Backers of a top charter school network that Mayor Bill de Blasio has singled out in his plans to curb charter school growth are filling Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s campaign chest.
Cuomo’s reelection bid has so far received nearly $400,000 from a cadre of wealthy supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School network, according to an updated tally of newly-released campaign filings. Some money has even come from Moskowitz’s political action committee, Great Public Schools, which has given $65,000 to Cuomo since 2011.
A broader analysis of the filings shows just how much the charter school sector and its education policy allies have embraced Cuomo, a Democrat, during his first term as governor. It also shows how much support from the state’s powerful teachers union, a more traditional ally, has waned.
By one tally of the 2014 filings, Cuomo racked up at least $800,000 in donations from 27 bankers, real estate executives, business executives, philanthropists and advocacy groups who have flocked to charter schools and other education causes in recent years.
The totals far exceed what the same group gave him for his first run in 2010: $136,000. The union, meanwhile, has donated one-quarter of the sum it gave Cuomo in 2010.
After having a close friend in City Hall for 12 years, the flood of contributions is a sign that charter school backers in New York City may have found a new powerful ally in government at a time when they need one badly. Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken aim at the charter management organizations with well-heeled donors, singling Success Academy out as one whose schools should pay rent for operating in city-owned buildings.
Cuomo’s education policy decisions during his first term in office have been more aligned to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a supporter of charter schools. This year, Cuomo is pushing a merit pay proposal and his education reform commission recently recommended that charter schools should be eligible for state pre-kindergarten funds.
Success charter schools, where three of four students qualify for free or reduced lunch, are considered the city’s highest-performing, though critics argue that Success doesn’t replace students who leave or serve a high enough population of students with disabilities (Success’ special education population is 15 percent, slightly less than the citywide average.)
John Petry, a Success founder and board member who has given $35,000 to Cuomo since 2011, said he was won over in early conversations with Cuomo, an attorney general who had a sparse record on education as a candidate in 2010.
Topping the list is board member Jill Braufman, a philanthropist who is married to Daniel Nir, another board member who heads Gracie Capital, an investment firm. Braufman, who also chairs the Center for Arts Education board, gave $57,500 over the past two years, while Nir chipped in another $35,000.
Joel Greenblatt, a Success co-founder, and his wife, Julia, contributed $75,000. Moskowitz’s PAC donated to Cuomo four times in less than a year between 2011 and 2012.
As a nonprofit organization, Success Academy Charter Schools is barred from engaging or coordinating in political campaign fundraising activities for candidates, although employees may volunteer on their own time. A spokeswoman said that any donations by board members or through Moskowitz’s PAC were not coordinated through Success.
“They are committed to helping children gain access to high-quality educational options, but they serve many communities and causes; their decisions about political donations are purely personal,” said the spokeswoman, Ann Powell.
As governor, Cuomo doesn’t have direct power over many policies to help the charter school sector. He can’t authorize new charter schools and it’s up to de Blasio to decide if they will pay rent.
But Cuomo does pull strings in budget negotiations and has a say over how much per-pupil state funding charter schools receive, which is less on average than district schools. Cuomo could give them a boost in the event that de Blasio chooses to charge rent or evict them altogether.
“He kept charter funding level during the recession and did not allow the already existing gap to get worse,” said Bill Phillips, whose PAC, the Coalition for Public Charter Schools, donated $10,000 to Cuomo.
Joe Williams, who has helped fundraise for Cuomo as head of Democrats for Education Reform, said that the flood of support is more a testament to Cuomo’s overall performance as governor than any specific education initiative. He noted an improved budget process, same-sex marriage legislation and “smart gun-control legislation” as notable highlights that have impressed donors.
“He came to us in 2010 and pitched himself as a grownup who could get state government working again,” Williams said. “Some people in our orbit thought it was impossible, but he proved he was up for it.”
A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment.
One group that has cooled considerably on Cuomo since he took office, if campaign donations are any indication, is the state teachers union. The PAC for the New York State United Teachers has offered just $10,000 so far this campaign cycle compared with more than $40,000 in 2010.
In the last four years, Cuomo has fought the union over teacher evaluations and aggressively pushed districts to adopt the systems after implementation had stalled. He also cut pension benefits for state workers, including teachers, which infuriated public employee unions.
A union spokesman declined to comment.
Though Success board members were most-represented among Cuomo’s education donors, they were hardly alone. Below is a complete list of Success’ and other education donors, their contributions and their affiliations.
— Sam Cole, Success board; JerseyCan board: $30,000
— Bryan Binder, Success board: $15,000
— Great Public Schools PAC, Eva Moskowitz’s PAC: $65,000
— Jill Braufman, Success board; Chair of Center for Arts Education: $57,500
— Dan/Margaret Loeb, Success board and wife: $29,367
— Joel/Julia Greenblatt, Success co-founder; Say Yes to Education board member, and wife: $75,000
— John Petry, Success co-founder and board member; Democrats for Education Reform co-founder and board member: $35,000
— Dan Nir, Success board, $35,000
— Charles Strauch, Success board, $15,000
— Jarrett Posner, Success board, $2,500
— Kelly Posner, Turnaround for Children chair; founder of Speyer Legacy School: $20,000
— Andrew and Dana Stone, Success board: $75,000
— Larry Robbins, KIPP board, RELAY Graduate School of Education board, $50,000
— Brian Olson, Chairman of ConnCan, Civic Builders board, New Schools Leadership Council, $45,000
— Brian and Tania Higgins, Harlem Children’s Zone board: $45,000
— Jon Sackler, Achievement First board; 50Can; NewSchools Venture Fund: $26,000
— Winston Fisher, Civic Builders board, $47,500
— Bruce Kovner, Bronx Preparatory Charter School board, $40,000
— Carl Icahn, founder of Icahn Charter Schools, $50,000
— Ken Langone, StudentsFirstNY board, $50,000
— Whitney Tilson, co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform, KIPP-NYC board, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools board, $12,000
— Bryan Lawrence, Public Prep board, $10,000
— Democrats for Education Reform, $35,000
— Coalition for Public Charter Schools, $10,000