How billionaire-funded 'ed reform' groups push charters, vouchers
By Valerie Strauss
March 11- washingtonpost.com
How powerful are organizations such as Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst and other like-minded groups that support charter schools, voucher programs and the weakening of teachers unions.?
Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative
news organization that works to reveal abuses of power, corruption and
betrayal of public trust by public and private institutions, takes a
look at this issue in a new post on its Web site, "Education groups
battle teachers unions in state races." It reveals the growing power of
the purse of "education reform" organizations that are funded by wealthy
philanthropists and that are spending big bucks to support mostly
conservative candidates running for local and state offices around the
And get this: Federal tax rules allow them to operate
without revealing from whom they get their money, meaning the public
doesn't know who is funding many candidates running for public office.
Here, with permission from the center, are excerpts from the article, and you can find the rest here:
Rhee — is leading a new wave of "education reform" organizations,
funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers' unions
and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in
dozens of states.
These groups promote charter schools, voucher
programs and weakening of employment safeguards like teacher tenure, all
ideas bitterly opposed by unions.
StudentsFirst flooded at least
$3 million in outside spending into state elections in 2012, putting
the group roughly on par with the Service Employees International Union,
or SEIU, across 38 states examined by the Center for Public Integrity
and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Sacramento, Calif.-based group is far from the only education reform
organization that has gained prominence in the aftermath of the 2010
Supreme Court decision that made it easier for corporations to fund
Among the biggest spenders: the American
Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for
Education Reform . The organizations flooded states across the country
with independent advertising and canvassing efforts in the run-up to the
2012 primary and general election.
They have been funded by a
slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New
York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix
CEO Reed Hastings. However, the full list of funders opening their
checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since
StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so-called social welfare
nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)4 of the U.S.
Such groups are not required to reveal their donors.
Since 2012, the funding onslaught by these groups and their backers has shown no signs of slowing.
Spending has reached unheard of heights, even at the school board level.
race for Los Angeles school board in May 2013 attracted nearly $4
million in spending on reform-minded candidates. Major supporters of the
pro-reform committee include Bloomberg, StudentsFirst and Broad, a Los
Angeles resident. The organization was countered by roughly $2 million
from labor groups.
The American Federation for Children spent
$110,000 in outside spending supporting three candidates for the
Wisconsin State Assembly in the run-up to an election on Nov. 19, 2013.
Seattle Schools, an education reform-focused political action
committee, spent just shy of $62,000 in outside spending in the months
leading up to the city's November 2013 school board election.
for Education Reform was among the committee's backers, as were local
wealthy figures like Chris Larson, a former Microsoft executive who owns
a minor stake in the Seattle Mariners , and venture capitalist Nicholas
At the helm of this movement, StudentsFirst has
dominated campaigns for state legislators and ballot initiatives that
often seem outside the group's education-focused mission statement. As
StudentsFirst faces off with labor groups and labor-backed candidates,
the group's considerable financial heft may be shaping more than
the controversial former chancellor of Washington's public school
system, established StudentsFirst not long after resigning her post in
2010. The new organization's goal, she said, would be to provide some
much-needed opposition to the teachers unions' political power.
problem to date has been that you've had these incredibly powerful
teachers unions that have lots of resources, and they use those
resources to have influence on the political process," Rhee said last
year during an interview at the Commonwealth Club of California.
Rhee said StudentsFirst is the first education-oriented national interest group to seriously challenge the unions.
leaving Washington, Rhee has backed legislation curbing collective
bargaining rights in several states. In the 18 states where the group is
active, StudentsFirst has fought to eliminate "last in, first out"
provisions in teachers' contracts and to increase the role that
quantitative evaluations play in teachers' job security.
Accordingly, StudentsFirst tends to oppose candidates who align with unions.
these union-supported candidates in 2012 was Michigan state Rep.
Rashida Tlaib, an incumbent who ran against fellow incumbent Rep.
Maureen Stapleton in the Democratic primary as a result of statewide
Though Stapleton was a former teacher in the
Detroit Public Schools, Tlaib received the endorsements of the Michigan
Education Association and the Michigan Federation of Teachers.
Stapleton, on the other hand, backed charter schools and linking teacher
salaries to performance, both key components of StudentsFirst's
Between July 20 and the Aug. 7 primary, StudentsFirst
poured $195,000 in outside spending supporting Stapleton. Meanwhile, the
Michigan Federation of Teachers, the Michigan Education Association and
several other labor groups contributed directly to Tlaib's campaign.
almost never see a state house race in the city of Detroit go over
$30,000, so when StudentsFirst put $190,000 into that, that was an
extraordinary amount of money for a Democratic primary," said Rich
Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
couple months earlier, voters in Whittier, Calif., saw a similar
phenomenon. The teachers unions supported Democrat Rudy Bermudez to
represent the overwhelmingly Democratic district in the state assembly.
