Char­ter lobby still pay­ing for in­flu­ence

The News-Times (Sunday) - - More Opinion - DOONESBURY Wendy Lecker is a colum­nist for the Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia Group and is se­nior at­tor­ney at the Ed­u­ca­tion Law Cen­ter.

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.

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