Stephen Schwarzman's billionaire lottery won't save public schools; but Oklahoma might | Will Bunch

Teacher Walkout Oklahoma
Keagan Nedrow (left) and Reed Nedrow (bottom right) stand with their mother, Tara Nedrow (right), who teaches history at Union High School, and other teachers, during an April 2 teacher rally against low school funding at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City.

It sounds like a pretty cool thing — a kid opening up her grade school textbook and seeing it was once the property of a big-time celebrity, who in this case was country-music superstar Blake Shelton. But it was no laughing matter for the girl’s mom, Shelly Bryan Parker, a former teacher — who instead was incensed that the battered, dog-eared reading book was signed by Shelton in their Ada, Okla., elementary school way back in 1982, or 36 years ago.

“Marley is EXCITED that her ‘new’ reader belonged to Blake Shelton, but I am EMBARRASSED!!!” Parker wrote on Facebook, using the anecdote to highlight the ways that Oklahoma — a blood-red state where GOP lawmakers have spent their days cutting taxes for oil companies and for millionaires, passing insane bills that ban Sharia law, and utterly ignoring public education — shortchanges its kids.

Indeed, other Oklahoma teachers have been posting photos of their stacks of non-celebrity-endorsed, battered and chewed-up textbooks from the 20th century, which are doled out in schools that over the last few decades of conservative-led fiscal starvation have been denied basic supplies and sometimes only hold class four days a week because that’s all they can afford.

No wonder tens of thousands of teachers in the Sooner State who went on strike last Monday and have shut down schools for a week are growing increasingly militant — saying that legislation that would mean a more than $6,000-a-year raise for some of the most underpaid educators in America still isn’t enough, unless the state also adds tens of millions of dollars more to make up for years of neglect. It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable about the flurry of wildcat teacher strikes across Republican-controlled states (Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and possibly Arizona) in the American Heartland — the courage of the strikers’ defiance or the fact that seemingly unmovable politicians are now melting away in the face of this righteous grievance faster than the Wicked Witch of the West.

“In Oklahoma, we thought cutting both personal income tax and corporate taxes would bring prosperity,” John Croisant, a sixth-grade geography teacher and girls soccer coach in Tulsa, told the Huffington Post recently. “We have sacrificed our schools and our kids’ futures on economic policies that do not work.”

Indeed, the schools aren’t the only thing in Oklahoma hurting from steep tax cuts, including a more-than $1 billion reduction in revenue by cutting the top rate of state income taxes. Prisons are short-staffed and citizens face long waits for basic services, while health-care benefits and the rest of the social safety net for the poor and working classes have been decimated. And the promised economic boon never happened. So who benefited? According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, 26 percent of the money went back to the top 1 percent of Oklahoma families, and 72 percent went to the top 20 percent.

In Oklahoma, we’re probably talking about oil and natural gas billionaires depositing fatter paychecks on those Fridays when 20 percent of the state’s schools are shut down for lack of funds. Elsewhere around the country, run-amok tax-cutting for the wealthy business elite — in other state capitals and most recently in Washington — have benefited hedge-fund managers and the barons of private equity.

People like Stephen Schwarzman.

Here in Philadelphia, Schwarzman has been in the news a lot this spring. The 71-year-old co-founder and CEO of one of the giants of private equity, the Blackstone Group, and a friend to President Trump, Schwarzman has amassed an estimated net worth of $12 billion. In recent years, Schwarzman has also been focused on giving some of his wealth away, with a few strings attached.

Schwarzman grew up around these parts, in suburban Abington, in the 1950s and ’60s, when American public schools were still the envy of the world. The son of a dry goods store owner, the 1965 Yale-bound graduate of Abington Senior High School benefited during that post-war era when public schools excelled at elevating the working and middle classes. Earlier this year, Schwarzman announced an unprecedented gift to his alma mater — a $25 million check to overhaul the aging Montgomery County high school and build state-of-the-art science and computer labs. For Abington, which like every other school district across Pennsylvania has struggled with cuts in state funding for the last decade, the largesse of a billionaire alumnus like Schwarzman is like winning the lottery.

While ever true to Abington, Schwarzman should also be an honorary Oklahoman, since he shares the Sooner State’s low-tax mania. In the face of calls for higher levies on private-equity and hedge-fund billionaires who often pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries, Schwarzman famously compared Barack Obama’s tax proposals to Hitler invading Poland. (His pal Trump also promised to eliminate that loophole, only to back down after becoming president.)

The low-tax-on-the-wealthy policies that began under Ronald Reagan, when Schwarzman was founding Blackstone in the 1980s, have allowed the billionaire to keep a lot more money for his obsessions, which seem to include a) making sure people remember him after he’s dead with his name on a lot of edifices and b) bashing teachers’ unions and any funding schemes that would make education more equitable.

In recent years, Schwarzman — like many American billionaires — has become something of education advocate, as long as the solutions don’t rely on the model that helped him in the 1960s, such as tax fairness or pay rates that will attract and retain the best teachers. Instead, Schwarzman has excessively praised nonunion school systems while urging educators to consider more reliance on retirees and unpaid volunteers, and asking school superintendents to spend less time on academics and more time begging for money from rich alums like him.

In Abington, Schwarzman’s philanthropy has caused a mini-revolt from many parents and alums — not over the donation, understandably, but under a condition in the original deal that wasn’t publicized at first, that would have renamed the billionaire’s alma mater as Abington Schwarzman High School. That seemed just a bit too much for many residents in the suburb, especially for alumni wary of public education becoming a lottery for 1 Percenters.

“Changing the name of our high school to honor a hedge-fund billionaire would have been a slap in the face to all of the educators, parents, schoolchildren, and allies in labor who have been fighting to ensure that all public schools, especially those that serve the most vulnerable children, have the resources they need,” two alums recently wrote in an Inquirer op-ed. In the face of the criticism, Abington school leaders and Schwarzman backed down on the renaming. But the broader issue of billionaire bingo remains — kids in struggling city schools in Olney or West Oak Lane will soon look enviously just a few miles north at the new science labs on the other side of the totally arbitrary Schwarzman Line.

Or course it’s better in the scheme of things that a billionaire is spending $25 million of his money to benefit some kids, somewhere, rather than buying another yacht for himself. But Stephen Schwarzman, or even 25 Stephen Schwarzmans, won’t solve the crisis in American public education. No, the real solution is what’s happening right now in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and what ought to happen here in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers drunk on oil and gas money have blocked common-sense proposals for a severance tax to fund ALL public schools.

The answer is everyday people rising up and using our collective power, on the picket line and at the ballot box, to demand a return to a system where the wealthy and Big Oil and Gas and other big corporations pay their fair share of taxes, where teachers in red states don’t have to work a cash register on the weekend to make ends meet, and where kids have guidance counselors and nurses and get shiny new up-to-date textbooks every September. The kind of public-school-for-everyone that allowed Stephen Schwarzman to get smart and then go out and get so filthy rich.