October 2012
September 24, 2012

Reform group? Don't be fooled

Author: Sylvia Saunders and Darryl McGrath
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT members passed out leaflets when Michelle Rhee, the head of StudentsFirst, gave a speech in June at Cornell University. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

Their names may sound positive, but don't be fooled. Big-money groups with anti-union, anti-public education agendas are cropping up and mobilizing around the state. Here's what you need to know about some of the major groups:

StudentsFirst NY

StudentsFirst NY, an arm of the national StudentsFirst organization headed by former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee, was officially formed this spring "to counter the influence of the teachers' union in New York," according to a headline in The New York Times. State Director Micah Lasher, the former director of state legislative affairs for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the group's aim is to raise $10 million annually for five years.

On the board are some polarizing figures in public education including Rhee, former chancellor Joel Klein (now a News Corp executive) and Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman who now runs charter schools.

Other board members are hedge fund managers Daniel Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones, founders of the Robin Hood Foundation. Once Obama supporters, Loeb and Jones have crossed party lines to help the Republicans defeat him in this year's election. One of the group's first actions in New York was to urge people to call for an end to senority-based layoffs for teachers.

NYCAN

The New York Campaign for Achievement Now, or NYCAN, opened in New York this year thanks to $1.2 million in backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

NYCAN is based on existing models in Connecticut, Minnesota and Rhode Island, where the group took credit for a 20 percent increase in state funding for charter schools, winning two new alternate certification routes for teachers and principals, and overhauls of teacher evaluation systems.

Here in New York, NYCAN Executive Director Christina Grant is pushing "parent trigger" legislation that would allow a majority of parents at chronically underperforming schools to choose from several reform options, including converting the school into a charter school, firing the school administration or closing the school outright. Grant previously worked for Teach for America, a KIPP charter school and Uncommon Schools.

NYCAN's national affiliate, 50CAN, reported retaining an Albany lobbyist, Vincent Marrone, for $4,100 per month. Marrone represents a wide range of clients including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and NYC Charter School Center.

DFER

Democrats for Education Reform is a secretive, corporate-backed political action committee that attacks retirement security and public education.

In New York, DFER pushed the ill-conceived tax cap that is crippling schools.

The group's New York branch is headed by Elizabeth Ling, a board director in the Harlem Success Academy charter school network and former banking financier. The group's chief aim is to push aside teacher unions and advocate for vouchers, merit pay, nonunion charter schools and curbs on tenure.

The board includes a "who's who" of superrich hedge-fund managers and charter school proponents, including Whitney Tilson, a board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and New York's KIPP Academy Charter Schools. Tilson has called charters "the perfect philanthropy for results-oriented business executives ... Hedge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital."

Philanthropist Eli Broad, whose foundation gave more than $500,000 to plug advocacy related to the pseudo-documentary "Waiting for Superman" and the pro-charter film "The Lottery," is a major backer of Education Reform Now, DFER's nonprofit sister organization.

Committee to Save New York

The very name of the group is deceptively appealing. Hasn't the state been in dire financial straits for the last three years? Isn't there a real need to right a number of fiscal wrongs in New York and fix a political system many astute observers say is broken?

The answers to those questions are yes and yes. But the answer to New York's problems is almost certainly not the Committee to Save New York, a well-funded lobbying group that has spent millions on television and print ads this year to promote Gov. Cuomo's political agenda.

The group's website, www.letsfixalbany.org, lists a "great education" among the assets of a strong state, and cites the property tax cap as one path to political and fiscal reform.

NYSUT agrees that a great education for all New Yorkers is a hallmark of a strong state economy. But what the Committee to Save New York website doesn't tell you is that the property tax cap — which NYSUT strongly opposed — is depriving public schools of the funds they need to meet more rigorous standards.