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Yes, Virginia, There Really IS a Billionaire Boys Club

The second largest school district in the nation, Los Angeles Unified, is in the midst of what must surely be the costliest school board race ever.

This month we have seen report after report of billionaire donations rolling in, totaling almost $3 million. First we learned that Eli Broad and former Univision head Jerrold Perenchio had each pitched in $250,000. Then New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg dropped a cool million into the effort. Most recently, Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst lobby has added in their own quarter million.

The billionaire's money is being spent to pay for what the usually staid Los Angeles Times calls "junk ads," and "serious exaggeration and distortion."

The big concern among these "reformers," is apparently that the pace of charter school expansion might be slowed. They are also very focused on eliminating or weakening due process and seniority protections for teachers. And most of all, they want board members who will offer strong support to Superintendent John Deasy, a favorite of the Gates Foundation.

The teachers union, UTLA, is also supporting candidates in these races, though they do not have the money to match the "reform" slate. Robert Skeels is an education activist with strong grassroots connections. Steve Zimmer is a moderate, a former TFA teacher, and an incumbent on the board. He has been targeted because he has raised questions about the expansion of charter schools in the district.

Diane Ravitch's blockbuster book on education, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, featured a chapter entitled "The Billionaire Boys Club," about the alliance of wealthy philanthropists "investing" in market-driven education reform. But some writers have discounted such fears. Just this week, Sarah Reckhow wrote in Alexander Russo's This Week in Education blog,

I have studied and written about convergent grant-making among major philanthropists and efforts to influence federal policy. My research has shown that convergence and coordination among top education philanthropists has grown in the last decade. I worry about the consequences of this trend, and I think some of the policy priorities of major philanthropists are not well supported by research.
But I also worry that some recent critiques of education philanthropy overstate a top-down, secretive, and elite-driven perspective on policy-making in education, possibly to the point of conspiracy theorizing.

Alexander Russo has placed himself studiously above the battle over reform. A little more than a year ago he wrote a post in which he stated:

There's a strange dynamic going on inside the online education reform debate in which the well-funded reformers play the role of wimpy David and the scrappy traditional educators are Goliath.

By "traditional educators" he was referring to people like myself, Nancy Flanagan, teacherken and John Thompson, who have the nerve to object to the reforms preferred by the wealthy.

Russo closed that post by noting,

I'm not taking sides here as to who's more right or more wrong (most everyone's wrong, far as I'm concerned).

But Russo may be taking sides now.

On February 10, the Los Angeles Times reported on the big money flowing to "reformers," and described a new venture in advocacy "journalism."

Veteran journalist Jamie Alter Lynton also has donated $100,000 [to the Coalition for School Reform] She's married to Michael Lynton, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Like Chernin, she's on the board of the fundraising nonprofit organized by Deasy.
Lynton's new venture, launched in August, is the L.A. School Report, which has covered the school board elections extensively. In a December editorial, she criticized the teachers union for opposing legislation that would speed up the dismissal of teachers accused of gross misconduct, faulting union leadership for continuing "to insist on sacrificing student well-being to protect even pedophiles."

And whom do we find now in Ms Lynton's publication, covering Los Angeles education from his vantage point in New York? None other than Alexander Russo.

Leonie Haimson, in the NY Public School Parents blog, points out that some of the well endowed have such strong feelings that they may be putting their non-profit status in jeopardy. She writes:

There also seems to be a lot of shady and unethical politicking going on in Los Angeles. The LA Fund for Public Education is a charitable non-profit, a 501C3 started in 2011 by Superintendent Deasy, apparently modeled after NYC's Fund for Public Schools, founded by Joel Klein. The LA Fund paid for several billboards featuring Garcia as a supporter of the arts in January and February of this year, just a few weeks before the election, until angry protests made them take the billboards down. As a 501C3, this organization is absolutely prohibited from any partisan political activity.

One does not need to be a "conspiracy theorist" to connect the dots here. We have a local school board race that has become the focus of a coordinated effort on the part of the wealthy advocates of corporate reform. This is no conspiracy. It is neither secret, nor is it illegal, thanks to rulings like Citizen's United (with the possible exception of those billboards). It is perfectly legal for billionaires to, in effect, buy up local school board races. And it is perfectly legal for them to hire "journalists" to write stories largely sympathetic to their point of view. Fortunately, it is also still legal for skeptics to point out all of the above, and suggest the voters of Los Angeles might want to think twice before they vote.

What do you think? Is there a coordinated effort on the part of wealthy elites to "reform" our schools? How should educators and voters respond?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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