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‘If I were a rich man’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Lately when I think of the voucher or charter school movement, I hear Tevye from The Fiddler on the Roof singing, “If I Were a Rich Man.” This song became stuck in my head after reading in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the astronomical amounts of money donated to the gubernatorial campaign of State Senator Anthony Williams, primarily by three Bala Cynwyd businessmen.

According to the Inquirer, "The donations came from Students First, a Wynnewood-based PAC that promotes ‘school choice’ and the use of state funds to finance tuition at nonpublic schools. The PAC has been used by Joel Greenberg, Arthur Dantchik, and Jeff Yass, all executives at Susquehanna International Group L.L.P. as a vehicle to send money to Williams of Philadelphia.” These three individuals along with two other wealthy businessmen have given more than $5 million to William’s campaign fund.

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.

Now like Tevye, I am not a wealthy man, although I do appear to have been a bit more financially gifted than he was. I drew this conclusion by taking the time to compute my lifetime earnings to date. Using my most recent Social Security statement I added up the sum of 42 years of my taxed earnings. These earnings, which total $1,817,105, fall far short of the $5 million dollars donated by the rich men to the Children First PAC, which in turn passed on the money to Anthony Williams’ campaign fund.

My average pre-tax earnings per year for 42 years have been $43,264. If I had saved half of my lifetime earnings to date in order to make a significant political contribution to the gubernatorial candidate of my choice in this 2010 election year, I would have a little more than $908,544 to give.

In order to match the $5 million contribution of State Senator Williams’ wealthy donors, I would have to save half of my average yearly salary for 231 years. As my mother used to say, “That would be living to a big age.” Given my comparatively meager financial resources, it appears that I have little, if any chance of pushing my plan for the use of public school funds to the front of the Harrisburg agenda.

Since I am excluded from acquiring the kind of political influence that money seems to command, I, like Tevye, can only imagine what it would be like to be heard as wealthy men are heard.

So I have spent some time pondering the motivations of the managers of wealth. Why, I asked myself, would I as a rich man give large sums of cash to a longshot candidate like Williams? For the vast majority of us who attempt to stretch our income as far as possible, the contributions of the Bala Cynwyd businessmen look like a bad investment. The candidate that they chose to support had little likelihood of winning the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Their intentions seemingly make little sense.

Did they really believe that Williams had a shot to win the Democratic nomination for governor? Maybe they did. But did they also believe that he would succeed in a general election campaign against a strong Republican candidate like Tom Corbett? I doubt this.

I think these contributions were about something else. Perhaps they were intended to weaken the more likely Democratic candidate, Dan Onorato, in a fall election by draining off his campaign funds during the primary season. If this is so, then what is in it for Williams?

Is he laying the groundwork for an eventual run as the mayor of Philadelphia? Perhaps he is building even stronger relationships with his Republican colleagues in the state senate and possibly with a future Republican governor. He certainly has positioned himself as the “go to” politician in Pennsylvania for those who seek to promote the cause of educational entrepreneurs.

When the year 2014 arrives, the same year envisioned in Dr. Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan, the new governor will be approaching the peak of his influence and power. He will have chosen the secretary of education for Pennsylvania. This is a position that can be quite influential in determining how educational funding is distributed across the whole state. It will also be close to the time when several School Reform Commissioners will be reappointed. They in their own right hold considerable power. The SRC commissioners set the policy and make the final financial decisions for the multi-billion dollar School District of Philadelphia.

It would be greatly beneficial to those who support the use of state funds to finance tuition at non-public schools, to have these important positions at the state and city level controlled by individuals who share their vision. Williams surely is a public official who can assist them in their efforts to disrupt the financing and governance of public education in our state.

When you have lots of money you can afford to invest in future development opportunities. The business of the rich is to look for ways to first maintain and then increase their fortunes. Their long-term interest isn’t always in the best interest of the whole community. In the case of education, the attention of the very wealthy in our society has become keen. Their opinions have come to dominate educational policy and governance. The financial elite are threatening to determine the future of American public education.

The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
"If you please, Reb Tevye…"
"Pardon me, Reb Tevye…"
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi’s eyes!

And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you’re rich, they think you really know!

The people who do the work of schooling in our society must work harder at having a greater say over the future of our schools.

Educators know and understand their professional field more clearly and thoroughly than do corporate business leaders, politicians, and other individuals who seek to profit off of the educations of our children. Unlike Tevye’s sentiments that it won’t make one bit of difference if rich people answer right or wrong, I do believe that right or wrong should make a difference in the future of our school systems.

Right or wrong must make a difference if we are to preserve the democratic principles of our society. Our public schools belong to all of us.