Follow the money

Critics of StudentsFirstNY take aim at donors' ties to Romney

As we reported last week, the education advocacy group New Yorkers for Great Public Schools has been laying low this summer. But in its first big splash, the group is directly attacking the financial ties of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that prompted them to form in the first place earlier this year.

In a report scheduled to be released tomorrow, the group dug into the political contributions of people who are supporting StudentsFirstNY and StudentsFirst, an associated national organization headed by Michelle Rhee.

In the report, titled “Students First Romney First”, the group calls out supporters of both the local and national organizations for also supporting Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Supporters of both StudentsFirstNY and StudentsFirst have contributed over $2 million to either the Romney campaign or third-party super PACS that support Romney, the report says.

The report focuses on people who sit on StudentsFirstNY’s board who either work for Romney or have helped fundraise for his campaign. That includes two members who used to back President Obama but have since crossed party lines. Hedge fund managers Daniel Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones, who founded the Robin Hood Foundation, have been vocal critics of the Obama administration for its handling of the national economy. After originally supporting him in 2008, they have recently helped fundraise to defeat him in the 2012 election.

Three other board members who support Romney are Kenneth Langone, founder of Home Depot, and Dan Senor, one of Romney’s senior campaign advisors, and Peter Kiernan, CEO of Kiernan Ventures.

In addition to serving on its board, Loeb and Jones also gave StudentsFirstNY $75,000 each in July.

StudentsFirstNY and New Yorkers for Great Public Schools stand at ideologically opposite sides of a debate on education policy that is getting increased attention in the distant 2013 New York City mayoral race. Both groups are jockeying for the attention of the Democratic candidates, although neither group has officially laid out specific policies that they would support.

The labor-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools generally seeks to roll back contentious policies favored by the Bloomberg administration, such as the practice of closing struggling schools and opening non-union charter schools to replace them. In its report, the group says that support for Romney from StudentsFirstNY backers is a sign of what its version of education reform in New York City will resemble.

“StudentsFirst NY is supporting market-driven restructuring and privatization of schools that goes even further than what Mayor Bloomberg has implemented in the past decade,” the report says.

The reform movement in education policy that has emerged in the last half-decade, one that pushes for greater teacher accountability measures and high-stakes testing, has been debated and dominated primarily by the Democratic party and largely left Republicans out of the conversation. Groups such as Democrats for Education Reform have built their credibility around the idea that Democratic politicians can support policies that unions oppose and still find support in the party.

But StudentsFirstNY is different in that it strives to be a bipartisan organization.

“We are proudly a bipartisan organization, with Democrats, Republicans and independents, because improving education shouldn’t be a partisan matter,” Glen Weiner, a director for StudentsFirstNY, said in a statement. Weiner said that board members have contributed at least $1 million to Obama as well and said that did not include bundling.

Weiner criticized the report as ranging “from absurd to dishonest” and accused the United Federation of Teachers of being disingenuous.

“Clearly, the teachers union is so desperate to suppress a serious conversation about improving teacher quality and expanding school options for kids that it has set up a front group to threaten elected officials and concoct conspiracy theories that, in many cases, better describe itself,” Weiner said in the statement.

The UFT, a driving force behind New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, is of course no stranger to crossing party lines when it comes to political contributions, either. Over the last decade it has given about $1 million to state committees to support Republican candidates.

The full report is below.

Students First Romney FIrst

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede