Los Angeles’ school district used to have sleepy school board races. But those low budget, pedestrian races – like that for LA County’s District Attorney – are bygones. Between the SCOTUS Citizens United ruling codifying limitless lobbying and independent campaign support, and the ascendency of “school choice” as a stalking horse for privatization of the public sector within the education arena, LAUSD’s school boardroom has become a surrogate battlefield for neoliberalism, public-private partnerships and the leveraging of public goods for private gain.

So, too, it would seem might the race for LAC’s District Attorney (LAC-DA) signal a new incursion on privatization in criminal justice.

And given such a grand ideological tussle, it is little wonder that formerly obscure school board elections of local and narrow interest should have become worth astonishing amounts of money to a select few with special interest in (eg, profit, systemic change, ROI extracted from) the political insurgency. Such an influx could concern underlying motivations surrounding next Tuesday’s LAC-DA race.

An explosion of this trend was marked in 2013, when the mayor of New York City 3000 miles away, saw fit to drop one million dollars over the metaphorical backyard fences and literal mailboxes of west LA in order to influence a school board race so very, very far away, and seemingly removed, from him. But in retrospect it is clear that the Education sector provides a goldrush of opportunity for privateers. And the shock and awe of unprecedented outside spending bears witness to the large stakes in play.

When a parallel insurgence of resources from away infuses the formerly esoteric and narrow LA County’s District Attorney race questions of parallel opportunism arise.

Reed Hastings and the Bros from away

Indeed some of the same high-rollers in the world of ed reform are anteing up for candidate George Gascón’s campaign and independent expenditure committees (see table 1 below). In particular note that the largest – and earliest – of Gascón’s contributors, Reed Hastings, matches as largest contributor to the recently hyperactive “Charter Public Schools PAC”, just one of the charter industry’s dozens of PACs intended to influence, and recently deployed in the current LAUSD board member races (detailed here). What about the experience of ed reform might be reflected today in the world of criminal justice reform?

Today our public school system in the age of “school choice” is bifurcated into parallel and competing systems, each run with public monies with one managed by elected representatives of the public, and the other managed privately, absent public representation. In deference to a business management model of cutting costs, safety and professional regulations are throttled, and a vast satellite system of private vendors and service providers is embedded amongst the public in competition for public dollars.

Benefactors of this system spend heavily to influence policy makers who champion privatization. Their interests may be roughly categorized by three avenues of profiteering (see, for example, the red table here), charter ideologues realize profit by (i) boosting Return on Venture Philanthropy investment; (ii) selling stuff – eg, educational software, equipment, IT or support services; or (iii) minimizing labor or regulatory costs (anti-union activities). In this paradigm Education is a large investment opportunity supercharged by the promise of high tech solutions integral to all three avenues of enrichment, particularly as a replacement for human resources.

These are the opportunities championed by big tech, software and education entrepreneur, and charter school doyen Reed Hastings (-plus-wife-Patty-Quillen). Residents of Santa Cruz, not the distant southern California county marked by Gascón for incipient tech protocols, Reed/Quillen has long proselytized a libertarian gospel of schools with fewer government regulations and more externally (tech)- sourced “accountability.” He sits on the boards of several ed reform organizations, left the state board of education over ed reform issues and has donated multiple millions to lobbying and political action committees dedicated to the charter school mission.

As with the advent of school privatization, a huge amount of money, from outside this district, has infused the formerly sleepy race for LAC-DA. Among George Gascón’s donors is an overwhelming presence from the world of high tech, big data and predictive computing. These are interests integral to the “reforms” of Education, and coincident with interests underlying criminal justice reform that would likewise utilize big data and predictive policing.

Table 1 lists the collective of donors both to candidate George Gascón’s campaign, to which this election cycle’s donations are capped by law at $1500, and to six supportive expenditure committees that operate independently of the candidate (IEC), enabled to receive donations unlimited in size.

The source of donors’ wealth and activities is roughly categorized (inadvertent or un-nuanced misattributions will be corrected with appreciation; please contact the author for crowdsourced political science opportunities). High tech giants of big data wrangling include among others – Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Google, Zoom, Intel, Expedia, cryptography, Blackline, chatterbug, IP provider Clear Access, as well as money managers dedicated to championing this sector.

That these donations are flowing from outside of the intended jurisdiction for affecting policy and contracting is shown in table 2.

Even the nation’s capital donates more money than the LAC-DA region itself. Northern California funding is 4x the rate of Southern California’s. As with the races that influence ed reform policy, the effort to influence policy and contracting is being driven by outsiders with the net result of subverting democracy by electing officials not beholden to or representative of their constituency.


Table 1:  Donors to campaign and independent expenditure committees supporting George Gascón for LA County District Attorney are categorized by wealth source; employer and occupation is indicated for each


Table 2:  Location of donors by source of their wealth. Collectively high tech monies and venture philanthropy comprise the overwhelming preponderance of donations. Just 12% of donations arise from the jurisdiction where LAC’s District Attorney would operate.

The drivers of reform

Much has been made in the right wing media of money flowing from venture capitalists, social justice influencers, entertainers and the feminization of donors.

And while nearly half the money to influence comes from philanthropists and money managers, the majority is from evangelists of high tech as a market-driven solution to social issues.

But more, that money has not flowed evenly through time, and its introduction to the coffers spending in support of Gascón have varied drastically through time, with significant effect, according to the source of the money.

Figure 1 follows the temporal flow of money from its source. The bolus of influence, the shock-and-awe jump-start of the LAC-DA race comes first from the tech sector (if sometimes derivatively from the social partners of its wealth). First comes the market-driven ideology of big data, followed far downstream a good nine months later and after the primary, by the venture philanthropists interested in an application of high-tech solutions to social-justice-driven problems.

The philanthropy may enable tech-driven reform, but it is self-interest that drives the distant, market-driven ideology of “reform”.


Figure 1:  Donation of support over time to George Gascón’s race for the LAC District Attorney office. Two distinct sources of support are widely separated by time and the primary election. Though numerous in donating individuals (table 1), the amount of money contributed by lawyers, justice advocates and “Hollywood” is trivial compared with high tech’s and eventually, venture philanthropy’s influence.

Just so has been the experience in the world of education reform where the money from Netflix’ Reed Hastings has been wielded to sway policy, without regard for constituents of the elected. After successfully installing PUC charter chain co-founder Ref Rodriguez onto LAUSD’s school board long enough to cast the swing vote for fellow data-evangelist the current Superintendent Beutner, Mr. Hastings filled up the legal defense fund for Mr. Rodriguez when he was subsequently convicted of election fraud. A hallmark of ed reform is this disregard of the interests of all-constituents in favor of the well-funded few. It is an object lesson to consider in contemplating the priorities and loyalty of a new District Attorney, elected from away by the same vendors of high tech.