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How Wall Street Power Brokers Are Designing the Future of Public Education as a Money-Making Machine

Why are Wall Street types investing in local school board elections? Just follow the money.

Given that Arthur Rock has a net worth of $1 billion, lives in California and spends his time heaping money on tech startups (with the mantra, “Get in, get out,” as his guide), a local school board race in Atlanta, Ga. seems an unlikely candidate for his attention.

Yet there is his name, on the campaign finance disclosure reports of four candidates—two of whom were elected in November, and two who won a runoff on December 3—for the board of Atlanta Public Schools. On each report, two columns over from his name, the sum of $2,500 is listed, the maximum allowable amount.

The APS race was a pivotal one for Atlanta, a city still dealing with the fallout of a cheating scandal that thrust its public school system into the national limelight. Just three incumbents were re-elected to the nine-seat board.

The biggest question facing the board of newcomers is to what degree they will embrace charter schools. Last year, Georgia voters passed a constitutional amendment that enabled the creation of a state-appointed commission authorized to bypass local and state school boards in approving new charter schools. Critics say the measure passed because the text on the ballot, written by governor Nathan Deal, referenced “parental involvement” and “student achievement,” but not the specific authorities of the commission. In this climate, APS, which already has the most charter schools of any Georgia school district, will only avoid becoming the next laboratory for corporate education reform with significant pushback from the new school board.

That’s where Arthur Rock comes in. And a lot of other rich people, too.

Rock is not the only name on the reports with financial power and a less than obvious connection to Atlanta Public Schools. Greg Penner of the Walmart empire, Dave Goldberg of the Sheryl Sandberg empire (they’re married), and Kent Thiry of the DaVita kidney dialysis empire (it sounds inglorious, but he pulls in $17 million annually), are among the names that had some Atlantans scratching their heads this election season.

Michelle Constantinides has three children in Atlanta Public Schools, and was alarmed by the level of corporate influence in the race. She explains her worry is not that donors will directly dictate board members’ decisions: “It’s much more sophisticated than that,” she says. Rather, “it’s about building a relationship with people and making them feel comfortable, and then once they feel comfortable, coming in and providing a service.”

As evidence, she points to Arthur Rock’s investment in Rocketship Education, a charter school management company. In donating to school board candidates, she says, “He’s marketing a product.”

That product has Constantinides concerned. She doesn’t like the data-driven approach of many charter schools and education companies, an approach she says is already too strong in Atlanta’s schools. She recounts how her third-grader, who attends a traditional public school, became so anxious about having to take standardized tests for the first time next spring that he vomited twice during the first week of school this fall.

Teachers in Atlanta are hurting, too, according to Verdaillia Turner, president of both the state and local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers. Free from the regulations that hold traditional schools accountable, charter school administrators in Georgia are able to fire teachers without due process, require them to take on extra work without extra compensation, and set other employment policies that nullify the rights historically afforded to public school teachers.

Turner cautions that while most of Atlanta’s charter schools are non-profit organizations, they are very much a part of the for-profit education market. They can spend money without oversight, and direct much of it to private management companies and other contractors.