Charter School Support Fades: U.S. House Appropriators Seek to Cut $40 Million from Charter Schools Program

Last week, the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, a body now dominated by Democrats, sent forward to the floor of the House an education appropriations proposal to cut—by 10 percent—Congressional funding for the federal Charter Schools Program. This year the program is funded at $440 million. The Democratic appropriations committee has proposed the allocation of $400 million for next year.

By contrast, the President’s budget—proposed in mid-March—reflects the priorities of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, who seeks an additional $60 million next year for a total Charter Schools Program allocation of $500 million in FY 2020.

Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2020 education budget: “A bill to increase the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by more than $4 billion is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives…  (T)he House appropriations committee approved legislation that would provide significant increases for grants aimed at disadvantaged students, after-school programming, and social-emotional learning…. While Democrats want more money for several programs, they want $40 million less for federal charter school grants, a cut of nearly 10 percent to $400 million.  The move symbolizes how opposition to charter schools has gained more traction in the Democratic Party recently….”

Ujifusa adds: ” It’s the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the appropriations process in the chamber, but their bill is very, very far from becoming the law of the land… The legislation hasn’t been approved by the full House yet.  More importantly, the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will likely introduce a bill that’s different in several key respects.”

But the move by the Appropriations Committee to cut charter school funding indicates an important political shift.  The proposed reduction is evidence that Democrats, who have been part of a bipartisan wave of support for neoliberal public-private partnership via charter schools are shifting their attention back to traditional public schools, which, after all, serve 50 million students.  Charters serve only 6 percent.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explains that a series of scathing biennial reports from the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General—reports which have condemned the appalling absence of oversight of this program—have contributed to the Charter Schools Program’s collapsing reputation.  In addition to cutting the budget for the Charter Schools Program by $40 million, members of the House Appropriations Committee included a warning that the Department must improve management of the program.  Strauss publishes the Appropriations Committee’s warning: “The Committee is deeply concerned that the Department does not intend to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars when it comes to CSP (Charter Schools Program) funding, as it has rejected the multiple Ed-OIG (Office of Inspector General) audit recommendations.”

A scathing recent report from the Network for Public Education has also contributed to growing skepticism about the Charter Schools Program.  In the report, Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education documents the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars out of the total $4 billion that has been spent on the Charter Schools Program. A third of the schools whose startup or expansion was seeded by the Charter Schools Program never opened or, once open, soon shut down due to fiscal improprieties, financial collapse, or academic failure. (This blog has covered the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report here.)

Strauss describes a growing backlash against charter schools among Democrats: “Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies with varying levels of oversight. Supporters say they are every bit as public as traditional districts, while critics say these schools are part of an effort to privatize public education. The Obama administration was instrumental in driving the growth of charters, even including it as a goal for states in its $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. But recently the charter movement has arrived at what appears to be an inflection point. Many public school systems are complaining about losing significant funding to charters. Teacher strikes that began in 2018 and have continued this year throughout the country—including in Republican-led states—have helped change the debate about public education funding.”

Education Week’s Ujifusa explores growing disenchantment with charter schools among Democratic politicians: “President Barack Obama supported charter schools, and some Democrats—like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 presidential candidate—still do. But elsewhere, antipathy toward charters among Democrats and progressives has grown as a political force.” Ujifusa quotes Charles Barone regretting the House Appropriations’ action to cut the Charter Schools Program budget.  Barone is the chief policy officer for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter PAC, founded more than a decade ago by New York hedge fund managers.

In a recent blog post, Diane Ravitch explains that Democrats for Education Reform’s claim—that it represents Democrats—seems to be fading: “The Democratic state parties in California and Colorado have denounced DFER as a corporate front that should drop the word ‘Democrat’ from its title.”

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Beware Democrats Trying to Burnish the Reputation of Corporate School Reform

Suddenly Democrats who bought into corporate school reform seem to be worried that their ideas—underwritten in federal law for over fifteen years—are slipping out of the public consciousness and losing public support.  This summer as we approach midterm elections, Democrats who have enthusiastically supported corporate school reform are scurrying to burnish their own reputations and extend the life of their favorite education strategies by repackaging their ideology ahead of the November election to help elect state candidates sympathetic to their cause.

Some history: How did so many Democrats join with Republicans around a school reform agenda based on business-school incentives, high-stakes accountability and marketplace competition in the form of privatized charter schools?

For over two decades In Washington, D.C., business-driven school reform has been a bipartisan cause. Political leaders in both major parties have relentlessly pursued school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy that was embedded in the language, philosophy, and operation of the federal testing law No Child Left Behind. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, a conference chaired by a Democrat, Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The purpose was to agree on national education goals and standards. Then in 2001, when—in a bipartisan effort—Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with a new name, “No Child Left Behind,” the federal government mandated its own accountability reforms. After President Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top.  To qualify, states had to rewrite laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; promise to punish so-called “failing” schools or turn them over to charter management organizations; and change laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores. Both political parties supported education policy based on two business strategies: high stakes, test-based accountability to “incentivize” educators to work harder and marketplace competition through the introduction of charters schools.

The standards movement became the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.

