Thursday was a banner day for charter schools ballot question advocates as Governor Charlie Baker kicked off a rally in support of Question 2. It’s worth wondering if folks who didn’t make it into the panoramic picture behind the governor - the handful of wealthy backers behind the ballot committee - care about poor children or their own interests.
The rally provided some compelling pictures like this one tweeted out by Great Schools Massachusetts:
Missing from the photo are the folks who paid for the signs, the T-shirts, the pictures, the video, even the rain slickers: the few contributors to the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee, until recently known as Public Charter Schools for Massachusetts.
Since ballot committees don’t have to file their next reports with OCPF until September 9, we’re fortunate that Public Charter Schools for Massachusetts did file a year-end OCPF report for 2015. And it’s mostly not dark money either – the committee had flesh and blood contributors. Its OCPF report indicates $493,052.95 in receipts and $362,280.59 in expenditures. There were 148 contributors but 14 investors kicked in $475,000.00, or 96 percent of the receipts. Thirteen of the patrons were people who are people, my friend, and one was Strong Economy for Growth, a 501(c)(4) money laundering operation. So let’s meet the investors in this crusade.
The pro-charters operation is the tool of hedge fund and big finance players. Loyal followers of my blog posts will get to meet them all soon but let’s start with the biggest political force, Seth Klarman. According to the Boston Globe he is “New England's number one campaign contributor.” In 2014 Klarman contributed $400,000 to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. He also contributed $850,000 to ESAFund, whose website declares it “proudly supports candidates regardless of party affiliation who favor enhancing free enterprise, reducing the size of government, and balancing our nation's budget. We are also proud to strongly oppose those who do not.” Klarman is one of nine hedge fund managers who backed the charter schools movement in New York as well as a separate Super PAC that helped turn the state senate Republican, according to The Nation. In 2014 Klarman gave $50,000 to Strong Economy for Massachusetts, a federally registered Super PAC, and sister of Strong Economy for Growth.
Public Charter School for Growth’s expenditures are interesting too. There is a $25,000 expenditure to Keyser Public Strategies, headed by Governor Baker’s campaign strategist Will Keyser. The bulk of the expenditures, $305,000.00, went to a political consulting firm called J.E.F. Associates for signature gathering.
Perhaps the folks in those bright blue shirts helped gather signatures, but the real story is that the Gang of 14 had to front a large sum to a professional firm to get enough signatures. That isn’t grassroots, it’s fertilizer.
There’s more at work here than a mere effort to aid poor children, a goal shared by some of Great Schools supporters. Success would mean weakening unions, a long term goal of right wing moneyed interests. Teachers unions are one of the most powerful interests backing Democrats and public expenditures so there are political, financial and ideological incentives to debilitate them. Unions are the only real countervailing political interest to wealthy contributors and business interests in our politics. They are also advocates for taxation to support government, including the planned 2018 millionaires’ tax ballot question.
The folks in the T-shirts behind the governor in that picture have a sincere interest in their kids’ futures. The money behind the effort may have different motivations.
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."