Sunday, August 28, 2016

Big Money

In a prior lifetime, I worked under a principal in Metro-Nashville Public Schools whose motto was “We’re about the business of school.” He loved the motto so much that he had it printed on the back of t-shirts, with the school’s logo on the opposite side, and faculty members wore the shirts every Friday.
I frequently hear the comparisons between operating a school, or school system, and a operating a business. Indeed, there are many similarities, such as pushing conformity upon its employees who are all working toward a common purpose, having a payroll, offering insurance, and even their very structure--with a main person in charge and subordinate bosses below them. With that said, the one fundamental difference between these two entities is their purpose. Businesses ultimately exist to make money. Schools are a public service and are there to help improve the fabric of our society by building a strong electorate and a skilled workforce. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that schools are not businesses, nor should they be treated as such. This very concept is reflected in the tax code. Businesses pay taxes, while schools do not.
There’s been a national trend to transform schools into businesses by turning them into charter schools. By definition, a charter school is a publicly funded school that is run by another entity and is not subject to the same rules as other public schools in the school system or even in the state. These “other entities” that operate charter schools are frequently businesses who are trying to increase their bottom lines. The relative autonomy of charter schools results in varying degrees of success.
Arguably the most scary component of charter schools is that they are publicly funded. Taxpayers still foot the bill for someone else to run the school. Turning the operation of schools over to businesses--while occasionally successful--is not something that needs to become a habit; yet, they are very rapidly expanding across the state. Charter schools need to be kept in check. Nashville’s school board recently took this very stance, wanting to slow down charter school expansion, and they have been met with opposition from both the Tennessee State Board of Education and charter school groups.
It’s understandable, then, why pro-charter school group Stand for Children is pumping more than a half million dollars into the school board races in Nashville. Organizations like Stand for Children, which is based in Portland, Oregon and is funded in part by the Walton family (owners of Wal-Mart) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are legally allowed to do this because of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. $500,000 is an extreme amount of money for an outside organization to invest in a local school board election. Obviously, Stand for Children is hoping that Nashvillians will elect school board members who will allow their organization into the city to create more charter schools.
It would be naive to think that Nashville is the only city where this is happening, and Stand for Children is certainly not the only organization trying to buy elections. For example, the Koch brothers frequently intervene in national and local elections. Hopefully, Citizens United will be overturned either by a future Supreme Court with nine justices or by a constitutional amendment. The 2010 Supreme Court decision not only negatively impacts politics by legally allowing untold sums of money to be spent on political candidates who, upon being elected, are required by their respective political parties to fundraise for the organizations that helped them. Citizens United is detrimentally influencing the quality of education in this state, and around the country, by allowing big money to influence school board elections and education policy to support things like charter schools. It adversely impacts everyone who expects schools to do a quality job graduating productive citizens.

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