Charter schools-aligned group spends big in Newark school board race

The top spender in Newark’s school board race is a special-interest group with ties to New Jersey charter schools, according to campaign filings reported ahead of Tuesday’s election.

The group, Great Schools for All PAC, has already spent about $46,000 supporting a team of three candidates backed by Newark’s political establishment. By contrast, a rival team has reported spending less than $3,300 so far.

Last year, the group spent nearly $147,000 on the board race — more than three times the amount shelled out by the next-biggest spender.

Great Schools for All is an independent group that can raise and spend unlimited amounts in elections, but cannot coordinate with the candidates it supports. It has paid for online ads, direct mailings, phone banks, and canvassers to promote its chosen candidates, according to the filings.

The group’s chairman is Kyle Rosenkrans, the former CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network who was recently an official at KIPP New Jersey, one of the state’s largest charter school networks. The group’s donors include the political arm of a group that wants to expand charter schools across the country and another group co-founded by a KIPP board member.

Great Schools for All is just the latest charter-affiliated entity to spend heavily on Newark school board races. In 2016 and 2017, a pro-charter advocacy group called the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education, or PC2E, spent a combined $380,000 supporting candidates, according to campaign filings.

The spending is part of a trend across the country where national funders pushing a vision of education change that usually involves more charter schools are playing an ever-greater role in local school board elections.

In Newark, both PC2E and Great Schools for All have backed teams of candidates endorsed by Mayor Ras Baraka and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos. The teams — originally called Unity, and now dubbed Moving Newark Schools Forward — have swept each election since the once-rival politicians and charter school advocates joined forces in 2016.

Defenders of the coalition say it has eliminated the divisive political battles and clashes between supporters of traditional and charter schools that once defined the city’s school board elections. But critics argue that the alliance and the outside money flowing into the election have made it nearly impossible for independent candidates to win seats on the board.

Denise Cole, a Newark parent and education activist who is running on a grassroots team called Children Over Politics, said the special-interest group has “smothered” the voices of Newark residents vying for seats on the board.

“School board elections are for the people and the people’s voice — not for outsiders to come in here and take over our schools,” said Cole, whose teammates include Saafir Jenkins and Leah Owens.

A photo posted on the Great Schools for All Facebook page. (Facebook/Great Schools for All)

This month, 11 hopefuls are competing for three open school board seats.

The eight candidates who are not on the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate have reported raising about $5,900 to date — compared with $67,600 raised by Great Schools for All in support of the slate. (The candidates have until May 6 to report their final fundraising amounts.)

In a statement, Rosenkrans said he has spearheaded Great Schools for All’s fundraising efforts on a volunteer basis independent of any of the candidates and of his role as executive director of an education-focused nonprofit in Newark.

He added that the decision by Baraka and Ramos to endorse a single team of school board candidates has moved the city “beyond the us-versus-them rhetoric of district versus charter schools and more toward a collective vision.”

“We’re proud to support this work and the three candidates on the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate,” Rosenkrans added. “All three candidates are tremendous advocates for the city school system and share the vision for unity on education issues.”

Rosenkrans’ new nonprofit is bankrolled by The City Fund, a national group planning to spend nearly $200 million to push cities to expand charter schools and give district-run schools more autonomy. An offshoot of The City Fund dedicated to politics and lobbying gave Great Schools for All $25,000 to spend on the Newark board race, according to campaign filings.

Great Schools for All received another $15,000 from Better Education for New Jersey Kids Inc., which grew out of a group established in 2011 to support education policies favored by then-Gov. Chris Christie and opposed by the state teachers union. The co-founders were New Jersey hedge fund managers David Tepper and Alan Fournier, a KIPP New Jersey board member whose foundation donated $1 million to KIPP schools in Newark.

Last year, Great Schools for All got $150,000 from a group called the Committee for School Equality Inc., with an address in West Trenton. In other filings, the Committee for School Equality has a Newark address, and Rosenkrans is listed as its president.

The West Trenton entity gave money last year to the Moving Newark Schools Forward team and to Asia Norton, the charter sector’s chosen candidate on the slate. The entity also donated to the campaigns of  Mayor Baraka and Councilman Ramos, among other elected officials.

This year, the Committee for School Equality gave $2,600 to Shayvonne Anderson, a member of the politician-endorsed slate who has previously spoken out in favor of charter schools.

Under the state’s campaign finance laws, the Committee for School Equality is not required to disclose its funders. Through a spokesman, Rosenkrans declined to say who they are.

Anderson’s campaign manager, Jermaine James, said that Anderson supports high-quality schools of all kinds, and noted that Anderson’s own children have attended both traditional and charter schools.

The other members of the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate this year are A’Dorian Murray-Thomas and Tave Padilla. The team’s chairman is Sam Gonzalez, who is also Ramos’ chief of staff.

Gonzalez said each of the candidates has raised funds independent of the slate, and that they have not coordinated with Great Schools for All.

“We welcome support from anyone who shares our vision of electing candidates who will work together to move Newark schools forward for all of our city’s children,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

Last year, the slate and its candidates raised a combined $84,500, according to campaign filings — apart from the $147,000 that Great Schools for All raised on its own to support those candidates.

The 10 independent candidates in that race did not report receiving any funds.