NYC's Charter School Grudge Match
The city's charter school wars raged all spring. They got about as bitter as legislative battles get, with TV attack ads, tabloid slams, mass rallies, and a high-volume, standing-room-only hearing.
A cease-fire was reached only when a last-minute bill in late May gave charter advocates much of what they sought: a big expansion in the number of these independently run, but publicly funded schools, although with tighter rules and scrutiny.
You'd think that would have quieted things down a bit. But now the long knives are out for three state senators whose tough talk during the debate rubbed charter advocates the wrong way. The trio, led by top target Bill Perkins of Harlem, are now facing well-funded re-election fights. All three lawmakers—Perkins, Velmanette Montgomery of Central Brooklyn, and Shirley Huntley of South Queens—eventually voted for the charter schools expansion after new conflict-of-interest rules and auditing requirements were added. In the end, the bill's only opponents were 14 sour-grapes Republican senators who were mad because the new rules bar for-profit schools.
But even after their victory, pro-charter advocates decided that their cause would best be served by taking a few scalps to teach future foes not to mess with them. This is no idle dream of political payback. Charter schools have become an adopted cause for a clutch of wealthy hedge fund managers who are fueling campaigns aimed at winning friends and taking out perceived enemies. Already in this election cycle, the deep-pocketed investors have shelled out more than $500,000 to a range of state and national candidates. In the State Senate races, they held a couple of meet-and-greets last month for potential candidates to see if they could handle their missions.
One reception was held at the home of R. Boykin Curry IV, who lives in Trump Parc on Central Park South. Curry helped found two charter schools. He has earned enough from managing other people's money to have bought a chunk of the coast of the Dominican Republic, where he wants to open a "creative person's utopia," as he told The New Yorker a couple of years ago. Guests at his soiree included a few dozen charter school backers, many of them investment managers.
Invited for inspection were Basil Smikle, a political consultant running against Perkins; Mark Pollard, a Brooklyn lawyer challenging Montgomery; and Lynn Nunes, a Queens businessman trying to defeat Huntley.
"The room was a fairly well-to-do crowd," said Smikle, a former Hillary Clinton aide who worked for Mayor Bloomberg's re-election campaign last year. Candidates, he said, gave their stump speeches, then mingled with guests. "As with most things," he said, "you have to make your case, you have to say why you can win."
Pollard said he was already thinking of running when the invitation came. "They expressed that they were looking to get politically involved to support candidates who can advance their policy objectives," he said. "They invited me to this reception where I got to meet them all. It was literally just chit-chat for quite a while." Nunes hesitated when asked about his hosts: "I would just say they were people interested in educational alternatives," he said.
The trio passed inspection. Days later, checks from the charter backers started flowing at an average clip of $5,000 apiece. So far, filings show, the hedge funders have contributed more than $225,000 to the three races, making them the challengers' main source of cash. They're responsible for $80,000 of the $145,000 Smikle has raised; $83,000 of Nunes's $155,000 total receipts; and $65,000—a whopping 70 percent—of Pollard's campaign donations.
The attack plan here is to beat the dues-rich teachers' unions—the state's largest political funder and viewed by charter school backers as their chief enemy—at their own game. "I've worked with a lot of elected officials, and I don't think this is any different from real estate or unions using money for organizing," said Smikle. "They're about education and reform."
They're also way ahead of their opponents. Although the teachers may wait until later to shovel in the big bucks, so far the three charter targets have taken in just $34,000 from the teachers and their allies.
Coordinating the election push is Michael Tobman, a savvy political consultant working for Education Reform Now, the group that ran attack ads on Perkins and the teachers' union during the Albany fight. "The charter school community has a political component to their policy work," he said. "All three of the Senate races are very winnable."
The trio are also of decidedly uneven caliber: Huntley made her name in a series of full-throttle battles on her local school board over charges of racism against white board members and school employees. In 2006, she beat the coffee-tossing Ada Smith in a 2006 primary. She put a second target on her back when she voted against the gay marriage bill this year.
Nunes, who last year fell just four votes short of defeating City Council "invisible man" Tom White, says that Huntley has also been absent on the district's unemployment and foreclosure crises. "There's just a general lack of government services," he said.
Montgomery is the polar opposite of the mouthy Huntley. She's been quietly plugging away since 1986 on women's and criminal justice issues in the legislature, work that finally started to pay off when the Democrats won a majority. Her apparent offense to the charter backers is that she piped up with a few questions at the legislative hearing chaired by Perkins in late April. Pollard, a former prosecutor, said that, other than charters, his biggest gripe with Montgomery is that she has stayed too long. "No disrespect," he said, "but after 25 years, it's time for new, energetic leadership."
The Perkins race is the real blood feud. His Harlem district has the most charter schools in the city, and he was a vocal supporter of parents and teachers who complained that charters were grabbing scarce space in local public schools. Charters, he said, were "cannibalizing" zoned local schools and receiving "favoritism" from city education officials. "What about the 97 percent of kids in regular schools?" he says. "Where's the energy and attention for them?"
That kind of talk, along with his handling of this spring's hearing at which many charter advocates said they were shut out, helped put him atop the charters' hit list. "Bill Perkins pitted parents against each other," says Smikle. Charter school executive Eva Moskowitz, the former Councilmember who runs seven schools, and whose board members are some of those writing campaign checks, makes no secret of her preference: "Listen, you'd have to live under a rock not to hear the gratuitous attacks he's made on some pretty important institutions in Harlem," she said.
Whatever Perkins's charter stand, it's a stretch to suggest he's doing it just to curry favor with well-funded unions. As a City Councilman, he waged a long battle against landlords—still the richest vein of campaign money—and Council leaders to win a tough law against lead-paint poisoning. He started as a tenant organizer, exposing conditions at Schomburg Plaza, where a 1987 fire that started in a clogged garbage chute killed seven tenants. He also served on the board of the city's first charter, the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem. "I was hopeful that it could be a response to the despair in the neighborhood," he said. "I'm happy that some children are getting a good education," he said. "This debate's a good debate, but you can't turn a blind eye to the substantial majority of kids still in the regular schools."
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