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.

Ras Baraka Wins in Newark: Victory for Baraka, Democracy, and Public Education

What happened in Newark, NJ yesterday should matter to you no matter where you live in America.  It is the story of the triumph of participatory democracy over a system flooded with money.  And if you care about the future of public education, you will be especially interested, because the fate of Newark’s public schools became the central issue in this campaign.  The winner, Ras Baraka, a high school principal, confronted the wave of  “corporate” school reform and privatization that has become Newark’s (bipartisan) status quo under  former Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie and his state appointed Newark school overseers.

According to Bob Braun, blogger and former 50 year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, “Ras Baraka, a high school principal and the son of a poet, yesterday easily defeated a Wall Street-backed promoter of school privatization to become the next mayor of Newark.  Baraka’s victory repudiated the policies not just of his rival, Shavar Jeffries, but those of Gov. Chris Christie, former Mayor Cory Booker, and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson, who is trying to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools.” Braun continues: “Wall Street financiers and hedge-fund managers—strong supporters of former Mayor Cory Booker—poured $3 million into the Jeffries campaign, including $300,000 in street money that went to young men and women in the city, many of whom apparently took the money and then urged voters to vote for Baraka.”

Mark Webber, who blogs under the name Jersey Jazzman, reflected last Sunday on the issues at stake in this race.  Here is a shortened and compressed version of his analysis: “Democracies allow for full participation in governance by all people, regardless of their class status; Newark, however, is currently being threatened with the loss of its autonomy simply because it is an impoverished community…  Democracies support the development of a middle-class; Newark, however suffers from segregation, taxation, and economic policies that all but guarantee that many of its citizens will remain mired in poverty…  Democracies allow citizens to direct the education of their children; Newark, however, allows its citizens no say in how its schools are run…  Democracies engage in elections where campaign financing is transparent and driven by the citizens affected by the elections; Newark, however, is engaged in a mayoral race dominated by shadowy interest groups outside the city…  Shavar Jeffries may well be a good man, but his campaign has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with our politics these days.  If Jeffries wins, it’s a confirmation that America’s cities—the ones where working-class people of color are allowed to live—are being ruled from the outside.  Jeffries’ election will confirm these cities’ institutions have been co-opted for cynical , self-serving interests, fully at the service of political machines and plutocrats.”

But Shavar Jeffries and the corporate investors from Education Reform Now lost this election.  Ras Baraka won.

Bob Braun reports that Education Reform Now, which donated heavily to the Jeffries campaign, is not required to list its specific donations, because it is supposedly a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  Here, according to Braun, however, from its website is the list of board members of Education Reform Now: Charles H. Ledley, Board chair and an analyst at Highfields Capital Management; John Petrey founder and managing principal at Sessa Capital, formerly at Gotham Capital and Gotham Asset Management and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform and chair of Success Academy Charter Schools in NYC; Sidney Hawkins Gargiulo, a partner at Covey Capital and big supporter of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in NYC; Brien Ziet of Charter Bridge Capital; John Sabat of Cubist Systematic Strategies; and Michael Sabat of Sanford C. Bernstein.  Braun adds that Education Reform Now, “is a charitable organization—it solicits tax-exempt donations and is not supposed to engage in electoral politics.”

That this election was primarily a referendum on the One Newark school privatization plan of Christie’s appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, is clear in this youtube version of a TV ad paid for on Baraka’s behalf by the Working Families Alliance.  If you watch it, you will hear Governor Christie twice declare: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

In fact, Cami Anderson’s  One Newark school closure and privatization plan became so contentious that Jeffries was forced to distance himself from Cami Anderson.  According to Bob Braun, “Jeffries, a close associate of Anderson, finally did repudiate her plan but it was too late in the race.”

Anderson has refused to attend school board meetings for two months now and has spent recent weeks at national conferences outside Newark. There are rumors that she may be forced out.  It is known that the implementation of One Newark is in disarray.  The school district has repeatedly delayed announcing the school choice placements of children to their schools for next fall and has struggled to put together a workable transportation plan for a district that has until now relied on neighborhood schools.  Many parents have sought to keep their children in neighborhood schools and have refused to fill out school choice applications.  This blog has covered the school controversy in Newark herehere, herehere, and here.

Given the fiscal climate for poor cities and the power of money in politics these days, Ras Baraka will face enormous challenges.  But this morning we must celebrate the people of Newark, who voted to elect Ras Baraka and to protect their democracy and their public schools.