An Investigation Into NY’s “Families for Excellent Schools”
This morning, I read a post on education historian Diane Ravitch’s blog about an influential nonprofit in New York, Families for Excellent Schools (FES). It seems that nonprofit is wielding its influence to advance charter schools in New York City. As Ravitch writes:
Perdido Street blogger asks why it is impossible to find out who contributed to the lobbying group Families for Excellent Schools, which spent $6 million this year to prevent Mayor Bill de Blasio from regulating the charter school sector and won a law that forces the city to pay the rent of charters not located on public school grounds.
The blogger quotes extensively from the business magazine Crain’s New York, which described how this lobbying group exploited loopholes to avoid complying with state laws that require disclosure of donors to political action committees. “Group is visible,” the article’s title says, “but not its donors.”
FES became a nonprofit in April 2012. Between July 2012 and June 2013, it reported an “income” of just over one million dollars.
About those FES “donors”: It might appear that all FES donors are invisible, but they are not.
Not if they are using other nonprofits to support FES.
There is a wonderful, donor-supported search engine for nonprofit tax forms, citizenaudit.org. The search engine will allow the public 40 free views per year. (I just exhausted my free views.)
One of the beauties of this search engine is that it searches for terms within tax forms.
I searched for “families for excellent schools.” I found two nonprofits, a 501(c)3 named Families for Excellent Schools, Inc., and its accompanying lobbying arm, the 501(c)4, Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, Inc.
501(c)3 nonprofits are limited in their lobbying, but donors may take a deduction for donating to a 501(c)3. In contrast, 501(c)4 nonprofits are free to lobby as much as the like, but donors cannot take a deduction for donating to them. Thus, a 501(c)3 may also run a 501(c)4, allowing donors to donate to the 501(c)3 for the work of the associated 501(c)4. It’s as easy as the 501(c)3 “donating” its cash to the 501(c)4. And it introduces an extra layer of money changing hands– one that makes it a little more difficult for the public to follow who is conducting the lobbying and who specifically is paying for it.
In my citizenaudit.com search of FES, I also found a listing of several other nonprofits that mention the organization as a grant recipient:
Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (see pg. 24)
Moriah Fund, Inc. (see pg. 14)
(Note: Once a viewer exhausts 40 views per year, a number of the links above default to the citizenaudit.com sign-up page. Not all, since I sough elsewhere for alternative links.)
WNYC reporter Robert Lewis captured much of the above FES grant information in his March 2014 article:
The Walton Family Foundation, of Walmart fame, has given more than $700,000 over the past two years. …
According to the records that are available, other large donations to the organization (FES) 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.
Lewis also notes the following:
Families for Excellent Schools shares an address with the New York arm of StudentsFirst….
This sharing of an address is strong evidence that FES is Astroturf reform from its outset. Yet there is a bossy center around which FES and its fiscal feeders appear to revolve. Consider a few board connections from among organizations listed above.
Tapestry Project’s executive director is attorney Eric Grannis.
And Eva Moskowitz sits on the StudentsFirst NY board.
And FES shares an address with StudentsFirstNY:
345 Seventh Avenue, Suite 501, New York, NY.
Eva at the bossy center. But that center is very much a collaboration involving Moskowitz, and StudentsFirst, and money from both philanthropies and hedge-fund managers.
Before I ended the post, I thought I’d see what organizations shared the Seventh Street address. I came up with the two expected:
I also found the 2012-2014 election spending reports for another group:
NYPSF is a hedge-fund, charter-school-promoting PAC. (One must pay to access the link to this Capital New York article. I did not pay, so I do not know if the NYPSF hedge funders are named, but I’m thinking at least some are.)
On September 5, 2014, NYPSF contributed $19,700 to “Friends of Kathy Hochul” Andrew Cuomo’s running mate.
There are numerous other detailed expenditures.
825 K Street, 2nd Floor, Sacramento, CA.
But back to New York.
A few final thoughts regarding 325 Seventh Avenue, Suite 501, and the organization that instigated this post, FES:
FES appears to be little more than a Moskowitz- and StudentsFirst-associated mushroom organization designed to offer the illusion of multiple (grass roots) organizations rallying behind “school choice.”
Though it might seem that it is not possible to know who is supporting FES, it is possible to make some telling connections via examination of 990s and physical addresses– especially shared addresses.
Those trying to hide from public view behind one organizational front might find themselves exposed via association with another.
The perils of layered corruption, eh?
Schneider is also author of the ed reform whistleblower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education