Surprisingly perhaps, Betsy DeVos has brought trouble for the corporate education agenda (much of which she agrees with) because she is such an extremist.  She is an ideologically-driven, decades-long, educational libertarian proponent of privatized vouchers.  She promotes extreme, and unpopular ideas—disregard for First Amendment separation of church and state, and support for private school tuition vouchers which have never been embraced by Democrats.  She has also shown herself to be embarrassingly ignorant about the institution of American public education and the role of the federal department she was appointed to oversee. Ironically, DeVos (a promoter of school choice) has made some Democrats more cautious about charters; some now worry that charter schools are merely the gateway to vouchers. And DeVos’s deplorable leadership has distracted everyone—turning the conversation away from the movement for business driven, test based school accountability.

Today:  Suddenly corporate reformers in the Democratic Party are worried about the loss of their project.  Their concerns intensified last spring following the walkouts by classroom teachers across states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, walkouts that brought the nation’s attention back to the importance of public education and the fact that through all the years of accountability-driven school reform, we have neglected the urgent need to fund public education at a level that pays the teachers, keeps class size down, and makes it possible to replace outdated textbooks. Corporate education reformers also face another worry: Now that enough time has passed and academics have been studying the record, it has become clearer and clearer that the strategies of No Child Left Behind and the diversion of tax dollars to charters didn’t improve school achievement, didn’t improve teaching, and didn’t do what corporate reform promised. These policies didn’t help children who had been left far behind by educational inequity, and they didn’t close achievement gaps. Billions of dollars have been spent, but children’s overall educational outcomes haven’t changed.

Warning:  Don’t be fooled as you watch these guys scurrying around trying to salvage corporate school reform and salvage their reputations.  Corporate school reform is losing its luster in in Democratic circles, where attention has moved to what the corporate reformers forgot about—inadequate and inequitable funding of public education, paltry teacher salaries, and the danger of tax cuts to state budgets.

Don’t be fooled by DFER:  One such effort to repackage and reframe has been undertaken by Democrats for Education Reform, a PAC founded in 2007, whose mission has always been to promote corporate school reform as a cause among Democrats. DFER began in New York as a project of hedge fund managers who took on charter school expansion as their cause.  Later DFER formed affiliates across several states.  In this election year summer of 2018, DFER hired the Benenson Strategy Group to conduct a national marketing poll and frame a new  communications strategy.

In a report by THE 74, the conservative education news website founded by Campbell Brown, reporter Taylor Swaak describes DFER’s new marketing campaign, designed by the Benenson Strategy Group based on its new poll: “For DFER… the findings demonstrate that most Americans are what they call ‘education progressives’—a result that would seem to contradict reports of a splintering within the Democratic party over issues like school choice and merit pay… The poll, on top of informing a new social media campaign, anchored the organization’s latest announcement that it will spend more than $4 million this year—an exponential hike from the reported $83,456 it spent in 2016—on ‘priority races.’  These include gubernatorial contests in Colorado, New York, and Connecticut, and the (state) superintendent’s race in California. Certain beliefs of ‘education progressives,’ such as charter school expansion, may put them at odds with other self-described progressives within the party.”

Marketing strategists help an organization frame its policy agenda to appeal to its target audience.  In this case marketing means making the language vague.  Swaak quotes DFER’s president, Shavar Jeffries describing the new DFER campaign to define an “education progressive”: “Being an education progressive means doing anything and everything we can to improve public schools for all—especially for poor students and students of color.” “Doing anything and everything” is a phrase that is so vague as to be impossible to explicate.

Benenson Strategy Group intends its public opinion poll to help DFER talk to what people want to hear, even if it omits particular public policies that might really affect schools. Here are some of the findings from its marketing poll: “Voters, especially Democratic primary voters and voters of color, believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and that means we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future.” “Key Democratic constituencies believe strongly that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools. We need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools.” “Voters strongly believe that we need more funding to improve public schools, but funding alone is not enough…. Voters also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate.”  From its marketing poll and from all of these “principles,” Benenson Strategy Group concludes that real “education progressives” strongly support a policy agenda built around funding equity; school choice including charter schools, magnet schools and career academies; teacher quality and preparation; accountability; and more financial aid to support higher education.  (Emphasis in Benenson’s document.)

Democrats for Education Reform hasn’t changed.  It is the same old DFER, with the very same priorities. POLITICO‘s Caitlin Emma reports: “The organization… advocates for a host of school reform policies nationwide like strong test-based accountability and high-quality… charter schools.” But DFER will now be marketing this agenda to appeal to those who define themselves as “education progressives.”  And I presume DFER will generously lavish praise on folks who accept this agenda as exemplifying what it means to be progressive.

Don’t Be Fooled by Arne Duncan’s new book, How Schools Work:  Arne Duncan has been a towering figure in the history of corporate school reform. He didn’t enter the picture in a visible way until 2004, when he became the manager of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big new Portfolio School Reform project: Renaissance 2010—a plan to increase school choice in Chicago by phasing out “failing” or under-enrolled schools and launching 100 new charter schools by 2010.  In the spring of 2009, Duncan became President Barack Obama’s Education Secretary and brought corporate school reform into federal policy as Race to the Top became central to the federal stimulus after the 2008 economic collapse.  Race to the Top emulated business competition: States competed for grants and qualified for federal funds by adopting concrete pieces of the corporate school agenda like closing “failing” schools, charterizing so called “failing schools, and agreeing to change state laws to make teachers accountable in their formal evaluations for their students’ standardized test scores.

