An Education: How Prop. 32′s Backers Have Tried to Ditch Public Schools

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October 2, 2012 in Environment, Politics & Government

The billionaire backers of Proposition 32 are an eclectic bunch–from bow-tied Tory parodies like Charles Munger Jr., to Bible-thumping fire-breathers like Larry T. Smith, to old-fashioned oil tycoons like the Koch brothers. Over the years members of this crew have combined to push a number of conservative pet projects through the halls of Sacramento’s Capitol–on every issue from stripping gay rights to dismantling environmental protections.

But if there’s a common philosophical through-line connecting Prop. 32’s moneyed donors, it’s that almost all of them advocate some version of the full or partial dismantling and privatization of California’s public schools and its higher education system. And, above their Prop. 32 efforts, hovers the ghost of a far-right education ballot initiative that was decisively rejected by voters 12 years ago.

The group’s most radical anti-public education advocate is third-generation venture capitalist and “viral marketing” guru Timothy C. Draper–who thus far has given $100,000 to push Prop. 32.

In 2000 Draper was the brains and the piggybank behind Proposition 38–arguably the most extreme school voucher effort in recent American history. The measure would have drained California public school coffers to give students up to $4,000 in taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private schools. The bill included no means testing, so that children of privilege who were already attending California’s prep schools would be given an unneeded subsidy for their elite education.

Additionally, Draper’s state vouchers could have been used towards religious schooling– potentially, public money could have been funneled towards the teaching of creationism or homophobic Bible courses.

Draper gave a monumental $23,386,553 to the effort.

He was joined in his pursuit of radical vouchers by his father, William Draper III, who gave $2,044,730 to the cause. The senior Draper is also a major donor to Prop. 32.

The overlap between Prop. 38 and Prop. 32 doesn’t stop there. Former Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio gave $1,040,000 to back Prop. 38 and to date has donated $250,000 to Prop. 32. One of the Republican Party’s biggest pocketbooks, Perenchio has spent upwards of $50 million in recent years to swing the national political compass rightward. He recently gave $2 million to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC and was the national co-finance director of John McCain’s 2008 presidential run.

Though Perenchio’s pattern of donations to right-wing candidates would seem to imply he is a small-government, starve-the-beast conservative, that philosophy apparently doesn’t apply when it comes to acting upon his distaste for public education. In 2000 the California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that the Perenchio-backed Prop. 38 would cost California taxpayers upwards of $3 billion within five years. Not surprisingly, voters were cold to the idea.

Do they want their tax dollars taken from public schools and spent on helping rich people send their children to private schools?” George Skelton asked in a 2000 Los Angeles Times column. “Probably not.”

With Prop. 38 lagging in the polls, supporters began holding online raffles for Apple iMac computers and Hawaiian vacations in an effort to drum up more interest in the campaign. These weren’t enough: Prop. 38 failed by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin.

According to Cynthia Brown, Vice President for Education Reform at the Center for American Progress, there’s no empirical evidence to justify a measure as drastic as a Prop. 38-like voucher program–which is likely part of the reason the measure failed so miserably. But that isn’t going to stop voucher advocates like Draper from trying.

Communities of color and poor communities are getting very discouraged with the slow pace of education reform and with poor outcomes,” says Brown. “They’ll take any means available to get into other schools.”

Expect voucher advocates to take advantage of that desperation.

We’re going to see quite a bit of [voucher measures pushed] in the next few years,” Brown predicts.

While the Drapers, Perenchio and their Prop. 38 crusade may be the most extreme example of the wealthy’s impulse to eliminate public education in California, other Prop. 32 backers aren’t far behind.

William Oberndorf is a co-founder of the Mill Valley, California investment firm SPO Advisory Corp. and a $150,000 donor to the Prop. 32 cause. He is also the chairman emeritus and founding board member of the national voucher-advocacy group Alliance for School Choice–which has received donations from the Koch Institute as well as the Walmart heirs’ Walton Family Foundation–and gave $376,793 in 2009 to the radical right-wing voucher organization American Federation for Children.

Oberndorf has referred to Indiana’s voucher law, passed in 2011, as the “gold standardof American educational models. Similar to California’s failed Prop. 38, the law gives students upwards of $4,500 in taxpayer subsidies annually towards private school tuition. Unlike Draper’s California effort, however, Indiana’s conservative voucher backers were politically astute enough to means-test their program. Only families earning under $62,000 are eligible for the subsidies–although the bill does grant a universal tax write-off of $1,000 per child already enrolled in private school. Oberndorf is so appreciative of the law and its potential to become a model for California that he recently channeled $10,000 into the reelection of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.

Vouchers aren’t the only public educational boondoggle Prop. 32 backers want to impose on California:

  • Investment banking billionaire Frank E. Baxter is a member of the Common Core movement to establish a national standardized testing regime on American students.
  • Public storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes, meanwhile, though largely media shy, isn’t afraid to publicly rail against America’s “entitlement culture”–which appears to include public funding of higher education. When I went to college, I had to drive a truck to pay,” he told GQ earlier this year. “I had a partial scholarship, but I took care of myself. Some people don’t belong in college!”
  • Robert J. Oster is vice chair of Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institute think tank – and also happens to be the chairman of the board of directors for the massive charter school company Summit Public Schools (where 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is also a board member).

If Prop. 32 passes, its moneyed backers will no doubt fight out their differences on education amongst themselves. The rest of California would just have to wait and see what form the demolition of its public school system eventually takes.

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Matthew Fleischer
Matthew Fleischer is an award-winning investigative journalist and a former LA Weekly staff writer. He currently reports for Witness L.A.
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