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The money behind some suits against local schools

Maurice Cunningham
Maurice Cunningham
Maurice Cunningham is a retired professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.

Maurice Cunningham was a professor of political science in 2016 when he heard that a group called Families for Excellent Schools was spending $15 million to promote a ballot issue that would expand state support for charter schools in Massachusetts.

“I thought that would break all records for spending. Who would have such money, and it turned out they won’t tell you who had such money.”

Cunningham began digging and was able to identify some of the big donors behind this and other school-related reform proposals and lawsuits.

“There are very big names involved. For example the Walton Family of Arkansas – the Walmart heirs, but much more money came from Boston hedge funders," he says. "I think they believe in markets. They want markets in education, but none of them have backgrounds in education. None of them have taught a class. None of them have got a degree in education.”

As he looked at donors to school related campaigns nationwide, he concluded some may have been hoping to profit.

More often, Cunningham says, wealthy donors were motivated by ideology.

“They’re ardently anti-union, and since teachers’ unions are probably the most prominent, powerful unions left, they have an opportunity to undercut them and make life easier for themselves. You know unions – particularly teachers’ unions – are the one institution that pushes for increased spending on social services and programs that would benefit the less well off, and that does not meet the tax desires of the super wealthy.”

In the end, Families for Excellent Schools spent $25 million and lost, but Cunningham worries that dark money could prevail in other places.

“This ability to spend endless sums and hide their identity is a major threat to democracy,” he contends.

He notes an Arizona-based group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, is backed by wealthy donors who disapprove of racial sensitivity training and protection of rights for LGBTQ students. The group is behind a lawsuit against Albemarle County Public Schools.