Palisades Patch, Pamela Magee, the school’s executive director and principal, responded to the teacher’s allegations via email, “PCHS is an equal opportunity employer, and we take allegations of discrimination seriously…”

Melvoin’s list of individual donations, according to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, is filled with some of the same moguls who donated to CCSA Advocates, such as Eli Broad and Reed Hastings. It also includes then-co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios Alan F. Horn, president of the Emerson Collective Laurene Powell Jobs, and Martha L. Karsh and her husband Bruce Karsh, who at the time of the election was the chair of the Tribune Media Company, which then owned the Los Angeles Times. (Bruce Karsh stepped down from the Tribune in October 2017, five months after the school board election.)

The billionaires who fund school board races across the country also finance education reporting. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which was partly behind a $490 million plan reported in 2015 to enroll half of LAUSD’s students in charters by 2023, funded the Los Angeles Times’ reporting initiative Education Matters with the Baxter Family Foundation and the Wasserman Foundation, which also support charters. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Amazon (whose founder and former CEO—now executive chairman—Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post) fund the Seattle Times’ Education Lab. The Bezos Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, fund Chalkbeat. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation fund Education Week and The 74, which owns the LA School Report. The Gates Foundation finances the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), whose “Fixes” column in the New York Times covers education and other issues. And Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective owns the Atlantic, which has a robust education section.

The infusion of billionaire cash and media ownership helps to explain why the mainstream media seldom reports on the failures of charter schools or expose their lies and propaganda.

Rodov goes on to explain that her school was finally closed, but no one in the mainstream media in Los Angeles bothered to interview teachers about “the climate of terror at the school.”

She ends with the hope that Biden’s election will mean an end to favoritism towards charter schools and a beginning of focus on public schools, which are a vital democratic institution.

Those of us who are sick of charter school lies and propaganda share her hope. We will know in time whether Biden will keep his promise to cut off federal funding of for-profit charters, whether he will eliminate the $440 million federal Charter Schools Program (which Betsy DeVos used as her private slush fund), and whether he will make the strengthening of public schools his top education priority. Six percent of America’s students attend charter schools, and they are the darling of billionaires like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, Laurene Powell Jobs, Charles Koch, Michael Bloomberg, and many more (I wrote a chapter in my recent book Slaying Goliath naming the billionaires and corporations that pour money into charter schools). Let the billionaires pay for them.

 

The Economic Policy Institute is one of the very few think tanks in Washington, D.C., that is not funded by Bill Gates or the Waltons. It is openly on the side of working people. It does valuable research. During the pandemic, unionized workers fared slightly better than non-union workers.

This study shows dramatically that as unions decline, income inequality grows.

Figure B in this article shows that as the percent of people in unions declined, the share of income going to the top 10% increased.

Union membership reached a peak (about 33% of all workers) in the late 1940s-early 1950s.

Since then, the spread of anti-union laws (so-called “right to work” laws) has caused a sharp decline in union jobs.

The anti-union movement has been funded over the years by big business and billionaires, of course. They are now fighting the movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage. They live in luxury but don’t understand why working people need a living wage just to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Over the past decade, I have repeatedly defended unions, and extremely stupid people have accused me of being paid by the teachers’ unions. Jeanne Allen of the pro-choice Center for Education Reform once tweeted that my “beautiful home” in Brooklyn Heights must have been paid for by the unions. Yes, I did live in a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, but I paid for it myself, without a penny from any union.

I defend unions because they provide a pathway into the middle class for people who are poor and working class. By joining a union, they are part of an organization that will make sure they have a good salary, health benefits, and a pension. Why is so problematic for rightwing conservatives and the 1%? Billionaire John Arnold is offended by public pensions, and he has spent a few millions trying to persuade the public that pensions are bankrupting the public sector. I think it is more likely that the public sector has been starved by tax breaks for billionaires.

So, yes, I would like to witness the rebirth of unions in my lifetime. They are the very best protection for working people. They build a middle class. Our society needs more unions, a higher minimum wage, and representation for all workers.

Education Trust, which is amply funded by billionaires, says it advocates for equity when it promotes standardized testing. Twenty years of standardized testing shows that this is a useless and fraudulent effort. Education Trust should be advocating for unions if it really wants equity.

Let us hope that billionaires like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and Eli Broad, to mention just a few, will invest in union organizing drives. If they truly want to promote equity in American society, that is the best way to advance the cause. Not charter schools. Not vouchers. Not standardized testing. Unions. Unions that assure a decent standard of living and a decent retirement for every member.

Gary Rubinstein revisits the past decade of failed reforms and notes how frequently the “reformers” made promises and then failed to keep them. Michelle Rhee came on the national scene, appearing on the cover of TIME, then disappeared after helping to sink the mayor of D.C. who hired her. Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein claimed that under their leadership, there was a “miracle” in New York City, but the miracle disappeared when they and their public relations team left office. Jeb Bush touted a Florida “miracle,” but Florida remains mired in the depths of mediocrity when assessed by NAEP. Laurene Powell Jobs promised to “reinvent” the high school and handed out $100 millions to the schools she chose; many failed soon after. We await the “miracle.” Even Betsy DeVos claimed to be “rethinking” school, wondering why we needed public schools at all; now she is busy spreading millions to charter and voucher advocates in the red states.

