Achievement First charter network, still receiving Sackler money, joins nonprofits weighing opioid-linked donations

The co-founder of the Achievement First network of charter schools faced a weighty question in a meeting with a few students earlier this year. Is the network still receiving money from any member of the Sackler family, which has been accused of fueling the national opioid epidemic?

“Yes,” Dacia Toll said. Then she explained why.

The donations — $1.6 million from Jonathan Sackler between 2013 and 2017 — are critical to the 36-school network and its Connecticut schools in particular, Toll said.

“We could say to the Sacklers, we do not want your money. We could. Tomorrow,” she said, according to audio of the conversation obtained by Chalkbeat. “And as a result, some amount of things that we are able to do here … would go away.”

“I am so worried about the survival of our Connecticut schools.”

Toll repeated many of those sentiments in a statement to Chalkbeat, but indicated that the network is reconsidering its relationship with Sackler. “Without the philanthropy, we would have to lay off staff and cut core programs,” she said. “Our board is actively reassessing as we get more information.”

The comments underscore the quandary facing education organizations that have received donations from the Sackler family, which controls Purdue Pharma. The company and the Sacklers, including Jonathan, are the subject of lawsuits alleging that they knew that the drug OxyContin was addictive, but downplayed that as they continued to promote the painkillers — reaping millions in profit as many grew hooked and even died. The company and Sackler family have disputed claims made in a Massachusetts lawsuit.

Newly public documents detailing the Sacklers’ involvement have increased pressure on nonprofits that have benefitted from the family’s largesse — including charter schools, universities such as Yale and Columbia, and museums such as the Guggenheim — to give up funding they have grown to rely on. So far, many have taken a path similar to Achievement First, promising to review the situation but not yet disavowing future dollars.

“On the one side, some believe that so long as money is directed toward a good purpose, its source doesn’t matter,” said Rob Reich, a Stanford University professor who studies philanthropy. “On the other side, every nonprofit has to decide what boundary it will set for itself.”

Jonathan Sackler specifically has focused his philanthropy on education, giving to charter schools including Achievement First and pro-charter advocacy groups such as 50CAN, as well as a Chicago-based after school program and a network of district schools in New York City.

Most education groups that received money from Jonathan Sackler’s Bouncer Foundation in 2017, the last year for which records are publicly available, declined to comment on recent fundraising or did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat. (A few did: Students For Education Reform says it hasn’t received money from Bouncer this year. After School Matters says it hasn’t gotten money since 2017. The 74 says it has not asked for or received money from the Bouncer Foundation since 2017, while 50CAN says it is not currently asking for money from any Sackler family members.)

A spokesperson for Jonathan Sackler did not respond to a request for comment.

Achievement First’s relationship with Sackler is longstanding and was recently described in a New Haven Register story. The network has listed donations from his foundation in its annual reports, and Sackler was an Achievement First board member for over a decade before he resigned in January 2018.

The fact that Sackler money continues to flow to Achievement First has not been previously reported, though, and the network did not disclose its ongoing relationship with Sackler to the Register.

“I have not said anything about this situation privately that I wouldn’t also say publicly,” Toll said in her statement to Chalkbeat. (It does not appear that Toll herself has been publicly questioned on the matter before now.)

The network is now reexamining its Sackler-connected grants, Toll said, but she indicated that funding realities, especially in Connecticut, would make cutting ties challenging.

“We have to raise money for our Connecticut schools because they unfairly receive thousands of dollars less per child than the traditional schools,” Toll said in her statement. “We don’t use philanthropy for extras. We use it for core teacher salaries, books, supplies, and basic art, sports and music programs. Without the philanthropy, we would have to lay off staff and cut core programs.”

Similarly, in the meeting with students, Toll described the decision to continue to accept Sackler money in stark terms.

“I can see how people would say, ‘I don’t agree with that,’” she said. “And I would just say, if you don’t agree with it, literally tell me what you want to cut at the schools. Because I cannot raise enough money to do everything we want to do at the network.”

Leaders of Achievement First, whose schools have posted strong academic results, have said that providing schools with the resources they need is a particular challenge in Connecticut. In 2017, the network said it needed to merge two of its Hartford middle schools and halt the creation of an elementary school in part because of inadequate public funding.

According to its 2017 annual report, Achievement First schools in Connecticut, spent less per student but depended much more on philanthropy than the network’s schools in New York or Rhode Island. The Connecticut schools raised $2,800 from philanthropy per student, compared to just $81 per student in its New York schools, which relied almost entirely on public funds.

Turning down philanthropy, then, could make it more difficult to close those gaps. And it’s already a challenging moment for Achievement First, which has has faced pressure to address why a New Haven principal was allowed to keep his job after shoving a student in the fall. (The principal eventually resigned, and the network has promised other changes are coming.)

Reich, the Stanford professor, said nonprofits that continue to accept money from suspect donors must consider whether they are then “complicit in ‘reputation laundering’ for the donor, who can associate himself or herself with the good cause.”

The Sackler name adorns galleries, university centers, and endowed professorships at institutions across the country. That includes Yale, where Jonathan Sackler’s millions earned him a named professorship and a press release describing the Sackler family’s “transformative legacy.”

That’s not the case for Achievement First, Toll told the students.

“I think the question is, not are we benefiting from the Sacklers, but are the Sacklers benefiting from us?” she said. “And I am not aware of a way — they do not go around and say, ‘We’re good people, we support Achievement First.’”

But she said the issue is still weighing on her and the network’s leaders.

“It’s something we, our board, has struggled with,” she said. “Do you take money from people who, now, it is clear, engaged in some … not good [actions], or not?”