Charter groups top unions in lobbying, campaign spending

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Cuomo speaks at a pro-charter rally in Albany in March of 2014. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)
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ALBANY—Supporters and opponents of education reform, primarily charter school expansion, spent more than $30 million combined attempting to influence New York State politics in 2014, a Capital analysis of lobbyist reports and campaign finance data found.

Charter school groups and their supporters spent $16 million on lobbying, campaign contributions to state-level candidates and parties and independent expenditure campaigns last year. Charter schools spent nearly $700,000 on lobbying. Education unions and labor-funded advocates spent $11.77 million, according to the analysis.

Additionally, large school districts and stakeholder groups representing school boards spent $922,193. An advocacy group pushing a generous tax credit that would incentivize donations to schools spent $659,404.

In defending their spending and high-profile backers, education reform leaders have often portrayed teachers’ unions as deep-pocketed behemoths representing special interests. But the spending reality is that in 2014, the pro-charter and reform groups outspent unions by a considerable margin.

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In the first three months of 2014, New York City’s charter advocates, with the help of Governor Andrew Cuomo, battled Mayor Bill de Blasio over the future of the city’s growing charter sector. Charter leaders felt their existence threatened under the de Blasio administration, which has had frosty relations with the city’s charter contingent.

But after the continued growth of the charter sector around the state was guaranteed in a sweeping pro-charter bill passed last April, the existential threat to charters became less urgent. In the remaining nine months of 2014, pro-charter groups focused more on strengthening accountability measures for teachers and pushing the state and city to take immediate action to fix failing schools.

Each side was led by a group that accounted for more than half of its cause’s spending. While final lobbying totals for 2014 are not yet available, it is likely Families for Excellent Schools, which spent $9.7 million, and the New York State United Teachers, which spent $8.9 million, will finish as the year’s two highest-spending interest groups.

F.E.S., which has helped organize several massive pro-charter rallies over the past year, spent all its money on lobbying efforts, the Capital analysis found.

The second highest spending pro-charter group was StudentsFirstNY, which spent $272,279 lobbying and organized New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, an independent expenditure committee that spent $4.2 million supporting a Republican takeover of the New York State Senate. StudentsFirstNY has led the push to support Cuomo’s education agenda which, if implemented, would be disastrous for unions and beneficial to charters.

NYSUT spent $3.2 million on lobbying, $4.55 million helping Democratic state legislative candidates through an independent expenditure committee and $200,000 in support of a referendum for a $2 billion bond to boost technology in schools. The union also gave $936,042 in direct contributions, including $202,300 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and its housekeeping account, $101,883 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, $95,000 to the Working Families Party and $50,000 to Senator Liz Krueger’s leadership committee.

"What's striking in these numbers is that a few dozen Wall Street financiers and billionaire hedge fund managers are able to far outspend more than 600,000 educators who believe in the promise of public education and voluntarily give a few bucks out of each paycheck to ensure they have a voice,” said Carl Korn, NYSUT’s spokesman.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers spent $2.1 million in 2014, according to Capital's analysis, including donations to organizations like the Monroe County Democratic Committee that used the money to help Senate Democrats. The U.F.T. has led the union-driven fight against Cuomo’s education reforms, organizing a series of emergency meetings and forums over the last month.

Asked about the spending disparity between unions and reform groups, U.F.T. president Michael Mulgrew said, “I’m curious where all that money comes from. They know where our money comes from; we have thousands of members that voluntarily give $5 or $10.”

Supporters of education-focused groups also donated money to individual political candidates and parties. While it’s difficult to know whether those contributions were motivated by the donors’ positions on education policy, it’s possible the donors used fundraisers as opportunities to share with candidates their views on education. But their spending is worth noting, given their financial commitment to influencing education policy.

The magnitude of money from these supporters is impossible to measure, but it can be approximated by examining the donations to the largest independent expenditure committees on each side and seeing how much they gave to other political committees.

An examination of the 1,548 individuals who made itemized donations in 2014 to VOTE-COPE Unauthorized Committee, controlled by NYSUT, found that state-level candidates and parties reported receiving $7,567 from only 25 of them the same year. They contributed a combined $1,200 to the gubernatorial campaigns of Rob Astorino, Zephyr Teachout, and Howie Hawkins, but none donated to Cuomo.

Of the 12 individuals who donated to New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a PAC controlled by StudentsFirstNY, seven gave $1.28 million to state-level parties in candidates in 2014. Hedge fund managers such as Paul Tudor Jones II, Roger Hertog, and Paul Singer gave $627,300 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and $256,600 to Cuomo and the State Democratic Committee.

Dan Loeb, who with his wife made $114,000 in contributions, is the chairman of the board of Success Academy, New York City’s largest and most powerful charter school network. Joel Greenblatt, who is also on Success’ board, gave $112,000.

While unions and their allies spent most of their campaign funds on Democratic legislative candidates and the groups they battled against favored Senate Republicans and Cuomo, both sides often gave to the same candidates.

An examination of the donations by NYSUT, U.F.T., Democrats for Education Reform and the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a group focused on the education tax credit, shows that in the last election cycle, the latter two groups gave to 115 candidates who also received money from the two unions.

Success Academy spent nearly $200,000 on lobbying in 2014. Asked to comment on the spending, Eva Moskowitz, the network’s C.E.O., said in a statement: “Success Academy has a dual mission: to create world-class schools and to change public policies that prevent so many children from having access to opportunity. If we spent $15 for every family who applied but didn't win the Success lottery last year—and improved their odds of escaping a failing school—we've fulfilled part of that mission."

For both sides, it is likely that significantly more money was spent than was reported to state agencies. For example, certain electioneering communications to a group’s members do not count as independent campaign expenditures. Khan Shoieb, spokesperson for F.E.S., pointed to the fact that U.F.T.’s filings with the Department of Labor show they sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to Strong Economy for All, a labor coalition that lobbies in New York. (Charter groups are not similarly subject to D.O.L. disclosure requirements).

There were several education-focused groups not associated with charter schools or unions who spent significant money on lobbying last year.

The New York State School Boards Association spent $511,835. Spokesman Dave Albert said the group’s government relations officials travel the state meeting with school board members before representing their priorities to policymakers. The group also holds events in Albany so members can meet with legislators.

“Our advocacy efforts are directed toward helping school board members be more effective in their roles as stewards of taxpayer resources and trustees of their local public school systems in order to improve public education,” Albert said in a statement. “We work to inform state policymakers on how their legislative and regulatory actions will impact local school districts.”

Coalition for Opportunity in Education, a group whose advocacy is focused exclusively on the Education Investment Tax Credit, which would incentivize donations to private school scholarships or public schools, spent $659,404. Cuomo proposed allocating $100 million for the tax credit in his 2015 executive budget.

“We’ve taken a long-term approach of patiently explaining the bill to countless numbers of people, amending it as we listen and get feedback, building broad and diverse support in a big state, working with local groups of all stripes—that all requires money,” Bob Bellafiore, spokesman for the group, said in a statement. “The result is our bill is supported by more than 120 groups that exemplify New York State’s rich ethnic, racial, cultural, religious and geographic diversity—from local arts non-profits to immigration advocates to labor unions and more.”