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The Super Wealthy Oxycontin Family Supports School Privatization With Tactics Similar to Those That Fueled the Opioid Epidemic

By Sarah Darer Littman / AlterNet

A fortune derived from the relentless marketing of painkillers is now being used to expand charter schools.

Photo Credit: By Prazis Images / Shutterstock.com

The notoriously secretive Sackler family, also known as the OxyContin Clan, has been the subject of much scrutiny of late, including lengthy exposés in the New Yorker and Esquireshining a harsh light on the connection between the drug that made the Sacklers wealthy and their philanthropic giving. But there is another troubling beneficiary of Sackler largesse that has escaped public scrutiny: charter schools. OxyContin heir and Purdue Pharma director Jonathan Sackler is a major funder of charters and an extensive network of pro-charter advocacy groups.

Figuring out who is funding the latest charter school-promoting front group often feels like a game of whack-a-mole. That's why reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s recent New Yorkerpiece, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” made so much fall into place. Keefe writes, “Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies have long funded ostensibly neutral nonprofit groups that advocate for pain patients.”

The same influence techniques Purdue used to promote painkillers are now being used by Jonathan Sackler to expand charter schools.

Promotional power

The late Arthur Sackler, the eldest of three brothers who bought the company in 1952, was posthumously inducted into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, and cited for his achievement in “bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing.” Yet Allen Frances, former chair of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, quoted in the New Yorker piece, highlighted the darker side of that power: “Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler.” As a copywriter at a medical advertising agency, Arthur Sackler devised strategies to promote drugs like Librium and Valium. Now, some of those same strategies are now being used with the aim of promoting charter schools.

Jonathan Sackler, Arthur’s nephew, is a well-known name in the education reform movement. He founded the charter school advocacy group ConnCan, progenitor of the nationwide group 50CAN, of which he is a director. He is on the Board of Directors of the Achievement First charter school network. Until recently, Sackler served on the board of the New Schools Venture Fund, which invests in charter schools and advocates for their expansion. He was also on the board of the pro-charter advocacy group Students for Education Reform.

Through his personal charity, the  Bouncer Foundation, Sackler donates to the abovementioned organizations, and an ecosystem of other charter school promoting entities, such as Families for Excellent Schools ($1,083,333 in 2014, $300,000 in 2015 according to the Foundation’s Form 990s) Northeast Charter School Network ($150,000 per year in 2013, 2014 and 2015) and $275,000 to Education Reform Now (2015) and $200,000 (2015) to the Partnership for Educational Justice, the group founded by Campbell Brown which uses “impact litigation” to go after teacher tenure laws. Earlier this year, the Partnership for Educational Justice joined 50CAN, which Sackler also funds ($300,000 in 2014 and 2015), giving him a leadership role in the controversial—and so far failing cause—of weakening worker protections for teachers via the courts.

Just as Arthur Sackler founded the weekly Medical Tribune, to promote Purdue products to the medical professional who would prescribe them, Jon Sackler helps to fund the74million.org, the “nonpartisan” education news website founded by Campbell Brown. The site, which received startup funding from Betsy DeVos, decries the fact that “the education debate is dominated by misinformation and political spin,” yet is uniformly upbeat about charter schools while remarkably devoid of anything positive to say about district schools or teachers unions.

Vertical integration

The Sackler “special sauce” is vertical integration. As far back as the early 1960’s, staffers for Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver prepared a memo for a subcommittee he chaired that was looking into the rapidly growing pharmaceutical industry.

“The Sackler empire is a completely integrated operation in that it can devise a new drug in its drug development enterprise, have the drug clinically tested and secure favorable reports on the drug from various hospitals with which they have connections, conceive the advertising approach and prepare the actual advertising copy with which to promote the drug, have the clinical articles as well as advertising copy published in their own medical journals, [and] prepare and plant articles in newspapers and magazines.”

This was used to great effect in promoting OxyContin. Art Van Zee MD looked at the Marketing and Promotion of OxyContin and found that in 2001 alone, the company spent over $200 million to market and promote the drug through a variety of methods. In the settlement in the US District Court of Western Virginia, the company admitted to misbranding the drug with the intent to defraud and mislead the public.

