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

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.