The cost of lobbying education reform: millions

More than $3 million was spent lobbying both sides of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education reform package during the 2012 legislative session.

And at least one good government organization is concerned that not every lobbying group is required by law to report the sources of the money.

Active groups this year included teachers’ unions fighting the governor’s education package and national and state education reform groups, which supported the governor’s proposals to limit collective bargaining rights in the lowest-performing schools and links tenure and dismissal decisions to student performance. The legislature approved a modified package that, among other changes, transformed how teachers get tenure.

Figures filed with the Office of State Ethics include only the amount — $2.9 million — spent through April. But next week, the groups are required to file records of what they spent in May. The final day of the legislative session was May 9, and that figure is sure to go up.

According to records, television and radio advertisements, the rallies at the Capitol and 22 lobbyists cost the unions $1.4 million. Most of that was spent by the state’s largest teachers organization, the Connecticut Education Association.

In previous years, a media blitz and the cost to bus hundreds of teachers to the state Capitol to protest may have been all that was needed to defeat an ambitious governor’s bill.

But this year education advocacy groups overwhelmingly lined up behind Malloy’s plan with their bank accounts as a counterweight to the union’s political muscle. The advocacy groups’ filings show that collectively, they spent about $57,000 more than the unions’ total.

A review of spending reports by the Mirror shows union spending has been matched by education advocacy groups every year since the state began requiring reporting four years ago, in the wake of the Gov. John Rowland ethics scandal.


Michelle Rhee at the state Capitol earlier this year

“We are providing an equal balance to the equation,” said Michelle Rhee, one of the biggest names in the national education reform movement and founder of Students First.

“If you look at what the unions did in Connecticut, they spent millions of dollars attacking the governor… They definitely invest a lot to try and make their voices heard. What’s important is that they are not the only voice heard,” she said.

Students First spent $670,000 during this legislative session backing the governor’s reforms. ConnCAN and ConnAd — groups that share an address and directors — spent another $650,000 supporting Malloy’s initiatives. Two business-backed groups — the Connecticut Council for Education Reform and Connecticut Business and Industry Association — spent more than $100,000.

“The Connecticut Education Association made it very clear they were prepared to spend millions to defend the existing system. It becomes very dangerous if we only have the teachers’ unions having a say,” said Patrick Riccards, the leader of both ConnCAN and ConnAd.

“It was helpful to have the backing of multiple engaged groups,” Stefan Pryor, the governor’s education commissioner, said after a state board meeting this week where several of the administration’s reforms began being implemented. “I believe our bill benefited from multiple stakeholders.”

Union leaders, however, wish many of these groups would just butt out.

“These other voices aren’t Connecticut voters,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the leader of the state’s largest teachers’ union. “You don’t know who these people are and where their funding is coming from… Democracy is at risk.”

Criticism surrounding the motives of these groups, and uncertainty over who bankrolled them, became a theme for union leaders. A television advertisement that the CEA spent thousands of dollars airing says Malloy’s plans are nothing more than, “unproven ideas backed by special interests.”

Where does the money come from?

State law requires any group that spends money during a campaign to promote a candidate disclose where the money is coming from.

“The state has a compelling interest to know who’s speaking for these candidates. It tells you if someone is in the pocket of a certain interest,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. “That said, if it’s not electioneering, then it is protected, unregulated speech.”

Translation: Groups that spend $1.4 million airing commercials and lobbying legislators for education reform do not have to disclose who is bankrolling their operation.

Of the state’s 1,000 registered groups that lobby in the state, only 27 are required to disclose their funding sources, according to the Office of State Ethics. Groups are required by state law to identify contributions over $1,000 if a group spends more than 20 percent of their time lobbying lawmakers.

So, details of where groups like ConnAd and StudentsFirst received their money to advertise in Connecticut were largely left up to conjecture and an outlier news report.

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An aide to New York City Mayor Bloomberg told a Reuters reporter last month that the mayor helped finance Students First’s reform efforts in Connecticut. His office did not respond to requests for comment from the Mirror.

Rhee, who has been in general reluctant in other states to disclose where her group’s funding comes from, said the source of the donations are unimportant.

“We are a membership organization. We don’t get active in states unless our members are driving that… The vast majority of our donors are our members,” she said. “We are an organic and grass-roots organization. And that’s whose driving the actions.”

ConnAd, which spent $500,000 on advertising in Connecticut this last legislative session, is not required to disclose its funding because it reported that it does not primarily lobby.

This new reality — that groups are spending huge sums of money and not revealing the sources of the funding — is concerning to Karen Hobert Flynn, Common Cause’s director for state operations and a Connecticut native.

“I would think there’s a compelling government interest to find about who’s spending this $1 million,” said Flynn. “When you see a lot of new groups showing up and spending a lot of money, you should want to know where it’s coming from.”

This legislative session — which Malloy dedicated to education reform — saw not only an influx of new spending but also an increase of a handful of new advocacy groups, all which backed his initiatives.

None were on the list State Ethics provided that requires funding disclosure. Their tax records won’t help either, because many of these organizations are nonprofit social advocacy groups — also known as a 501(c)4 — and are not required to disclose the sources of their money publicly.

Next door in New York this week, the New York Times reported for the first time that one of the state’s largest lobbying groups gets its funding from gambling companies. This same group spent millions on campaign-style advertising in 2011 for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is pushing for casinos to open in New York.

Flynn said disclosure is the solution to avoid conflicts nationwide.

“It’s an emerging problem. No one knows who they are or where they get their money from,” she said of these 501(c)4 groups.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania requires disclosure when funding hits a certain threshold. That state required Rhee to disclose who was spearheading her group’s efforts there. New York has a new law that began June 1 that requires disclosure when a group receives more than $5,000 and if it represents more than 3 percent of the group’s overall budget.

But these states are the exception, not the rule, said Flynn, noting Congress has been reluctant to require this.

Riccards, the executive director of ConnAd, said having outsiders funding these reform efforts might not be such a bad thing.

“It would be foolish not to look outside for help,” he said, insistent that his group “does not receive a dime from charter schools.” His groups do advocate for charter school expansion as well as other reform initiatives like limiting collective bargaining.

“No one has had more of a say then have the teachers’ unions… We need a change. The more voices we have in Connecticut, the better.”

And it seems as though these new voices are here to stay. Rhee said Students First is not going anywhere.

“Reforms don’t happen overnight. This is a long haul,” she said.

A recent poll of 500 likely voters that her group commissioned reports that voters don’t think the new law went far enough. She plans to lobby the lingering issues during the next several years.

Asked if her organization plans to campaign for certain legislative seats in Connecticut in the coming election, Rhee said she considering it.

“It’s very interesting to us. But we haven’t made any decisions yet,” she said.


Nicholas Rondinone contributed to this article.