I have been knee-deep in researching the Common Core State Standards Initiative over the past year, which has led me on an interesting path into politics and big money influence, particularly here in Colorado. Corporations, political action groups, individuals and other organizations spending money to support political interests has been a normal fixture on the landscape for as long as I can remember; however, my journey with Common Core has opened my eyes to just how pervasive corporate and organization manipulation really is.
I ran across a document written in 1995 by Philip Morris (PM) that shows one way in which corporations strive to influence the larger media to in turn seduce public opinion. This document, “PM Media Action Network – Media Plan for Colorado,” was secret for over a decade, and it reveals how PM hired a Denver-based public relations agency, Russell, Karsch & Hagen, to launch a strategic campaign to influence Colorado media outlets, fashioned to intentionally change public opinion to suit PM. It states:
“[We] will begin to reshape public opinion through the media…” and “…[W]e are confident we can continue to shift the media’s view, and, ultimately the view of the general public…toward issues affecting the industry.”
To this day, I am still surprised when I read things like this, for I am dumbfounded at how brazenly deceitful money and power drives people to be. Clearly I retain some naivety from my younger days, for I still find myself expecting what is right to prevail.
Another gem I found recently is the report Outside Spending, Outsized Influence: Big and Secret Money in Colorado in the 2012 Elections, which details money spent by “super-organizations” solely to influence Colorado’s elections in 2012. The three largest groups that routinely shell out huge dollars to sway elections are Super Political Action Committees (PACS), secret spenders whose contributions are referred to as “dark money” and account for 33.66% of all spending on Colorado House elections, and groups who are federally registered outside of Colorado and account for 98.92% of all outside spending in last election for Colorado House. Secret Spenders are part of the Out-of-State Spenders group, and it is interesting to note that PACS received $101,749,662 from business corporations in 2012. As the report notes, “Out-of-state spenders are likely to put their own priorities ahead of the needs and interests of Coloradans, thus skewing the relationships that Representatives have with their constituencies.” They are trying to buy Colorado. No argument here, for we have all seen the results.
It’s not just isolated incidents either. Almost every large corporation, non-profit organization and special interest group employs dishonest tactics to influence voters and policy-makers. For instance, according to Colorado Ethics Watch, the oil and gas industry has spent over $1 million in the last fiscal year on lobbying and influencing legislation. The largest oil and gas companies spending the most money to sway issues in Colorado in recent years are two companies based in Texas, Pioneer Natural Resources and Noble Energy Inc. “While it is not surprising that the oil and gas industry is a big lobbying player in Colorado politics,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, “the level of their influence at all levels of government, including elected officials and regulating bodies themselves, is shocking. In a year that saw historic policy changes in several arenas, the oil and gas industry was remarkable in its ability to protect itself from significant legislative change.” Rupert Murdoch is in the middle of oil and gas industry influence in Colorado as well. He currently advises Genie Energy Corporation on oil shale development in Colorado’s northwest quadrant, a task he shares with former Vice President Dick Cheney. The group intends to start testing technology to take advantage of Colorado’s shale deposits next year, in spite of heavy opposition from Colorado residents. In addition, hundreds of thousands of dollars being donated to large corporations to defeat community-supported measures to ban fracking and create a municipal utility. It’s all about the money, and Colorado voters seem to not matter.
Another find example of attempts to buy Colorado is the state’s recent recall election of Senators Morse and Giron, who support stricter gun laws, was interesting. Here, those calling for the recall were supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Koch brother, David and Charles, of Americans for Prosperity, while efforts opposing the recall election were heavily supported by Michael Bloomberg and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Even so, financial contributions and spending to oppose the recall election far outweighed financial backing expenditures. Bloomberg, mayor of New York City and founder of the organization Mayors Against llegal Guns, donated $350,000, and billionaire Eli Broad donated another $250,000 to support the two senators. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee also joined the effort and spent $250,000 to oppose recall.The NRA, on the other hand, spent over $108,000 to support the recall efforts. In total, the Morse and Giron side spent approximately $3,000,000 opposing the recall, while the recall supporters only spent about $500,000. In spite of the copious spending by recall opposition groups, the grassroots effort, and, in my opinion, the Colorado voters, largely prevailed. I cannot call it a complete win, however, because outside involvement was present on both sides of the issue, and a vote with no interference at all is the only possible clean win.