These days Arne Duncan is on a book promotion tour, and a first stop was CBS’s Face the Nation, where he followed the same sort of playbook as the Benenson Strategy Group is framing for DFER. Duncan explains to Margaret Brennan: “I think investing in our lowest performing schools is some of the hardest and most important work we can do.  Margaret, I don’t want to leave any kid behind or say they can’t make it.  As a nation we had more than 2,000 dropout factories a few years back.  We now have less than eight hundred… Our high school graduation rates are at all time highs.  Those (Race to the Top and School Improvement) grants were a small piece of that.  There are many things that go into that. And again, this is, we’ve got a long-long way to go, but to see high school graduation rates at all-time highs and to see many fewer students going to dropout factories. Those are things we feel really good about.”

Duncan’s book has not received positive reviews—from the supporters of traditional public schools or from corporate school reformers. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss despairs: “Arne Duncan never learns…. His new book starts with this sentence: ‘Education runs on lies.’ Really?  Education doesn’t run on lies (the sentence begs the services of a good editor), and Duncan makes clear several pages later that he means the ‘education system’ runs on lies, which isn’t accurate, either. There is not a monolithic ‘education system’ in the country that spews lies. There are, rather, more than 13,000 school districts in the United State, locally operated. Some of the people who run them may indeed tell likes about student achievement—though, to be fair to them, Duncan said a lot of things during his tenure that critics said were sheer fiction.”

Strauss continues, presenting a litany of Duncan’s own flawed policies that he continues to defend: “What he did focus on was pushing teacher evaluation systems that relied in large part on standardized test scores—a method of assessment that experts warned was unreliable. He also emphasized expanding charter schools and adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards, spending $360 billion to create Core-aligned standardized tests that he said would be ‘an absolute game-changer’ for public education. They weren’t…  He spent $7 billion between 2010 and 2015—exceeding the $4 billion spent on Race to the Top—on School Improvement Grants, but a major (U.S. Education) department report found no positive effect on student achievement. Many teachers found his policies to be so abhorrent and detrimental to education and their profession that the National Education Association… called for him to step down in 2014.”

Then there is the equally scathing critique written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick M. Hess, and published in Education Next, a mouthpiece of the corporate school reform movement. Hess charges: “Especially for a guy who presents himself as a truth teller bent on exposing education’s ‘overripe and rotten lies,’ Duncan shows a disconcerting tendency to waffle…  Even as he repeatedly declares his faith in tests and vaguely asserts that Race to the Top and the Common Core fueled significant gains, Duncan never once mentions that in fact NAEP gains stalled out under his watch, even falling between 2013 and 2017.  And for a guy who repeatedly professes his talismanic faith in the power of data, Duncan is remarkably willing to set data aside when it is convenient.”

Research in very recent years has called Arne Duncan’s policies—and all of corporate school reform—into question. Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better is not a critique of policies originated by Betsy DeVos—the one issue voucher promoter who has (mercifully) never been able to enact any real K-12 education policy initiatives of her own.  Koretz’s book is a scathing critique of Arne Duncan’s policies—and Koretz’s critique applies, by the way, to the supposed rising graduation rates that Duncan bragged about on Face the Nation.  Studies by Bruce Baker at Rutgers, researchers at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, and the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research have now exposed the ways that the rapid expansion of charter schools undermines the financial viability of the host school district and undermines public schools as community institutions that anchor vulnerable neighborhoods.

It is becoming clearer as the years pass that corporate school reform—including high states test-and-punish and the rapid expansion of marketplace school choice through charter schools—failed to address the needs of the 50 million students in America’s public schools.  Neither did corporate school reform close achievement gaps.  In fact the diversion of federal and state dollars to such programs has redirected needed funds out of states’ school budgets and undermined the institution we all count on—public education.

It is important to understand that these efforts by Democrats—who allowed themselves to capitulate to a far-right, business- and competition-driven school reform agenda—are merely a sign of desperation as they watch their agenda lose popular support.

Is School Privatization Agenda Shifting to Vouchers? Charter School Advocacy Organization Collapses

On Wednesday, Politico New York‘s Morning Education update briefly covered a pro-charter schools advocacy day in Albany, New York and then noted, “The rally comes as the old guard of charter advocacy in the state officially collapsed Monday when Families for Excellent Schools announced it would close following the firing of its CEO Jeremiah Kittredge.”  Politico New York’s Eliza Shapiro broke the stories of Kittredge’s firing late last week and on Monday, Shapiro and Politico‘s Caitlin Emma broke the news that the organization will shut down.

Even if you live far away from New York, and even if you have forgotten who and what Families for Excellent Schools is, you should keep reading. Because what happened this week may signify a shift in the politics of school privatization.

It remains true that education policy shaping the public schools that serve 90 percent of our children (the 99 Percent) continues to be driven by the power of the One Percent. But in this week when we marked the first anniversary of Betsy DeVos’s tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education, the momentum behind school privatization has taken another step toward domination by the Republican libertarian crowd—the Amway DeVoses of Michigan and the Koch Brothers of Kansas—who are collaborating with the American Legislative Exchange Council to drive vouchers and neo-voucher education savings accounts and neo-voucher tuition tax credits through the nation’s 50 state legislatures and even into Puerto Rico.

It is the hedge-funded Democrats—the people who made up Families for Excellent Schools, and who continue to underwrite Education Reform Now, 50 CAN, StudentsFirst New York and Democrats for Education Reform, and who drove the expansion of charter schools during the Obama years and in Democratic states like New York—whose star seems to be fading.

