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

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.