Political arm of charter-friendly group The City Fund has $15 million — and is now spending on school board races

The political arm of The City Fund, the organization with ambitions to spread charter schools and the “portfolio model” of school reform across the country, plans to spend $15 million to influence state and local elections over the next three years.

That political group, known as Public School Allies, has already directed money toward to school board races in Atlanta, Camden, Newark, and St. Louis, and state elections in Louisiana, Georgia, and New Jersey. Donations have ranged from $1 million to as little as $1,500.

The information was shared by Public School Allies and, in a number of cases, confirmed by campaign finance records. The $15 million comes from Netflix founder Reed Hastings and former hedge-fund manager John Arnold, the organization said.

“Public School Allies believes deeply in supporting local leaders running for office who share our belief in the need to create higher quality public school systems across our country,” Gary Borden, Public School Allies’ managing director, said in a statement.

The spending offers a window into the strategy of The City Fund, which has been relatively tight-lipped about its work since it launched in 2018. So far, most of the candidates Public School Allies has supported have won their races — illustrating how relatively small donations can have significant influence in elections with low turnout and limited spending.

“School board races have traditionally been very low visibility,” said Rebecca Jacobson of Michigan State University, who recently co-authored a book on the rise of big donations in school board elections. “A little bit of money can go a long way in some of these places.”

Using Public School Allies to influence political races is just one way The City Fund has been moving forward with its mission, which is to spread a philosophy in which successful schools grow and unsuccessful ones close or are replaced.

The City Fund held a convening of like-minded organizations early this year in San Francisco, according to an attendee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the event was meant to be private. Hastings himself spoke at the gathering, the attendee said, emphasizing the value of schools governed by nonprofit organizations — as charter schools usually are — as opposed to by school districts.

The City Fund also appears to have ramped up spending of its own.

An email obtained by Chalkbeat shows a City Fund consultant telling Denver superintendent Susana Cordova in July that the organization “has invested more than $21 million to improve” schools in the city.

Last December, The City Fund told Chalkbeat that it had raised $189 million from Hastings, Arnold, and others, and had given out $15 million to organizations in seven target cities.

Neerav Kingsland, The City Fund’s managing director, declined to comment for this story.

Here’s more on Public School Allies’ campaign contributions to date.

$1 million to a Louisiana voucher group to back candidates for state office

Public School Allies recently sent $1 million to the Louisiana Federation for Children Action Fund, an affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a group previously led by Betsy DeVos. It’s Public School Allies’ biggest donation to date by far — and on its face a surprising one, since AFC’s focus is private school tuition vouchers.

“The funds for Louisiana Federation for Children were to support their work advancing high quality public charter schools for students across the state,” Borden said.

The Louisiana Federation for Children supported five candidates for the state board of education — four won and a fifth advanced to a runoff earlier this month — as well as a number of state house and senate candidates.

The state board determines the fate of state superintendent John White, who has supported the growth of charter schools.

A number of the losing state board candidates were backed by teachers unions, and most raised much less money. The Louisiana Association of Educators spent roughly $50,000 to support a collection of candidates, according to a September campaign filing.

$80,000 for Camden group focused on school board races

In Camden, New Jersey, a group called the Campaign for Great Public Schools formed with the financial support of Public School Allies. It plans to support a slate of school board candidates in November, the first election since city schools started moving away from state control.

Borden said Public School Allies had given the organization $80,000 for this fall’s elections.

The leader of Campaign for Great Public Schools has praised the recent direction of the district, including the creation of Renaissance schools — which are run by charter operators KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon — and a unified enrollment system.

$60,000 to Newark school board candidates

Public School Allies gave $60,000 to a political action committee supporting a slate of candidates in the city’s school board election this April. All three won handily, beating out a slate that was more skeptical of charter schools but spent less than $10,000.

The City Fund has donated to the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, which supports charter schools in Newark.

$27,000 to New Jersey Assembly campaigns

According to Borden, Public School Allies has also given $25,000 to New Jersey’s Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, as well as $1,000 each to New Jersey senate president Steve Sweeney and state assembly member Eliana Pintor Marin, both Democrats.

It was a state law that enacted Camden’s Renaissance schools initiative, which might explain Public School Allies’ state-level involvement. Sweeney has also drawn strong opposition from the New Jersey Education Association, a teachers union that is one of the state’s largest political donors. In 2017, for instance, an NJEA committee poured $6.7 million into state legislative races, including $4.8 million in an unsuccessful bid to oust Sweeney.

$20,000 to support a St. Louis school board candidate

In St. Louis, Public School Allies directed $20,000 to a local PAC to support Adam Layne for school board, which recently regained control of schools from the state. According to campaign filings, no other candidate received PAC support — and the $20,000 accounted for about two-thirds of all spending in the race.

Layne, who was previously a teacher through Teach For America in the district and a board member at a local charter school, attracted some criticism for that support. He won one of the two open seats, neither of which went to candidates backed by the local teachers union.

The City Fund has donated to the Opportunity Trust, a St. Louis education nonprofit.

$12,000 to an education reform PAC in Georgia

Public School Allies has given $12,000 to the 50CAN Action Fund for elections this fall, Borden said. In the last legislative session, GACAN prioritized increasing funding for charter school facilities, among other issues.

$1,500 to an Atlanta school board candidate and KIPP parent

In Atlanta, filings indicate that “Campaign for Great Public School” donated $1,500 to school board candidate Aretta Baldon, a KIPP charter school parent and founding member of the parent group Atlanta Thrive.

Borden confirmed that this donation came from Public School Allies. (He said Campaign for Great Public Schools was the group’s original name, and that it’s up to candidates to complete filings. The filing also incorrectly states that the group is based in Georgia. Baldon did not respond to a request for comment.)

In total, Baldon raised $47,000, outstripping opponent Davida Huntley, who took in $14,000, including $1,500 from the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. The teachers union in the city has fiercely opposed the district’s practice of turning over struggling schools to charter operators.

Baldon won a seat, earning just over 500 votes in a low-turnout special election.

The City Fund has funded the nonprofit redefinED Atlanta, which has supported these charter-run turnaround efforts, as well as Atlanta Thrive.

$0 in San Antonio

Not all school board candidates are eager for outside support. When Patti Radle, the school board president of the San Antonio Independent School District, recently faced re-election, she had a meeting with Public School Allies officials, but told them she didn’t want their financial support.

She explained to Chalkbeat that she didn’t want the local teachers union, who opposed her candidacy, to try to link her to outside groups.

“The perception of it creates drama in people’s minds and creates upset among people who are concerned about charter schools,” she said. “They didn’t need that drama and I certainly didn’t.”

The City Fund supports the San Antonio-based City Education Partners.

Public School Allies didn’t end up spending to support Radle, who won re-election in May.

Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Democracy Prep operates some of the Renaissance schools in Camden. In fact, Renaissance schools are operated by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon charter networks.