Follow the money

Success Academy donors give big to Cuomo campaign

Backers of a top charter school network that Mayor Bill de Blasio has singled out in his plans to curb charter school growth are filling Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign chest.

Cuomo’s reelection bid has so far received  nearly $400,000 from a cadre of wealthy supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network, according to an updated tally of newly-released campaign filings. Some money has even come from Moskowitz’s political action committee, Great Public Schools, which has given $65,000 to Cuomo since 2011.

A broader analysis of the filings shows just how much the charter school sector and its education policy allies have embraced Cuomo, a Democrat, during his first term as governor. It also shows how much support from the state’s powerful teachers union, a more traditional ally, has waned.

By one tally of the 2014 filings, Cuomo racked up at least $800,000 in donations from 27 bankers, real estate executives, business executives, philanthropists and advocacy groups who have flocked to charter schools and other education causes in recent years. 

The totals far exceed what the same group gave him for his first run in 2010: $136,000. The union, meanwhile, has donated one-quarter of the sum it gave Cuomo in 2010.

After having a close friend in City Hall for 12 years, the flood of contributions is a sign that charter school backers in New York City may have found a new powerful ally in government at a time when they need one badly. Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken aim at the charter management organizations with well-heeled donors, singling Success Academy out as one whose schools should pay rent for operating in city-owned buildings.

Cuomo’s education policy decisions during his first term in office have been more aligned to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of charter schools. This year, Cuomo is pushing a merit pay proposal and his education reform commission recently recommended that charter schools should be eligible for state pre-kindergarten funds.

Success charter schools, where three of four students qualify for free or reduced lunch, are considered the city’s highest-performing, though critics argue that Success doesn’t replace students who leave or serve a high enough population of students with disabilities (Success’ special education population is 15 percent, slightly less than the citywide average.)

John Petry, a Success founder and board member who has given $35,000 to Cuomo since 2011, said he was won over in early conversations with Cuomo, an attorney general who had a sparse record on education as a candidate in 2010.

“It’s really impressive how he’s thrown himself into education policy over the last four years and developed into a leader on the issue,” Petry said.
Petry was one of at least 10 Success board members, along with two spouses, who donated to Cuomo in recent years. (Success has 66 board members serving seven boards, each of which oversees a small number of schools — some oversee just one — in the 22-school network).

Topping the list is board member Jill Braufman, a philanthropist who is married to Daniel Nir, another board member who heads Gracie Capital, an investment firm. Braufman, who also chairs the Center for Arts Education board, gave $57,500 over the past two years, while Nir chipped in another $35,000.

Joel Greenblatt, a Success co-founder, and his wife, Julia, contributed $75,000. Moskowitz’s PAC donated to Cuomo four times in less than a year between 2011 and 2012.

As a nonprofit organization, Success Academy Charter Schools is barred from engaging or coordinating in political campaign fundraising activities for candidates, although employees may volunteer on their own time. A spokeswoman said that any donations by board members or through Moskowitz’s PAC were not coordinated through Success.

“They are committed to helping children gain access to high-quality educational options, but they serve many communities and causes; their decisions about political donations are purely personal,” said the spokeswoman, Ann Powell. 

As governor, Cuomo doesn’t have direct power over many policies to help the charter school sector. He can’t authorize new charter schools and it’s up to de Blasio to decide if they will pay rent.

But Cuomo does pull strings in budget negotiations and has a say over how much per-pupil state funding charter schools receive, which is less on average than district schools. Cuomo could give them a boost in the event that de Blasio chooses to charge rent or evict them altogether.

“He kept charter funding level during the recession and did not allow the already existing gap to get worse,” said Bill Phillips, whose PAC, the Coalition for Public Charter Schools, donated $10,000 to Cuomo.

Joe Williams, who has helped fundraise for Cuomo as head of Democrats for Education Reform, said that the flood of support is more a testament to Cuomo’s overall performance as governor than any specific education initiative. He noted an improved budget process, same-sex marriage legislation and “smart gun-control legislation” as notable highlights that have impressed donors.

“He came to us in 2010 and pitched himself as a grownup who could get state government working again,” Williams said. “Some people in our orbit thought it was impossible, but he proved he was up for it.”

A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment.

One group that has cooled considerably on Cuomo since he took office, if campaign donations are any indication, is the state teachers union. The PAC for the New York State United Teachers has offered just $10,000 so far this campaign cycle compared with more than $40,000 in 2010.

In the last four years, Cuomo has fought the union over teacher evaluations and aggressively pushed districts to adopt the systems after implementation had stalled. He also cut pension benefits for state workers, including teachers, which infuriated public employee unions.

A union spokesman declined to comment.  

Though Success board members were most-represented among Cuomo’s education donors, they were hardly alone. Below is a complete list of Success’ and other education donors, their contributions and their affiliations. 

— Sam Cole, Success board; JerseyCan board: $30,000

— Bryan Binder, Success board: $15,000

— Great Public Schools PAC, Eva Moskowitz’s PAC: $65,000

— Jill Braufman, Success board; Chair of Center for Arts Education: $57,500

— Dan/Margaret Loeb, Success board and wife: $29,367

— Joel/Julia Greenblatt, Success co-founder; Say Yes to Education board member, and wife: $75,000

— John Petry, Success co-founder and board member; Democrats for Education Reform co-founder and board member: $35,000

— Dan Nir, Success board, $35,000

— Charles Strauch, Success board, $15,000

— Jarrett Posner, Success board, $2,500

— Kelly Posner, Turnaround for Children chair; founder of Speyer Legacy School: $20,000

— Andrew and Dana Stone, Success board: $75,000

— Larry Robbins, KIPP board, RELAY Graduate School of Education board, $50,000

— Brian Olson, Chairman of ConnCan, Civic Builders board, New Schools Leadership Council, $45,000

— Brian and Tania Higgins, Harlem Children’s Zone board: $45,000

— Jon Sackler, Achievement First board; 50Can; NewSchools Venture Fund: $26,000

— Winston Fisher, Civic Builders board, $47,500

— Bruce Kovner, Bronx Preparatory Charter School board, $40,000

— Carl Icahn, founder of Icahn Charter Schools, $50,000

— Ken Langone, StudentsFirstNY board, $50,000

— Whitney Tilson, co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform, KIPP-NYC board, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools board, $12,000

— Bryan Lawrence, Public Prep board, $10,000

— Democrats for Education Reform, $35,000

— Coalition for Public Charter Schools, $10,000

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.