For wealthy donors who favor charter schools, philanthropy and political spending often go hand in hand. Tax-deductible gifts flow to build new schools and train the teachers who work in them, as well as to bankroll advocacy efforts. But all this giving can have limited impact without changes in laws and policies, and so charter backers have poured ever more money into election campaigns and ballot initiatives in recent years.
A case in point is one of the most expensive races of 2018, which unfolded in California, where two Democrats battled to become superintendent of public instruction.
On the eve of the election, spending for this election had risen to $50 million. The total is likely to be even higher when final reporting is in.
One candidate in the contest, Marshall Tuck, is the former president of Green Dot, a charter school network. He wants to expand charters in a state that already leads the nation in the number of such schools. The other candidate, Tony Thurmond, argued for putting the brakes on charters to address issues of transparency and accountability. (As of this writing, Thurmond is leading the vote count in a race that has yet to be called.)
Tuck ran unsuccessfully for the same office in 2014 in a race that cost $30 million. In both cases, Tuck outspent his opponent. This year, his campaign had raised $28.5 million by election day.
The money has come from a who’s who of charter school backers and K-12 philanthropists, including Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Lynn Schusterman, Julian Robertson, Laurene Powell Jobs, Laura and John Arnold, Dan Loeb, Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma, and three Waltons: Carrie Walton Penner, Alice Walton, and Jim Walton.
Among Tuck’s biggest backers was Helen Schwab, wife of the finance billionaire Charles Schwab, who gave $2 million to EdVoice for the Kids PAC, which managed independent campaign committees for Tuck; Arthur Rock, the venture capitalist, gave $3 million to EdVoice, while Doris Fisher gave over $3 million. Along with the Schwabs, Fisher has been a huge backer of charter schools as a philanthropist and a consistent mega-donor for political campaigns in this space.
A less familiar name on the list of top backers to EdVoice is businessman Bill Bloomfield. In fact, Bloomfield was the single biggest supporter of the PAC this year, with $5.3 million in donations.
These are eye-popping numbers in a campaign for a state office that even many Californians have never heard of. But this spending is just the latest example of charter backers coming together to give big for a pro-charter candidate or ballot initiative.
Over the past year or two, we’ve reported on top new philanthropists coming to the education space steering clear of charter schools in favor of other approaches to boosting student outcomes—including those that address the underlying problem of poverty.
But the charter movement remains a potent force, with the backing of some of America’s richest people. Among the key strengths of this movement is the way top donors work both the political and philanthropic giving tracks. You can also see this in other areas, like LGBTQ rights and the environment, but charter backers have taken multi-faceted influence spending to a new level.
The symbiosis between these streams of giving—and the impact it can have—underscores that today’s far upper class is getting more savvy about converting their private wealth into public influence.
Most Americans have little money to spare for political causes, and studies show they’re giving less to charity, in part because of stagnating incomes. Meanwhile, in an era when most economic gains have gone to top earners, the wealthy have more money than ever to press their public policy preferences.
California’s education system has been dramatically changed in the past 15 years by the rise of charters. Much of this change wouldn’t have happened without the backing of rich donors.
To be sure, teachers unions have long influenced education in California with their campaign contributions. But the billionaires are now outspending them.
Regardless of what you think of charter schools, this seems like no way to make policy on public education, long regarded as among the most democratic institutions in America.