chapter leader

Ex-state senator picked to lead DFER's New York fundraising

Senator_johnson_headshotWebDemocrats for Education Reform is reuniting with an old Albany friend as it prepares to resume a larger presence in the state.

The political action committee’s New York chapter named former state Senator Craig Johnson as board chair, Executive Director Joe Williams said. Johnson’s role on the board, which is unpaid, will primarily be to fundraise, an area that has lagged in recent years as the state’s education advocacy field has grown more crowded, Williams said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get the donor base engaged again,” said Williams.

Johnson, who won his seat in 2007 in a Long Island district long dominated by Republicans, aligned with DFER on successful legislative efforts required to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding.

The most notable was a revision to the Charter Schools Act that more than doubled the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. Snubbing pressure from his Democratic colleagues, Johnson “single-handedly” blocked an early version of the bill that would have banned school building co-locations and slowed down the authorizing process.

Johnson was ousted from his seat just months later, but has stayed active in state politics. He raised nearly $500,000 in 2012 for Jeff Klein’s Independent Democratic Committee, which formed a tenuous power-sharing coalition with Republicans after last fall’s elections. Earlier this month, Johnson was hired by the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP to oversee national governmental affairs with a focus on education policy.

Update: Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A press release about the announcement says Johnson is “a product of public education and a public school dad.”

Johnson said in a statement that “creating and supporting highly-functioning public schools has always been something that I considered to be one of the most important Democratic principles.”

DFER took a back seat in New York in recent years and focused on growing nationally. It has launched chapters in 13 other states, and grown its staff from five in 2010 to more than 30 this year, Williams said. Last year, the PAC raised more than $9 million for political spending that included President Obama’s reelection bid. DFER spent $17 million on candidates from 2007-2010, which included support for Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

It ceded the spotlight to StudentsFirst NY, which launched last year with a pledge to raise $10 million and serve as a political counterbalance to the city and state teachers unions. Its board includes Joel Klein, the former city schools chancellor who decamped from DFER to join StudentsFirstNY.

But StudentsFirst NY stumbled out of the blocks when Hakeem Jeffries publicly rejected its support during his Congressional primary campaign. The rejection signaled that many candidates might not want to be associated with StudentsFirst, the national organization that often backs conservative candidates to advance its legislation.

Founding Executive Director Micah Lasher left earlier this year, leaving StudentsFirst NY’s future in doubt. For now, it is looking for someone to replace Lasher and is also considering a former state lawmaker for the spot. Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman who broke from his conference’s ranks often on education during his seven years in office, said he’s spoken to Klein and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee about the job. Since resigning in 2010, Benjamin has worked as a political consultant and penned columns about education for the New York Post.

Williams said there has been “a lot of confusion about what group is supposed to do what” but said that he wants DFER to resume a preeminent role in education advocacy in the state, beginning with the 2013 city elections.

He said he believed DFER needed to begin advocating for new issues than expanding the number of charter schools. When Republican candidate Joe Lhota proposed to double the number of charter schools in the city if elected mayor, Williams said he was unimpressed.

“The UFT contract, to me, is much more important than the number of charter schools any mayoral candidate is pledging to open.”

 

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.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news