Tuesday, September 12, 2017

MA: The Charteristas Behind the Curtain Get Spanked

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.


  1. From one of the embedded links: "Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy illegally funneled millions of dollars to the “Yes on 2” campaign from millionaire donors, including Paul Sagan and other high-ranking officials in the administration of Governor Charlie Baker, who appeared in pro-charter ads."

    So, wait, not only did Paul Sagan and "other high-ranking officials" in the governor's administration donate to this organization, but they also appeared in the ads? How is it legal for public officials to appear in anti-public propaganda (not to mention funding such propaganda)? So what personal consequence are Mr. Sagan and these other "high ranking officials" facing?

  2. Two points: in the file of contributors about $3M is listed as coming from FES itself, which means it is still dark money.http://www.ocpf.us/Reports/DisplayReport?menuHidden=true&id=624589#schedule-a And though its great FES is barred from contributing to MA campaigns for four years, there are other similar astroturf organizations that will surely take its place. See for example Massachusetts Parents United, also funded by the Waltons and run by the former state head of FES who is also on the advisory committee of DFER MA. More on this here:http://blogs.wgbh.org/masspoliticsprofs/2017/7/12/massachusetts-parents-united-old-wine-new-bottle/ As Cunningham says, old wine poured into an empty bottle. As long as billionaires are intent on privatizing our schools the battle will not end.

    1. Yes, excellent point. There is still dark money in this mix even after the contributor reveal.

  3. The only reason these investors get into the charter school "business" is because there is so much money to be made in the privatization of education-like the prison system, healthcare and remember the private contractors working in the Middle East(Blackwater aka Erik Prince) And hey, that's Betsy Devos' brother. A Pandora's Box of private money making profit off public money. Anyone up for a collective vomit?

  4. Peter: "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."

    Peter, that seems to me an inadequately substantiated, and misleading, analysis. Would you be willing to try to focus your attention a little more closely on the most recent available relevant data? If so, I'd be glad to review some of it with you.

    1. Asked and answered. Please look through the archives.

    2. If that were true, perhaps you would be so kind as to quote a sentence or more from the answer?

    3. Failing to see any answer, perhaps first it'd be helpful to acknowledge the strawman:

      "if all you care about are test scores, and you're cool with charters that keep their test scores high"

      In actuality, rather than raw test scores, far more of the celebration of success of Boston charter schools is focused on measures of their students' academic growth carefully compared to matched peers attending local district schools.

      I'm aware of no body of evidence that suggests that such relative growth is lessened in respect to ELL and students with special needs. If anything the available research suggests the opposite.

      According to the CREDO analysis of the impacts of charter management organizations, the Brooke charter schools in Boston showed the greatest positive impact on student academic growth. Greene somehow has formed that opinion that Brooke is a poster child for "chasing out those who don't get great scores." He doesn't show any persuasive evidence and appears to ignore much data to the contrary.

      The CREDO research is based on results ending in 2014-2015.

      If we look at what the state department of education tells about the attrition rates for the Brooke schools for that school year we find:
      Brooke Mattapan
      summer attrition: 4.2%
      school year stability rate: 94.9%

      Brooke Roslindale
      Summer attrition: 3.1%
      school year stability rate: 96.7

      Brooke East Boston
      Summer attrition: 7.4%
      school year stability rate: 90.1%

      By contrast, Boston Public Schools had summer attrition rates closer to 14% and school year stability rates around 86.5%.

      As stated in a July 2015 document seeking permission for Brooke to open a high school:
      "Despite the oft-repeated charge that charter schools “push students out”, the average attrition rate at the three Brooke schools last year was lower than at any other non-exam school in Boston serving middle grades.
      "Furthermore, even the small numbers of students who do leave Brooke each year are just as likely to be performing well academically as their peers who persist, as demonstrated in the graphs below."

      Those graphs can be viewed on pp 32-33 here:

  5. Lots of us in Massachusetts doing a happy dance! Big hat tip to Prof Maurice Cunningham for digging deep into the dark money pile.

    For the record, it's Seth Klarman, not Klauman. Got to keep our eyes on these sneaks.

    Christine Langhoff