OP-ED | A Discouraging Day for Democracy and Education
Wednesday was a discouraging day for democracy. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in McCutcheon v. FEC to lift aggregate individual campaign contribution limits.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote, in a majority decision that appears to be blindingly oblivious to political realities: “The Government has a strong interest, no less critical to our democratic system, in combating corruption and its appearance. We have, however, held that this interest must be limited to a specific kind of corruption — quid pro quo corruption — in order to ensure that the Government’s efforts do not have the effect of restricting the First Amendment right of citizens to choose who shall govern them.”
Justice Stephen Breyer dissented from the bench: “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”
Indeed. A floodgate in which the voices of ordinary citizens will be drowned out even more than they have been already.
The decision brought a predictable statement from my Congressman, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes: “We need less money in our politics, not more. This decision from a slim five-member majority of the court threatens to set our democracy back — just like the very unfortunate Citizens United ruling did four years ago. Today’s ruling threatens to unleash an additional torrent of money into our political system at a time when large donors already have far too much influence. As a co-sponsor of legislation to overturn Citizens United and a strong supporter of public financing for political campaigns, I will continue doing everything I can to level the playing field for the millions of American voters whose voices are being muted.”
I couldn’t help but raise a cynical eyebrow upon receiving this, because I’d just returned from the state Board of Education meeting in Hartford, where I’d watched the residents of two cities in Himes’ district, Bridgeport and Stamford, suffer from the political influence of Stephen Mandel, a major Himes and Connecticut Democratic Party donor.
When I emailed Himes a while back expressing concern about a large Mandel donation with respect to his stance on education policy, he responded rather testily that Mandel was “one of his earliest supporters.”
I didn’t reply, but I thought about the early strategy meeting I’d attended with progressive bloggers at then-candidate Himes’ house, the checks I sent in, the competition I’d had on My Left Nutmeg where I named a character in my third novel after the person who donated the most to the Jim Himes Act Blue page, the meet-and-greet I held in my home, and the hours of poll standing on Election Day. Apparently, because these things didn’t raise enough campaign cash, they didn’t register as “early support.”
Like many other billionaires, (Netflix founder Reid Hastings comes immediately to mind) Mandel appears to believe that those below a certain income bracket don’t have the ability or the right to determine their own destiny when it comes to education.
What might lead one to this conclusion?
Maybe it’s the stream of emails, obtained via FOI, between one of his employees, Meghan Lowney (Executive Director of Mandel’s Zoom Foundation) and state Board of Education Chair Allan Taylor. Lowney’s email introduction to Taylor came via Alex Johnston of ConnCAN, the charter advocacy organization whose founding chairman was another Greenwich billionaire, Jonathan Sackler. In Lowney’s January 2011 email to Taylor she writes: “I would love to learn from your experience, A small group of us are strategizing a Bridgeport charter revision campaign that would result in mayoral control of the schools. This is a confidential conversation, of course. We are thinking of Fall 2011 election as a moment when Bridgeport voters could go to the polls to choose mayoral control. I’d be happy to describe the dynamics in detail.”
Excel Bridgeport was one of the major contributors to Mayor Bill Finch’s ill-fated attempt to revise the Bridgeport Charter to bring mayoral control to the Board of Education, spending $101,803 to help deprive Bridgeport residents of their right to democratically elect the school board. Mandel’s Lone Pine Foundation and Zoom Foundation are major funders of Excel Bridgeport, and Lowney is on the board of directors. So is Nate Snow, the executive director of Teach for America in Connecticut. Mandel is the treasurer of the board of directors of Teach for America’s national organization.
Mandel also has a direct line into Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office, with the establishment of the Zoom Fellows, as reported in February by the Journal Inquirer. “Fellows work with senior officials on policy projects that address ever-changing issues and challenges,” according to Zoom. They “may perform research relative to legislation, serve as an intermediary between different agencies or offices, or lead special projects.” Given Lowney’s email history and what happened at the state Board of Education on Wednesday, one can just imagine the kind of “intermediary” work they are doing.
Prior to Wednesday’s state hearing, the elected local boards of education in both Bridgeport and Stamford voted against new charter school approvals in their cities. David Martin, the elected mayor of Stamford spoke out against the charter approval in his city.
At the hearing, former elected Bridgeport Board of Education member Maria Pereira testified that Malloy’s own ECS task force identified that Bridgeport Public Schools were underfunded by $43 million annually. What’s more, Mayor Finch hasn’t contributed the $3.3 million dollars for this year as required under state law. She further testified that despite the claims of charter school proponents that Bridgeport Public Schools would be reimbursed for transportation and special education costs associated with local charter schools, the CFO of Bridgeport Public schools confirmed the statements to be false.
Stamford gets less than $600 a student from the state of Connecticut while the proposed charter school stands to get $11,000 per pupil. Dr. Polly Rauh and Jackie Heftman — elected members of Stamford Board of Education — testified against the proposal with well-reasoned, logical arguments. I was in the car with them on the way back from Hartford when Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, described their testimony as “angry.”
Bill, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
What we witnessed Wednesday is called “a done deal.” Although both the Courant and the CT Post reported the day before the hearing that Commissioner Stefan Pryor was only going to recommend approving two of proposed charters, once the crowds from Bridgeport and Stamford left, Charles Jaskiewicz asked, “Why are we delaying the opportunity to front-load success? . . . My feeling is all these schools should be approved.” Taylor announced that Pryor just “happened” to have a resolution to approve the two additional schools already prepared.
And thus, the appointed state Board of Education, against the expressed votes of two elected city school boards and with ample evidence of the negative financial impact to the existing public schools in the cities involved, voted to approve these new charter schools.
American democracy is dying and despite their press releases to the contrary, Connecticut Democrats are aiding and abetting its demise as surely as the Republicans who brought the court case of McCutcheon vs. FEC. It will come back to haunt them in November.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.