Families for Excellent Schools, which collapsed this week, has also been closely tied with Eva Moskowitz’s chain of NYC Success Academy Charter Schools.  It was Families for Excellent Schools that spent $9.7 million in 2014, without revealing its donors, to campaign for charter school expansion through television advertising and sponsorship of huge rallies. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio had tried to stop the practice in NYC of co-locating charter schools into NYC public schools, but Families for Excellent Schools was powerful enough to win the support of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to pass a law dictating that the NYC Public Schools must find rent-free space in public school facilities for new charter schools or else pay the rent in commercially available buildings.

Families for Excellent Schools shut its doors this week after it was revealed that Jeremiah Kittredge, its director, had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a participant at the 2017 Camp Philos, an annual conclave of wealthy hedge fund supporters of charter schools that has been sponsored annually since 2014 at high end resorts and hotels by Education Reform Now—a sister organization of Families for Excellent Schools.

While in 2011 its founders set up Families for Excellent Schools with a name that connotes participation of a group of parents seeking better education, and while its website declares it was established “through a partnership between schools and families,” Families for Excellent Schools has been, in reality, an Astroturf—fake grassroots—organization.  Tracing ties of Families for Excellent Schools to Education Reform Now, StudentsFirst NY, and another lobbying effort, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, George Joseph reported for The Nation in 2015: “In contrast to most ‘grassroots’ parents’ organizations, Families for Excellent Schools has retained the services of David Grandeau, New York’s former top lobbying regulator, whose expertise has helped shield its donors’ identities by funneling most of its spending through a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Nevertheless, overwhelming institutional similarities indicate that Families for Excellent Schools is largely funded by the same nine hedge-fund billionaires behind almost all of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany’s rapid expenditures.”  Joseph identifies Joel Greenblatt, Daniel Loeb, Julian H. Robertson Jr., Carl Icahn, Paul Singer, Seth Klarman, and other wealthy hedge funders, along with known donors like the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation.  Nonprofit Quarterly also identifies Jonathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma as a major donor.

It turns out that the problems of Families for Excellent Schools are much deeper than Kittredge’s misbehavior. Here is the NY TimesKate Taylor reporting this week on the real significance of the organization’s closure: “Families for Excellent Schools for years was the well-funded face of the charter school movement in New York, but its support seems to have evaporated… As a 501(c)3 organization, Families for Excellent Schools is not required under New York State law to disclose its donors. The group ran into trouble, however, in Massachusetts, where a related organization, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, spent $15 million in 2016 as part of an unsuccessful effort to expand charter schools in the state. The ballot measure it backed was overwhelmingly defeated. In the aftermath, the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance concluded that Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy had violated the state’s campaign finance law and fined it $426,466, the largest fine in the history of the office. To resolve the case, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy agreed to dissolve, and Families for Excellent Schools agreed not to fund-raise or engage in any election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years.”  Kittredge, who ran the Massachusetts campaign, lost support, especially after Massachusetts forced the publication of the names of donors to Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, donors who prefer secrecy when making obviously political donations.

According to Politico reporters Shapiro and Emma, Kittredge had already planned to leave Families for Excellent Schools to take an advocacy position at Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools: “Although Success has internal and external media relations operations, Kittredge has frequently served as Moskowitz’s unofficial press secretary at events. As recently as November, he orchestrated a press conference on the steps of City Hall about a school space sharing dispute between Moskowitz and Mayor Bill de Blasio…. and served as the logistical arm of Success’ ambitious political advocacy program.”

After Kittredge was fired by Families for Excellent Schools last week for inappropriate behavior, however, Success Academy Charter Schools severed ties.

Astroturf School Board Electioneering

In many communities across the United States, school board elections are a local, grassroots affair. In my own community, for example, we will elect three new members to the board of education. I have signs in my front yard for three of the four candidates who are running for office and I have modestly donated to one of the campaigns. My choice of candidates is based on considerable conversation with one of the candidates and a careful study of the priorities of each of the others. I spent three hours last week at a local candidates’ night listening to candidates for local offices including all of those running for school board. My choices are based on my grasp of the issues in our local schools and personal information I’ve been able to gather.

But in a growing number of mostly bigger cities, school board elections are being dominated by Astroturf campaigns that merely pretend to be run on a grassroots level. Outside money, frequently from out of state and pooled anonymously by dark money super PACs, is being heavily invested in advertising for particular local candidates chosen for their corporate-reform, pro-privatization ideological purity.

This November an Astroturf school board election is happening in Denver, Colorado, where Raising Colorado, a super PAC, is bundling money. Carol Burris and Darcie Cimarusti, writing for the Network for Public Education, expose a national fund raising network working hard to influence local school board elections.

Burris and Cimarusti report: “Raising Colorado is the name of a super PAC that spends money in Colorado elections. According to the Office of the Colorado Secretary of State, Raising Colorado is run by Jennifer Walmer from an office in Littleton, Colo. Its stated purpose is to support Colorado candidates who ‘advocate for high-quality public education’ through ‘uncoordinated, independent expenditures.’  The reality of Raising Colorado, however, is something far more complex. Walmer is not a lone activist collecting donations to support candidates who advocate for public schools. The real action happens at Raising Colorado’s true address: 32 Gold Street in Brooklyn, New York.  At that same address, in the same suite, you will find: Democrats for Education Reform-Arizona, Philadelphia 30 PAC, and Fairness for Colorado.”

