There is so much to unpack from the most recent news in Massachusetts.
First, to recap. Last year, charter boosters took a hard run and cracking open the Massachusetts market with Question 2, which called for opening up the charter cap currently in place. All sorts of dark, rich creatures came crawling out of the woodwork, throwing about large piles of money under the names of various astroturf groups, even going so far as to hire the same ad agency that swift-boated John Kerry (allegiance to paycheck over truth is important in the biz). In the end, they lost hard. But it turns out they weren't done with all the losing.
One of the fake groups, the single largest funder of the Question 2 campaign, was Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy. This New York based outfit was just spanked hard by Massachusetts courts, and there were several takeaways from the resulting ruling.
Now That's a Fine
FESA paid the Massachusetts general fund $426,466. That is the largest "civil forfeiture" in state history, totally blowing away the previous record-holder was $185,000 in 2016.
These Guys Were Really Loaded
That total actually represents the cash on hand for FESA and their parent fake group, Families for Excellent Schools, as of August 21, 2017. In other words, the commonwealth settled on a fine of "whatever you've got in your pockets right now-- just empty them out."
These Guys Are a Different Kind of Family
Nobody has ever believed that Families for Excellent Schools was an actual group of regular families gathered together to make a difference. But the settlement required FESA to open up its donor list, and, well... the phrase "capital management" crops up a lot.
Bob Atchison of Adage Capital Management kicked in $200K. Andrew Balson is coyly listed as "unemployed," but theformer capital manager at Bain has since landed on his feet by founding a new partnership; in the meantime, he coughed up $300K. Josh Berkenstein from Bain Capital only managed $1.25 million, but luckily his wife Anita, former occupational therapist, now is a "private philanthropist" came up with another $1.25 mill. Joseph Flaniagan, managing director at Highfields Capital Managment came up with half a million, which was peanuts next to fellow MD Jonathan Jacobson, who was in for over two million. Amos Hostetter, investor and cablevision billionaire, ponied up over two million. Howland Capital Management gave over a million. Seth Klauman, investment manager at the Baupost Group, went for over three and a third million dollars. You begin to see why the "civil forfeiture" of half a million will not exactly register as a serious setback for these guys.
Of course, not everyone was an investor or other sort of capital management guy. There's Johnathan Sackler of Purdue Pharma (the guys who brought us the oxycontin problem) as well as New School Ventures and ConnCAN. And there's Paul Sagan and Mark Nunnelly, both part of Massachusetts state government, each kicking in a half mill (Nunnelly teamed up with his wife, while Saga bizarrely broke his into two donations-- one of $495,500 and another of $500). Sagan is particularly galling, as he's the chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Oh, and Alice Walton, because of course she did.
Fun side note-- FESA also got a $7,432.80 tax refund.
Look at That List Again
These are not people who have worked in education. These are not people who have worked hard to improve the situation of the poor in this country. And yet the argument for charters in Massachusetts has been that 1) they are awesome and 2) how dare you deny the poor this opportunity. These are almost legit arguments sort of if you squint and if all you care about are test scores, and you're cool with charters that keep their test scores high by suspending huge numbers of students, carefully avoiding any challenging students (like the non-English speaking ones), and chasing out those who don't get great scores.
But look at that list. These are investors. These are part of the same swarm that have been hovering around charters since the day that Rupert Murdoch declared that education was a "$500 billion dollar opportunity" just waiting to be harvested.
Sometimes, Laws Are Cool
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts could only pursue all of this because they have laws about dark money organizations set up strictly to influence an election. The Office of Campaign and Political Finance (the government body that tackled this mess) offered three findings:
FESA was actually a ballot question committee and was required to organize and disclose its donors.
FESA did not disclose its campaign finance activity in a timely or accurate manner.
FESA provided funds to the Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee in a manner intended to disguise the true source of contributions.
These findings only matter if those actions are against the law. In Massachusetts they are; in other states, not so much.
FESA's "Aw Shucks."
Jeremiah Kittredge, chief executive of Families for Excellent Schools, said: “Though we believe we complied with all laws and regulations during the campaign, we worked closely with OCPF to resolve this matter so we could move forward with our mission of working alongside families desperate for better schools.”
This statement is one part baloney ("Gosh, Mister, we had no idea we were breaking the rules. Gee whiz!") and one part admission of their bogus nature ("We're going to try to work alongside families who want better schools, because as you can plainly see, none of those families are actually inside our group.")
The Rest of the Good News
FESA has now officially ceased to exist. Which is probably no skin off of FESA's nose, since they only existed to push Question 2 in the first place and that swift boat has now sailed. Slightly better-- FES has been banned from playing in the Massachusetts political sandbox for four years. So that's good news.
Let's just remember that the entire purpose of this group is to allow Very Rich People to play in other peoples' sandboxes without getting their own feet dirty. If you think these folks can look at that big, delicious pile of Massachusetts money and NOT start thinking about new and creative ways to get at it-- particularly when officials in the state capitol are totally on the profiteers' side-- then I have a bridge to sell, you, and that bridge has a charter school just on the other side.