As Hunger Games-Mockingjay I opens this weekend, some commentators have noted that the hunger, as it were, for Hunger Games derives from our sense that it mimics some of the darker aspects of our politics. The closest parallel I see is in the current politics around schools, where big money, using the language of “reform,” has been tearing out the heart of traditional public education.
The same hedge-fund managers who bought the New York State Senate now want to take over public education in the state and strip it bare, while they celebrate excessive wealth in high style. They’re pushing for a special session in Albany this December to cement the takeover of education policy.
The school wars are about to begin.
In New York’s Hunger Games, just like in the books and movies, those in the Capitol live in a very different reality than the rest of us. In our Capitol, Albany lawmakers enjoy a flood of money, personal accounts, and protection for incumbents against attacks. In the Districts—the cities and towns of New York—the reality is bleaker. Citizens must work to survive and make do with the limited resources afforded to them by the Capitol.
While Governor Andrew Cuomo appears to be orchestrating this show, the truth is that much like Caesar Flickerman, he’s merely a stage manager, doing the bidding of those truly in power: his billionaire hedge-fund donors. The real power lies in a handful of men like Dan Loeb, who personally put up a million dollars to take over the Senate. Loeb owns a $100 million penthouse on Central Park West and a $50 million yacht. Louis Bacon, another big donor, owns land all over the world, including a grouse-hunting estate in Scotland.
Like President Snow, who starves the Districts, tests the residents with the Hunger Games competition, and then sets out to destroy them, the hedge-funders want to take over our schools with the same three steps: Starve, Test, Destroy. Budgets are cut severely, tests reveal “poor performance,” and then public schools, having been thus gutted, are replaced by privately managed charters.
First, the starvation: The state of New York is being sued again for funding public schools below constitutional levels. Cuomo’s budgets have stripped grade schools of art, music, sports, and counselors. Without money, classrooms grow so large no teacher can manage them, and kids can’t learn. Billionaires benefit as the money “saved” by not funding schools goes to tax breaks for the rich.
Second, the testing: Children are subject to a ridiculous battery of tests that lead to huge profits by corporations like the testing company Pearson but does little to improve the lives of the children. We’re talking about high-stakes, high-stress testing, including testing of the controversial Common Core. These tests prod and poke the children, creating lots of anxiety and taking away from the joy of learning.
Third, the destruction: These hedge-fund managers want to eliminate all limits and oversight of charter schools. They want to take control of New York City schools away from Mayor Bill de Blasio and let privatization run rampant. And they want billions in new funding from taxpayers to build new charter schools everywhere across the state, taking even more resources away from hard-pressed public schools.
Charter schools are private entities. They expel difficult students and refuse to admit students that public schools have to admit—like kids with disabilities. And charters have repeatedly resisted attempts to make them transparent. They have argued in court that they are not public and therefore they are not subject to the oversight that public entities are.
Charters and their operators make money by draining public funds. All the money from cuts to public education can go toward more tax breaks for hedge-fund types. Some big donors and political leaders directly profit. Banks and well-funded investors can make significant profits by taking advantage of federal tax breaks to fund charter school construction. Buffalo Charter School booster Carl Palladino has received almost $700,000 in tax breaks for his direct Charter School investments. But this takeover doesn’t just give them money: It gives them power.
We should not take them lightly.
They financed the Republican takeover of the New York State Senate. They spent millions of dollars to make sure voters across New York voted Republican or stayed home, so they could achieve their education overhaul.
And they’re just beginning.
The school wars are a threat to our democracy in two ways. First, they give too much power to a small handful of people to decide policy, simply because they’re big donors. Second, they threaten one of the most precious resources in our state: public education that is open to all children.
For the first few years, the public was fairly docile in response to the school wars. But in the last year, New Yorkers across the state have been standing up, holding rallies against starving, testing, and the destruction of our public education.
The hedge funders would like to push through big structural and funding changes in a special session in Albany in the next few weeks. But as President Snow has learned, people will only take so much before they start resisting.