The Money Behind the Albany – NYC City School Wars!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an in-depth article analyzing the moneyed interests that are fueling the public school wars in New York.

“Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been out of office for a year and a half, but his influence over New York schools is practically as strong as ever.

A group devoted to continuing his education agenda and founded in part by his longtime schools chancellor has become one of the most powerful forces in Albany by pouring millions into lobbying and adroitly exploiting rivalries in state politics.

The organization, StudentsFirstNY, and another group with a similar focus called Families for Excellent Schools have formed a counterweight to teachers’ unions, long among the top spenders in the state capital. This year alone, the groups saw major elements of their platforms come to pass, such as tying teacher evaluations more closely to test scores, adding hurdles to earning tenure and increasing the number of charter schools, measures all unpopular with the unions.

Among the backers of StudentsFirstNY are major donors to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and to the Republican majority in the State Senate, two of the three parties to all negotiations. Emails and interviews show that StudentsFirstNY has been in regular contact with the governor’s office since his re-election.

At the same time, the two groups have become a major nuisance to Mr. Bloomberg’s successor as mayor, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, who campaigned on reversing some of his predecessor’s policies and is friendly with the city teachers’ union.

The groups have delivered a drumbeat of attacks on Mr. de Blasio’s education policies in television advertisements, rallies where parents upbraid the mayor for not confronting what they call an education crisis, and weekly, or at times daily, emails to reporters. Amid this onslaught, Mr. Cuomo and the Senate delivered a rebuke to the mayor this year by agreeing to only a one-year extension of mayoral control of city schools. (By contrast, Mr. Bloomberg, a political independent, was initially given control for seven years, then received a renewal for six.)..

Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, said the group’s goal was to create a permanent organization to advance important education changes and neutralize the influence of the teachers’ union.

“Before we came on the scene, the pro-reform community would get together for episodic fights and then we’d scatter, and the U.F.T. was always there,” she said, referring to the United Federation of Teachers, the city teachers’ union.

“With StudentsFirstNY, there’s a board with a war chest that’s always there,” Ms. Sedlis added. “We’re there before the election and after. And that has to be reassuring for ed reformers who want to stick their necks out, and disconcerting for the other side.”

The group is so plugged into the capital that Ms. Sedlis has sometimes served as a go-between among different government offices, relaying messages and scouting information about education bills being considered. It has not hurt the group’s efforts that Mr. Cuomo and the Republican majority in the Senate are no fans of Mr. de Blasio.

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said, “When a group professing to support education reform opposes mayoral control of schools, it calls into question what exactly it stands for.”

StudentsFirstNY was founded in 2012 by Joel I. Klein, who had been the schools chancellor for more than eight years under Mr. Bloomberg; Michelle Rhee, a former Washington schools chancellor; and the billionaire hedge fund managers Daniel S. Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones. It receives some support from StudentsFirst, the national organization Ms. Rhee founded in 2010, but has its own board of directors and functions independently.

Mr. Bloomberg himself does not appear to be involved in StudentsFirstNY. An aide, Howard Wolfson, said that he had not given money to the group. Reuters reported in 2012 that Mr. Bloomberg had helped finance Ms. Rhee’s national organization, but Mr. Wolfson would not confirm that.

Mr. Loeb hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Cuomo this month at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He and his wife have contributed $139,367 to Mr. Cuomo over the past five years, according to New York State Board of Elections records. In the same period, Mr. Jones and his wife have contributed $75,000, and another board member, Carl C. Icahn, has contributed $50,000 to the governor.

Mr. Klein, who is now the chief executive of Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s education-technology company, is still a board member of StudentsFirstNY. Neither he nor most of the group’s major donors would comment on their support, though Mr. Jones said in a statement, “Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable, and that’s why StudentsFirstNY and others are fighting for reforms that can give parents more choices, ensure that only the best teachers are in the classroom and make sure that the best interests of the children in the system are put first.”

This is a sad state of affairs for public education in New York. The article illustrates well political and financial agendas at play, neither of which will help school children.


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