By Larry Lee
When the curtain closes on this 2014 election cycle, the most significant thing we may learn is not who will occupy the governor’s office or control the legislature, but who is trying to control education.
A hint-- it ain’t the folks who send their children off on a big, yellow school bus each morning. Rather, it is millionaires who do not know Red Bay from Red Level and have taken it upon themselves to dictate what happens to neighborhood schools all across the country.
For instance, StudentsFirst is a group from Sacramento, Calif. headed by Michele Rhee, one time head of Washington, DC schools. They are one of the country’s leading proponents for charter schools and vouchers. And they pushed hard for the legislature to pass the Alabama Accountability Act in 2013.
They contributed $45,000 to state school board candidates. They gave Speaker Mike Hubbard’s Storm PAC $2,500 a few days before the accountability act was passed. They also contributed $5,000 to Hubbard’s campaign fund. (Interestingly enough, StudentsFirst also donated $5,000 to Governor Bentley’s campaign last fall, but it was later returned.)
Another player was the newly-created Alabama Federation for Children (AFC), an affiliate of the American Federation for Children, one of the country’s most strident promoters of vouchers and charters. They spent more than $56,000 on state school board races and nearly $90,000 on legislative races, including $7,443 to Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh.
California hedge fund manager Bill Oberndorf sent $50,000 to Alabama for AFC, while Betsy DeVos from Michigan, chair of the American Federation for Children, chipped in $100,000.
Considering that our legislative leadership loves to decry anything that hints of outside intervention in our state affairs, one has to see the irony (or hypocrisy) of seeking money from California and Michigan millionaires to buy votes in Alabama.
There are eight elected members of the Alabama State Board of Education. Four stand for election every two years. A close look at these races is insightful.
In 2012 there were two open seats and two incumbents running for re-election without opposition.
There was a total of $120,090 raised to contest the two open slots. The single largest contributor in 2012 was the Business Council of Alabama’s Progress PAC with $15,000. This went to two different candidates.
In 2014 there are also four seats up for re-election. Two open seats, one an incumbent with a challenger, one an incumbent without opposition.
However, this year these elections drew money like honey draws bees. A total of $661,704 was given to all candidates through the June 3rd primary.
Like two years ago, Progress PAC was again the major player with contributions of $230,000, 15 times as much as in 2012.
So what is really going on here? A memo from the Alabama Federation for Children PAC put out the day after the primary explains it well.
“These elections proved historic because for the first time ever, AEA (Alabama Education Association) faced a serious challenge from a strong coalition of education reform supporters, including the Alabama Federation for Children PAC, affiliated with the American Federation for Children, the state’s voice for educational choice; 2014 PAC (run by former governor Bob Riley); Business Council of Alabama’s Progress PAC, and; StudentsFirst.”
This is all about politics and power. Anyone who thinks it is about better education for kids in inner-city Birmingham or at North Sumter Junior High in Panola could probably also be convinced that General Sherman started a fire in Atlanta because he wanted to have a marshmallow roast.
Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues. email@example.com