Who Is Behind the Pro-Charter Schools Group Fighting de Blasio?

Bill De Blasio was pretty clear during the election that he wasn’t a fan of the charter school boom under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Charter school advocates took notice. Late last month, days before the education department announced it would keep a few new charter schools from opening, supporters registered the domain name charterswork.org. At the same time, local television stations started airing slickly-produced ads.

Behind the multimillion dollar ad campaign and website is the same group—a nonprofit called Families for Excellent Schools. If their message wasn’t clear, they also helped organize Tuesday’s rally in Albany where thousands of charter school advocates turned out.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has received more than $100,000 in campaign donations from charter-school political action committees in recent years, electrified the crowd. One board member from the non-profit has contributed at least $20,000 to Cuomo in the past few years.

“I feel fired up! We are going to save charter schools and you’re making it happen,” Cuomo said to applause. His office tells WNYC the governor has been a “consistent supporter of charter schools on the merits—from his campaign through his three years in office."

The rally highlighted the many parents, kids and educators who support charters. But records show there are also some powerful, wealthy people and organizations in the background fighting for these privately-run schools.

Families for Excellent Schools formed in 2011. Four of its five founding board members are Wall Street players, including Paul Appelbaum, an investor who is the principal at Rock Ventures LLC, and Bryan Lawrence, who runs an investment firm and has years experience with charters. Two of the board members did donate to De Blasio's campaign committee.

Financial sector leaders have long been some of the biggest supporters of the charter-school movement. That’s a fact that has been red meat for charter school opponents.

“They crashed our economy. They crashed New York City. We were at a standstill for a very long time economically here. And now we’re going to trust them with our students? That seems preposterous for me,” said Natasha Capers, a parent leader at the Alliance for Quality Education.

The Alliance—a teachers-union backed nonprofit that supports traditional public schools—attacked the pro-charter ads shortly after they started airing. Capers said she wanted to know why the charter schools need free space from the city if the movement has so many wealthy backers.

“If you can spend multi-millions of dollars on an ad campaign and we know how much ad campaigns cost these are very expensive ad campaigns, right. Then therefore you can pay at cost you can pay that rent,” she said.

Jeremiah Kittredge, the executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, said the strength of the movement comes from the bottom.

“Money can’t buy 11,000 folks in Albany. It just can’t. that is long-term, hardcore real grassroots organizing and it takes months and months of work that comes from organizers in neighborhoods doing one on ones, walking floors, walking buildings, meeting families,” Kittredge said.

Families for Excellent School’s most recent tax filings are from 2012, so it’s unclear how much they’ve raised in recent years or where that money is coming from. The organization is technically two entities—a standard charity and a tax exempt group that can accept anonymous contributions for advocacy.

Families for Excellent Schools shares an address with the New York arm of StudentsFirst, a national education reform nonprofit led by Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. schools chancellor.

Kittredge declined to discuss his organization’s funding.

“This is an effort that we’re really proud of as being truly both bipartisan and one that spans a number of groups and individuals and that’s all I’ll say for now,” he said.

Records show some of the supporters are the major foundations that have typically backed the charter movement.

The Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart fame, has given more than $700,000 over the past two years. That foundation recently hired a deputy schools chancellor from the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Another Bloomberg official—the mayor's former spokesman, Stu Loeser—is handling press for Families for Excellent Schools.

A spokesman for Bloomberg says he hasn’t donated to Families for Excellent Schools.

According to the records that are available, other large donations to the organization include $200,000 in 2012 from the Broad Foundation; $200,000 from the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation in fiscal year 2012-13; $100,000 in 2012 from the Moriah Fund; $25,000 from the Ravenel and Elizabeth Curry Foundation in fiscal year 2011-12; $19,000 in fiscal year 2011-12 from the Tapestry Project; $50,000 in fiscal year 2012-13 from the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program; and $1,000 in 2012 from the Dalio Foundation.