Billionaires have opinions. In a democracy, billionaires have the right to voice these opinions, just like everyone else.
But billionaires don’t just have opinions. They have immense fortunes — and, thanks to these fortunes, enough power to impose their opinions on the rest us.
Need we worry about these impositions? We sure should. Just one example: Billionaire political might has come to constitute a clear and present danger to the single most bedrock institution of our democracy: public education. This danger, as of last week, now stands in starkest relief deep in the heart of Texas.
This past Thursday, the Dallas local school board appointed a 15-member “home-rule” commission designed to end real home rule of the city’s schools — and open the door to education “reforms” that warm the hearts of billionaires.
One billionaire in particular: former Enron trader and hedge fund manager John Arnold.
Arnold first caught the public policy spotlight as an unrelenting critic of public employee pension plans. Benefits for teachers and other public employees had become unsustainable, the claim went, and pensions needed to be “reformed.” And reform meant ending retirement “defined benefits” and handing investment control over public employee retiree dollars to hedge funds.
Arnold would soon move from pensions to broader issues of school reform and gravitate, as so many other billionaires have, to the charter school movement.
Charter schools operate on public tax dollars, but outside traditional systems of democratic accountability. Local school boards typically have no say on how charters within their borders operate.
This special status has made charters incredibly attractive to the rich looking to get substantially richer. In metro areas across the United States, national for-profit chains are now running local charter schools. In one city, New Orleans, traditional neighborhood public schools have essentially disappeared. The city, come next September, will only service charter schools.
Arnold helped underwrite the putsch that turned New Orleans into a charter haven. His foundation pumped $25 million into charter school expansion after Hurricane Katrina.
Now Arnold is attempting to work the same charter magic in Dallas, the nation’s 14th-largest school district. This time he has no hurricane to shake things up. So Arnold is maneuvering instead with a 1995 state “home-rule” law that no Texas locality has ever before embraced.
Under this law, a petition signed by 5 percent of registered voters triggers the appointment of a commission empowered to write a “home-rule charter” that changes how a city’s schools operate. The charter could, for instance, hand control of local schools over to the local mayor who could, in turn, use that control to contract out school management to for-profit enterprises.
The current mayor of Dallas, former Pizza Hut CEO Mike Rawlings, met with billionaire John Arnold’s people in Houston last February, the month the Arnold-bankrolled “home-rule” campaign for Dallas publicly launched.
“These people know what’s going on in public education,” Rawlings gushed afterwards. “They are great proponents of reinvigorating the system in a new way.”
Exactly what “new way”? Arnold and his crew have never given the public any specifics. Instead they have declined to answer any questions about their intentions from local newspaper reporters.
Local educators have done their best to fill in the blanks. Teacher leader Rena Honea has called the “home rule charter” move “part of a plan to underfund our schools, declare them a failure, and contract out to private operators the control of our neighborhood schools.”
“This initiative ultimately is for profit,” she charges, “not for kids.”
But the home-rule petition that Arnold’s campaign circulated gave no clue to any of that. Signature-gatherers, note University of Texas analysts Julian Vasquez Heilig and J. Clayton Riley, “cleverly framed” their effort as a selfless drive to improve public education. They wore shirts that read “Save Our Public Schools.”
The petition itself made no mention of the billionaire-friendly environment that “home rule” for Dallas would create. Home-rule status, explain Vasquez Heilig and Riley, would exempt Dallas from state rules that mandate the minimum amount of salary Texas teachers must be paid and the minimum amount of time teachers must have for classroom planning and preparation.
Under “home rule,” Dallas schools would also no longer have to give students or teachers specific due-process rights in disciplinary proceedings or grant parents access to basic information about their children’s education.
In other words, “home rule” would make life considerably cushier for profit-making charter school operators eager to maximize returns on their investment, with minimal grief from teachers, students, and parents.
Not surprisingly, the amply funded and deceptively packaged home-rule petition campaign had no trouble collecting the signatures required to trigger a charter commission’s appointment. That commission will now prepare a plan for governing Dallas schools that must be approved by voters in an election that attracts at least a 25 percent turnout.
The entire process, argue Vasquez Heilig and Riley from the University of Texas, creates the “illusion of democracy.”
Real democracy, the pair note, would be an open public debate that contrasts actual ideas about improving public schools. Give voters a choice between ideas with a proven track record of improving student learning — like universal full-day pre-K — and the claims of charter school advocates.
This sort of real democracy now seems distant in Dallas. But real democracy can trump billionaires, contends education historian and former U.S. assistant secretary for education Diane Ravitch.
Connecticut, Ravitch notes, has been a hotbed of “hedge fund people who’ve decided that they should take over the school system and charter-ize it.” In Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, educators and community groups have joined forces to stop that hedge fund agenda.
“You give everybody a lot of hope,” Ravitch has told Bridgeport activists.
Billionaire John Arnold just gives a lot of money. Let the battle begin. The Dallas home-rule vote could come as early as this November.
This piece originally appeared in Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies weekly on excess and inequality.