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.

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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.