Then there is ERNA: “In 2014, that same address housed a ‘charitable nonprofit’ called Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), from which Wolmar received part of her salary. ERNA listed its 2015 address as 222 Broadway, 19th Floor in NYC, the same address as the New York City branch of the PAC Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Walmar is also the Colorado director for Democrats for Education Reform, a group founded and supported in large part by hedge fund managers that was formed before the 2008 presidential election and that embraced corporate (school) reform and school choice.”

Burris and Cimarusti continue: “Raising Colorado, whose formal designation is an independent expenditure committee (IEC), is not a grass-roots organization. It is part of what looks like an elaborate shell game intended to hide the identities of wealthy out-of-state donors who want to overwhelm races with their contributions, but do not want their identities known. It supports candidates that support charter schools, shutting down traditional public schools, evaluating teachers by test scores and all of the other ‘reforms’ dear to the hearts of those who want to corporatize public education.”

So far in this election cycle, Raising Colorado has received two donations—both in October of 2017—one donation of $325,000 and another of $300,000. Both donations are from Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA)—the 501(c)(4) supposed social welfare organization that shares its New York office with DFER. Education Reform Now Advocacy involved itself in the Denver School Board election two years ago, when donations of $236,000 from ERNA helped tip the election—giving school privatizers control of the Denver School Board.  That majority is at stake in the November 2017, Denver School Board election.

But as Burris and Cimarusti remind us, “ERNA’s reach and interests go well beyond Denver.  In 2014, the group spent more than $5.7 million in political expenditures, with over $3 million going to Newark First, a PAC listed at ERNA’s own Broadway address. The purpose of Newark First was to get Shavar Jeffries elected mayor of Newark, N.J.  That effort failed, in part, because the citizens of Newark became aware of the involvement of big New York City money flooding into their mayoral race.  Jeffries is now president of both ERNA and Democrats for Education Reform.  Yet despite the millions of dollars flowing in and out of ERNA, if you search the Web to learn about it, you will not find a website.  How exactly does one learn about the ‘social welfare’ work the organization does, or how to contribute?”

Please read this expose of Astroturf money flowing into school board elections.

Is DFER Fading or Poised for an Ongoing Political Role?

Shavar Jeffries, President of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), certainly made a strong attempt a couple of weeks ago to present DFER as a powerful and relevant advocacy organization when he commented on changes to the Democratic Platform that were less favorable to charter schools: “What happened in Orlando is little more than a bait and switch, one we are eager to fix, and which we hope is unreflective of Hillary Clinton’s priorities, as she has repeatedly supported standards and accountability and high-performing charter schools.  President Obama has made clear that the best way to strengthen our system is not just with more resources, but reforms that ensure our children are progressing.” “This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”  DFER has been one of the strongest and most consistent proponents of the education policies of President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

In a new, short history and profile of Democrats for Education Reform, Alexander Russo evaluates DFER’s role in the education politics of recent years and wonders about its future as the next President perhaps moves away from the policies of the Obama administration.  Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst shut down earlier this spring and merged its existing work into 50CAN, another school “reform” advocacy organization.  What will be the fate of DFER?

On its website, DFER defines itself as opposed to traditional public schooling where, “(M)illions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children.” As a PAC, DFER has sought to reposition the Democratic Party’s education policies to support test-and-punish accountability, more charters, and the connection of teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

What exactly is DFER?  Russo explains: “First conceived around 2005, DFER didn’t really launch until June 2007, when it held a public event and established an online presence. While generally referred to by a single name, DFER grew to become several related organizations including a traditional nonprofit 501(c)(3) called Education Reform Now (ERN), a 501(c)(4) known as ERN Action, and the eponymous political action committee (DFER).  In addition to campaign fundraising and explicitly political efforts, DFER’s activities included policy development, state-level advocacy, and congressional lobbying such as during the recent renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. DFER’s efforts generated roughly S65 million over eight years…. The Broad and Walton Foundations were among its largest national funders.  By far the majority of its revenues was for policy and advocacy work through ERN and ERN Advocacy, rather than the explicit campaign work of the DFER PAC. Political giving made up only about $1.5 million of DFER’s annual budget.”  DFER was the brain child of New York hedge fund managers, including Whitney Tilson, one of the co-founders.

Joe Williams, an amiable former newspaper reporter, led DFER for most of the past eight years until he stepped down at the the end of last year, to be replaced by Jeffries.  Charles Barone has served as the policy director.  DFER has defined itself as an organization that has successfully promoted a particular brand of education policy among Democrats—what Russo quotes one analyst describing: “There’s no doubt that the Democratic Party has moved significantly more towards the reform side…”  Here is Russo’s own assessment: “What seems clear is that DFER emerged in the right place at the right time—and backed the right horses, including Barack Obama and Cory Booker. In remarkably short order, DFER and its allies became among the only folks that Obama could turn to for advice on how to fulfill his promise as a reform-minded Democratic president. Then, when Race to the Top (RTTT) turned into a competition among the states for scarce new federal education dollars, DFER basically went from not existing to helping shape federal policy in two years flat.”

