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November 07, 2016

There is an issue on the ballot this year that doesn’t have a number but is more important than all the rest: the question of the health of our democracy. I refer to how Massachusetts citizens treat the threat of dark money.

By dark money is large sums that are untraceable because they are contributed through Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profits or through a series of opaque organizations. Using such expedients wealthy individuals are contributing unlimited millions to influence our public policy without their identities becoming public.

While there has been some untraceable money leaking into other ballot committees, dark money floods into one committee: Great Schools Massachusetts. As of the October 20 reporting period, Great Schools Massachusetts had raised just under $17,000,000.00. Of that amount $14,275,000.00 was in dark money, and $13,125,000.00 of that was from Families for Excellent Schools of New York City.

Families for Excellent Schools is a virtual dark money bank. It has been involved in charter and other privatization fights elsewhere. The best article on its involvement in New York politics is from George Joseph in The Nation, 9 Billionaires Are About to Remake New York’s Public Schools-Here’s Their Story. Hedge funders saw privatization as a much more economic investment than having to equitably fund New York schools. Another bonus for the 9 billionaires: privatizing would weaken teachers unions, a political opponent.

Why would New York financial giants be involved in Massachusetts? It raises the question of whether some of that Families for Excellent Schools money originates in the commonwealth. When Families for Excellent Schools launched operations here in 2014 it did so with $2,135,000.00 in grants from Massachusetts based Strategic Grant Partners.

Great Schools Massachusetts’ 2015 year-end report with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance showed that six of the funders of Strategic Grant Partners contributed a total of $200,000.00 to the ballot committee. Each of these individuals has disappeared from 2016 OCPF reports. They appear to have given no money in 2016 to the effort they nurtured for the past several years.

There are competing theories about why wealthy individuals spend to influence education policy. In Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, Professor Sarah Reckhow terms such funders “Boardroom Progressives,” idealistic reformers dismayed with creeping bureaucracies and union opposition. But Professor Reckhow studied only visible grant makers.

Another theory derives from Professor Isaac Martin’s Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent. Professor Martin traces a hundred year record of the rich using social movements to their own benefit. These campaigns are framed to appeal to less wealthy voters, since relieving the discontents of the wealthy carries little appeal to the rest of us.

Recently political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright were able to examine the policy positions of the rich in Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans. They wrote: “Our data suggest that the great enthusiasm of wealthy Americans for improving the US educational system mostly focuses on improving effectiveness through relatively low budget, market-oriented reforms, not on spending the very large sums of money that might be necessary to provide high quality public schools, college scholarships, or worker retraining for all Americans.”

Why all the dark money? Because research shows that public support drops when the true funders are known.

This might be cleared up if Families for Excellent Schools revealed its donors, but it has refused to do so. I have not seen one single worthwhile reason why the citizens of Massachusetts should not be able to consider, when voting, who is behind the millions being used to influence them.

Dark money is pushing our common political life away from democracy and toward a plutocracy, and a secret plutocracy at that.

Voters won’t see a ballot number for a healthy democracy when they vote on November 8, but it’s there. Democracy is on the ballot.

Louis D. Brandeis: "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about charter schools, nor have I taken a position on them. I have taken a position against plutocracy and in favor of democracy, and thus against dark money.]

dark money, Families for Excellent Schools, Great Schools Massachusetts

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