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Buying School Reform

It's hardly news that money plays a powerful role in determining the outcome of elections. School reform is no exception. The worst offenders are wealthy foundations and affluent individuals, but teachers unions are not exactly pristine. I'm going to consider only two examples, although there are many more.

The American Federation for Children has spent millions in state races across the country for vouchers and other strategies designed to divert public funding to private schools ("How School Privateers Buy Elections," The Progressive, May 8). Recently, the organization drew attention in Wisconsin in defending Gov. Scott Walker in a recall election after he attacked teachers unions. But it also backed Republican state legislators who cut funding for public schools. According to researchers at Michigan State University, foundation money is moving toward "challengers to the system" ("Ed. Funders Giving More to Same Few, Studies Show," Education Week, May 7). For background about education reform in Milwaukee in particular, I highly recommend Lessons from the Heartland (The New Press, 2013) by Barbara J. Miner.

But also consider the California Teachers Association. With funding as sizable as that of the major political parties, CTA functions as "the co-equal fourth branch of government" ("California Teachers Assn. a powerful force in Sacramento," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 18, 2012). In fact, CTA spent more than all other special interests from 2000 through 2009. Since then, it has spent nearly $40 million more, including $4.7 million to help Jerry Brown become governor.

As readers of this column know, I support teachers unions. But facts are facts. When it comes to the issue of spending to influence voters, teachers unions take a back seat to no one. The trail began simply enough in 1863 when CTA was a professional organization. But by the 1980s, it had transformed itself into a force to be reckoned with. Its first major triumph was in 1988 with the passage of Proposition 98, which guaranteed public schools at least 40 percent of the general fund.

Since then, CTA has flexed its muscle time and again until few in California are able to overcome its will. In all fairness, I hasten to point out that CTA is only emulating others. Nevertheless, the problem is that money in the hands of special interests of any kind determines to a large extent what transpires at voting booths. It's not supposed to be that way in a democracy, but I don't expect things to change.


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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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