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.

Plutocrats in New York Flood Albany with Anonymous Gifts to Promote Education Agenda

There are a lot of ways to shape a story, and there’s an important contrast between the story about the politics of public education that appeared in yesterday’s NY Times and another story published earlier this week in the Albany Times Union.  Both are about the same subject—the impact on New York’s public schools of Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein and a bunch of billionaire hedge fund managers.  But Kate Taylor’s story in the NY Times is framed as a political battle—StudentsFirst NY vs. teachers’ unions.  The story to which Taylor pays less attention—though it is the backstory behind her report— is the attack on traditional public schools and public school teachers (not their unions) by a bunch of wealthy investors who are far less likely than most New York families ever to use public schools.

If this is a political fight with two sides, it is really about the 99 Percent whose interests are served by the institution of public education and the 1 Percent represented by New York’s Wall Street investment community.  And Chris Bragg in the Albany Times Union focuses on the question we should all be thinking about: In these times of exploding inequality, is it a good idea that anonymous political gifts of the very rich are buying the policy that shapes the institutions that serve the majority of our children?

Bragg explains: “Three groups pushing education reforms that spent heavily lobbying state government this year funded at least a portion of their efforts through donations whose original sources are essentially untraceable…  StudentsFirst NY Advocacy, the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, and Families for Excellent Schools spent more than $8.3 million during the 2015 legislative session lobbying state government to promote charter schools and other issues, according to recent lobbying disclosure filings… The original donors behind more than $3.4 million of the spending remain murky in the groups’ biannual filings.  In one instance, StudentsFirst NY Advocacy received a $1 million donation from a heavily overlapping but technically separate group run out of the same office, obscuring the original sources of the seven-figure gift.”

While New York’s legislature passed a state ethics reform law in 2011, Bragg reports: “The law took effect in 2013. Loopholes quickly became apparent… If a donation is given to an intermediary that then gives to a lobbying group, only the intermediary’s identity must be disclosed under the 2011 ethics reform. The state lobbying and ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, acknowledged in a February report that entities were currently able to ‘construct funding mechanisms that may avoid disclosure while still technically complying with the law and the regulations,’ and suggested lawmakers might address the issue. The State Legislature has not done so.”

One group that operates within the letter but not the spirit of the law is Families for Excellent Schools. Bragg tells us: “Families for Excellent Schools, another Manhattan group that also lists the same address as StudentsFirst NY but says that it operates separately, has taken a much more direct approach that has allowed its donors to remain anonymous.  Families for Excellent Schools, which spent $1.6 million on New York lobbying so far this year, has an issue-oriented nonprofit arm that would have to disclose its benefactors.  But the group does almost all its lobbying through its apolitical arm, which does not have to report its donors under New York lobbying laws and can take tax-deductible donations.  The apolitical arm spent a staggering $9.7 million on Albany lobbying in 2014, but it did not disclose a single donor.”  Bragg continues: “The heavy lobbying spending as defined by New York law, plus the IRS restrictions on lobbying by such nonprofits could raise potential issues regarding the group’s tax status.”

Despite its frame that emphasizes a war between plutocrats and teachers’ unions, Kate Taylor’s piece in the NY Times does report some very interesting information about the advocacy effort, begun in the Bloomberg-Klein years, to disrupt what this group calls the traditional public education status quo.  Taylor provides some history: “StudentsFirst NY was founded in 2012 by Joel I. Klein, who had been the schools chancellor for more than eight years under Mr. Bloomberg; Michelle Rhee, a former Washington schools chancellor; and the billionaire hedge fund managers Daniel S. Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones.  It receives some support from StudentsFirst, the national organization Ms. Rhee founded in 2010, but has its own board of directors and functions independently.  Mr. Bloomberg himself does not appear to be involved in StudentsFirst NY.”

Taylor brings the history up to date: “Making teacher evaluations more dependent on test scores, reforming tenure and increasing the number of charter schools in the city were all priorities of StudentsFirst NY and became significant pieces of the governor’s (Andrew Cuomo’s) agenda for the 2015 legislative session…. Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, as well as interviews, show that Mr. Cuomo and his senior education advisers were in close touch, by e-mail and telephone, with Ms. Sedlis (Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirst NY) and her board members in the weeks after the governor’s re-election last November.  On Dec. 9, for example, the governor met with Ms. Sedlis and several of her board members at the Harvard Club to discuss education policy issues, a spokesman for StudentsFirst NY said.”

New York City’s current mayor, Bill deBlasio has not made the expansion of charter schools his priority but has instead—with his chancellor Carmin Farina, a career educator—worked to improve the city’s system of traditional schools. The big-money lobbying organizations in New York have helped Governor Cuomo fight deBlasio’s policies to support and improve the city’s public schools.   Taylor describes the dark-money expenditures by Families for Excellent Schools, the same organization examined by Bragg: “Last year, it spent $9.6 million on lobbying, more than any other entity in the state…. Much of this money was spent on advertisements attacking Mr. deBlasio for his opposition to charter schools and a later ad praising Mr. Cuomo for coming to their aid.”

Like Bragg, Taylor questions the tax exempt status of Families for Excellent Schools: “Families for Excellent Schools is approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 organization, referring to the section of the tax code regarding charities, meaning that donations are tax-deductible, and under New York State law, it need not disclose donors.  Those organizations are allowed to spend only a small portion of their money on lobbying, but the federal definition of lobbying, in contrast with the state’s definition, is relatively narrow.”  Taylor quotes Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York about the danger of anonymity in political giving: “The danger is the public really doesn’t know from the advertising who is trying to push public policy and what their motivations might be.”

