Groups That Back Bloomberg's Education Agenda Enjoy Success in Albany
Cuomo hasn't changed his spots. Neither has UFT.
NYSUT, the state union with 600,000 members, endorsed candidates for Congress and the state Legislature but declined to back a candidate in the governor's race.
by Kate Taylor
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.)
In language that echoed that of important figures in both groups, Mr. Cuomo suggested that Mr. de Blasio had to earn the right to govern the city's schools.
"Next year we can come back," the governor said, "and if he does a good job, then we can say he should have more control."
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."
Making teacher evaluations more dependent on test scores, reforming tenure and increasing the number of charter schools in the city were all priorities of StudentsFirstNY and became significant pieces of the governor's agenda for the 2015 legislative session, which he announced in his State of the State speech on Jan. 21.
Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, as well as interviews, show that Mr. Cuomo and his senior education advisers were in close touch, by email and telephone, with Ms. Sedlis and her board members in the weeks after the governor's re-election last November.
On Dec. 9, for example, the governor met with Ms. Sedlis and several of her board members at the Harvard Club to discuss education policy issues, a spokesman for StudentsFirstNY said.
"Improving the state's education system has been one of the governor's top priorities since taking office," Jim Malatras, the governor's director of state operations, said through a spokeswoman, "and throughout that process, he has always partnered with groups, stakeholders, experts and other allies willing to fight for better futures for New York's students."
The governor's proposals, particularly one that would base 50 percent of teachers' evaluations on their students' test scores, stirred fierce opposition from state and local teachers' unions, as well as many principals and parents.
"If you look at the governor's State of the State speech, it was almost taken word for word from their website," Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said of StudentsFirstNY.
"We're going to just tell everyone the governor is basically for sale at this point, because that's what it is," Mr. Mulgrew added. "It's not a belief system."
Despite the opposition, Ms. Sedlis was able to rely on close relationships in the Senate. Last fall, the organization's donors financed a political action committee that spent $4.2 million on a successful effort to help the Republicans win a majority of the seats. (Mr. de Blasio, meanwhile, marshaled his donors to try to elect a Democratic majority, dispatching a top aide to run the campaign out of the offices of the city's teachers' union.)
StudentsFirstNY is already building a war chest for the 2016 legislative elections. In June, Paul E. Singer, a hedge fund manager who is the chairman of the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and Mr. Loeb each donated $1 million to the organization's political action committee.
In a compromise with the State Assembly, which Democrats control and where the teachers' unions still have support, the law was changed to make it more difficult for educators to earn high marks and tenure, without any set percentage for the weight of test scores. Ms. Sedlis said her organization deserved some of the credit.
"I think we were a major part in creating a climate where that could happen," she said, "because I don't think the governor could go out on a limb on his own if there weren't policy and advocacy groups that could help make that case."
If the major players behind StudentsFirstNY are mostly clear, that is not the case for Families for Excellent Schools.
Last year, it spent $9.6 million on lobbying, more than any other entity in the state, according to state records. Much of this money was spent on advertisements attacking Mr. de Blasio for his opposition to charter schools and a later ad praising Mr. Cuomo for coming to their aid.
The group has also become closely associated with Eva S. Moskowitz, the chief executive of Success Academy, the city's biggest charter school network, and one of Mr. de Blasio's sharpest critics.
Families for Excellent Schools is approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 organization, referring to the section of the tax code regarding charities, meaning that donations are tax-deductible, and, under New York State law, it need not disclose donors.
Those organizations are allowed to spend only a small portion of their money on lobbying, but the federal definition of lobbying, in contrast with the state definition, is relatively narrow. A typical ad from the group praising a piece of legislation, for instance, does not count as lobbying under federal law because it does not specifically call viewers to action.
"The danger is the public really doesn't know from the advertising who is trying to push public policy and what their motivations might be," Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, a group devoted to curbing the influence of money in politics, said of Families for Excellent Schools.
Jeremiah Kittredge, the group's executive director, defended the organization's policy of keeping its donors secret, pointing to a protest that the group Hedge Clippers organized outside Mr. Loeb's Hamptons home during the recent fund-raiser for Mr. Cuomo.
"Teachers' unions have deliberately cultivated a politicized, nasty, hostile environment," he said. "And there's a long history of donors' being harassed for promoting progressive issues. Look, that includes marriage equality. That's pro-choice work."
This month, a few days after the legislative session ended, Families for Excellent Schools began running an ad that featured shots of cheering families, and of Mr. Cuomo, over a hopeful, Morning-in-America-esque melody. The final screen read:
"Thank you, Governor Cuomo, for championing education."
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