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Column: Big Money Threatens American Education

Pound another nail into the coffin of democracy. Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission struck down limits on aggregate contributions to political candidates and political party committees. In the view of the 5-4 majority, as written by Chief Justice John Roberts, “There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”

Yep, nothing more basic than that, sayeth the wise men (all men in the conservative majority). Meanwhile, their conservative legislative soul mates in Congress and state legislatures have gerrymandered away the effective votes of millions. Republican legislators around America have passed voter ID laws, reduced voting hours, and made multiple other efforts to limit the voting rights of the poor, the elderly and people of color.

So, individual voter rights are negotiable, but the almighty dollar, like the almighty corporation, has unassailable First Amendment rights.

If only this were the most dangerous way that money affects our democracy. I’m afraid that wealthy folks’ contributions to candidates and political parties are trivial in comparison to the effect of 501(c) (4) and other “dark” advocacy organizations.

501(c) (4) organizations are tax-exempt “civic” groups that purport to “inform” the public on important issues. They, unlike 501(c) (3) charitable organizations, may directly engage in the support of, or opposition to, candidates. IRS rules say that direct support should not be a “substantial amount” of the organization’s activity. This criterion is unenforced and, due to opacity, probably unenforceable. Through these schemes, billions of shadowy dollars are virtually running the country.

The education debate raging in New York City exemplifies how money talks. The recently elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, declared his intent to limit or slow the growth of charter schools in New York. He, like I and many others, recognizes that charter schools divert money from public education and are further dividing America’s neighborhoods and school systems. Many charter schools, particularly in New York, are financed in part by hedge fund “smart guys” and 501(c) (4) groups. What is their interest? Many believe their motivation is to: 1) break the backs of teachers unions and 2) loosen public control, thereby opening the estimated $700 billion national education “market” to for-profit companies. Their lobbying is intense.

De Blasio lost the PR battle and lost big. A 501(c) (4) group called Families for Excellent Schools spent millions on television ads accusing the mayor of ruining children’s lives by closing the “wonderful, high-performing” schools that serve them so well. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported the charter advocates in this standoff. Guess what organization gave Cuomo $100,000? Families for Excellent Schools.

These schools are neither wonderful nor high performing, and he wasn’t closing them. I know from first-hand experience. But propaganda, backed by bottomless resources, drowns out the truth. Families for Excellent Schools is not a grass-roots organization, as it is portrayed in the ads. It is funded in large part by the Walton Family Foundation (yes, Wal-Mart money) and other conservative, deep-pocket advocacy groups that seek to privatize education and turn it into another free-market commodity.

Let me emphasize why this example is so important. Mayor de Blasio was elected in a landslide. His position on charter schools was crystal clear. His intentions, having been ratified at the ballot box, were overturned within a few months by virtue of a well-funded propaganda campaign masquerading as a grass-roots response. Most citizens remain unaware of the source of funding for the propaganda. If this doesn’t subvert democracy, what does?

While a full exposition of the tangled web of moneyed influences on education policy is not possible in this space, consider the overlapping efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council: This enormously powerful and wealthy tax-exempt organization has had in recent years more effect on American policy than Congress. (Of course, that’s not saying a lot). Among its most significant donors? Drum roll … the Walton Family Foundation. And among the many nefarious activities engaged in by ALEC? It has written “model” state legislation that would make education funding conditional on opening the “market” to more charter operators and limiting the role of teachers unions. These bills, copied virtually word for word from ALEC templates, are being adopted by states all over America.

With the possible exception of climate change, there is no issue that threatens our country more seriously than the assault on public education funded by opaque organizations doing the bidding of America’s oligarchs. If we lose the historic, democratic, democratizing tradition of equitable public education in America, we may lose our democracy entirely. Are you comfortable with Wal-Mart directing education policy in America?

We were already on the threshold of crossing from democracy to plutocracy. This week’s Supreme Court decision may have pushed us over the edge.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is head of the private Calhoun School.