Schools fight dominates record spending on lobbying

The schools group chaired by former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was last year's fourth-biggest Albany lobbyist. Photo: Gotham Schools

With this story, The New York World launches The Lobbies at the Top, a guide to spending on political influence in New York State. The first edition takes a look at the power players of 2011, who won gay marriage, teacher concessions, a Medicaid deal and more.


The future of the fight over public schools has a fresh, highly visible face, and it’s called StudentsFirstNY.

But the new school-reform supergroup, founded by former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and ex-D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, is in fact not that new at all. It builds directly one of the biggest lobbying forces in New York State, called Education Reform Now.

In the last two years, Education Reform Now and the associated Education Reform Now Advocacy have spent more than $10 million to influence state law on hiring and firing of teachers, as a counterforce to the state’s two major teachers’ unions. Those funds helped force a change in teacher evaluations that unions had opposed, and also backed Mayor Bloomberg’s push for layoffs based on teacher performance in place of the current system, in which the most recently hired teachers must be the first to be let go.

The $10 million is as much money as StudentsFirstNY director Micah Lasher — until now, Mayor Bloomberg’s chief Albany lobbyist — says the new group will spend to influence the next mayoral election.

Klein chaired the Education Now board until this month, when he resigned to serve instead on the board of StudentsFirstNY. The state group will be affiliated with Rhee’s national StudentsFirst organization, which now operates in 17 states.

“They’ve always been closely allied,” said Steven Brill, author of the book Class Warfare, of Rhee’s national group and Klein’s New York State effort. The new alliance, he believes, “surfaced publicly to fire a warning shot at the mayoral candidates. It was their way of saying there would be two strong groups instead of just one standing watch over the race.”Last week, Education Reform Now’s sibling political group, Democrats for Education Reform,  announced that it will be joining forces with StudentsFirstNY as part of a new statewide coalition, to be known as the New York State Education Reform Council.

“We’re going up against one of the most powerful interests in Albany,” said Joe Williams, who directs both Education Reform Now and Democrats for Education Reform, to the New York Post. “We don’t stand a chance if we’re not aligned and focused.”

Those interests are the state’s two major teacher’s unions, United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City public school educators, and United Teachers of New York State. Their combined 900,000 members hold heavy influence over the state’s Democratic legislators; combined, the unions spent $7.5 million on lobbying last year alone to Education Reform Now’s $3.8 million.

Most of that money has poured into TV and internet advertising. State lobbying records reveal that Education Reform Now / Education Reform Now Advocacy — two related groups that registered as a single lobbying entity — spent $7.5 million in 2010 and 2011 on ads via consultant SKD Knickerbocker, part of a total $10.4 million in influence spending during those two years.

That ad blitz vaulted Education Reform Now/Education Reform Now Advocacy to fourth on the list of biggest lobbying spenders in New York in 2011, just behind the state teacher’s union in spending last year and ahead of the city’s United Federation of Teachers.

Ad buys in the education wars helped drive New York State lobbying spending last year to a record high of $220 million.

Last year, the group’s spending boosted Mayor Bloomberg’s demand for a change in seniority rules, so that administrators could lay off the worst-performing teachers instead of those most recently hired.

Education Reform Now TV ads featured city school teachers opposing their union’s position. “If there have to be layoffs, we should keep the best teachers — it’s that simple,” declares Rogelio Herrera Jr., a Bronx public school teacher. “You’re talking about losing young minds.” Jane Viau echoes his words. “ Whether that means they’re a second-year teacher of a 22nd-year teacher,” she says, “you’ve got to keep great teachers.”

A 2010 ad, which aired in Albany and New York City, sought to break the legislative impasse over teacher evaluations that blocked nearly $700 million in federal funds. “Albany is listening much too much to the teachers union,” complained a woman in the commercial.

That campaign prevailed a year and a half later when Governor Cuomo brokered a last minute deal with the unions on a new evaluation system, clearing a path for the state to receive the funds.

Also in 2010, the group played a critical role in pushing the legislature to more than double the number of charter schools authorized for the state, up to 460. Some of Education Reform Now’s $6.5 million in spending that year sponsored ads in support of the measure.

Joel Klein isn’t the only connection between Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirstNY. The Education Reform Now board includes some heavy-hitting charter school donors from the hedge fund world, including John Sabat of SAC Capital and Sidney Hawkins Gargiulo of Ziff Brothers Investments. Democrats for Education Reform was co-founded by John Petry of Columbus Capital Management, who also serves on the board of both that organization and Education Reform Now. All three board members are deeply involved in the Success Charter Network run by former City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz – who herself will serve on the StudentsFirst board.

Williams told The New York World that Klein’s new group and his old one will likely share some of their funders and board members. “I imagine there will be a large overlap among the donors,” he said. “But it’s not clear yet what role we’ll actually play.”

Education Reform Now does not disclose its donors, but among those who have publicized contributions are the Bill and Melinda Gates, Walton, Starr, Broad and Pershing Square foundations.

Independently, some supporters of the group have also sought to replace legislators perceived as too friendly to the teacher’s union. In 2010, board members and advisors to Education Reform Now and affiliates contributed more than $200,000 to the State Senate campaign of Basil Smikle, who opposed outspoken charter school critic Bill Perkins in that year’s Democratic primary. Smikle won just 20 percent of the vote, but Perkins heard a strong message.

“They ran a head hunt against me because I launched the first ever hearing into the who was actually running charter schools,” Perkins said. “Their attitude is, ‘Think our way or we’ll punish you.’”

In the meantime, state Senate leadership has advanced measures to aggressively expand charter schools. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) removed a provision from the Senate version of this year’s budget that would prevent for-profit entities from establishing charter schools.

The measure didn’t make it into the final budget, but Perkins says it’s a prelude for what’s to come. “They really showed their hand, slipping this one in,” he said, “The wars are going to escalate.”

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