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Editorial: Charleston Coalition for Kids needs to come clean with the public

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The Charleston Coalition for Kids refuses to say who's paying for its TV ads and other material backing a slate of candidates for the Charleston County School Board.

What sets Charleston Coalition for Kids apart from other so-called dark-money organizations is that we know what and who it is: It’s a Charleston organization backed by some of our most respected community leaders, with the goal of making sure the Charleston County School District provides a good education to all children — not just the kids who are zoned to or manage to get into the best schools.

Its founding members include such business heavyweights as Anita Zucker, CEO of the InterTech Group, and Sherman Financial Group founder Ben Navarro. Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley stars in the TV ads the group to support five school board candidates.

And two years after it first appeared and endorsed the four winning candidates in the 2018 school board elections (the same candidates who also were endorsed by our editorial staff and the Chamber of Commerce), it still hasn’t advocated for anti-public education initiatives such as defunding the public schools or paying parents to abandon the schools.

Instead, the group and the candidates it endorsed have supported a “mission critical” plan to increase diversity and improve the schools that serve poor, often African American, students, by working entirely within the public school system.

What’s the same about the Charleston Coalition for Kids and other dark-money groups is its refusal to tell the public who is bankrolling its political efforts, instead hiding behind one of the weakest campaign-disclosure laws in the nation.

Unlike 47 other states, South Carolina doesn’t require outside groups that spend money to influence our votes to tell us anything about who they are or what they’re doing.

Yet year after year, our Legislature refuses to require them to report where they get the money, arguing ridiculously that the U.S. Constitution requires lawmakers to let them spend as much money as they want, as anonymously as they want, to try to manipulate our votes.

It’s true that the U.S. Supreme Court believes that money is the same as speech, so we no longer may limit how much non-candidates spend on political campaigns. But the court never said we can’t require people to report where their money came from or how they’re spending it. Just the opposite.

In the infamous 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling striking down limits on third-party expenditures, the high court said there’s no need to worry that unlimited election spending will create corruption precisely because the spending is reported. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in another case that same year: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

Closing the dark-money loophole needs to be at the top of the Legislature’s agenda next year. But organizations that actually care about our community don’t need the Legislature to force them to come clean with us.

It’s important to know who is bankrolling the Charleston Coalition for Kids because there’s sometimes a big difference between lending your name to an organization and giving your money — a fact that was underlined when Ms. Zucker told The Post and Courier’s Jenna Schiferl that she has not donated any money.

And the coalition has gone even further than many dark-money groups in serving secrecy, actually scrubbing its website of the list of 75 prominent founding members that it so proudly announced two years ago. Instead, it now explains on its website that providing names distracts from its goal of improving the public education system.

That answer is disingenuous at best. To the contrary, its refusal to name even its founders — much less its donors — has made its secrecy the focus. Even if it weren’t the right thing to do — and it is — the coalition should come clean just to change the subject.

We know all those dark-money groups littering the airwaves with ads supporting and attacking Senate candidates Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison couldn’t care less about South Carolina; their sole interest is controlling the U.S. Senate.

But the Charleston Coalition for Kids claims to care all about making sure the Charleston County School Board provides a good education to all the children in our community. If that is in fact the case, then it needs to act like a responsible member of our community. That starts with telling us who is providing its funding.

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