Gary concluded his review of all the rethinking, reinventing, and rebranding by taking a close look at a school hyped by TFA. He looked at the numbers, and lo and behold, no miracle there.

In this “model” school, the kids are faring poorly:

OK, “So what,” you say, “only 1.1% of their 10th graders passed the science test and 2.7% of their 10th graders passed the math test. What matters is ‘growth.” Well in that department they didn’t fare so well either.

He concludes:

Usually it’s a lot harder than this. They often pick a school that has artificially inflated test scores due to attrition. Keep in mind, this is the school Villanueva Beard chose to highlight. One of the lowest performing schools in test scores and growth in the state of Indiana.

Whether they are ‘rethinkers,’ ‘reinventers,’ or ‘reimaginers’, a reformer by any other name still doesn’t know anything about schools.

The burning question is: When will the billionaires who fund “reform” and “reinvention” decide to stop funding failure?

Maurice Cunningham watches the flow of “Dark Money” into the privatization of public funding for schools. A professor of political science, he has recently followed the money trail of the “National Parents Union,” which he points out is neither “national,” nor “parents,” nor a “union.”

NPU markets itself as if it were a “grassroots” group, but it is funded by the Walton Family Foundation and Charles Koch and enjoys the high-priced assistance of Mercury Communications LLP to get its anti-public school, anti-union message into the national media. Mercury currently represents Teach for America and at one time represented Eva Moskowitz (who fired them).

With this expensive marketing, NPU presents itself as an authentic voice of parents.

Cunningham writes:

Here’s an example of the coverage from the New York Times: “National Parents Union, a collection of 200 advocacy organizations across 50 states representing parents from communities of color.” But there is no publicly available evidence that NPU represents parent groups. My research shows that it is mostly comprised of charter school and associated organizations.

Nor am I aware that any of these media outlets has reported on the funding of National Parents Union, which includes not only the Walton Family Foundation and Charles Koch, but a billionaire boys club of astonishing levels of wealth. (The one outlet that consistently reports on the funders is The74.org, which also receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation. So compliments to them.)

These media outlets accept the story offered up by Mercury LLC and the NPU Comms team, that there is a battle between teachers and parents. But as I said, NPU does not represent parents. If journalists need conflict there is a big one going on: teachers unions against the corporate behemoths of the Waltons, Koch, Gates, Dell, Arnold, and on and on. It’s a good story, just not the one NPU and Mercury are peddling.

You get what you pay for; NPU’s marketing is going great.

The struggle now occurring in Bessemer, Alabama, to form a union at an Amazon warehouse could have a dramatic effect on the future of organized labor.

The pandemic made Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world with a fortune approaching $200 billion.

But his workers are fighting for higher wages and decent working conditions.

A group of scholars at the Brookings Institution, led by Andre Perry, have summarized the historic struggle:

Amazon’s disproportionately Black workforce has risked their lives during the pandemic, but the company has shared little of its astonishing profits with them. Last year, Amazon earned an additional $9.7 billion in profit—a staggering 84% increase compared to 2019. The company’s stock price has risen 82%, while founder Jeff Bezos has added $67.9 billion to his wealth—38 times the total hazard pay Amazon has paid its 1 million workers since March.

Equally informative and interesting is this account of the union organizing drive that appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker by Charles Bethea.

The union started collecting authorization cards—they amassed more than three thousand—and the National Labor Relations Board decided that the union had enough support to hold a vote. Amazon insisted that the election should be held in person, but the board, which has been allowing mail-in balloting since the pandemic began, ruled against the company. A seven-week balloting period began last month and will end on March 29th. The effort has garnered international headlines, and a handful of the employees who have been among the most involved, like Richardson, have spoken to reporters from across the country. One of the employees I talked to, Jennifer Bates, is slated to speak at a congressional hearing on Wednesday. Late last month, Joe Biden unexpectedly offered a statement of clear, albeit nonspecific, support for the union push. “Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers,” Biden said. Though he did not mention Amazon by name, he referred to “workers in Alabama and all across America.”

Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, is a specialist in exposing the influence of “dark money” in our political life, especially in the area of education politics. In this post, he explores the connections among Christian conservatives, economic royalists like the Waltons and Charles Koch, and the so-called “National Parents Union,” which enjoys Walton funding.

The same people now running the NPU were funded by the Waltons, Mike Bloomberg, and other billionaires in 2016 to press for unlimited charter expansion in Massachusetts. When Cunningham exposed the money behind the “Yes on 2” campaign, the wind went out of its sails. Voters realized that the campaign was intended to divert money from their public schools to billionaire hobbies. I wrote about the fight over Proposition 2 in Massachusetts in my latest book Slaying Goliath as an example of successful parent-teacher resistance to the billionaires.

This interview was recorded by Town Hall in Seattle, which is a great venue for speakers but in COVID Times was recorded remotely. I interviewed them about their important new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

They had some very valuable insights, and the time flew by. I hope you will take a few minutes and join us.

Maurice Cunningham is the Master of the Mysteries of Dark Money. In this post, he traces the shifting membership of the board of directors of the Walton-funded “National Parents Union.” You know what NPU wants: charter schools. After reading the story, you will understand who pays the bills: the Waltons and Charles Koch. They are parents too! Be sure to read Christine Langhoff’s comment.

Maurice Cunningham specializes in digging up the facts about Dark Money (political contributions where the donors’ names are hidden). His expose of Dark Money from the Waltons and other billionaires turned the public against a 2016 state referendum in Massachusetts to expand the number of charter schools, and it was defeated. I wrote about this campaign in Slaying Goliath.

In this post, published here for the first time, he exposes a “parent group” demanding more charter schools in Rhode Island.

Cunningham writes:

Parents who care about public education need to be wary of dark money fronts masquerading as concerned reformers. These are lavishly funded efforts with the goal of privatizing public schools. Rhode Islanders should take a long hard look at Stop the Wait RI.

This operation registered with the Rhode Island Secretary of State as a social welfare organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue on February 25, 2021. That status allows Stop the Wait to engage in a wide range of political activities including spending on political campaigns. The big advantage for a 501(c)(4) is that it can take in unlimited sums from individuals or corporations, spend generously on politics, and never have to disclose the names of the true donors—the real powers hiding behind the curtain. It’s dark money—political spending with the true interests hidden from the public. Stop the Wait’s web page is pretty explicit—its mission is to “preserve and expand school choice—including access to high-quality public charter schools.” Translation: privatization of public schools.

Privatizing fronts often present as an underdog group of grassroots parents. In politics though, power flows to money and so it’s key to know who is funding such groups. That’s tough with a brand new 501(c)(4) like Stop the Wait, but there are clues.

The first name on the Board of Directors is Janie SeguiRodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez works for the charter school chain Achievement First which is underwritten by among others, the WalMart heir Walton family. She is also on the board of a related corporation organized under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Parents Leading for Educational Equity. A 501(c)(3) can do reports, organize, advocate, communicate with the public, but can’t get into political campaigns. Contributions are tax deductible, so taxpayers subsidize this advocacy. Even though PLEE was only organized as a non-profit corporation as of July 13, 2020, only three months later, on October 19, 2020 the Rhode Island Foundation announced that PLEE was one of several organizations it had funded and offered it as an example for its new $8.5 million Equity Leadership Foundation. (It’s a little curious that a foundation funds an organization and evaluate it as a model of success in three months). The Nellie Mae Foundation was more patient—it waited all the way until December 21, 2020 before dropping two grants, one for $40,000 and the other for $120,000 into PLEE’s bank account. Actual check writers often give through donor advised funds, a tax advantaged option that keeps their interest in groups like PLEEever unknown.

Web searches indicate that PLEE has actually been around since 2018. But it couldn’t have taken in sums from foundations until it registered with the IRS. 

Ms. Rodriguez is a political veteran as well. She ran for city council in Pawtucket city wide in 2018 and in ward 5 in 2020, losing both (by two votes in ward 5). Another member of PLEErecently assailed teachers unions in a hearing over reopening Pawtucket schools. Look for more of this from PLEE and Stop the Wait. Across the country similar organizations are funded by anti-worker oligarchs like the Waltons and Charles Koch. Examples of right wing billionaire operations masquerading as parents groups include Massachusetts Parents United and National Parents Union

Using upbeat sounding front organizations funded by unidentified billionaires is what Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right calls “weaponizing philanthropy.” But communities can beat the billionaires. Ask questions, demand answers, accept nothing less than an accounting of the true interests behind dark money fronts like PLEE and Stop the Wait, publicize your findings, contact elected officials. This is your democracy and your public school system.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money.] 

Jennifer Berkshire and I interviewed Charles Siler about his inside knowledge of the privatization movement.

Jennifer is co-author of the important new book (with Jack Schneider) called A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

As you will learn in the interview, Charles was brought up in a conservative environment. He studied at George Mason University in the Koch-funded economics department (you can read about it in Nancy MacLean’s excellent book Democracy in Chains, which I reviewed in The New York Review of Books). He worked for the Goldwater Institute and lobbied for ALEC and other billionaire-funded privatization groups.

At some point, he realized he was on the wrong side, promoting ideas that would do harm, not good. He wanted to do good.

He said unequivocally that the goal of the privatizers is to destroy public education. They promote charter schools and vouchers to destroy public education.

He explains that school privatization is only one part of a much broader assault on the public sector. The end game is to privatize everything: police, firefighters, roads, parks, whatever is now public, and turn it into a for-profit enterprise. He predicted that as vouchers become universal, the funding of them will not increase. It might even diminish. Parents will have to dig into their pockets to pay for what used to be a public service, free of charge.

Charles is currently helping Save Our Schools Arizona.