Details on the Purchased Push for MA’s Charter-Cap-Lifting Ballot Question 2
On November 08, 2016, Massachusetts voters will be deciding whether or not to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. The ballot measure, known as Question 2, would open the door for “up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions in existing charter schools each year.”
As one might imagine, the MA effort in favor of charter cap-lifting is hardly a grass roots affair (and not a Democratic party idea, either), as education blogger and Massachusetts resident, Jennifer Berkshire, highlights in her August 2016 interview with UMass Boston poly-sci prof Maurice Cunningham:
EduShyster: There’s a well-funded effort underway to paint the campaign to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts as a progressive cause. But what you’ve found in your research is that this is basically a Republican production from top to bottom.
Cunningham: That’s right. There are a handful of wealthy families that are funding this. They largely give to Republicans and they represent the financial industry, basically. They’re out of Bain, they’re out of Baupost, they’re out of High Fields Capital Management. Billionaire Seth Klarman, for example, has been described as the largest GOP donor in New England, and he gives a lot of money to free market, anti-government groups. Then on the campaign level, you have Republican strategist Will Keyser who certainly knows his stuff, and Jim Conroy who certainly knows his stuff. They know how to make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t.
EduShyster: By *make something look like a grassroots campaign that really isn’t,* what you really mean is that this is an entirely community-driven, grassroots campaign, correct?
Cunningham: No. There is no grassroots support behind this campaign whatsoever. What do we look for to measure grassroots support? We look for a campaign’s ability to find people who will essentially volunteer, who feel strongly about an issue and are willing to do the work that a campaign needs done Two examples: signature collecting and canvassing door to door. Great Schools Massachusetts isn’t able to do either one of those things. When they had to get signatures in 2015, they wound up paying $305,000 to a signature gathering firm. And that’s because they don’t have people who are strong believers who will go out on the street and volunteer and be passionate and do the things that people do when they really care about an issue. Or look at Democrats for Education Reform. When they backed Dan Rizzo in the special Senate election earlier this year, they had to pay for canvassers because they don’t have people who feel strongly enough about the positions they take. The idea that these are community groups is completely manufactured.
Cunningham has produced some impressive research on the wealthy individuals and organizations pushing for MA charters. In his July 15, 2016, post, he examines the 2015 finances of pro-cap-lifting Great Schools Massachusetts and discovers in his August 02, 2016, post, that six major contributors to Great Schools Massachusetts (GSM) are also major contributors to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit, Strategic Grant Partners:
- Joshua Bekenstein (Joshua and Anita Bekenstein Charitable Fund): $884,997 to SGP (2014); $40,000 to GSM (2015)
- Paul Edgerley (Edgerley Family Foundation): $360,125 to SGP (2014); $40,000 to GSM (2015)
- William Helman: $362,110 to SGP (2014); $30,000 to GSM (2015)
- Joanna Jacobson (Jacobson Family Foundation): $2,983,795 to SGP (2014);
- Seth Klarman (Klarman Family Foundation): $1,961,693 to SGP (2014); $40,000 to GSM (2015)
- Denise Dupre (Dupre Nunnelly Charitable Gift Fund, the Boston Foundation): $219,485 to SGP (2014); $10,000 to GSM (2015)
Click the links above to see the names “Bain Capital” and “Dartmouth College” appear more than once. These folks have overlapping involvements that go beyond SGP but no doubt contribute to the spending power of SGP.
A gander at the Strategic Grant Partners tax forms shows that SGP is clearly interested in promoting corporate reform, which, of course, includes charter school proliferation. Cunningham discusses some of the SGP-funded corporate reform orgs in his two posts linked above, and so I will leave that for now, except to include SGP tax forms from 2009 to 2014 for any who wish to peruse them:
Cunningham also mentions another nonprofit that has thrown several thousand dollars at Question 2 promoter, Great Schools Massachusetts, and that is the ill-defined, contributor-concealing, lobbying nonprofit, Strong Economy for Growth, which I highlight for the remainder of this post.
In 2015, Strong Economy for Growth contributed $70,000 to Great Schools Massachusetts.
I investigated the campaign-spending history of Strong Economy for Growth, including the only two tax forms it has on file:
Strong Economy for Growth (SEG) states its mission as follows:
The organizations primary exempt purpose is to further the common good and general welfare of the citizens of the United States by engaging in research, education and communications efforts to provide citizens with information regarding economic opportunities and individual liberties.
In 2014, it had a single board member: Ernesto DiGiambattista. The year before, SEG had two board members: DiGiambattista and treasurer, Ashley Korb.
SEG’s greatest expense (noted on the 2014 return) was $537,945 for “research to identify Massachusetts citizens who do not vote consistently and undertook activities to educate these persons on a non-partisan basis on the importance of exercising their voting rights through get-out-the-vote information and communications.”
