It seems absurd, and yet it's true: four wealthy Californians and one wealthy Coloradan - heavy hitters in the tech, financial, and health care sectors - have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a slate of candidates running for the school board in Perth Amboy, a city of 50,000 with a majority Hispanic population.
According to New Jersey election records, the slate of candidates calling themselves "Better Schools Now!" has collected $64,700, mostly from sources outside of Perth Amboy. In contrast, an opposing slate, "New Vision, New Voice" has collected $7,005, with all of its donations over $300 coming from within the city.
Why would such a large amount of money come into Perth Amboy from out of state to influence the outcome of a local school board election? Regular readers of this blog will know the backstory, but let me recap quickly:
In 2011, the Perth Amboy school board hired Janine Caffrey as its new superintendent. Caffrey quickly began to appear in the press as an opponent of teacher tenure; she used anecdotes from the Perth Amboy district as evidence that tenure was "...the single greatest impediment to education improvement in New Jersey, without a doubt." This didn't sit well with the school board; neither did her refusal to, allegedly, follow their hiring recommendations for school bus drivers. Caffrey and the board began a war that played out in the media; I've never seen anything quite like it.
In the spring of 2012, the school board put Caffrey on administrative leave. Almost immediately after her dismissal, the lobbying group B4K (an affiliate of Michelle Rhee's national school reform lobbying group StudentsFirst) waged a public relations campaign on her behalf.
In an unprecedented move, NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf overrode the board's decision and sent the case to an arbitrator. The board voted a second time to remove Caffrey; Cerf's DOE again overrode their vote.
It's clear that Cerf has delayed the decision in the hopes that the upcoming election would resolve this situation for him. If a new board is elected, and decides to retain Caffrey, Cerf wouldn't have to interfere directly to save her job. Cerf's involvement is further complicated by a large contract before the board that involves a former associate.
Add to this a particularly nasty mayoral race in a town with a history of corruption and you have all of the makings of a hotly contested school board race. Even so: why would so many outsiders donate money to support candidates in a district that barely serves 10,000 students?
A look at the contributors provides us with clues:
- Greg Penner, Atherton CA; $8,000 donation. Penner is the Founder of Madrone Capital Partners and a well-known conservative activist. Married to Walton fortune heiress Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner sits on the boards of Teach For America and The Charter School Growth Fund. CSGF invests in charter management organizations around the country, including the KIPP network and Nobel charter schools. As I've written previously, both KIPP and Nobel have reputations for managing schools that serve substantially different student populations than their neighboring public schools.
CSGF is also an investor in Rocketship Education; see below.
- Arthur Rock, San Francisco CA; $8,000 donation. Rock is a well-known venture capitalist who also serves on the board of TFA and is an active funder of KIPP. Rock has invested in the Rocketship Education, a "hybrid" school that features extensive use of computerized instruction and, consequently, has a smaller faculty than regular public schools. Larry Miller found that Rocketship had large student attrition rates and smaller percentages of special needs students than its neighboring public schools (Rocketship responds to Miller here).
- David Goldberg, Atherton, CA; $8,000 donation. Goldberg is CEO of SurveyMonkey; his wife is Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Both are partners, along with Rock, in Rocketship Education.
- Kent Thiry, Cherry Hills, CO; $10,400 donation. Thiry is CEO of DaVita, a dialysis provider; he was previously a consultant for Bain Capital. DaVita has been the subject of several federal investigations (in fairness, the company was recently cleared in one). Thiry has been interested in Colorado's schools and education policy for some time. He donated $33,000 to a slate of "reform" candidates in Denver school board elections last year, who were also endorsed by Democrats for Education Reform and Jonah Edelman's Stand For Children.
It really couldn't be more clear: the "Better Schools Now!" slate is being supported by a group of wealthy outsiders who would love to bring a swarm of new charter schools to Perth Amboy. And they couldn't have picked a better place in all of New Jersey:
- Perth Amboy has an embattled superintendent with an extensive private school resume who loathes teacher tenure.
- That superintendent has a guardian angel in Chris Cerf, the state Education Commissioner who ran a charter management company himself for years.
- The rancorous political climate undoubtedly has local residents itching to "clean house" and elect a new board.
- The local teachers union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, not the New Jersey Education Association; NJEA has been the Christie administration's primary target, not AFT.
There's only one question left: who convinced these western plutocrats that Perth Amboy, NJ was the place to make their stand? There's just no way these donors would have found out about this race on their own; someone led them to it. We can't be certain, but there are two final donors - the only big givers who hail from New Jersey (but not Perth Amboy) - who probably provide the answer:
- Jennifer Fournier, Far Hills, NJ - $10,400 donation.
- Alan Fournier, Far Hills, NJ - $10,400 donation.
Alan Fournier is one of the co-founders of Better Education For Kids (B4K), the NJ lobbying group that has set itself up as the nemesis of the NJEA. You'll remember that B4K paid for Superintendent Caffrey's public relations campaign against the board. It's also worth pointing out that B4K has "partnered" with StudentsFirst, which reportedly received large donations from Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's education firm, Wireless Generation, built the software engine that runs the School Of One program. SO1's successor has been seeking a $575,000 contract with Perth Amboy's schools.
All that aside: the Fourniers are the only big money donors to Better Schools Now! from in-state. Each gave the maximum amount allowed by law to a school board candidate; their contributions alone would have been enough to give BSN! a clear fundraising advantage.
But perhaps that wasn't enough. Did B4K go out and actively solicit contributions from out-of-state for this race? It would certainly be in keeping with their profile if they did; B4K's Executive Director, Derrell Bradford, is a self-confessed political animal:
He said two interesting things to me in our meeting. “I’m here because you’re not.” Translation – if the education establishment had taken on the issues, or at least been less complacent about messaging (the REAL problem in my opinion) there’d be no market for the “reforms.” The second thing he said was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Reform 1.0 was school choice. Reform 2.0 was tenure (for NJ). Reform 3.0 is we have a SuperPAC – we can elect candidates. [emphasis mine]Well, it sure looks like that's the plan in Perth Amboy. It's worth noting that Bradford's old outfit, the school voucher pushing group E3, threw in $1,000 as well.
And it's also worth noting that, according to BSN!'s Facebook page, this slate's view of teachers unions matches up with B4K's:
If you thought there was acrimony in Perth Amboy before, watch what happens if this slate is elected. And as for charter schools:
Carpe Diem is a "blended learning" charter beloved by the reformy right. Students spend most of their day at cubicles, not unlike a call-center. The school's leaders admit "it isn't for every student." Will Perth Amboy see an influx of schools like Carpe Diem and Rocketship if the Better Schools Now! slate is elected?
There is a nation-wide movement brewing: wealthy business interests are pouring large sums of money into local school board races. We hadn't yet seen this in New Jersey until now, mostly because the big city school districts with large minority populations are already under state control (or will be soon).
Perth Amboy is the first indication I've seen that the reformy types want to move into New Jersey. Thanks to the war between Caffrey and her board, a slate of candidates is poised to take over the city's schools in a campaign fueled by wealthy outsiders. Perth Amboy could be their toehold: the place where the radical transformation of New Jersey's public schools begins.
Tuesday night, we'll find out if they got away with it.