Aggressive charter school campaign descends on the Capitol

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy addresses a rally of charter school supporters at the state Capitol Thursday.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / Ctmirror.org

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy addresses a rally of charter school supporters at the state Capitol Thursday.

Legislators are being bombarded with emails informing them every time a student applies to a charter school that the state has yet to agree to fund.

And when they turn on the television, they see advertisements warning that thousands of students will be trapped in failing schools unless state lawmakers spend millions more to expand enrollment in charter schools.

On Thursday, charter school groups bused an estimated 1,500 students, parents and supporters to the state Capitol to “demand that state legislators save our schools.”

Charter advocates have their supporters at the state Capitol, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, but many prominent legislators say they have been either unmoved or downright annoyed by the aggressive tactics of charter school advocates.

Several prominent legislators say the pitch for a boost in state funding to increase enrollment may not be helping their cause.

“To say I have received hundreds of emails would be an understatement…I wouldn’t say they are persuasive,” House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said of the nearly identical, automated emails he has been receiving.

Rep. Roberta Willis has stopped reading them.

“After a while you get the point. There are just too many,” said Willis, D-Salisbury.

Malloy, a Democrat, addressed the rally Thursday, saying, “We should not be dividing ourselves by what type of school or who runs the school. But we [need] to have great schools for all of our students, and that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do.”

Behind this push at the state Capitol for charter schools is Families for Excellent Schools, Coalition for Every Child, a nonprofit led by investment firm executives that last year took on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — and won.

When de Blasio tried to block the opening of three new charter schools, FES spent $3.6 million over three weeks attacking the action, the New York Daily News reported, citing a source. The New York General Assembly in the end appropriated funds for the charters and adopted increased restrictions on what the city can do to limit the growth of charter schools, The New York Times reported.

The group is hoping for similar success in Connecticut as legislators propose blocking Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s plans to open a new charter school in Stamford and another in Bridgeport this fall.

Supporters of a charter school in Bridgeport at Thursday's Capitol rally.

Alban Murtishi / CTMirror.org

Supporters of a charter school in Bridgeport at Thursday’s Capitol rally.

In these tight budget times, there is a tug-of-war in the legislature between those who support additional charter school funding and those who are concerned about draining resources from traditional public schools.

Students attending charter schools overall routinely test higher than students in neighborhood public schools, but data show the traditional schools have higher concentrations of high-need students, including students who understand limited English, require special education services or come from low-income families.

The push by the charter school advocates has drawn the most attention.

During the first three months of the legislature’s five-month session, FES spent $255,090, of which most paid for advertising, according to its filings with the Office of State Ethics. Add in what four other charter advocacy groups have spent through March, and the amount spent totals $334,542 — more than double what the state’s powerful teachers’ unions have spent lobbying legislators.

“The goal of this campaign is to make sure that legislators have the facts when it comes [to] education in Connecticut,” Kara Neidhardt, state director for Families for Excellent Schools, said in a statement. “The fact that they are taking notice is both a good thing and exactly the point. Often times, it’s the families in cities with struggling schools whose voices are excluded in a public debate. The Coalition For Every Child has made it a point to elevate those voices,”

Representatives of the organization declined to be interviewed for this article.

Follow the money

With FES promising to host rallies and launch a “multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign” in Connecticut, some prominant legislators are questioning where the money is coming from, why it isn’t being spent on the schools and the negative tone of the advertisements.

Who gives to charter school advocates?
Nonprofits only have to report money they give to other organizations — and not money they receive — so it’s difficult to figure out who funds them. But using Citizens Audit and GuideStar, the Mirror dug through 990 tax forms to piece together a picture of how these organizations are funded. Using this publicly available data from FY 2013, we were only able to account for $892,000 of the Families for Excellent Schools’ $12.26 million in revenues, and $665,000 of ConnCAN’s $2.53 million in revenues.
Advocacy Group Grant awardee Amount for FY 201
Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now The Louis Calder Foundation $50,000
Amy Plant Statter Foundation $50,000
Olson Foundation $90,000
JJJ Charitable Foundation $52,000
Lone Pine Foundation $5,000
Vince and Linda McMahon Family Foundation $25,000
Lindmor Foundation $100,000
The Fairfield County Community Foundation $1,500
Walton Family Foundation $27,000
Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program $11,500
Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation $253,000
Families for Excellent Schools Sharon and Christopher Davis Foundation $25,000
Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation $80,000
Moriah Fund $105,000
Lone Pine Foundation $5,000
StudentsFirst New York $10,000
Hertog Foundation $500,000
Walton Family Foundation $15,000
Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation $42,000
Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program $60,000
Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now $50,000
Source: 990 Tax Forms

“I think they need to look at the choices they are making when communicating with the public,” said Rep. Toni Walker, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee.

Information is extremely limited on where Families for Excellent Schools and other charter school advocates get their money. The advocates include Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), Achievement First, Northeast Charter Schools Network and Bronx Charter School of Excellence — all registered lobbyists with the state.

Walker and others worry the state’s charter schools — which receive $11,000 from the state for each student they enroll — are contributing to the advocacy groups and the ad campaign.

“I think they need to be careful how they use their operating dollars,” said Walker, D-New Haven, of charter schools. “I am always suspicious when there is a major marketing campaign. They need to be careful because it might be perceived in the wrong way.”

“Given the fiscal picture they say they are in, it’s probably money that could have been spent elsewhere,” said Aresimowicz, who said he’s been lobbied about charter schools more than any other issue since Democratic legislators released their proposed budget without including funding for new charter schools.

State law requires all registered lobbying organizations to file monthly reports on how much they are spending and what they are spending it on. However, state law limits which groups are required to identify where their funding comes from. Only groups that are “organized primarily for the purpose of lobbying” and for whom more than 50 percent of their spending is devoted to lobbying must report the source of their income.