The company was lavish with branded swag for health care practitioners. According to a GAO report, these included, “OxyContin fishing hats, stuffed plush toys, coffee mugs with heat-activated messages, music compact discs, luggage tags, and pens containing a pullout conversion chart showing physicians how to  calculate the dosage to convert a patient to OxyContin from other opioid pain relievers.”

The GAO report went on to quote the DEA as saying the Purdue’s use of branded promotional items in the marketing of OxyContin was “was unprecedented among schedule II opioids, and was an indicator of Purdue's aggressive and inappropriate marketing of OxyContin.”

The description of “lavish swag” will sound familiar to anyone who has witnessed one of the no-expenses-spared charter school rallies that are a specialty of Sackler-funded organizations like Families for Excellent schools. Then there is the dizzying array of astroturf front groups all created for the purpose of demanding more charter schools. Just in Connecticut, we’ve had the Coalition for Every Child, A Better Connecticut, Fight for Fairness CT, Excel Bridgeport, and the Real Reform Now Network. All of these groups ostensibly claim to be fighting for better public schools for all children. In reality, they have been lobbying to promote charter schools, often running afoul of ethics laws in the process.

Take Families for Excellent Schools, a “grassroots” group that claims to be about parent engagement, yet was founded by major Wall Street players. In Connecticut, the group failed to register its Coalition for Every Child as a lobbying entity and report a multimillion-dollar ad buy expenditure and the costs of a rally in New Haven.

In Massachusetts, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy (FESA) recently had to cough up more than $425,000 to the Massachusetts general fund as part of a legal settlement with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the largest civil forfeiture in the agency’s 44-year history. Massachusetts officials concluded that FESA violated the campaign finance law by receiving contributions from individuals and then contributing those funds to the Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee, which sought to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the money. As part of the settlement, the group was ordered to reveal the names of its secret donors. Jonathan Sackler was one of them.

Patrick Riccards, a former CEO of ConnCan, the pro-charter group that Sackler founded in 2005, told me, “Jon went to Berkeley and in many ways fits into that idealistic mold. But at the same time it was he who made it clear to me that one of the reasons ConnCan existed was to leverage the investment in the charter community, in Achievement First, which is still the dominant charter school network in the state. [CT] The venture capital community ... has put tons of money into seeing Achievement First grow, first in Connecticut, then in New York, then in Rhode Island.”

It’s all part of the model, concluded Riccards. “While you have a public vision of great public schools for all, ConnCan’s focus was: how does the charter industry continue to grow? Every year, ConnCan’s fight was how do we increase the number of seats, and how do we increase the per pupil expenditure?”

Staggering toll

OxyContin was approved for use in treating moderate to severe pain in 1995. Purdue was determined to make the drug a hit, and funded doctors like Russell Portenoy, who said in a 1993 interview with the New York Times: "There is a growing literature showing that these drugs can be used for a long time, with few side effects and that addiction and abuse are not a problem.”

Except that the literature was based on short-term usage, not on long-acting opioids taken over extended periods of time. By 2003, Portenoy admitted to the Times that he had misgivings about how he and other pain specialists had used the research. Although he had not intended to mischaracterize it or to mislead fellow doctors, he had tried to counter claims that overplayed the risk of addiction. But if not for such mischaracterizations, the Sacklers wouldn’t be as wealthy, and America might not be suffering from a public health crisis that is costing the country an estimated $78.5 billion a year.

Even as the scope and scale of the opioid epidemic unfolds, the fortune OxyContin built continues to grow. In the case of OxyContin heir Jonathan Sackler, part of that fortune is being devoted to expanding charter schools and weakening protections for teachers in traditional public schools. Patrick Keefe’s New Yorker feature ends with a stunning statistic: “An addicted baby is now born every half hour.” He asks whether such devastation should give pause to organizations that benefit from the Sacklers' extensive philanthropy. In the case of the charter schools and education reform advocacy groups that Jonathan Sackler funds, the answer to that question should be obvious.

Sarah Darer Littman is the author of middle-grade and young adult novels, and has previously written for Hearst Newspapers and CTNewsJunkie.com. She teaches writing in the MFA program at Western CT State University and at the Yale Summer Writers’ Workshop. Follow her on Twitter @realsamerica.


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