In Charleston, S.C., advocates for the public school district are worried. They have watched some of the state’s wealthiest people — including billionaire financier Ben Navarro — form a coalition this year to back school board candidates who support a broad expansion of charter schools.
The Charleston Coalition for Kids has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising as 11 candidates vie for four seats on the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees. The coalition, which is run by a former Teach For America executive in charge of recruiting educators in the state, has won big endorsements in town, including from former mayors and school board members.
And it has links to Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. schools chancellor and pioneer in the school “reform” movement that sought to use standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, principals and students and pushed for alternatives to publicly governed school districts.
Coalition leaders say they simply want to improve education in the city. But some residents — including pastors, former and current school board members and parents — say the group’s real aim it to expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. Those residents say that will harm the 50,000-student school system.
“Though Charleston Coalition for Kids claims to seek to disrupt the status quo, its record suggests it aims to continue experiments in privatization that continue to fail those who need quality public education the most,” said Allison Mackey of the nonprofit Quality Education Project.
What’s happening in Charleston is mirrored in cities, counties and states across the country: The super-wealthy are using their influence and money to elect candidates in education races who support the movement to find alternatives to publicly funded and governed school districts.
Why are billionaires involved in local and state school board races in states where they live — and often don’t? This is how education advocates Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris explained it in this piece:
The objective could not be clearer — influence districts to expand their charter sector until eventually all, or nearly all, schools are privately operated and managed. Those district offices that remain could be filled not by educational leaders but by managers and technicians hired to ensure that buses run on time, schools are opened, closed or transferred to other operators, enrollment is managed, and funding is distributed. Public voice is stifled. Schools become publicly funded businesses.
In California, the faceoff between two Democrats vying for the nonpartisan position of superintendent of public instruction (which, incidentally, has no policymaking power) has attracted tens of millions of dollars, much of it going to Marshall Tuck, the candidate who supports expanding charter schools. Much of his money comes from billionaires who support charter schools. Many live out of state, including Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Alice Walton of Texas. Other donors include Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and Gap founder Doris Fisher.
In Arizona, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch sought to block a group called Save Our Schools from placing Proposition 305 on the ballot. It would allow voters a chance to decide whether the state’s program that uses tax dollars for private and religious school education should be expanded to all students. Americans for Prosperity, the political arm of the Kochs, sued to block the referendum from being put on a ballot. The Koch brothers failed. So why would champions of the “reform” movement block this referendum? They’re afraid voters will reject the use of public money in this way.
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin recently spent about $1.8 million for an ad campaign to boost Gov. Scott Walker (R) in his reelection fight against Democrat Tony Evers, the state’s schools superintendent. Walker has a reputation in his state for being hostile to traditional public schools.
And there’s Leadership for Educational Equity, a spinoff of Teach For America, the controversial nonprofit that has for years placed mostly recent college graduates into needy schools. The spinoff has two board members from billionaire families — the Bloombergs and the Waltons — and through its Leaders in Education Fund, it is spending money on school board races around the country for candidates who favor school choice.
In the District, more than $225,000 has been poured into races for four seats on the D.C. State Board of Education, which has virtually no policymaking power. Much of the money has come from outside the city and is being spent on candidates who support charter schools and other elements of corporate school overhauls.
What’s more, nearly $530,000 has been donated since January to the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which advocates charter schools and donates to candidates who support those schools and who back some anti-union policies ordinarily associated with Republicans. And DFER, which has billionaire donors — Rupert Murdoch once donated $1 million to an arm of the group called Education Reform Now — has backed some pro-charter candidates, as Washington Post reporter Perry Stein reported here:
Jason Andrean, a finance manager who sits on the board of a charter school, faces Emily Gasoi, a former teacher who sends her daughter to a language immersion charter school. Both candidates have received more than half of their donations from outside the District.
But Andrean, who raised nearly $60,000 as of Aug. 10, has drawn more scrutiny because of his ties to the charter world. He received an endorsement from the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform. ... Andrean resigned from Democrats for Education Reform’s board in January to run for the open seat.
Meanwhile, in Charleston, as the Post and Courier reported, three members of the Charleston Coalition for Kids, including two who appear in a promotional video, “are part of Charleston RISE, a group of parent advocates who received training from the pro-charter school organization SouthCarolinaCAN.” The parent group of SouthCarolinaCAN is 50CAN, formerly StudentsFirst South Carolina, whose stated goals include advocating charter schools, school choice and private-school tuition tax-credit programs.
StudentsFirst is the organization started by Rhee after she quit the District chancellor’s job in 2010. Rhee, in fact, has been in Charleston, speaking in February 2017 to a SouthCarolinaCAN event and meeting with Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait several times.
In an email, Postlewait said she met with Rhee at Rhee’s request about StudentsFirst and other issues in 2016 and then saw her again, but did not meet with her in April 2017 at a gathering of 12 parents who were the “first participants” in South Carolina’s StudentsFirst group. She said, “Michelle Rhee is not, and has not, worked with or in any capacity with any initiatives of the Charleston County School District.”
In September, the Coalition for Kids endorsed the three incumbent school board candidates and Joyce Green, who was appointed in 2016 to the advisory committee for one of the public-private partnership schools, Meeting Street Academy at Brentwood. The school is managed by Navarro, the billionaire. And expensive television ads began running shortly thereafter, along with fancy fliers and mailers.