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Local races battleground for national charter debate

Pro-charter funders influencing Democratic campaigns

Jule Pattison-Gordon

The battle over charter school expansion in Massachusetts is being waged on multiple fronts, with pledges of $30 million in spending for and against ballot question 2, which would lift the statewide cap on charter school expansion, and hundreds of thousands more being plowed into legislative races.

On that front, the battle flared up last Friday, with state Sen. Pat Jehlen squaring off against Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) co-chair Liam Kerr in a debate live-streamed on Facebook. In the debate, Jehlen took aim at Kerr for directing $100,000 in funding to support the campaign of her pro-Question 2 challenger, Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung.

That the senator debated a pro-charter school organization, rather than her opponent in the race, speaks to the unusual nature of the Question 2 ballot battle.

“[Given their spending] they are my real opponents in this race, so they are the ones I should be debating, not the Cambridge city councilor whose name appears on the ballot,” she said in a press release.

In the debate, Kerr fired back, pointing out that Jehlen received at least $80,000 in support from the Massachusetts Teachers Association. (The MTA spent about $44,500 advocating against Cheung and another $49,600 advocating for Jehlen, according to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.)

While the MTA has long been a force in Massachusetts politics, the cash flowing into DFER represents a relatively new phenomenon in local campaign finance: a trend driven by Wall Street financiers’ support for charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

Financing the issues

The Democrats For Education Reform independent expenditure PAC — an organization funded almost exclusively by the pro-charter, New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA) — has contributed to a slew of local politicians and candidates over the years.

One notable example: In 2013, DFER directed nearly $1.3 million to then-mayoral candidate John Connolly, who supported raising the cap on charter schools, according to reports filed with the OCPF.

The money DFER spends is supplied largely by ERNA, one of the biggest funders of Great Schools Massachusetts, the main ballot committee advocating for charter school expansion in Massachusetts. ERNA’s board of directors comprises primarily Wall Streeters, according to The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch.

Since 2013, ERNA poured approximately $540,000 into Democrats for Education Reform, according to September 2 filings with the OCPF. Only once in its records did DFER receive money from another source — an individual — to the tune of $1,000.

Money emerges on the keep-the-cap side as well, from a more local source: The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s Independent Expenditure PAC has made notable donations to candidates in several of the same races as DFER.

The MTA PAC is funded largely by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a union for educators and educational staff in public and higher education institutions statewide. Since 2014, its earliest filing with the OCPF, the MTA IE PAC received approximately $1.7 million from the MTA and $50,000 from the Massachusetts Independent Expenditure PAC.

Regardless of the merits of either stance on an issue, money can skew political discussion by amplifying the voice of one side, warns Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVote.

“We need to keep money out of politics in general,” Crawford told the Banner. “Unfortunately, the voices that need to be heard may not always be well-padded with money. The people with money, you hear them more.”

Political races

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and Democrats For Education Reform have clashed in a number of campaigns.

In this year’s race for First Suffolk and Middlesex state senate seat, DFER supported Daniel Rizzo with about $36,700, while the MTA supported Lydia Edwards with approximately $8,300.

Chynah Tyler, the only candidate for the Seventh Suffolk district house rep seat supportive of passing Question 2, has received about $9,570 from DFER. Monica Cannon, who opposes Question 2, has received $14,444 from the MTA, according to OCPF filings.

DFER also contributed about $6,000 in 2013 to Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim and, in 2015, about $2,000 to Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell. This year, Zakim and Campbell were the only two councilors who did not vote in favor of a resolution opposing Question 2. At the time, Zakim told The Boston Globe he was undecided on the issue and that the council must do more research. Campbell told the Globe she did not want to make the issue political and the focus should be on improving BPS.

Many charter school supporters, including Mayor Martin Walsh and City Councilor Tito Jackson, oppose Question 2 because it calls for charters to increase at the expense of local school districts, with no provisions for additional funding for the districts.

The MTA PAC does not list contributions to any current Boston city councilors.

Marijuana

Marijuana also has received attention. The Boston Globe recently noted that $71,000 was paid in lobbying fees to The Novus Group — a strategic consulting group with some staff overlap and seeming ties to DFER — to advocate for approval of a medical marijuana dispensary.

As of 2014, DFER’s treasurer has been listed as Rebecca Rutenberg. Rutenberg currently serves as vice president of public affairs at the Novus Group. DFER engaged the Novus Group for much of its August campaign support spending.

Mayflower Medicinals received the Boston city council’s unanimous approval of its application.

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