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Corporate charter interests spent BIG to boost agenda

New York Teacher

Charter school operators in New York have staked out an ambitious political agenda for 2015, powered by millions of dollars donated to elected officials and invested in substantial TV ad campaigns. The funding has come from conservative groups organized by hedge-fund managers ferociously opposed to public education and teacher unions.

The charter movement had a banner year in 2014 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo rammed through legislation over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s objections that gave new or expanding charter schools rent-free space in public school buildings or, failing that, private space paid for by the city.

During his re-election campaign, Cuomo took in over $2 million more from charter school advocates, according to one report. One group founded by business executives, Families for Excellent Schools (FES), spent nearly $9 million to lobby for charter schools in Albany.

CapitalNY reporters found that $2.9 million of the FES expenditure occurred during September and October, “more than double the previous record for spending by any lobbying client during these months.” In that same period, CapitalNY reported, FES spent $479,200 on an ad buy.

The same group has been adept at hiding its donors. Crain’s New York Business reported last year that FES found a “hedge-fund loophole” that allowed it to skirt state disclosure laws. At the start of 2015, the group sent letters to Cuomo and other state leaders calling for “bold, structural change” in public education and denigrated the school improvement processes set in motion by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Another group, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, was created just two months before the 2014 general election, the brainchild of 12 hedge-fund managers. The group raised and spent $4.3 million in seven weeks, mostly on TV ads and mailers, according to a report citing the New York State Board of Elections Campaign Finance Disclosure forms.

Independent charter operators have also been active. They have lobbied state and city officials for more per-pupil funding by blitzing the governor and mayor with thousands of letters.

In his recent State of the State address, Cuomo proposed many of the policy proposals that charter school advocates have lobbied for, including lifting the charter cap, increasing per-pupil funding for charters, and an education tax credit for donations to private schools by individuals and corporations.

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