Charter advocates weigh in on District 7 race
In a ruling that could set a national precedent for so-called dark money campaigns, the state’s Office of Campaign and Public Finance ruled that New York-based Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy illegally hid the identities of the well-heeled donors who bankrolled a charter school expansion ballot question, fined FESA $425,000 and ordered that the secret list of donors be made public.
Last week, with just days to go before Boston’s Sept. 26 preliminary municipal election, some of those same wealthy donors appeared on the campaign finance records of at least one local candidate: Deeqo Jibril, who is vying for the District 7 council seat. Among the $6,525 in itemized receipts listed in the Jibril campaign’s Sept. 15 filing are four donors who together gave $1.2 million to FESA in 2015 and 2016: Andrew Balson, a private equity investment professional who co-founded the education startup Match Beyond; Charles Longfield, chief scientist at Blackbaud; retired financier Michael Tooke; and Brian Spector, an investment analyst with Baupost Group, whose investment manager, Seth Klarman, donated $3.3 million to FESA.
Their $3,500 in contributions, along with another $1,000 from Ryan Duffy, an investor with the Baupost Group, suggest that big-money corporate education reform donors, apparently undeterred by the decisive defeat of Question 2 at the polls last year, are weighing in on local races.
Of the $48,114 in donations Jibril has received in total since she opened her campaign account in January, this $4,500 donated by FESA donors makes up less than 10 percent. But the donations, all itemized on Sept. 20 — at virtually the last minute before the preliminary election — represent an unusual and seemingly stealthy investment in a relatively unknown candidate. Charter schools have not been a central issue in the District 7 race, and Jibril hasn’t spoken in favor of charter school expansion or privatization of public schools.
One possible explanation for Jibril’s sudden support from the philanthro-capitalists: Her campaign manager, Beata Coloyan, formerly served as manager for school partnerships in Families for Excellent Schools. Jibril also has the backing of former at-large City Council and pro-charter school mayoral candidate John Connolly (on whose campaign Coloyan volunteered in 2013).
In addition to the FESA-affiliated big money donors, Jibril has gotten donations from other prominent charter and education reform advocates, including a $1,000 contribution from Chris Gabrieli, whose Empower Schools organization is working with cities around the U.S. to expand so-called “empowerment zones” where schools are given autonomy to work independent of districts and teachers unions.
As of Friday, neither Jibril nor her campaign finance director, Eric Chast of the Liberty Square Group, responded to Banner queries about the contributions. But UMass Boston Political Science Professor Maurice Cunningham, who has written extensively about corporate education reform donors on his WGBH blog, says the donors’ investment in Jibril could be tied to the pro-charter privatization agenda supported by groups like FESA.
“I do think generally the privatizers have an interest in supporting candidates who will be friendly to their point of view, now and down the road,” he said. “It’s a long game.”
Given that she’s a first-time candidate, Jibril stands out among those supported by FESA donors. Other candidates to whom they have given $1,000 contributions — the state limit —include Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who championed Question 2 during last year’s campaign; House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch, who did the same, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Absent from the list of state office holders these donors favored is Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who voted against Question 2. Other Question 2 supporters receiving $1,000 contributions include Roxbury state Rep. Chynah Tyler and Lawrence Rep. Juana Matias.
At the local level, the FESA donors also have given $1,000 contributions to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who voted against Ballot Question 2, but advocated for compromise legislation that would have allowed a more gradual lifting of the cap on charter schools. In addition, they made $1,000 contributions to the campaigns of City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Joshua Zakim, who did not back the city council’s resolution against Question 2.
Another pro-charter group, Democrats for Education Reform: Massachusetts, has not yet weighed in on the District 7 race, although State Director Liam Kerr has circulated a questionnaire among District 7 candidates.
What’s clear is that the big money donors are seeking a greater role in the public sphere. Longfield, for example, provided funds for the state-wide parent-organizing group Massachusetts Parents United, along with the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation and the National Philanthropic Trust.
Cunningham says he thinks the long-term political aim is to gain deeper support for charter expansion in City Hall.
“They’d ideally love to have a pro-charter mayor,” he said. “They have the time to wait and the money to invest.”
Jibril emailed the following statement to the Banner:
“As a first time candidate, I am so honored that my story has resonated with people across the country, from all walks of life, and has inspired a true grassroots movement — out of the 452 contributions my campaign has received — 84 percent of which have been $100 or less — the Banner has taken issue with 4 of them. A donation to my campaign is an endorsement of the policy ideals that I have outlined – not the other way around.
“To be clear, I do not support the expansion of Charter schools.”
The Banner will continue to review the FESA donor list and monitor campaign donations in the run-up to the Nov. 7 final election.