Of the 1,100 registered lobbyists in Connecticut, only 27 are currently required to disclose their funding sources, according to the Office of State Ethics.

Thus, groups like Families for Excellent Schools, which spent $11 million in 2013, don’t have to disclose who is funding them.

“You just wonder what’s their interest in Connecticut public schools,” Sen. Beth Bye, the senate leader of the Appropriations Committee, said. “Where’s the money coming from? It causes concern.”

Nonprofits don’t have to report who funds them, but they do have to report who they give money to as part of their federal tax filings. A search for FES on Citizen Audit, a watchdog group that compiles searchable tax filings on nonprofits, shows that FES received $900,000 million of its $12.6 million in income in 2013 from several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Hertog Foundation. (See chart for a full list.)

tax filing for the group from 2013 — the most recent available — shows the organization’s leaders as Chairman Paul Appelbaum, who is the principal of Rock Ventures LLC, and Vice Chairman Bryan Lawrence, who runs an investment firm.

It’s unclear where most of the organization’s funding comes from. A spokesman for the organization declined the Mirror’s request for that information and would not disclose whether the state’s charter schools or their management companies provide them any money.

There are conflicting views on how much information charter school management companies must disclose under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Achievement First, the charter management organization that operates more charter schools than any other in the state, has maintained it is not subject to the  disclosure law.

The only hope or false hope?

In one of FES’s recent television advertisements, Aisha Gutierrez, the mother of a high school student in Bridgeport, tells those watching that she needs the new charter school proposed for the city.

“If Pernell cannot attend Capital Prep it would be devastating. Pernell would be another statistic here in Bridgeport,” Gutierrez says as she wipes away tears.

Another advertisement warns viewers, “If the legislature stops new charter schools from opening, the 250 kids enrolled at the Capital Preparatory Harbor School will be entering very different kinds of schools and facing very different kinds of futures.”

“It certainly tugs at your heart strings, but it’s certainly frustrating they are enrolling students for a school that doesn’t yet have state funding. It will certainly make it that much more difficult not to fund them,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D- East Hartford. “In some ways they are using these families to push their purpose. The lobbyists know what they are doing. It is inappropriate. What kind of false hope are they giving these families?”

But Ronelle Swagerty, the chief executive officer of New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport, said what’s really inappropriate are the hundreds of students put on a waiting list to enroll in her school.

An advertisement showing a student trapped in school where they don't learn to read, write or do math at grade level

An advertisement showing a student “trapped in schools where they don’t learn to read, write or do math at grade level.”

“I hope our legislators hear us. The system is so unfair to poor and working families,” she said, pointing out that better-off families have the ability to move to where schools are better or to pay for private schools.

“Legislators are used to being lobbied. We are just making sure our voice is finally being heard,” Swagerty said.

Some local leaders have taken issue with the tone of the advertisements, which say, among other things, that 40,000 children are “trapped” in failing schools.

“We are not denying them good public schools,” Rabinowitz told the Connecticut Post this week after a dozen people rallied in Bridgeport in advance of the event at the state Capitol.

After 6,000 people rallied in New Haven in December in support of charter schools, the New Haven Independent reported the rally may have backfired.

“To say that we have kids ‘trapped’ was a slap in the face of the work that we do,” New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said.  She told the Independent that organizers’ “over-the-top rhetoric” made it difficult for her to support their cause.

The $255,090 that FES reports they spent lobbying legislators this session does not include the money the group spent hosting the rally in New Haven or the television advertisements they ran in December.

In the governor’s hands
Malloy with charter school advocates in 2012

Malloy with charter school advocates at a rally in 2012

Malloy, a Democrat, has proposed the state boost spending by $32 million, or 14 percent, over the next two years to allow an additional 2,000 students to attend charter schools. The funding would allow expansion of existing charter schools and fund the two new schools in Stamford and Bridgeport.

“Let me be very clear, we also have to understand that we are going to have charter schools in Connecticut,” Malloy said during the afternoon rally. “Let’s work together for the outcomes that are best serving our young people, particularly in our urban environments. Let’s not be afraid to experiment.”

But legislative Democrats and Republicans have both issued proposed budgets that reject Malloy’s proposal for the new schools and some of the enrollment expansion.

They point to the state’s $1.4 billion deficit for the upcoming fiscal year as the reason.

“Expansion is just not something we can afford right now,” said Walker, the house leader of the Appropriations Committee, pointing to all the cuts they had to propose in their budget, including to programs in traditional public schools. “We are limited in what we can do. We were equal opportunity cutters.”

That leaves the onus on the governor’s office to determine how much of a sticking point funding new charter schools will be to him as budget negotiations go forward.

“It really goes to the governor now to point how important it is to him,” said Bye.

The governor has been a strong supporter of charter schools during his tenure. Four new charter schools have opened during his tenure, enrollment at existing schools has steadily grown and his previous education commissioner helped open one of the state’s first charter schools.

FIghting words from Jumoke charter school students

FIghting words from Jumoke charter school students

His former spokesman, Andrew Doba, now represents Families for Excellent Schools. FES also has paid $109,000 to the political consulting firm where Malloy’s former senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, is the managing director.

Among the top contributors to the state’s Democratic Party, which supported Malloy during his reelection campaign, were Jonathan Sackler and Mary Corson, a Greenwich couple who supports charter schools. Sackler is on the board of Achievement First, which manages numerous charter school in the state and ConnCAN, one of the charter advocacy groups lobbying at the Capitol.

Malloy, who was with charter advocates in 2012, had said Thursday morning the issue was important to him.

“I am supportive of their efforts,” Malloy said. “Believe me, I am very supportive of what they are saying and what they are doing.”

Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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