How private money and dark money undermine public education

Maurice Cunningham, author of the book “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization,” says if money is going to scholarships, then they’re going to private schools, rather than people paying their taxes for public schools. It’s really a giant tax break, he says.

Stock photo of dollar bills.


Maurice Cunningham recently retired from the University of Massachusetts – Boston where he’s been researching dark money and privatization in education.

Cunningham is the author of the book “Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.” He wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press that focused on dark money in campaigns for the Michigan Student Opportunity Scholarship Initiative and the Michigan Tax Credit for Student Opportunity Scholarship Contributions Initiative.

Cunningham says private money and dark money in education are used to undermine public education.

Listen: Maurice Cunningham on dark money in educational campaigns.


Maurice Cunningham: Many [private education organizations] have proven to be fly-by-night operations that place the profit of the owners and shareholders above the education of children. And that’s a bad thing.

So, that’s just the worst of it. But overall, things that draw public education away from democratic accountability — and by that I mean, the things like school boards and city councils and local governance and state governance — they undermine democracy.

Because schools are an important — and maybe the most important — part of what it means to be a community where we’re all accountable to each other. And that’s what we are in a democracy. And so I think, ultimately, these schemes are harmful to democracy — helpful to those who want to make a buck off of public education.

And I don’t mean just a buck as in “a buck.” Rupert Murdoch, for example, has got into it and said, it’s a $500 billion market. That’s what it means to him — a market. And the way John Walton has pegged it a $750 billion market.

So there are plenty of folks who are looking at that and saying, “Hmm, that’s a pretty big goldmine. Let’s get into that, divert money away from public goods into our own pockets.”

And I think all of that is harmful to democracy.

Sascha Raiyn, WDET News: Tell me about the two education campaigns in Michigan you’ve been writing about?

There are two ballot questions — that may never go to the ballot, unusually enough — two measures, which I understand Gov. Whitmer has already vetoed. One would be the Michigan Student Opportunity Scholarship Program Initiative, which is what it sounds like. It’s a scholarship, but funded by tax credits, produced by the second ballot issue, the Michigan Tax Credit for Student Opportunity Scholarship Contributions Initiative. So these two things would work together to essentially provide tax breaks so that people of some wealth could then help divert people away from the public school system. That’s increasing the private system, increasing the market-based system and drawing money away from public schools. And so that would be the gist of the two matters.

So this scholarship plan — why isn’t it just about giving families a choice on where their kids can go to school?

Well, if money is going to scholarships, then they’re going to private schools, rather than people paying their taxes for public schools. It’s really a giant tax break. I can imagine DeVos and other conservative wealthy families salivating at the prospect because they get a tax break for this.

So, they’re not paying to help the entire community of which they are a part. But they are simply subsidizing a smaller subset that draws away from the public school. This isn’t a charter program, but here in Massachusetts what happened in 2016 was a charter proposal backed by wealthy interests. And one of the key arguments against it was it would drain $400 million a year away from public schools where 96% of the students go.

And so I think that’s probably, although the situations aren’t quite the same, that’s the way to think of it. These funds draw money away from public schools and give a tax break to really wealthy people to effectively undermine public schools. And, I never give up on coming back to this: It undermines democracy. It really is an attack on democracy.

You’ve mentioned Betsy DeVos. She is, of course, a high-profile advocate for alternatives to traditional public schools. But when we say ‘dark money’ that means we don’t know whose money is behind a campaign.

One of the things about dark money is that it’s only dark to the voters. The politicians know where the money is coming from. But if the voters are left in the dark, we’re the ones who are told ‘no, no, no, you can’t have access to that.’ But politicians have a pretty dang good idea where it’s coming from.

This proposal as of a couple of weeks ago, had raised $1.7 million. And the DeVos family had put in about $400,000 of that. But two dark money operations out of Washington, D.C., put in the bulk of that. One of them gave $475,000 and the other gave $175,000.

And, so the citizens of Michigan, the folks that this impacts, will never know who put up that money. That’s what dark money is. And it’s wildly undemocratic. Think of something that affects one of the most important policies a state can enact, how we educate our children, and those policies are being changed by extraordinarily wealthy individuals who will never be accountable, nor even known to the voters of Michigan. And that is just plain undemocratic and wrong.

So what should rich people be doing with their money if not using it to see their values in action in society?

Well, for one thing, I don’t see any reason to privilege the values of a handful of people simply because they have all that money.

And there are academic studies — “Billionaires and Stealth Politics” is a great book on this — great scholarship are able to show that the values and the interests and the positions on key policies of the very wealthy are vastly different than the ones of the rest of us.

So ask yourself, why do those kinds of policies often prevail? It’s because of money. Money is not democracy. The fact that we see so often policies tilted to the preferences of the wealthy, in and of itself, should make us take a good hard look at democracy and what we’re doing with this wonderful democratic experiment we have.

Because it has turned into an oligarchy, or rule by the few — the few being those who are wealthy. And that is not what most of us think of when we think about our attachment to this great country and to our tradition of democracy.

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  • Sascha Raiyn
    Sascha Raiyn is Education Reporter at 101.9 WDET. She is a native Detroiter who grew up listening to news and music programming on Detroit Public Radio.