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

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

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”