THE BLOG

Corrosive High-Stakes Politics Extends to "Nonpartisan" Denver School Board Elections

10/26/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated Dec 26, 2011

Taking to the streets is the only recourse for a people frozen out of the political process, where there has been a massive sell-off of any pretense of democracy to big money interests at every level of government. For over 30 years, public education has been a primary target of the political right's assault on democracy. In the 70s, evangelicals were galvanized to take over school boards and state Republican parties around such issues as abstinence-only education, gay rights and the teaching of "anti-biblical" environmentalism, egalitarianism, social justice and critical thinking. An unholy corporate-religious right alliance protests classroom discussions around forbidden subjects like renewable energy as "anti-free enterprise."

The American public school system should be "junked," wrote ideologue Cal Thomas, charging "secular humanist brainwashing" -- teaching students "they evolved from slime, that sex is an intramural sport, and that the liberal agenda is best." In political right circles, the push to eliminate public schools ranks in priority with the elimination of the United Nations and corporate taxes. Jerry Falwell and others vowed to abolish public schools by year 2000, and in the '90s the Alliance for Separation of School and State out of California circulated a pledge calling for elimination of the public school system. At least two Colorado legislators, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and state Sen. John Andrews, signed the pledge, at a time when each served on legislative education committees.

"School choice" became code for defunding and ultimately eliminating public education through the use of such tools as vouchers and publicly funded private charter schools. Some like Independence Institute president Jon Caldara called for elimination of bilingual education, hailing any reduction of parental choice within public schools that might contribute to greater parental frustration, hopefully boosting their support for private school vouchers.

Considering that campaign spending limits apply to every other elected office in the state except local school board elections, it was only a matter of time before extreme corporate cash debased local school board elections. Rep. Beth McCann's 2010 bill to limit spending on local school board elections was opposed by House Republicans.

The greatest infusion of corporate cash ever, over $600,000 in 2011 has gone to three school board candidates from so-called "reform interests" that have long sought to privatize and charterize traditional public education. The largest donors are corporate, including oil industry CEO Henry Gordon, healthcare industry CEO Kent Thiry, financial executive Scott Reiman, and former oilman and GOP fundraiser, current University of Colorado president Bruce Benson. Gordon and Reiman are board members of the Alliance for Choice in Education, a promoter of private school vouchers. Corporate money added to cash from outside groups like Stand for Children has accounted for tens of thousands of dollars to their three picks as school "reformers" -- Happy Haynes for at-large, Anne Rowe in District 1 and Jennifer Draper Carson in District 5. The three candidates also garnered endorsements from the heavily hedge-fund-backed Democrats for Reform.

Stand for Children stands against traditional public education, funneling unprecedented sums of money from out-of-state Wall St. hedge-funders and groups like the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation, toward "profiteering and union-busting," writes David A. Love of the LA Progressive.

Unprecedented sums from Stand for Children that poured into 2010 Illinois legislative races bought legislation opposing basic teacher protection. Guerin Lee Green of Cherry Creek News writes, the group's executive director Jonah Edelman subsequently boasted about the purpose of spending such huge sums of money: "...individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective" -- an assault on traditional public education -- "luckily it never got covered that way" as "the press never picked up on" that.

Democrats for Education Reform is another group whose board and advisory board are heavily weighted by Wall St./hedge-funders dedicated to leading "efforts to frame the fight that is playing out within the Democratic Party on education issues... The organization advocates for nonunion charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, test-based teacher evaluations, curbs on tenure and removing teacher unions from almost any role in shaping curriculum or determining working conditions," writes Michael Hirsch of United Federation of Teachers.

DFER has directed more than $17 million into political and grassroots advocacy over three years toward what the group's executive director Joe Williams describes as "creating momentum which has the potential to dominate education policy-making for years to come." Education Reform Now is DFER's nonprofit sister organization, also headed by Williams.

Named by educator Diane Ravitch, previously of the Bush administration, "the billionaire boys club," the super-rich hedge-funders that operate with little regulation and next to no knowledge of education are about "creating new business and investment opportunities in areas that are still publicly run," while marginalizing unions and serving as "as a pre-emptive strike" against any renewed hope for private-sector unions, writes Hirsch. Theirs is the mantra of "choice, competition and privatization." As large hedge-funder Whitney Tilson told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, charters are "the perfect philanthropy for results-oriented business executives... Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital."

Education advocate Angela Engel reports that Senator Michael Bennet, a DFER "Reformer of the Month" and recipient of nearly $500,000 in DFER campaign contributions, "is sponsoring the GREAT Act, which calls for taxpayer dollars to fund private revenue-generating alternative certification models." Bennet has stated his support for "programs like Teach for America," which offers five weeks of preparation that turns into a two-year revolving door of cheap labor with low costs for salaries and benefits and high turnover of candidates, while sidestepping teacher effectiveness mandates and accountability requirements. It is also serves to undermine union protection for teachers. Teach for America has listed net assets at $261.5 million, with earnings of more than $269 million in 2009. Engel reports that the Walton Family Foundation in July committed $49.5 million to double the number of Teach for America candidates throughout the United States, with $3.1 million designated for Colorado.

Green reports that then-Denver Public Schools Superintendent (now Senator) Michael Bennet approached Republican oilman (now-University of Colorado president) Bruce Benson several years ago, opening the floodgates to unprecedented campaign contributions to Denver school board races by large Republican donors.

Ostensibly disavowing partisan politics after his appointment as UC president, Bruce Benson asserted he contributed as a "private citizen" to supposedly nonpartisan school board elections. It is difficult to regard Benson in any way "nonpartisan." Among his highly partisan roles, he served as chair and principal funding source of the purportedly nonpartisan, tax-exempt non-profit term limits group, Americans Back in Charge. In 1996 the group mounted a highly partisan $3 million "voter education" project using radio broadcasts and direct mail campaigns to advise voters against reelection of 14 House opponents of term limits -- all were Democrats. Forty Republicans who has also voted against term limits were not likewise targeted (Rocky Mountain News, 3-15-96). Term limits advocacy, transformed into a partisan weapon to target Democrats, was ultimately abandoned by many early Republican backers once Republicans became the congressional majority.

Galloping corporatism and casino capitalism that dominate and blight every area of our lives and politics is reason enough to motivate uprising in the streets.