The Charter School Con

Rich people have always had the ability to bend electoral politics to their collective will. They determine who has the opportunity to run for office and sadly, more often than not, they determine who will win. This subversion of democracy is now on full display in races across the country in which politicians who have rightly questioned the mania for charter schools have been targeted for defeat by the charter school industry and its lobby.

New York state is one of the recipients of Race to the Top funds. It has been awarded $700 million from the federal government in exchange for a promise to undermine public education. In New York and other states long term incumbent state legislators are now facing unknown but suddenly well funded newcomers whose campaigns have been bankrolled entirely by hedge fund investors who are making a fast buck from the charter school industry.

There is nothing wrong with incumbents facing challenges to prove their political value to their constituents. There is something very wrong when those challenges come about because elected officials represent their constituents by choosing to fight the wave of charter schools and then risk electoral defeat for doing the right thing.

As one challenger of a New York City state senator put it, “The checks started rolling in“ after wealthy charter school backers began supporting his and other’s campaigns for office. This sudden largesse and alleged concern for public education proves beyond any doubt that the charter school movement is a gigantic fraud, a mirage created for the sole purpose of enriching one class of people at the expense of millions of children whose right to an education will be jeopardized.

These challengers are not hard to find. Democrats for Education Reform is an organization which makes its agenda crystal clear. Its goal is to further the interests of the privatizers and it is clear in its support of fund raising efforts for candidates who support its educational policies.

Its board is a who’s who of hedge fund managers and politicians like Washington D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty and Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker. These are names long known for an eagerness to establish cozy relationships with rich people who want to impose their will on the public sector. This process is certainly not new, but under the Obama administration has taken on a level of respectability that never existed during the Bush years.

The Obama administration’s cynically named Race to the Top inflicts the worst kind of bribery on states and cities. If they do not agree to privatize and therefore destroy the public education system which they are obligated to protect, they walk away empty handed. Tails they lose, and heads they lose too.

Common sense should tell anyone that hedge fund managers will not have any interest in insuring educational excellence for all children. They are interested in profit, and if profit is the primary motive for their actions, then public education as it has been known for decades will soon be on its death bed. If politicians have to fear being ousted from office because they demand accountability for charter schools, the demands will soon disappear and the Fentys, Bookers and their backers will have won the day.

There is no sector of society that is safe from capitalism run amuck. Our health care system is a for-profit monstrosity, which provides substandard care and outrageous profits to corporate interests. Housing bubbles have taken away the only assets millions of people own and destroyed entire communities. Now education is up for grabs and at the mercy of the highest bidders and the most cynical and ambitious.

When the dust clears from this election cycle there will be fewer political voices protecting the right to a decent education in public schools and the rights of teachers and administrators to carry out their mandate as they see fit. They may keep their principles but they will have learned a hard lesson, namely that they may also pay a price for speaking out against the charter school racket. The candidates with checks rolling in will increase in number and so will the unaccountable charter schools. The usual suspects will be the winners and the people will lose one more vestige of a supposedly civilized society.

Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared.