Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the “public” in public education. Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one—not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.
The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (January 2010) and a related federal appeals court ruling in SpeechNow.org (March 2010) created loopholes for nonprofit organizations that effectively abolish all limits on campaign contributions. Ed reformers exploit the new legal framework exactly like other political operatives. This has two marked consequences. First is the fate of the original deal established by Congress—tax-exempt status in exchange for staying away from politics while serving some public good. The deal was eroded before Citizens United; now it has collapsed. In the world of ed reform, the political strategy makes a mockery of the tax-exempt privilege of the foundations and nonprofit groups involved. Second, most ed reformers have benefitted from branding themselves as progressives or “lifelong Democrats” (“I love labor unions—just not teachers’ unions”). This has given them credibility with liberals who, like most voters, haven’t paid close attention to the content and results of the ed reforms. The labeling has always been a ruse, but the politicking reformers have obliterated dividing lines: they work in local and state campaigns alongside corporate free-marketers and right-wing social conservatives who’ve long and openly supported privatizing public education, ending social programs, and eviscerating labor unions. In practice, they are one team.
Some funders and their tax-exempt grantees have hesitated to get more involved in politics. On occasion the reluctance has been cultural: they’ve always shied away from public debates on government policy and advocacy in general. More often it’s fear of jeopardizing their tax status. According to IRS regulations
• private foundations—a type of 501(c)3 organization—cannot lobby (defined as trying to influence legislation); they cannot campaign (defined as supporting or criticizing a candidate for public office); they can, however, “educate” anyone, including lawmakers, on any issue;
• most of the recipients of foundation money for ed reform are nonprofit groups with a different 501(c)3 status; they can do a specified amount of lobbying but no campaigning for candidates.
Here is the loophole: this second type of 501(c)3 can set up affiliated groups that do lobby and campaign. It can set up the following:
• political action committees (PACs), which have limits on the size of contributions accepted
• Independent Expenditure Committees (super PACs), which can accept unlimited contributions but cannot “coordinate” work with a candidate or party (an almost meaningless restriction)
• 501(c)4 “social welfare” organizations, such as the AARP and NAACP, which can accept unlimited contributions as long as political activity is not their “primary” activity (another weak restriction)
• 527 organizations that advocate only for issues, not candidates, and can accept unlimited contributions (the line separating issues from candidates is fuzzy)
Pro-politicking ed reformers routinely set up a full array of such groups and solicit contributions for each. In this way, they can collect unlimited funds from many donors for different purposes. Having mastered the nitty-gritty of political money, these reformers have been trying to convince their hesitant colleagues to join in and pony up.