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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