This post highlights the work of Peggy Wiesenberg, an attorney and Access to Justice Fellow working with Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST), a grassroots organization of Boston Public School parents dedicated to promoting quality, equity and transparency in public education. The Access to Justice Fellows Program is a collaboration of the Lawyers Clearinghouse and the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
This election season, Massachusetts is shaping up to be a busman’s holiday for ballot committees organized on Ballot Question 2, which is being touted as An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools. If passed, the ballot initiative will lift the cap on charters by 12 schools per year in perpetuity and “radically destabilize school governance” and municipal funding in Massachusetts, as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wrote in a Boston Globe editorial explaining why he is voting “No” on Question 2.
While 200 Massachusetts school committees—the equivalent of school boards—have come out against the initiative, two in three businesses back charter school expansion. Massachusetts has become a battle ground among both pro- and anti-charter-school expansion forces. Funding for and against Question 2 has now topped $33 million, in what could be the most expensive ballot campaign in state history.
Lining up in favor of the Question 2, is a cadre of deep-pocketed funders who were behind an earlier ballot campaign, about six years ago, to raise the cap on Massachusetts charters; but in lieu of a referendum, in 2010, the state legislature passed a law lifting the cap. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the big-money backers of that earlier campaign have increased their spending on this year’s ballot initiative exponentially.
The stakes are, indeed, high because, ever since its storied 1993 Education Reform Act, Massachusetts has enjoyed the highest ranking in the nation on the NAEP test, the nation’s education “report card.” Thus, if Bay State citizens vote to lift the charter cap, lower-ranking states will have a much harder time resisting pressure to open the flood gates for charter schools.
Maurice Cunningham here, and Mercedes Schneider here, have written about national organizations like Democrats for Education Reform and Families for Excellent Schools, which do not have to disclose their donors, and which are funneling “dark money” to the ballot initiative, as well as about local ballot committees, which have been established specifically to support the ballot initiative and do have to disclose their donors.
Now, with early voting starting today in Massachusetts, DFER has just launched a $500,000 effort that focuses on phone calls, mailings, and radio advertising to shore up the pro-charter vote just as the latest polling shows “Democrats turning sharply against the referendum and threatening its prospects for passage,” according to the Boston Globe. Tonight DFER was “blasting Latino air waves,” writes Wiesenberg.
Together, four ballot committees established specifically to support Question 2, have raised over $20.5 million thus far. They are:
- Yes on 2: $710,000 (Note: Yes on 2 has recently been disbanded with its funds folded into Greater Schools Massachusetts)
- Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools: $2,418,518
- Great Schools Massachusetts: $15,620,448
- Expanding Educational Opportunities: $575,000
A fifth ballot committee, “Advancing Obama’s Legacy” was filed on October 17 and appears to be a successor organization to Yes on 2. The chairman of the group, Frank Perullo is a lead advisor to DFER and to Robert Kraft, owner of, among other things, the New England Patriots; the Kraft Group is also one of the biggest contributors to Question 2. Perullo, a seasoned election consultant, appears to have timed this late-comer ballot committee in order to collect contributions in support of charter school expansion from donors whose identities do not need to be disclosed until November 4th .
The leading ballot committee against Question 2, Save Our Public Schools, which is heavily supported by labor, has garnered $12.5 million
Wiesenberg, an attorney, Boston public-school parent, alum and activist, has combed through the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OFCP) database to ascertain who exactly is pouring funds into this clutch of pro-charter ballot organizations. By law, ballot committees must disclose their contributions to OCFP.
The OCPF filings reveal the broad swath of Massachusetts business people and entities behind the latest ballot initiative. Many of these local funders backed the earlier ballot committee, which helped lead, eventually, to the 2010 charter-school cap lift. The biggest funders of the predecessor ballot committee, which is identified by OCPF filings as “the Committee for Charter Public Schools”, have increased their spending three- , four- even ten-times as much as they did in 2009/2010–a good indicator of how high the political stakes have become.
Among the biggest backers of the 2009-2010 drive to expand charter schools are men who are now top officials in the administration of Governor Charlie Baker, and are leading both Massachusetts education and the Question 2 drive. Secretary of Education Jim Peyser who, in 2009-2010, was Managing Partner of New Schools Venture Fund, a leading charter-school funder and gatekeeper, in cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C., founded the Committee for Charter Public Schools. In 2009, 39 contributors to that committee gave a total of $387,275. In this year’s ballot initiative, Paul Sagan, a venture capitalist and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, alone contributed $100,000, a 10-fold increase over his 2009 contribution to the earlier ballot campaign committee. The Boston Globe recently reported that charter opponents have cried foul over Sagan’s contribution to the Campaign for Fair Access to Public Charter Schools; Sagan countered, in his ethics filing, that the contributions were made “as a private individual” and that pro-charter groups could not use his position in advertising and publicity materials.
