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

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.