Monday, July 19, 2010

Charter Advocates' Deep Pockets

The charter-school movement appears to be catching up to the teachers union in political giving to Albany.

With the help of hedge-fund managers and other Wall Street financiers, charter-school advocates gave more than $600,000 to Albany political candidates and party committees since January, according to the latest campaign filings. That's more than twice as much as in prior reporting periods, according to allies of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run.

Pro-charter donations appear to have surpassed the $500,000 or so that candidates raised from teachers unions during the six-month period.

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Manhattan Charter School students watched President Obama's address to students in New York City in September 2009.

The gap isn't quite closed: Labor leaders, who are sitting on millions in political cash and have far more manpower, say they are waiting to see if lawmakers block education cuts before they unleash more money and roll out endorsements.

"We're being very conservative about our contributions to state legislators," said Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers. "We're really trying to see how this budget finally materializes."

Still, the donation numbers posted by education reformers have heightened his concern.

"What we're clearly seeing from so-called reformers is that they're putting money out there early and clearly threatening to use big dollars against people who don't toe the line," Mr. Iannuzzi said.

The spike in donations is another indication of the strength of a movement that, only several years ago, was championed by only a few conservative education policy-makers. "The political scales are much more evenly balanced between the teachers union and the charter advocates than they have been in any point in history," said Tom Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, a pro-charter group.

The support overlapped with the recent clash between charter allies and the teachers union over an expansion of charter schools. Over the objections of labor leaders, lawmakers agreed to lift the charter cap, paving the way for another 260 schools to open around the state.

Frustration over Albany's halting effort to compete for hundreds of millions of education dollars in the Obama administration's Race to the Top incentive helped to galvanize donors, said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that spearheaded fund-raising. "That was a wake-up call to a lot of people," said Mr. Williams, whose advocacy network spent several million dollars on TV and direct-mail.

Charter advocates pumped most of their money to Democrats, who control both legislative houses. Support was also concentrated around politically vulnerable incumbents who stood by their cause, such as Long Island Sen. Craig Johnson, as well as insurgent candidates seeking to unseat hardened foes. In one of the most closely watched races, Basil Smikle, a Democratic political consultant allied with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has raised $145,000 in his effort to topple Sen. Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat and a charter-school critic.

While incumbents typically enjoy a fund-raising advantage, Mr. Perkins raised $20,000 less than Mr. Smikle since January.

More than half of Mr. Smikle's contributions came from pro-charter donors, according to Mr. Williams.

Write to Jacob Gershman at jacob.gershman

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