It second largest expense was $185,000, the explanation for which was, “the organization contributed to a political action committee.” Most of that money ($165,000) SEG paid to the Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC— the goal of which was to prevent the re-election of Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
Shaheen won anyway, as this November 2014 Politico article reports:
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has defeated Scott Brown and retained her New Hampshire Senate seat, according to the Associated Press.
The Democratic incumbent was leading with 52 percent of the vote to Brown’s 48 percent, with 33 percent of precincts reporting when the AP called the race.
Republicans had fought hard down the stretch to flip the seat for Brown… with the hope that the seat would help them take control of the Senate. …
Shaheen’s camp spent around $12 million on the race this cycle, while Brown’s operation has spent $6.3 million, according to federal election records. But more than $27 million poured into the race from outside groups, with about $16 million of that going in Brown’s favor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. …
Brown’s ability to intrigue voters as an alternative to Shaheen made for a tighter than expected race. At the same time, Shaheen, a former three-term governor wrapping up her first term as senator, is synonymous with the state’s Democratic politics — an advantage that Brown was unable to overcome.
The article also comments on “Brown’s ability to connect locally with voters less than a year after moving from Massachusetts.”
SEG is Massachusetts-based. Small world, eh?
Interestingly, she was also a former NH governor with an anti-charter school history. From a 2013 New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) article:
The first law allowing charter schools was passed in 1995. But the early legislation allowed schools to be authorized by local districts. Given that a district that set up a charter would be choosing to divide already limited education dollars, the idea never caught on. For years no schools were set-up and school choice advocates pushed for a law that would let the state authorize charters.
In 2002 then Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed a proposal to allow the state to authorize charters, saying “it cut voters out of the approval process, it would have drained money out of local schools,” and “it also would allow the school board to order a local district to pay more than the adequacy level for a charter school.”
Surely regaining Republican control of the NH senate outweighed Shaheen’s lack of MA charter love. But this is just a guess.
In December 2014, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) posted an informative piece on the problem of the “single candidate super PAC,” and it highlighted SEG funding and the 2014 NH Shaheen-Brown senate race, excerpted below:
The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling ushered in the super PAC era, freeing outside groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. The 2012 elections saw the advent of the single-candidate super PAC – an entity completely dedicated to electing one candidate. These groups became the norm in races across the country during the 2014 mid-term elections.
As CREW noted in its analysis of the 2014 elections, single-candidate nonprofits, which don’t have to disclose their donors, emerged as a new kind of dark money group this cycle. … In some cases, nonprofits funded single-candidate super PACs, creating a hybrid of the two: single-candidate dead end disclosure. The saga of Strong Economy for Growth, Inc. and Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC illustrates this perfectly.
When former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) trekked north of the border on his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to return to the U.S. Senate, he touted his roots as a “ninth generation” New Hampshirite. Even as he promoted himself as a born again denizen of the Granite State, former Sen. Brown didn’t leave behind his connections to the Massachusetts Republican party. Old hands from the Massachusetts GOP helped funnel $165,000 to a super PAC backing him — and no one knows where the money came from since it was moved through a nonprofit.
Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC, an organization “committed to restoring common sense to Washington by electing Scott Brown to the United State Senate,” was formed just a few weeks after Sen. Brownannounced his intention to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). …
In August and September 2014, Strong Economy for Growth, a tax-exempt social welfare group organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, donated $85,000 to Independent Leadership for New Hampshire PAC. Strong Economy for Growth contributed another $80,000 in October 2014, making the group the super PAC’s second largest contributor. Where the group got its money is unknown since it is not required to disclose its donors.
The CREW article also includes some interesting background on SEG and its connections:
Strong Economy for Growth was founded in January 2013 and is deeply connected to Richard Tisei, who was Massachusetts’ only competitive Republican congressional challenger in 2012 and 2014. Ashley Korb, the group’s initial treasurer and secretary, is the financial director for Mr. Tisei’s campaign committee. Ernesto Digiambattista, the group’s president, also runs Strong Economy for Massachusetts Inc., a single-candidate super PAC backing Mr. Tisei. The super PAC was founded by former Rep. Peter Torkildsen (R-MA), who previously held the 6th district seat sought by Mr. Tisei, and Mr. Digiambattista served as treasurer before taking over for former Rep. Torkildsen. In the 2012 election, Strong Economy for Massachusetts spent $255,000 on behalf of Mr. Tisei. This year, the group spent $17,065 producing a web-ad declaring he has “a proven record of independence.”
Other than its website, Strong Economy for Growth has basically no public profile. On the website, the group promises to be a source for “issue and policy research” that will “educate, inform, and build support for policies,” but the rest of the website is blank. Rather, the group seems to mostly exist to funnel money…. All while keeping its donors secret.
Strong Economy for Growth: Just one more piece to the very non-grass-roots, MA Ballot Question 2 puzzle.