I am most disturbed by big money involvement in Colorado’s schools, and I am outraged that I keep seeing the same names with the same fingers insinuating themselves into matters that are, quite frankly, none of their business. And I don’t for one minute subscribe to the philanthropic posturing that tries to convince us is that their intentions are honorable. Bloomberg, Gates, and Murdoch, through their foundations, are convincing school systems to spend billions of dollars on new technology, software, programs and curriculum even though budgets are strained and teachers are being laid off, and there is no evidence that these changes will improve basic learning. Privatization at its finest, funneling big bucks into corporation deep pockets, this time, at the expense of our children. Kenneth Saltman summed it up well in his article The Failure of Corporate School Reform: Toward a New Common School Movement when he noted “They envision our public schools as private businesses, districts as markets, students as consumers and knowledge as product.” Large corporations aim to transform public schooling into a national private industry by replacing public schools with privately managed charter schools, vouchers, and tax credit scholarships for private schools.
Today, Colorado voters will decide whether or not to support another tax hike, this time in the form of Amendment 66, proposed to increase funds for education to help pay for the added expense of another round of new education measures. Familiar names, notably Bill and Melinda Gates as well as Michael Bloomberg, have thrown millions of dollars into the pot supporting the amendment. Total spending on the campaign to pass Amendment 66 exceeded $10 million. Why? Why would smart corporate executives invest phenomenal amounts of money in issues that seemingly have nothing to do with them? I’ll tell you why. It benefits them. If they were truly that concerned about the wellbeing of our children and educational issues in this state, $10 million could have been more wisely spent directly on education.
And then there is the Douglas County School Board elections. Douglas County Schools made national news this year with the district’s rejection of the Common Core State Standards; however, four of the seven school board members who drove that decision are up for re-election today, and don’t think this small district in Colorado has escaped outside money and influence. Some of the biggest supporters? Jeb Bush, Texas Oilman Alex Cranburg, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), all made financial contributions to the school board members of their choice, while President Obama’s Colorado Campaign Manager, Craig Hughes, has lent his support to the “chosen four” as well.
Bill Gates is a common denominator in just about every issue involving education and children in our state, either overtly or in the shadows. Most recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation handed Jefferson County Schools a large chunk of change in 2012 for piloting his latest venture, data mining private information from students intended to help super-size his latest agenda of using education to create a new money-making market. Don’t believe me? Bill Gates matter-of-factly confirms this in during a recent interview “…identifying common standards is just the starting point. We will only know if this effort has succeeded when the curriculum and tests are aligned to these standards … When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well, and it will unleash a powerful market of people providing services for better teaching.” The database is actually a joint project with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, school officials from several states, and Amplify Education, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, who is known for violating privacy rights.
I recently sat down with the creator of School Belongs to the Children, Rachael Stickland, a mom and student privacy advocate, to talk about corporate involvement, namely the Gates’, in Jefferson County schools. As I listened to Rachael’s story, it became abundantly clear that Gates used his deep pockets once again to seduce the school district into piloting his program. He knew just who to schmoose and it worked.
Rachael’s love of children is apparent, and her commitment to doing the right thing rings loud and true. As I was talking with her, it was apparent that her frustration matched mine. As a fellow parent and a long-time student advocate myself, the discussion of our children being bought and sold like office equipment disgusted me. Why is this mom having to take precious time away from her family and her work to defend not only her children, but the privacy of every child in the district? Why are parents in Colorado and across the nation faced with this same Goliath?
Money and power will keep making critical decisions for us until it does not work anymore. As parents, as small business owners, as teachers, and as citizens of Colorado, we need to stop listening. “Just say NO!” takes on a whole new meaning, and it needs to begin with today’s voting. Remember that David beat his Goliath. We need to beat ours.