Newsroom

Mayoral hopefuls split on taking donations from StudentsFirstNY

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools took aim at StudentsFirstNY's ties to Mitt Romney during a rally at Department of Education headquarters today.

Hours after the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools launched a campaign to tie the education advocacy group StudentsFirstNY to the political ideologies of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, 2013 mayoral candidates began chiming in on whether they would accept StudentsFirstNY’s support.

Of the three campaigns that responded to requests for comment from GothamSchools, one said no StudentsFirstNY money would come into its coffers. The other two said they would have no problem accepting support from the group, which seeks to advance many of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies. A fourth candidate says he hasn’t made up his mind yet.

Comptroller John Liu said he would reject any support, although a spokesman acknowledged that funds from StudentsFirstNY were unlikely to be directed toward Liu’s campaign.

“I doubt the group would send us any contributions,” said the spokesman, Chung Seto. Liu, who hasn’t declared for mayor and whose campaign finances are the subject of a federal investigation, is considered a candidate likely to align with the teachers union.

Speaker Christine Quinn, an early favorite in the Democratic primary bid, would happily accept support from education groups, no matter their school reform ideologies, a campaign consultant said today. 

“Chris will accept contributions from [Students FirstNY] just as she has from the teachers union in the past,” the consultant, Mark Guma, emailed. “Chris will accept the support — and counsel — of people with differing opinions on how to improve our schools.”

Tom Allon, a former teacher at Stuyvesant High School who is running on an education platform, said he would be “honored if they donated to my campaign.”

Former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who came in second to Quinn in a poll this week, told Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah in a statement that he hasn’t made up his mind about StudentsFirstNY.

“The allegations in the report, if true, raise questions about StudentsFirstNY’s financial backing and reporting,” Thompson said. “The last thing we need is super-PAC-like organizations attempting to influence education policy with little transparency and accountability. I reserve judgment for the moment and look forward to learning more about the organization and its agenda.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, two other prospective candidates, did not respond to requests for comment.

New Yorkers for Great Public Schools is hoping to use ties between the Romney campaign and board members to discredit StudentsFirstNY as the group tries to buoy support for Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies. StudentsFirstNY has called the criticism groundless, noting that most of its board members, who include former mayor Ed Koch and Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, are registered Democrats. But the union coalition has focused specifically on a number of board members that are actively working to unseat President Obama in November as a reason to oppose the group.

This afternoon, leaders from unions and community groups that make up New Yorkers for Great Public Schools gathered on the steps of the Department of Education’s headquarters to issue a preemptive condemnation of any elected officials who consider StudentFirstNY’s support.

Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, which is funded by the United Federation of Teachers, said the coalition was not yet trying to tell people for whom to vote. But he warned politicians that “taking StudentsFirst money is bad for New York.”

StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Micah Lasher said the general response from the mayoral candidates so far was evidence that the union coalition’s campaign was baseless.

“New Yorkers don’t like being bullied and they don’t like politicians who are easily bullied,” Lasher said. “It’s sad that we can’t have a serious conversation on education without the union acting like they’re in a school yard.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”