Families for Excellent Trains

The campaign to lift the charter school cap in Massachusetts goes off the tracks…

Around the 20 minute mark of Arne Duncan’s talk, I began to choke. I’d made it through Duncan’s endorsement of Question Two, the ballot initiative to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts, and the occasion for last week’s *Education Party* thrown by Democrats for Education Reform. It was when duncanDuncan started to talk about the need for school reformers to genuinely engage parents and families—*I’m not talking about astro-turf*—that the dryly bitter chuckling sound I’d been making escalated into something more profound. You see, that very morning, the Boston Globe had run an expose on the *family* at the very center of Question 2: a husband/wife team of GOP operatives who have orchestrated seemingly every aspect of the campaign.

There are other families involved, of course. Like Republican philanthropists Seth Klarman and Joanna Jacobson, whose largesse got the multi-pronged effort to lift the charter cap rolling, and who are referred to in the trove of internal emails the Globe made public as Klarman and JJ. And there is Families for Excellent Schools, whose CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, is CC’d on all of the emails, along with a small army of lobbyists, PR hacks and the heads of a handful of Boston charter schools. An exemplar of the new *parent power,* FES was transplanted here from NYC, thanks to the aforementioned largesse of the aforementioned families, to marshall an army of parents behind the effort to lift the charter cap. The group quickly became known for such innovative marshalling techniques as automatically enrolling parents whose kids attended Boston charter schools in the parent army. Continue reading →

Black and White

I talk to Yawu Miller of Boston’s Bay State Banner about the red-hot debate over charter school expansion in Massachusetts—and what *thought leaders* are getting wrong…

map-of-massachusettsEduShyster: In a few weeks, Massachusetts voters will give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to raising the *cap* on charter schools. The issue has attracted a frenzy of *reporting* from outside of the state, much of it, shall we say, somewhat muddled. Since Boston is at the very center of the scrum, I thought I’d bring in someone who knows a thing or two about the place. Yawu: what are people missing about this story? Besides the fact that Boston is not a state, that is.

Yawu MillerWhat I’ve noticed in the debate in Boston is that people are not against charter schools. They think that there is a place for them. They think that charter schools work well for some people, maybe for their own children. But they don’t want to see the kind of expansion that’s being proposed now. They think there’s a threat to the district school system if that happens. You hear a lot of people saying *I’m not anti-charter. I’m against this ballot question.* I think the funding issue has caused a lot of people who pay attention to the schools to come out strongly against this. Continue reading →

Family Affair

Political scientist Maurice Cunningham says the campaign to lift the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is driven by GOP operatives and a handful of wealthy Republican families…

EduShyster: Ads in support of Question 2, the ballot initiative that will dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the Bay State, are running during the Olympics, and come with the tagline: *more money for public education.* I was prepared to give them a gold medal for, um, dexterity, but since the ads are being produced by the team that made the infamous Swift Boat ads that cost John Kerry the 2004 presidential election, I suspect there’s plenty more where that came from.

Maurice Cunningham: I think we can expect some rough stuff. This is a Republican effort, it’s a big money effort, and it’s a conservative effort. That’s where they tend to go.

EduShyster: There’s a well-funded effort underway to paint the campaign to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts as a progressive cause. But what you’ve found in your research is that this is basically a Republican production from top to bottom.

Cunningham: That’s right. There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this. They largely give to Republicans and they represent the financial industry, basically. They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy who certainly knows his stuff. They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t.

EduShyster: By *make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t,* what you really mean is that this is an entirely community-driven, grassroots campaign, correct?

Cunningham: No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever. What do we look for to measure grassroots support? We look for a campaign’s ability to find people who will essentially volunteer, who feel strongly about an issue and are willing to do the work that a campaign needs done. Two examples: signature collecting and canvassing door to door. Great Schools Massachusetts isn’t able to do either one of those things. When they had to get signatures in 2015, they wound up paying $305,000 to a signature gathering firm. And that’s because they don’t have people who are strong believers who will go out on the street and volunteer and be passionate and do the things that people do when they really care about an issue. Or look at Democrats for Education Reform. When they backed Dan Rizzo in the special Senate election earlier this year, they had to pay for canvassers because they don’t have people who feel strongly enough about the positions they take. The idea that these are community groups is completely manufactured.