In addition to supporting Obama and Cory Booker (and Booker’s One Newark plan), DFER is reported by Russo to have supported Andrew Cuomo in New York: “Cuomo would end up being a key ally on school reform when NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was succeeded by reform critic Bill de Blasio.”  Other politicians favored with support from DFER are Dannel Malloy as governor of Connecticut, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, Congressional Rep. George Miller of California, Rahm Emmanuel as Chicago mayor, and less successfully Adrian Fenty as D.C. mayor, and Shavar Jeffries in his failed bid to become a “school reform” mayor of Newark.

Russo reports that DFER takes some of the credit for displacing Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond as the prime candidate for Obama’s Secretary of Education: “DFER and its allies badmouthed Darling-Hammond as much as they could get away with, raising questions about her research and accomplishments. Then, in what would become one of DFER’s most frequently retold early accomplishments, Williams ‘leaked’ a memo addressed to the Obama transition team outlining both policy ideas and potential appointees for various White House and cabinet department positions. In it, DFER put forth the notion that NYC Chancellor Joel Klein might be too controversial for education secretary but Chicago’s Arne Duncan might be a good choice.  Whether or not DFER deserved all the credit for the Duncan nomination was debatable. He and Obama had overlapped in Chicago, visited schools together, and played pickup basketball together.”

Eight years later Russo wonders if DFER’s influence may be waning: “As the Obama era ended and a new era loomed, there was the sense that school reform ideas—and DFER’s influence over Democratic candidates—were already on the decline.”  DFER has, according to Russo, reliably refused to oppose the unionization of school teachers even while it has been in conflict with many of the policy positions of the teachers unions and with Democrats who are raising concerns about charter schools. Russo wonders whether DFER’s policy agenda lacks fresh ideas today: “To critics, DFER seemed isolated, hollowed-out, and narrowed down to little more than a pro-charter PAC.  What had started out as a three-dimensional effort was now more two-dimensional, getting into the press and funding pro-charter campaigns but lacking any real membership base.

The organization was strong enough, however, to remain actively involved in the Congressional debate about the reauthorization of the federal education law: “During the consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a longtime DFER friend Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) emerged as one of DFER’s champions.” Russo describes DFER’s dilemma in the opinion of then DFER president Joe Williams, “DFER and its allies couldn’t move their own agenda and were in retreat in terms of the public narrative, but they could block things when they needed to. ‘We still have votes,’ said Williams. The unions were in much the same place, according to Williams. ‘Neither side can advance.'”

Careful not to offend its backers, DFER has been cautious about broadening its agenda, explains Russo: “So far in 2016, DFER has not endorsed any Democratic presidential candidate, released any fundraising information about its efforts on behalf of the DNC, or announced any change in its focus on charters and accountability… Jeffries has been attempting to keep the Democratic candidates’ feet to the fire on school choice and accountability efforts. Just this week, Jeffries railed against changes in the Democratic Party platform limiting support to certain kinds of charters…”

DFER’s Campaign to Dominate Local School Boards and Launch Charters

In Hedging Education, Justin Miller, for The American Prospect, describes “how hedge funders have over the past decade underwritten a movement to mushroom the number of local school board members who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. “A network of education advocacy groups, heavily backed by hedge fund investors, has turned its political attention to the local level, with aspirations to stock school boards—from Indianapolis and Minneapolis to Denver and Los Angeles—with allies.”

It all began in New York City, where, “Whitney Tilson, straight out of Harvard… deferred a consulting job in Boston to become one of Teach for America’s first employees in 1989.  Ten years later, he started his own hedge fund in New York.  Soon after that, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp took him on a visit to a charter school in the South Bronx. It was an electrifying experience for him… The school was one of two original Knowledge Is Power Program schools—better known as KIPP, which has since grown into a prominent charter network with nearly 200 schools in 20 states plus the District of Columbia, serving almost 70,000 students, predominantly low-income and of color…  Tilson… started dragging all his friends, most of whom were hedge fund investors, from Wall Street up to the south Bronx to see the KIPP school.  ‘KIPP was used as a converter for hedge fund guys,’ Tilson says. ‘It went viral.'”  When he became a charter school evangelist, Tilson really didn’t know much about public schools themselves: “I personally never knew what the situation was like for families forced to attend their local school in the South Bronx, or Brooklyn. I didn’t know of anyone who dropped out of high school or college—much less that there were high schools where half the students dropped off.” One wonders whether Tilson also visited public schools in New York City or whether he just accepted that KIPP’s approach is the best strategy for educating children in poor neighborhoods.

Tilson and his friends in the hedge fund world founded a new political organization, Democrats for Education Reform, and, according to Justin Miller, they set out to confront what they considered to be the politically powerful supporters of public schools, the teachers unions.  “Basically, if you were anybody who was anybody in hedge funds, you probably chipped in.  Tilson called the group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), and set it with a mission ‘to break the teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party.'”  Miller adds that DFER also targeted national Democratic leaders: “Early on, DFER identified then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker as promising politicians willing to break with teachers unions.”

Miller corrects the common assumption that hedge funders got into supporting charter schools for the money: “Many critics of the corporate education-reform movement are quick to accuse proponents of seeking to cash in on the privatization of one of the United States’ last public goods.  And while there are certainly those in ed-reform circles who stand to benefit from a windfall of new education technology, testing, and curriculum services, hedge funders by and large do not fit that stereotype. Theirs is more of an ideological and philanthropic crusade, rather than a crude profit-seeking venture.”

