Autocracy appears to be winning across the globe, where Enlightenment values are under siege on all fronts. So you might have missed the grave threat to democracy walking among us on our very streets — at least according to nervous, and nerve-wracking, media reports.
That threat would be none other than Jeff Yass, the Main Line mega-billionaire — the wealthiest individual in all of Pennsylvania — who has contributed tens of millions to his favored political causes. He gave more than $1 million to a PAC that ran ads against progressive Helen Gym in the mayoral primary in the spring, and now more than one out of every three dollars spent in statewide judicial races emanate from his considerable checkbook.
Locally, he’s funding ads targeting the Working Families Party’s candidates for City Council — incumbent Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, both of whom mystifyingly argue that the real problem facing Philadelphia is our city’s infinitesimal — not to mention impotent — number of Republicans.
I get it — when one individual can spend so lavishly, the natural instinct is to recoil and see it as a threat to democracy. But the rhetoric about Yass doesn’t seem to square with reality. “Jeffrey Yass is a far-right billionaire who uses his wealth to elect extreme Republicans,” tweeted O’Rourke. Yass is often referred to by progressives, who shamefully stage demonstrations outside his Main Line home and at his company’s headquarters on City Avenue, as a “MAGA Republican.”
“He’s the only racist I know whose office is full of thank you notes from young Black students for providing them with educational opportunities.” — a friend of Jeff Yass
A week ago, Rolling Stone published a piece headlined Meet The TikTok Billionaire Whose Campaign Cash Is Fueling the GOP’s Abortion Fights. (Yes, Yass owns 7 percent of TikTok). Last year, ProPublica investigated Yass’s finances and found that “the rising GOP Mega-Donor … paid an average federal income tax rate of just 19 percent” over six recent years.
Now, full disclosure: I’ve had maybe three conversations with Yass in my life. In each, I found him to be charming and super smart, but I have no dog in this fight, other than the fact that political distortions insult me, whether coming from the left or right. And, even though I may disagree with Yass on a whole lot of stuff — I, for instance, was quite impressed by how the State Supreme Court redrew our state’s congressional lines, and Yass is looking to upend the Court’s balance of power — the portrait of Yass painted by progressives and mainstream media alike as a MAGA-fueled Darth Vader just doesn’t square with the record.
Fact is, Yass is a registered Libertarian and gives to Democrats as well as Republicans. He never contributed to Trump’s campaigns, and a few months ago he gave $10 million to a group seeking a Republican alternative to Trump. He is open about his funding and what drives him. And it has nothing to do with abortion rights or what he legally pays in income taxes.
If Jeff Yass has an ideology, it comes with a tinge of irony: He’s a crusader for school reform in distressed neighborhoods. If he’s supported MAGA or pro-life candidates it’s because they align with his one true mission: They support school vouchers.
On Twitter, he’s called a racist because he seeks to “privatize education” or “drain money from public schools.” And yet, the irony abounds. “He’s the only racist I know whose office is full of thank-you notes from young Black students for providing them with educational opportunities,” says one of his friends.
The guy walks the talk. Almost a decade ago, Yass’s wife, Janine, invited me to tour Boys’ Latin, the charter school they founded. The data they’ve built up over the years is impressive, with over 75 percent of students matriculating to college, but more than that is the experience of being there: You know when learning is taking place; it’s in the air. I saw a principal, the since-retired David Hardy, not afraid to lead young men into adulthood. I saw rigorous academic study in real-time.
Yass has funded the Yass Prize, a $1 million award that seeks to be “the Pulitzer of Education Innovation.” It also underwrites a series in Forbes that tends to make the case that a pro-choice party when it comes to abortion ought to be pro-choice in education, too.
Kevin Chavous, president of the education reform group Stride, Inc., and Donald Hense, founder of Friendship Public Charter School, wrote in one such piece:
Between the two of us, we have more than a century of experience working to rectify the most stubborn inequities in American society, particularly for young Black and Brown people. We are both proud HBCU graduates who have dedicated ourselves to creating or supporting organizations that ensure equal rights for all. We’ve worked for some of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders, such as Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund …
The truth is that access to a high-quality education and opportunity — that includes access to scholarships and vouchers — are not partisan issues unless we allow them to be. Either you believe that students should be relegated to a failing school simply because of their zip code, or you don’t. Either you believe that students with special needs deserve access to better academic opportunities outside their local school district, or you don’t. Either you believe that low-income, underserved children have the right to attend an exceptional charter or private school that’s more personalized and safer than their assigned school, or you don’t. Of course, we know that there are a host of great public schools that work for kids. Still, like us, millions of Democrats agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to education simply doesn’t work. We know because we’ve seen it.