Other heavy-hitters, in addition to Sagan, are:
- Jim Walton who contributed $1,125,000 to the Campaign for Fair Access to Public Charter Schools
- Alice Walton contributed $710,000 to Yes on 2, three-times the amount she gave in 2009.
- Charles Longfield, founder of Target Analytics and chief scientist for Blackbaud, companies that offer data management services to non-profit foundations, corporations and schools (not to be confused with Blackboard) contributed $100,000 to the Campaign for Fair Access to Public Charter Schools –10-times the amount he gave in 2009.
- Raymond Stata, chairman of Analog Devices and venture capitalist investor, gave $100,000 to Great Schools Mass. – 20-times the amount he gave in 2009.
Other pro-charter Question 2 contributors who have exponentially upped their ballot-initiative contributions over the amount they contributed in 2009:
- Stephen Mugford, VP of Capital One Financial Corp., gave $60,000 up 12-fold from 2009.
- Joshua Bekenstein, Managing Director of Bain Capital and board member of New Profit Inc. a venture philanthropy fund that invests in charter schools, contributed $40,000, up eight-fold from 2009
- Paul Edgerley, also a Managing Director of Bain Capital and a board member of New Profit Inc., contributed $40,000, up four-fold from 2009
- Joanna Jacobson, Managing Partner of Strategic Grant Partners, contributed $40,000, up four-fold from 2009
- Seth Klarman, Founder of The Baupast Group, a hedge fund, contributed $40,000 up four-fold from 2009
- Martin Mannion, Managing Director of Summit Partners, contributed $30,000, up 10-fold from 2009
Among the 2009 contributors, only the $25,000 contribution of Lawrence Coolidge, of Loring, Walcott & Coolidge, was equal to the amount he contributed in 2009.
Contributors to Question 2 who did not contribute funds to the earlier ballot initiative include:
- Charter Public Schools Voter Education Fund, $150,000
- Charter Public School Association, $100,000
- Partners Healthcare, $100,000
- The Kraft Group, $100,000 (CEO Robert Kraft owns the New England Patriots.)
- State Street Bank and Trust Co., $100,000
- Suffolk Cares Inc. , $100,000
- Shari Redstone, president of National Amusements and the recent winner, in the high-stakes power-struggle over control CBS-Viacom, her father’s media empire –$100,000
- Edward Shapiro, Partner of Par Capital Management, $200,000
- Bradley Bloom, Managing Director of Berkshire Partners, $100,000. Contributions from 4 other Managing Directors at Berkshire Partners totaled another $150,000. Bundled contributions from Berkshire Partners are up 25-fold from the $10,000 amount that a lone Berkshire Partner contributed in 2009.
- Abigail Johnson, CEO Fidelity Investments and Manager of FMR LLC, contributed $40,000. Contributions from 31 Fidelity and 2 FMR employees—most in $1,000 increments—total an additional $ 62,710.
- EMC Corporation contributed $75,000, more than seven-fold the $10,000 amount that William Teuber, EMC CEO (now Vice Chair of Dell-EMC), founder of Mass Business Leaders for Charter Schools, and one of 16 business titans who formed the Mass. Competitive Partnership PAC that is listed with OCPF as the address of two of the five Question-2 ballot committees, contributed in 2009;
- Massmutual Financial Group of Springfield contributed $50,000
- Vertex Pharmaceuticals Incorporated also contributed $50,000
The above lists are almost surely a small number of the deep-pocketed contributors to Question 2. At least a dozen individuals and organizations that contributed to the 2009 initiative do not show up as contributors to the five main Question-2 ballot committees, which are required to disclose donors. Many are likely contributing “dark money” to organizations like DFER and Families for Excellent Schools, instead.
The 2009 contributors who are no-shows on the five Question 2 committees, include Amos Hostetter, Chair of Pilot House Associates LLC and founder of the Barr Foundation. In 2016, after officials of the Massachusetts Public Charter School Association Inc. filed Ballot Question 2, the Barr Foundation made awards to support major expansions of Brooke Charter School Network and Neighborhood House Charter School in Boston and to the MPCSA to launch a common application for Boston charter schools similar to those in Newark and New Orleans.
Eli Broad and the Fisher family, two of the nation’s leading education reform philanthropists and charter-school funders, also contributed to the 2009 campaign to lift the charter cap, and are absent from the Question 2 committees.
The Fisher family’s absence is particularly noteworthy as John Fisher co-chairs the board of the Charter Growth Fund and chairs the board of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP Foundation,) the largest charter organization in the nation, which is getting ready for a major expansion of the KIPP brand in the Bay State should the ballot initiative pass
Another KIPP Foundation board member who contributed to the 2009 ballot initiative, but who does not appear on official Question 2 ballot committee filings with OCPF is Mark Nunnelly, the executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Information Technology who reports directly to Governor Charlie Baker, a major supporter of the ballot initiative.
Indeed, national charter school organizations and CMOs are already getting ready to seize large swaths of public-school districts—and their funding—should the measure pass. Stay tuned for more on CMO strategies in a later post.