But StudentsFirst backed a different Democrat, Ian Calderon.
then-26-year-old surfing champion who had never held public office,
Calderon's dad is former state Sen. Charles Calderon and his uncle is
state Sen. Ron Calderon.
According to Al Jazeera America, Rhee's
representatives met in February 2012 with former
Assemblyman-turned-lobbyist Thomas Calderon, brother of Ron and Charles,
to gain support for a bill that would eliminate the last-in-first-out
clause of California teachers' contracts. The next day, Ron introduced
Rhee's group then spent more than $378,000 backing
Calderon in the 11 days before the primary election on June 5, most of
which paid for broadcast advertising, campaign finance records show.
Calderon defeated Bermudez by 337 votes in the primary before handily defeating Republican Noel Jaimes in the general election.
aren't new to education. For example, the American Federation for
Children has been around, though under a different name, and has been
fighting the teachers' unions for more than 15 years.
What's new is the unprecedented level of education-focused political spending at state and local levels.
the recipients of money from Wall Street and Silicon Valley and some of
the wealthiest people in America," American Federation of Teachers
spokesman Michael Powell said of StudentsFirst. "And they've raised it
at a fairly high clip, and it makes them more competitive in these races
around the country, there's no doubt about it."
national political director for the National Education Association,
traced the new dynamic to the aftermath of the Citizens United Supreme
Court decision that invited corporate spending into the political
White said, she sees no distinction between Rhee's
StudentsFirst and the other corporate-backed special interest groups the
union has begun to face in recent years.
"We're going to get
outspent," she said. "We're going to do everything we can to fight back
and be strategic with our spending, but we are never going to be able to
compete with the folks who are trying to corporatize education … It's
clearly a national battle that they've taken on all across the country."
White's concerns, the NEA's outside spending in 2012 state races was at
least $6.4 million, more than double the amount spent by StudentsFirst
in the states examined by the Center for Public Integrity.
comparison between education reform groups and the NEA is "really a
David and Goliath situation," said Matt Frendewey, spokesman for the
American Federation for Children.
"They are one of the largest
unions in the country. Period," he said. "They carry a tremendous amount
of clout, especially in relation to how many members they have, and
they have a tremendous influence."
The influence web
is made up of a coalition of nonprofit organizations and affiliated
political action committees in a handful of states, a structure that's
common among political groups.
There's StudentsFirst, the main
"social welfare" nonprofit or 501(c)(4), and the Great New England
Public Schools Alliance, another 501(c)(4) nonprofit that operates
mostly in Connecticut. There's also the StudentsFirst Institute, which
is not allowed to participate in elections since it falls under section
501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code. Together these groups spend millions on
lobbying, direct campaign contributions and outside spending.
2011, the StudentsFirst Institute received $9 million in grants from
the Walton Family Foundation, $7 million from billionaire
philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, and $1 million from billionaire
hedge fund manager Steven Cohen and his wife Alexandra.
StudentsFirst Institute reported spending just shy of $1 million on
lobbying between Aug. 1, 2011 and July 31, 2012, the most recent fiscal
year whose tax reports are available. The group also gave $1 million in
that period to the affiliated Great New England Public Schools Alliance,
GNEPSA, in turn, made just shy of $158,000 in
independent expenditures in Connecticut legislative races in 2012 and
received contributions from Bloomberg and venture capitalist Nick Beim,
campaign finance records show.
StudentsFirst, the 501(c)(4),
spent another $346,000 on lobbying during the 2012 fiscal year. State
records suggest the group far exceeded this number in the following
fiscal year, between Aug. 1, 2012 and July 31, 2013, though the group's
tax filing isn't yet available for that time period.
StudentsFirst is not required to disclose its donors, it's impossible to
know where most of the group's funds come from, a point that detractors
use as a reason to question the group's motives.
whose names appear on the occasional lobbying disclosure report or tax
filing include high-profile figures in political, financial and
For example, StudentsFirst spokesman
Francisco Castillo indicated a 2012 Huffington Post story that named
billionaire New Jersey hedge fund manager David Tepper, a major Mitt
Romney supporter, among StudentsFirst's funders. The article also named
the Broad and Arnold families.
Castillo declined to further detail the group's donors, citing organization policy.
other education reform groups are more open about who's providing the
means to their methods. As a result, they offer a small window into the
rolls of donors injecting cash into the education reform movement as a
An example of this is the Coalition for School Reform,
which spent nearly $4 million on school board races in Los Angeles last
year. The group received $1.4 million from Bloomberg, $500,000 from
Broad and $250,000 from former Univision owner Jerry Perenchio,
according to city campaign finance records.
Other donors included
StudentsFirst, Hastings, the Arnold family, former Los Angeles Mayor
Richard Riordan, former New York School Chancellor Joel Klein and
DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
donors help give prominence to the groups and their causes, according to
Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School who serves on
the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
But above all, these donors have money to spare — a lot of money to spare.
clear that these groups are funded by people who seem to have an
endless supply of corporate money," said Tenoch Flores, spokesman for
the California Democratic Party….