Miller reports that DFER, which is currently active in 13 states and the District of Columbia has expanded the role of charters across the country by partnering with other Astroturf groups that, like DFER,  pretend to be local, but are in fact, well-funded national organizations—StudentsFirst (that just merged with 50CAN), 50CAN (operating in 7 states), Stand for Children (with 11 state affiliates), and Students for Education Reform, described by Miller as an Astroturf offshoot of DFER.  Shavar Jeffries, the national president of DFER, denies, of course, that DFER is an Astroturf organization: “Our state chapters are not run by people flying in from Washington.  They are staffed by local political organizers and education experts that are overwhelmingly from the communities they work in.”  Miller responds: “But the financial influence of the outside charter-boosters is an ill-kept secret.  The pushback against outside pro-charter money in local races has been steadily growing as more and more cities are impacted.”

These organizations have, according to Miller, been able to influence local school board races with big financial investments primarily because, “Compared with other political races where a campaign will stretch over the better part of a year… school board races are unique.  Filing deadlines are much closer to Election Day, meaning that the field of candidates doesn’t fully materialize until quite late and the actual races don’t heat up until about two months out.  That makes it more difficult to vet candidates and learn about connections.  Campaign finance reports exposing big money often pop up late….”

These big national groups—DFER, StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, 50Can and Students for Education Reform—have, as profiled by Miller, influenced school board elections in Denver, Minneapolis, and most particularly Indianapolis, where candidate Gayle Cosby eventually raised a total of $80,000 (from several organizations and investors) to support her successful 2012 school board candidacy: “DFER pumped more than $40,000 into Cosby’s campaign, hiring her a campaign manager, orchestrating several direct-mail flyer blasts, and buying up radio spots.  This was unheard of in Indianapolis school board races.”

Cosby is described as reflecting that after DFER contributed $40,000, “At that point, I felt a loss of control in certain respects.” Today Cosby has become disillusioned with the cause promoted by her original campaign investors: “Cosby has since taken up the role as the board’s main dissenter. She believes that charter special interests have completely co-opted the desire for change in the schools and have promoted an agenda that sees charter schools and privatization as the only way to fix Indianapolis Public Schools. Four seats will be up in 2016, including Cosby’s, who has decided not to seek re-election….”

Orwellian Language Again: Info-Graphic Answers Your Questions about Democrats for Education Reform

It has perhaps slipped your mind, but beginning Sunday afternoon and ending this morning, a group of New York hedge fund managers and charter school supporters has been meeting at Camp Philos in a retreat center at Lake Placid, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.  The honorary chair of this event was Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York.  Governor Cuomo is not only the man who went before an Albany rally this spring to proclaim, “We will save charter schools,” but also the man who, we discovered later, worked behind the scenes with supporters of a well connected New York City charter school network to stage the rally.

Billy Easton is the executive director of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, a large statewide coalition of organizations that has been working hard for over a decade to help ensure that New York’s public schools are adequately funded.  AQE, as the organization refers to itself, has worked assiduously to ensure that New York lives up to the commitments made in response to a statewide school funding lawsuit, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York, only to be disappointed repeatedly by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been more interested in cutting taxes and supporting charter schools.

According to Easton in a recent commentary published at Gotham Gazette, “While backers of the corporate school agenda are proclaiming Cuomo as a conquering hero, public school parents around the state are protesting against him.  His policies have systematically forced classroom cuts every year he has been in office and have promoted a damaging culture of teaching to the test…  The organizers of Camp Philos are literally bathing in money from hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy donors that are ready to continue arming the Governor in his effort to push forward more corporate-style reforms…. Meanwhile, our public schools are barely scraping by.  Year after year, school districts across the state have been through an endless cycle of classroom cuts that have resulted in shrinking opportunities for students.”

In honor of Camp Philos, late last week Easton’s organization, AQE, and its allies put together an info-graphic to help us all connect the dots among Camp Philos’s sponsors, their allies, and the people who spent $1,000 to attend the three day event ($2,500 for VIP attendees).  The info-graphic is helpful because you may have wondered about the involvement of hedge fund managers in the promotion of charter schools.  You may have wondered about Democrats for Education Reform, that has chosen a name that sounds progressive but instead promotes school privatization and works with the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos and her pro-voucher American Federation for Children.  And you may not have been able to figure out that Education Reform Now (the group that just last month spent nearly $5 million for TV ads supporting Success Academy Charter Network’s right to co-locate three charter schools into New York City public school buildings) is the 501(c)(3) arm of Democrats for Education Reform.  And maybe you thought Democrats for Education Reform couldn’t touch public schools in your state because it is only a New York organization, but you didn’t realize that DFER, as it is called for short, has also been spending huge amounts to impact state and local elections across the country.

This info-graphic, Democrats (In Name Only) for Education Reform,  along with the links it provides to background material, will establish DFER clearly in your memory and straighten out any misconceptions you may have about what this organization really stands for.

Why Are We Easily Distracted in School Reform Debate? Follow the Money

Our most urgent educational priority as a society must be to invest in improving the public schools in our urban communities rather than punishing them, punishing their teachers, closing these schools or privatizing them.

Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network this morning, points out that we are easily distracted from this goal, if in fact it is really our goal in the first place: “This is what the debate about education policy—and charter schools in particular—so often comes to: So much sturm and drang about a favored trinket from the ‘education reform’ tool box while matters of way more importance get neglected or even abused.  What could be more important than charter schools?”

