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Since 2006, billionaires have propped up, via their private foundations and charities, state-level charter advocacy groups with nearly half a billion dollars, the AP analysis found.(Photo: Joe Brusky/Flickr/cc)

How Billionaires Are Backing Charter School Push: AP

By pouring money into state-level charter school advocacy groups, billionaires are pushing their version of education "reform"

Andrea Germanos

A new analysis from The Associated Press delves into how billionaires are pouring their cash into state-level charter school advocacy groups.

Since 2006, such spending from the uber wealthy, via their private foundations and charities, has added up to nearly half a billion dollars, the analysis found.

AP, which looked at 52 charter advocacy groups in 44 states and Washington, D.C., also reported that the deep-pocketed donors "directly channel support to pro-charter candidates through related political action committees or their own contributions."

Case in point: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides "an extreme example of how billionaires are influencing state education policy by giving money to state-level charter support organizations to sustain, defend, and expand the charter schools movement across the country."

The foundation is co-chaired by Bill Gates—a man one teacher dubbed Mr. Public School Sabotage.

Highlighted in the new story is Gates' influence in Washington, where the foundation created the Washington State Charter Schools Association. The state's high court said in 2015 that Washington's charter school law was unconstitutional. But since that ruling, "the Gates-backed state charter group shepherded almost $5 million to keep the lights on at six charter schools and urged legislators to pass a new law. In 2016, its political arm called Washington Charters Action was created, and an affiliated political action committee has already given small amounts to dozens of state lawmakers up for election this fall."

It's not the Gates foundation, however, but The Walton Family Foundation that is the entity that's given the most since 2006 to the charter groups. AP found that it dumped $144 million to 27 groups, and is the biggest backer of the California Charter School Association. That group, said John Rogers, an education policy expert and UCLA professor, "has had the power to ensure that legislation that would be against their interest can't be passed."

Describing the people behind the foundation, education historian Diane Ravitch previously wrote:

The Walton Family (beneficiaries of Walmart) is the richest family in America. There are many billionaires in the family. Like [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos, they don't like public education. They don't like regulation. They love the free market. They don't like unions. Individual family members have spent millions on political campaigns to support charters and vouchers. The Foundation also supports charters and school choice.

The billionaire backing makes for a considerable uneven playing field for teachers unions.

"A handful of billionaires who are advancing their vision of education reform is very different than having 200,000-some odd teachers across the state representing their understanding of public education through their union representation," Rogers told AP.

Tucson Weekly journalist David Safier recently took aim at charter groups' rich funders. He wrote: "The charter school movement owes its current level of success to its friends in high tax brackets. Lots of friends. We wouldn't have as many charters as we have now, by a long shot, if deep-pocketed donors hadn't contributed billions to get them started and prop them up. And they'd get far less press without all the privatization/'education reform' groups funded by the same rich folks who help them make it into the news."

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