EduShyster: Readers of this blog will recognize the name Families for Excellent Schools, a New York group that set up shop in the Bay State in 2014, and which counted our Republican Secretary of Education James Peyser as its *uncle* until about 15 minutes ago. But *families* in this case literally refers to six families.

Cunningham: The same small group of families that gave to the ballot committee, which is now Great Schools Massachusetts, gives to a private foundation called Strategic Grant Partners year after year. Strategic Grant Partners is at the center of this whole thing, and it’s where you really see the longer term view taking shape. Joanna Jacobson, who founded it, understands strategic vision and marketing. She comes from a corporate background; she has a Harvard MBA and was the president of Keds. Jim Peyser is a central figure when you look at who was involved, both as a board member of Families for Excellent Schools and in his former capacity as a managing partner of New Schools Venture Fund. They’ve been at this for several years now—much longer than most people are aware of.

*Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward.

EduShyster: Is it really so bad if a secretive cabal hatches a strategic plan and marshals millions of dollars from untraceable sources if it means more Great Schools™?

Cunningham: I think it’s terrible for democracy. *Secretive cabal* and democracy don’t go together—they just don’t. And if you say *let’s sacrifice democracy so we can have better schools,* that imperils us going forward. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said that we have to make a choice. *We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.* To me this campaign is about democracy vs. unlimited wealth.

EduShyster: Massachusetts is no stranger to divisive education ballot initiatives backed by wealthy businessmen. There was the measure that eliminated bilingual education back in 2002. Coincidentally, it was also the work of a Republican and also called *Question 2.* What’s different about the campaign to lift the charter cap?

Cunningham: We’re in the Citizens United era now, and that’s true nationally and here in Massachusetts. I think the application of a huge amount of money from a very small group of people who hide pretty well, that’s new. A good deal of this campaign is *off the books*—at least so far as campaign finance disclosure goes. I always look to see who the contributors that are listed at the end of the ad. Look at those contributors and see if you can figure out who the heck any of those people are—and you can’t. Basically you have what is a Russian nesting doll problem here.  These people hide because they know that if voters recognize who is really behind this ballot question, they’ll be less likely to support it.

EduShyster: I thought you were going to say that what’s different is that this time it’s about the kids…

Maurice *Mo* Cunningham is a professor of Political Science at UMass Boston and a long-time commentator on Massachusetts politics. He blogs at MassPolitics Profs.

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All in the Family

Has Massachusetts Secretary of Education Jim Peyser been lobbying himself?

Update: Families for Excellent Schools shared via Twitter that Peyser is no longer on their board. No word on why the Secretary of State still lists him as a director of their 501 (c) (3) and (c) (4). And no word on why I got no response when I put the question to FES directly via email on 12/4… 

Reader: having now corresponded from the wilds of education reform land for some three years now (!), I’ve grown more or less inured to the conflicts of interest that seem to bloom like algae wherever homo reformus sets up shop. But when a tipster contacted me, asking if I was aware that Massachusetts Secretary of Education Jim Peyser sits on the board of a charter school advocacy group, and directs its lobbying arm, even I was agog. So I followed the trail of breadcrumbs that the tipster helpfully provided to the Secretary of State’s corporations division where I typed in Peyser’s name, and voila, there Peyser was, or rather is…

PeyserFES

Continue reading →

Can You Spare $91,440?

Make that $111,039.50…

Update: Since I posted this story, a new study has officially confirmed what was already evident. Massachusetts has among the worst public records access in the country, earning an F from the Center for Public Integrity. That *F* by the way, stands for *fees,* as in the big fat kind. In fact, since our research group submitted our original public records request, several of the charter schools have increased their fees even higher. Boston Collegiate Charter now wants $9,330 for the information we requested. Excel Academy now wants $16,972.50. Match is up to $37,532. And Neighborhood House is up to $17,645. Which brings today’s big fat tally to $111,039.50—and rising. 

Here’s a math question for you, reader. Say one wanted to submit a public records request to a handful of charter schools, inquiring about their recent lobbying activities. How much do you suppose such a request might set one back? If you answered $91,440, you would be on the money.

FOIABut what kind of information could possibly merit fees of that kind? Refresh your beverage, reader, for ours is a long and twisted, not to mention outrageously expensive tale…  Continue reading →