This month New York City has become the microcosm of the national conflict between the rights and needs of children in traditional public schools and the rights of privatizers trying to open and fund charter schools.  New York’s new mayor, Bill deBlasio has become a leader assiduously trying to create the public will to address the rights of children whose needs for public services are overwhelming.

Mayor deBlasio has proposed universal pre-kindergarten for New York City, and he has proposed after-school programs for children in the middle grades—programs to enrich the children’s lives, improve their educational skills, and fill the hours between 3 PM and the time their parents arrive home from work—the unsupervised hours when many pre-adolescents can get in trouble.  Last week he drew a line, barring politically connected Eva Moskowitz from co-locating (rent-free) a charter elementary school into a building that houses programs for students with serious disabilities.  The new mayor barred the formation of that particular charter school and two others, while he permitted many to go forward.

In Bryant’s article you’ll find a link to a short video made by parents at one of the traditional schools where Mayor deBlasio barred the co-location of a charter.  The parents speak powerfully about the school’s positive programs for the smiling children who stand nearby.  These parents merely ask that their children’s lives not be further complicated by the co-location of another school into the building apparently already occupied by their children’s school and two others.

Bryant raises a number of urgently important concerns about public education in New York City and elsewhere—facilities in need of repair and upgrade—and most important, unequally distributed and inadequate state financing of public schools, a major concern at this time in New York, as the state has never lived up to its obligation under a lawsuit a decade ago when the state’s funding system was found wanting by its state supreme court.

Bryant is correct that the media’s “education reform enthusiasts play up the hysterics of charter schools as an ideological cause.”  And this week, as he points out, the proponents of charters have pulled out all the stops in the press—not only Morning Joe, but also Peggy Noonan, and Richard Whitmire (Michelle Rhee’s biographer).  Rupert Murdoch, who strongly supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies (that favored charter schools) and now employs Bloomberg’s schools chancellor Joel Klein in a new “education” division of the News Corporation, has also been vocal this week in opposing Mayor deBlasio.

The biggest cause of last week’s flare up in New York was New York  Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support for the rights of Eva Moskowitz and her charter schools and his failure to support Mayor deBlasio and the needs of traditional public schools.  Cuomo told thousands of charter school children and parents Moskowitz had bused to Albany for a rally: “You are not alone.  We will save charter schools.”

Many have wondered why Governor Cuomo is so anxious to speak up for charters, when the majority of the parents of New York City’s 1.1 million students (and parents across the state of New York)—like those in the video Bryant features—depend on the city’s traditional public schools.   For the answer to this question it is essential to follow the money.  Cuomo has depended on the pro-charter PAC, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  DFER was founded by hedge fund managers who have been among the strongest supporters of New York City’s charter schools.  According to a January 2014 report from Chalkbeat New York, DFER has contributed $35,000 so far to Governor Cuomo’s re-election campaign.  John Petrey,  a co-founder of DFER has donated $35,000 and Whitney Tilson another co-founder of DFER, $12,000.  Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC, Great Public Schools, has donated $65,000.  Members of the board of Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter schools who have also contributed generously to Cuomo’s re-election campaign include Sam Cole ($30,000), Bryan Binder ($15,000), Jill Braufman ($57,500), Dan and Margaret Loeb ($29,367), Joel and Julia Greenblatt ($75,000), Dan Nir ($35,000), Charles Staunch ($15,000), Jarrett Posner ($2,500), and Andrea and Dana Stone ($75,000).  I urge you to check out this report.

Beyond New York City, we should all ask ourselves why we are so willing to give the well-connected like Eva Moskowitz the benefit of the doubt at the same time we easily forget about the students across our big cities where poverty is intensely concentrated and where schools are under-funded.  Why are we so taken with so-called “school reform” when it involves closing the public schools and opening privatized alternatives?  Are we, too, being gulled by money and celebrity?

Diane Ravitch Explains Why New York’s Governor Cuomo Loves Charters

This morning in a very important blog post,  Why Cuomo Loves Charters, Diane Ravitch connects the financial dots.  New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo has received political financial backing from the leaders of New York’s very powerful charter school sector.  Cuomo’s financial backers include powerful members of the board of Success Academy Charter Schools; Great Public Schools—Eva Moskowitz’s own PAC; and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) , the national pro-charter school PAC.

I urge you to read Ravitch’s post and the articles linked to it which detail the size of financial contributions made to Cuomo’s political campaigns.  It is important to follow the money trail.

I blogged earlier today about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s over-the-top praise this week for charter schools and especially for Eva Moskowitz’s politically connected Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City.

Cuomo has made it his business to support Moskowitz and her charter network and to oppose New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio’s request for enabling legislation in Albany to allow New York City to tax those with incomes over $500,000 annually for pre-kindergarten for thousands of children and middle school after-school programs for New York City’s children.

Mayor deBlasio has prioritized the needs of the traditional public schools in New York City which continue to serve the vast majority of the district’s 1.1 million students.  He has criticized NYC’s practice of allowing charters to co-locate in New York City’s public school facilities without paying rent.  deBlasio has said that well-funded charter networks like Success Academy Charter Schools should have to pay for the facilities they occupy.  After all, Eva Moskowitz’s board pays her an annual salary of $475,000, twice the salary of New York’s schools chancellor.