The charter school question was contested on September 13 in a debate sponsored by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, the Boston Globe, and WBUR and broadcast on WBUR radio, recording here. When asked about dark money funding of the pro-charter ballot committees, pro-charters debater Marty Walz sought to dismiss the question as of concern only to adults when the focus should be on children. She was precisely wrong. The health of our democracy should be of concern to all of us: adult, child, pro-charter, anti-charter. Our democracy is under threat from a hidden plutocracy. It is the issue of our time.
Let us put aside charters for a moment and hypothesize that we are concerned with global climate change. On September 8 the New York Times published Obama on Climate Change: The Trends Are ‘Terrifying.’ The article recounted the defeat of cap and trade legislation in 2010:
By the fall of 2010, Tea Party “super PACs” supported by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch had seized on cap-and-trade as a political weapon, with attacks that helped Republicans take control of the House.
Polls showed that few Americans thought of climate change as a high public policy priority, and the percentage of voters who accepted the reality that it was caused by humans had tumbled.
The decline of belief in climate change had not happened without a good deal of assistance from the Koch Brothers and other fossil fuel interests, using as their vehicle the same kind of dark money 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) operations now in use in Massachusetts, as Jane Mayer shows in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Mayer writes that Professor Robert Brulle of Drexel conducted a study of over a hundred nonprofit organizations and concluded that between 2003 and 2010 they had spent over a half billion dollars in a “campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.”
If you happen to care about the environment, energy, education, working conditions, the minimum wage, health care, financial regulation or any other policy, then democracy matters to you, adult or child.
As Prof. Rick Hasen argues in Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections, unlimited spending by the extraordinarily wealthy undermines political equality in America. Ms. Mayer has provided great detail about the workings of dark money to serve the interest of the wealthy. Even before the decision in Citizens United, our politics was so tilted toward the rich that government routinely met the wishes of well off Americans while ignoring the policy preferences of the bottom 90% of us, as Prof. Martin Gilens shows in Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.
Here is a use of dark money similar to what we are seeing now from a 2015 school board race in Los Angeles where dark money poured in, as recounted in the Brennan Center for Justice report Secret Spending in the States. “The local group’s name betrayed nothing about the original sponsors of its $2.3 million in ads, who included billionaire Michael Bloomberg and the family behind the WalMart.” Bloomberg and two WalMart family heirs have contributed to the pro-charters campaign in Massachusetts.
“Secret Spending in the States” finds that “According to candidates, political consultants, and social science research, it matters whether an election message can be tied to the real messenger. . . . When viewers learn more about an ad’s sponsor—that does not report its donors — they may become not only more skeptical about the ad’s message but also more critical of the ad’s intended beneficiary.” But Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools funding is 80% from two WalMart heirs and 11% in dark money. Great Schools Massachusetts contributions are 85% in dark money, as I wrote here.
If you care about democracy you should care about dark money, whether you are a child or an adult.
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.]