Charter lobby still paying for influence

January 6, 2019 GMT

The charter school lobby has spent eye-popping amounts in efforts to sway elections and ballot measures across the country in recent years. And their efforts have fallen flat in comparison with grassroots advocacy on behalf of public education.

One has to look no further than the teacher walkouts across the country last year to see the stark difference. Teachers, many of whom were forced to hold down several jobs, took to the streets to protest deplorable conditions they and their students endured as a result of political leaders underfunding public schools. They were joined by parents, children and community members.

The charter effort, by contrast, is powered by wealthy, out-of-state individuals with little or no connection to public schools spending huge sums of money to buy elections. At the same time, the popularity of charter schools is waning across the country.

In California, charter backers spent more than $50 million, first to back Antonio Villaraigosa in his failed primary bid for governor, then to support former charter operator Marshall Tuck in his unsuccessful run for state superintendent of public instruction. These losses follow the embarrassing debacle involving former charter operator and Los Angeles school board member, Ref Rodriguez. He was elected in 2015 in the most expensive school board election in U.S. history, only to step down in 2017 to plead guilty to felony conspiracy charges.

Massachusetts also saw an expensive charter lobby defeat. In 2016 charter advocates proposed a ballot measure to expand charters: Question 2. Charter backers poured millions, largely from outside the state, to pass the measure. Community grassroots organizing defeated the measure by a two to one margin- despite being outspent two to one. After the defeat, it was revealed that New York-based charter lobby Families for Excellent Schools (FES), violated campaign finance laws by soliciting dark money anonymous donations. The state campaign finance regulator imposed the largest fine in that agency’s history, $426,466, forced FES to reveal its donors, and to refrain from fundraising and election-related activity in the state for four years. FES folded soon after.

These charter efforts have similar features: out-of-state large donations by a few donors, including longtime charter advocates and Walmart heirs, the Waltons. Several organizations are active in multiple states, notably Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a charter advocacy group founded by hedge funders in 2007. The charter lobby also spent unprecedented amounts in these races.

After their spectacular public losses, the charter lobby is getting craftier. A recent report by Common Cause and the Connecticut Citizens Action Group reveal some of their newer tactics, but with many of the same backers.

The report, “Who is Buying Our Education System? Charter School Super PACs in Connecticut” continues the work previously done by blogger Jonathan Pelto tracking the influence of charter money. It details the donations and spending of charter Super PACs in Connecticut’s recent elections.

Super PACs enable individuals and organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, as long as they do not coordinate this spending with candidates.

The report found that since 2016, six Super PACS spent more than half a million dollars in Connecticut elections. These Super PACS are founded and/or dominated by charter lobbyists and employees of charter organizations, such as the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the now-defunct Families for Excellent Schools, ConnCAN, Achievement First charter chain and DFER. Soon-to-be former Gov. Dan Malloy recently joined DFER’s board.

The majority of the money donated came from outside Connecticut and from a limited number of large donors, the largest being Walmart’s Alice Walton.

Perhaps because of their very public defeats by grassroots organizing in other states, the charter lobby became more stealth-like. The report notes that these Super PACS conceal their aims by adopting innocuous sounding names, such as Build CT, Leaders for a Stronger CT, and Change Course CT. They spent money primarily on advertising and canvassing.

One PAC, Build CT, focused on candidates in safe or unopposed races, including: Stamford’s Pat “Billie” Miller and Caroline Simmons, and Senate Majority leader, Norwalk’s Bob Duff. The authors suggest this strategy is designed to curry favor with those who will definitely be in power. Last session, Duff unsuccessfully pushed a charter-friendly school funding scheme where local districts would have to pay for charter schools over which they have no say.

This report reveals that as charter schools lose popularity in communities across the country, the charter lobby continues to buy political influence. The question is whether legislators will follow the money or the will of the people.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.