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MA schools may be battle in wider fight for profit & privatization agendas

Jule Pattison-Gordon

New York financiers are spending vast sums of money in an effort to convince Massachusetts parents that they need more charter schools. But some say there may be more than genuine concern for Massachusetts’ education at play behind sizeable donations to the committees advocating for a yes vote on ballot question 2.

Charter expansion in Massachusetts appears to be part of a national movement, fueled, in part, by hedge funds, corporations and wealthy philanthropists. Some professors see a profit motive for those with ties to school-related businesses such real estate and material supplies, as well as the lucrative charter network administration businesses and education consulting services.

Others regard the push for charter expansion as one front of a larger ideological battle to tamp down on government and unions and turn over public services to private, free market offerings.

Winning over Massachusetts can both advance the national charter movement and send a symbolic message, said Peter Enrich, a Northeastern University law professor with expertise on fiscal policy and public education funding.

“If I were a conservative deep-pocketed person who wanted to enhance privatization of schools, I’d say if I can win in Massachusetts, that will send a huge message nationally because Massachusetts has a reputation as a relatively progressive, union-friendly state, so this would be way to achieve a huge victory,” Enrich told the Banner.

Profit in education?

Nationally, some charters are run for-profit and even nonprofit charter schools may make a profit by doing business with for-profit firms with which their board members or administrators are involved. While such self-dealing practices are viewed as a breach of nonprofit governance ethic codes, they are not uncommon.

In some states, those benefitting from charter ties include administrators of charter networks, education consultants and suppliers of curriculums, materials and facilities, said Alan Singer, Hofstra University professor of teaching, literacy and leadership. In some cases, those running these firms are involved in running charter schools, he told the Banner.

In a notable example, the Miami Herald reported in 2011 that many South Florida charter schools channeled the majority of their money into for-profit management companies, including one school that handed over 97 percent of its income to one such firm.

Renting facilities to charters may be especially lucrative, Enrich said.

In 2010, 19 charter schools in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties spent more than 20 percent of their budget on rent, and one spent more than 43 percent, according to the Miami Herald. In many cases, schools paid the highest rents to landlords connected to the charter management companies.

Facility providers typically also get tax breaks.

Paul Appelbaum, board member of business and real estate investment firm Rock Ventures LLC, is one of the founders of Families For Excellent Schools, a major charter proponent, states the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

With much of money for charter school expansion campaigns channeled through 501(4)(c) organizations — which keep their donors anonymous — speculation arises over the extent to which donors are involved in such firms.

To the extent that charter expansion in Massachusetts helps overall national charter expansion, it may further these business interests.

Locally, there are more legislative safeguards than in some other states. MA charters are required to be nonprofit and do not get public funding for acquisition of facilities. While the attorney general ruled that they are supposed to advertise construction contracts for public bid, not all do so, said Karen Courtney, executive director of the Foundation For Fair Contracting. Her organization brought several such cases to the attorney general throughout the past decade, she said.

Charters must undergo a bid process for procuring goods and services. A spokesperson from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could not provide information on this process by the Banner’s press time on Tuesday.

Privatization ideology

Among national charter school proponents are those who see privatization and free market competition as a more effective driver of cost-effective quality than public-provision of services, states education historian and New York University research professor of education Diane Ravitch in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. One such proponent, notes Ravitch: the American Legislative Council which has advocated for greater privatization of other public sectors.

For such advocates, education is one of many arenas in which they seek to demonstrate that corporations can achieve equal or better results and thus make the case that government should be shrunk, Northeastern’s Enrich said.

Bruce Baker, a Rutgers professor who specializes in education finance and economics of education, wrote in a 2013 article that one risk of a competition-based school system is that there is no incentive for schools to share innovations and effective practices.

Another concern, Singer said said: If schools, like companies, are allowed to go out of business, their enrolled students may suffer.

Maurice Cunningham, University of Massachusetts associate professor of political science, told the Banner previously that he regards the charter school debate as part of a larger fight between wealthy individuals seeking fewer taxes and smaller government and unions, which advocate for public funding and, with their ability to organize, represent a counterforce to the influence of money in politics and policy.

Out-of-state funders

Significant contributions to the charter expansion campaign come from out-of-state donors, including scions of the founding family of Walmart, and Education Reform Now Advocacy, whose board the Center for Media and Democracy says comprises primarily Wall Streeters. ERNA is the kind of nonprofit organization that does not have to disclose its funders.

According to September 4 filings with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, ERNA spent approximately $536,000 on Great Schools Massachusetts, the main ballot committee pushing for passage of question 2. The Wall Street-connected organizations Families for Excellent Schools and related Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy also stepped up, with more than $6 million in combined donations.

Other donors include Arkansas’ Alice and Jim Walton, of Walmart fame, who channeled approximately $710,000 into the Yes on Two ballot committee and more than $1 million into the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools ballot committee, respectively.