Common Cause Takes on Wealthy NY School Privatizers and ALEC

Common Cause New York has just published a scathing report that, “shows how political spending around education issues has spiraled in New York State, making it virtually impossible for everyday New Yorkers not already aligned with either side of the issue to obtain objective information or have their voices heard.  While in the past, education union political strength has resulted in the adoption of measures favored by teachers, the infusion of direct campaign contributions on the part of privatizers has resulted in (proposed) education scholarship tax credit bills that significantly advantage the wealthy in ways not seen in other states….”

Who are the top ten political donors and privatizers who have made donations—between 2005-and 2014—to organizations supporting privatization of public education, expansion of charter schools, and stiff accountability for teachers tied to test scores? Common Cause identifies these donors: Michael Bloomberg who launched corporate school reform during his three terms—$9,203,195;  David Koch—$1,609,627; James Simons—$3,007,350; Paul Singer (board member of Success Academy Charters and Manhattan Institute)—$2,202,770; Daniel Loeb (chair of Success Academy Charter Board, co-founder of Students First New York, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany)—$1,941,367; Paul Tudor Jones, II (founding member of Students First New York,  founder of Excellence Charter School, supporter of charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation, funder of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$1,547,750; Bruce Kovner (founder of School Choice Scholarship Fund, funder of Bronx Preparatory Charter School and the Brighter Choice Foundation), $1,445,100; Roger Hertog (founding chair of Foundation for Opportunity in Education, board member of StudentsFirst New York, supporter of New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC—$1,445,735; Julian Robertson, Jr. (founder of PAVE charter schools)—$1,113,477; and Joel Greenblatt (Chair of Success Academy Charter School Board, co-founder Democrats for Education Reform, contributor to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany PAC)—$934,740.

While education unions and their allies spent $117.4 million in lobbying and non-candidate expenditures from 2005-2014, giving by advocates for privatization was only $44 million, but donations from those who favor privatization have grown rapidly since 2010 and have come from fewer than 400 wealthy individuals.  In contrast, union donations have been made by, “at least 75,000 contributions to Union PACS from well over 18,000 individuals, associated organizations and PACS.”  According to Common Cause, “Pro-privatization spending in substantial amounts is a recent phenomenon, showing exponential growth in the last five years, while union spending has remained at a fairly high constant level over the last 10 years.  In 2014, education privatization interests outspent education unions on contributions by $3.15 million.”

Here is what happened in 2014 to transform educational lobbying in the state of New York: “2014 was a game changer for privatizer spending, not only in campaign contributions, but also in lobbying.  Families for Excellent Schools (FES) yet another charity-advocacy organization created by the same hedge fund billionaires active throughout the country (which shares office space with StudentsFirst NY) registered as a lobbyist for the first time in NYS (New York State) in March, 2014.  FES’s lobbying expenditures eclipsed all other (New York donor) organizations in every industry, placing it at the top of the JCOPE annual list of lobbying entities ranked by total lobbying expenditures.  The $9,670,372 FES spent lobbying is almost $5 million more than NYSUT (New York State United Teachers) and UFT (United Federation of Teachers) combined lobbying for 2014.  What is even more incredible is that the majority of the FES lobbying spending was spent in March and April of 2014… This tidal wave of money was directly aimed at influencing how the 2014 NYS budget handled education policy, and FES added muscle to another privatizer player backed by hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner, The Foundation for Opportunity in Education…  FES has received millions of dollars in combined funding from the Walton Foundation, the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—the very same foundations funding Democrats for Education Reform, the Success Charter School network, StudentsFirst, and ALEC—to name just a few.”

Common Cause has made the exposure of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) the centerpiece of its work, and this report covers ALEC in some depth, especially in relation to the bills that Governor Andrew Cuomo is supporting that would bring tuition tax credit school vouchers to New York.  Here is how Common Cause describes ALEC: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country…. Among ALEC’s legislative portfolio are bills to privatize public schools and prisons, weaken voting rights, eviscerate environmental protections and cripple public worker unions.  Common Cause has filed a ‘whistleblower’ complaint against ALEC with the Internal Revenue Service, accusing the group of violating its tax-exempt status by operating as a lobby while claiming to be a charity.”  Common Cause’s New York report concludes that ALEC model bills including “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” and the “Parental Choice Scholarship Accountability Act” appear to be the templates for the tuition tax credit school voucher program Governor Cuomo is trying to get New York’s legislature to include in next year’s budget, currently being debated.

Common Cause concludes: “The current trend of market-based education proposals can be seen as interrelated to the ideology and policy goals that contributed to the pre-2008 deregulations of the financial industry and to the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.  Using a long term, multi-pronged strategy, the self-styled ‘education reform’ organizations (whose boards are populated by the very hedge fund executives who have dominated Super PAC contributions since the Citizens United decision) are framing this issue.  They have used their wealth to access and infiltrate the policy landscape on almost every front except one: the teachers’ unions.  In an increasingly polarized debate, these camps are battling for ideological control of the future of education policy at all levels of government.”

I encourage you to read this lucid report packed with information.