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

Lambert: Somebody should ask the TFA alums who were so prominent in decapitating #BlackLivesMatter at the national level what they think about charter supporters who take the Sackler’s blood money.

By Sarah Darer Littman is the author of middle-grade and young adult novels, and has previously written for Hearst Newspapers and She teaches writing in the MFA program at Western CT State University and at the Yale Summer Writers’ Workshop. Originally published at Alternet.

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, 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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Banana republic, Guest Post, Politics, Privatization, Social policy, Social values, The destruction of the middle class on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. divadab

    Thanks, Lambert, for exposing the moral and ethical degeneracy of these owners. They profited mightily from deceiving and addicting the weak and the sick, and then seek to profit from destroying the public school system.

    Utter scum.

    1. Eustache De Saint Pierre

      It is at times such as this, when reading of the practice of such people, that I wish I had the simple certainty of a strong religious belief & could therefore derive some comfort from the thought of them eventually suffering the eternity of hell – a version of which they appear to trying to create here on Earth for many others.

  2. Vatch

    Lambert: Somebody should ask the TFA alums who were so prominent in decapitating #BlackLivesMatter at the national level what they think about charter supporters who take the Sackler’s blood money.

    As often happens, I’m confused. Can someone point us to some information about a Teach For America conflict with Black Lives Matter? I tried a search, but what I found seemed to indicate harmony between them. My search terms must not have been very good, or maybe I failed to “read between the lines” properly.

  3. el_tel

    Whilst indeed benzos were horrifyingly over-hyped and used, like quite a few drugs they have gone through the cycle of brilliant-awful-“all we’ve got under certain circumstances”

    Pregabalin is in the second stage but I predict will enter the third one when there are enough data on patient subgroups. And, as discussed the other day regarding the pain relief RCT, there will probably be subgroups (likely much smaller than the manufacturers want!) for whom oxycontin is a viable, maybe even desirable option….sometimes the patient can’t be in even the second or third best world but requires a fourth best option. That’s life.

    Large epidemiological studies, particularly if nesting some RCTs have a long history of swinging the Pendulum one way then the other on medical /other interventions. Which isn’t meant to defend anything in the atrocious behaviour described in the article – merely an observation about how medicine has seemed to work over the last 50 years.

  4. Chauncey Gardiner

    So in addition to cleverly “marketing” opioids that are causing “a public health crisis that is costing the country an estimated $78.5 billion a year”, they are at the same time surreptitiously funding and “marketing” charter schools that are intended to de-fund and break the back of our public education system and deprive our kids of a quality education through our public schools. In doing so, they are attacking the very roots of democracy: an educated, informed and productive electorate capable of critical thinking. Not surprising that Wall Street and other oligarchs are all-in.

    This behavior is beyond disgusting. We should be taxing these people and their fellow travelers into economic oblivion to help pay for the social and economic damage they have caused and are continuing to cause to our families’ health, the quality of our lives, our society, and our political system; as well as to fund public education. Instead, their politicians are expected to vote this week on tax reductions that would materially reduce their income and inheritance taxes.

    1. yamahog

      “charter schools that are intended to … deprive our kids of a quality education”

      Public education isn’t very good, it’s easy to imagine that some institution could do better than the status quo and some charter schools do better than comparable (with respect to funding and pupil quality) public schools.

      If the ultimate goal is good education, it might make sense to talk about how public schools could be better rather than bash the alternative. Some people are ideologues about the issue, but changes need public support and bashing charter schools and defending status quo public schools isn’t going to win over the people who fundamentally want something better.

      1. Barni

        Anyone who thinks a private for profit corporation could make the enormous profits demanded by the oligarchs who own them AND deliver superior educational results for workers children are severely confused. Public control over public education is an obvious necessity. Whatever makes anyone believe that the American oligarchs would sacrifice income to better educate working class children?
        Anyone believing this should immediately go and demand less pay and promise that they will produce far more “product” and be happy about the results.
        It seems that the American Wall Street oligarchs and their minion mass media have convinced America that less is more when it comes to working families.
        This has all happened while the oligarch minions have demanded higher standards of the educational system the oligarchs are purposely bankrupting. (By arranging to pay taxes on only a very small part or none of their yearly income they deprive government from having the funds to build really high quality education systems for all families).
        The oligarchs are doing everything possible to corrupt and bankrupt the only force that can stop them from screwing everyone to death – strong democratic government, which is being corrupted into oblivion.
        Unbelievably it seems that a large portion of America has drunk the oligarch’s swill and the end of quality education for all Americans is upon us.

  5. nickname unavailable

    trace this back to bill clintons deregulation of the drug companies, he was warned that once he did that, it would unleash a barrage of advertising by the drug companies, he did it anyways.

    couple that with his deregulation of the media, and it became a bonanza of advertising money flowing to just six global corporate entities, feeding off of human misery.

    then look at bill clintons charter school polices, including the funding of fundy schools.

  6. Ptolemy Philopater

    I prefer to believe that men act out of ignorance rather than malice, but in the case of the Sacklers I do believe we have a definition of evil, when getting filthy wealthy trumps all. I understand that there is a scam behind charter schools in that the buildings are leased to charter schools and turn a tidy profit for the investors. You just know that with a family like the Sacklers there has to be a payback in their advocacy for charter schools. People of their ilk have no acquaintance with altruism.

Comments are closed.