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

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

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.