It turns out that billionaire school reformers Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg and other fabulously wealthy individuals who don’t live in Louisiana contributed money to influence the outcome of races for the state board of education.
Louisiana, under Gov. Bobby Jindal, is now home to some of the biggest experiments in the privatization of public education in the country, including the largest voucher program that has resulted in millions of public dollars going to schools that teach creationist theory to children (such as the idea that human beings co-existed with dinosaurs).
Last fall, a coterie of extremely wealthy billionaires, among them New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, turned the races for unpaid positions on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) into some of the most expensive in the state’s history. Seven pro-education “reform” candidates for the BESE outraised eight candidates endorsed by the teacher’s unions by $2,386,768 to $199,878, a ratio of nearly twelve to one. In just one of these races, the executive director of Teach for America Greater New Orleans-Louisiana Delta, Kira Orange Jones, outspent attorney Louella Givens, who was endorsed by the state’s main teacher’s unions, by more than thirty-four to one: $472,382 to $13,815.
To support Orange Jones’s campaign against Givens, Eli Broad, billionaire head of the education reform organization the Broad Foundation and a major trainer and placer of school superintendents, chipped in $5,000. Reed Hastings of Netflix kicked in the same. Houston energy hedge fund billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura gave a total of $10,000, as did Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner and her husband Greg. New York City’s second-wealthiest man, Michael Bloomberg, contributed $10,000 as well.Kira Orange Jones wasn’t the only candidate for the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who received previously unheard of levels of out-of-state cash. K12 Inc., an online education company, gave at least $12,000 to pro-reform BESE candidates and PACs. Siblings Alice and Jim Walton of the Walmart fortune gave more than $150,000 to candidates and PACs, and Michael Bloomberg gave a total of $330,000. In the end, only one candidate opposed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and education reformers actually won: Lottie Beebe, a public school personnel director who spent less than half of what her opponent spent. Compare this to the last BESE elections, in 2007. The total spent by all candidates in contested BESE races that year was just $258,596—roughly one-tenth of the 2011 total.Why would out-of-state billionaires care about Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education?
What does all this outpouring of interest by the wealthiest people in the United States mean? Some no doubt are motivated by idealism. Some think they are leading a new civil rights movement, though I doubt that Dr. King would recognize these financial titans as his colleagues as they impose their will on one of our crucial public institutions. Some hate government. Some love the free market. Some think that the profit motive is more efficient and effective than any public-sector enterprise. All of them share a surprising certainty that they know how to “fix” the public schools and that the people who work in those schools are lazy, unmotivated, incompetent, and not to be trusted.For me, as a historian, the scary part is that our public schools have never before been subject to such a sustained assault on their very foundations.