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Union endorses a candidate backed by StudentsFirstNY

It didn’t take long for the complexities of New York State politics to make strange bedfellows out of two rival education advocacy groups.

This week, New York State United Teachers endorsed Jeff Klein, a Democratic state Senator from the Bronx with a reputation for rebuffing teachers union interests. Earlier this summer, Klein also took in money from StudentsFirstNY, a group that a union-backed coalition is attacking for its board members’ Republican ties.

Over the past week, accepting money from StudentsFirstNY has received a lot of scrutiny from the coalition, called New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which is made up of labor unions and community-based organizations. At protests, it has tacitly warned elected officials to reject StudentsFirstNY because some of its funding comes from people working in the private sector with ideologically different positions on education policy. And while most of their energy will be focused on the 2013 mayoral candidates, the coalition punctuated its point this week when it gleefully released a list of state and city politicians who agreed to reject contributions from StudentsFirstNY.

“Taking StudentsFirst money is bad for New York,” Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, one of the groups that gets funding from the state teachers union, said last week.It apparently wasn’t bad enough for NYSUT, which endorsed Klein a month after StudentsFirstNY gave $5,000 to the political action committee that supports his caucus, campaign finance records show. The contribution came just a day after StudentsFirstNY received a $75,000 donation from Daniel Loeb, a board member who has been criticized because he is supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Union officials said they weren’t thrilled about the contribution.

“While we are disappointed the senator has chosen to accept money from a divisive group which attacks public schools, teachers and their unions rather than working collaboratively to address problem areas, we appreciate the senator’s advocacy and responsiveness and are satisfied he will continue to work for what’s best for the public schools in his district.,” NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said in a statement. Korn added that the union endorsed Klein because of his recent voting record, which included opposition to a bill that cut pension benefits for public workers and his support for a bill that will keep teacher evaluations partially private.

Klein also has a record of supporting legislation that the union has opposed, including a bill that lifted the charter school cap and a bill that would have ended seniority-based layoffs.

Klein declined to comment through a spokesman, but political observers said the endorsement made sense considering the political stakes in Albany. Klein and the three Senators who make up the Independent Democratic Conference broke away from the larger Democratic conference after the party lost its majority in 2010. If Democrats hope to win back that majority in the upcoming 2012 elections, it will also need support from Klein and his caucus colleagues, who the union has also endorsed.

“It’s pragmatic politics,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist and professor at Baruch College. “The fact that he took the money is not as important as the value they see in him as an ally in the Senate.”Glen Weiner, deputy executive director of StudentsFirstNY, said the group’s decision to support Klein had nothing to do with politics.

“StudentsFirstNY is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans who support ensuring there are excellent teachers in every classroom and a quality school for every family,” Weiner said in a statement.

Easton, a head organizer for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, pointed out that the coalition was made up of many organizations that weren’t funded or affiliated to unions and said it was not beholden to union interests.

“New Yorkers for Great Public Schools is a large coalition whose decisions and actions reflect the views of thousands of parents, students, teachers, and community leaders,” Easton, one of the head organizers for the coalition, said in a statement today. “With over 30 organizations involved, its decision making is entirely separate from that of the teachers unions, which have their own process for endorsing candidates.”

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