“People sometimes ask why education is such a large part of our personal focus,” the Yasses wrote in a July Inquirer op-ed after Governor Shapiro couldn’t deliver the Democratic votes for a $100 million school voucher program alongside historic public education funding. “We are motivated by the terrible costs and daily hardships wrought by the failure of public school systems across the country. Here in Pennsylvania, we have schools that have a zero proficiency rating in math — Philadelphia’s John Bartram High School, for example. Nationally, as few as 18 percent of Black and Brown children are proficient in reading. This is unacceptable.”
This isn’t to absolve Yass of legitimate criticism: One power broker once said to me, “The problem with Jeff is that if you told him you’d do vouchers in exchange for relaxing gun laws, he might just go for it, he’s so single-issue minded.” But in a city that seems to shrug and accept 28 percent of students reading at grade level by third grade, you kinda wish our educators had Yass’s sense of urgency and openness to change.
“We are motivated by the terrible costs and daily hardships wrought by the failure of public school systems across the country.” — Jeff and Janine Yass
Whether you agree with Yass’s solutions or not, is there any way to deny his diagnosis? After all, the District’s enrollment is on a downward trend, yet spending is up. Meantime, according to the Nation’s Report Card, proficiency in math in Philly is trending downward compared to 2019 and 2009. In 2016, the total District expenses “per student net of charter payments” was $16,000. Now it’s north of $25,000. What kind of return has that investment shown? Does that sound like smart, effective management to you? No wonder Yass sees himself as the defender of the rights of the little guy — students — against a corrupt or incompetent system.
We say we support children, but when’s the last time a school superintendent has been held accountable — fired — for not educating kids? I couldn’t find one anywhere. I’ve found instances where a superintendent is shown the door due to financial mismanagement or sex scandal, but not because, say, test scores had plummeted.
That’s the real value of Yass’s machinations: The dude could be on his own private island somewhere, and yet he persists in challenging Philadelphia’s collective educational shrug. Isn’t his deep engagement in trying to combat the persistent failures of an inherently unfair, sclerotic, and effectively anti-Black educational system what true citizenship is all about? “We do what we do on behalf of the tens of thousands of low-income residents, those stuck in failing schools, or those serving in prison because their schools failed them,” the Yasses wrote in their Inquirer piece.
Now we come to the inconvenient truth facing Yass’s progressive critics. If you’re a working-class Commonwealth parent, your kid is only in third grade once. To you, education isn’t some abstract debate; it’s an urgent matter. Telling parents it’s just too bad that their kid is stuck in an underperforming school while parents of greater means are free to put their kids in better schools? That’s akin to playing education roulette with other people’s children. It has a decidedly Let them eat cake feel to it, coming from an increasingly elitist Democratic party.
Seen that way, vouchers become a newfangled issue of equity. Yass points to data attesting to their efficacy, while other studies show disappointing results. But, when a system is failing for decades on end, clearly everything should be on the table, no?
Instead, we get media coverage of Yass that, whether intended or not, props up a failing status quo. After all, there are plenty of people and groups seeking to influence public policy — including the teacher’s union, which draws much of Yass’s ire. Few batted an eye when labor leader John Dougherty, now a convicted felon, essentially ran Mayor Jim Kenney’s first term; in fact, progressives like Helen Gym took Dougherty’s money and barely made a peep about his thuggish ways.
Similarly, you don’t hear a cacophony of criticism for how Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has seemed to lend the imprimatur of his office to the way his political benefactor, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, has bullied healthcare provider UPMC into unionizing. Deep pockets influencing politics? Nothing new here. Yet, when someone who appears to be trying to inch open the Overton window comes along, that’s when politicos and media alike get their back up.
Is Jeff Yass’s activism a threat to democracy, or, in a city where we celebrate 27 percent of registered voters showing up to do their civic duty at the polls, is the call actually coming from inside the house?
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