This is a striking story about a group called Democrats for Education Reform, known as DFER. It was created in 2005 by hedge fund managers Whitney Tilson and John Petry. They held their first meeting in a plush apartment in New York City owned by another hedge fund manager, Ravenel Boykin Curry IV. Their speaker that evening was a brilliant young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. In the past 11 years, they have funneled millions of dollars into state and local elections to elect candidates who support charter schools. They endorse Republicans and Democrats alike, so long as they support charter schools.
In New York State, they have supported Republican control of the State Senate and Governor Cuomo, as well as any Democrat who is charter friendly. Now comes news that DFER has decided to spend serious money to flip control of the State Senate to Democrats this fall. This is a strategic effort to hedge their bets, in case the Democrats sweep the state in 2016. DFER can’t risk losing control of the Senate. They know the Republicans will support school choice without their money.
Chris Bragg of the Albany Times-Union has the story.
Supporters of charter schools have had no stauncher ally in Albany than state Senate Republicans.
So why is a prominent national charter group saying it will spend money this year to try to flip the chamber to Democrats — many of whom were elected with the strong support of teachers unions, charters’ frequent nemeses?
“We understand the dynamic and the shift in the state Senate,” Nicole Brisbane, the New York director of Democrats for Education Reform, said in an interview last week. “We’re playing a long game.”
As the demographics of New York shift more and more toward Democrats — and Republicans continue to hang on to their Senate majority by a thread — there’s a growing sense that charter supporters need to “cultivate change in the hearts and minds” of the Democratic conference, Brisbane said.
DFER recently created an independent expenditure committee, called Moving New York Families Forward, that can raise and spend unlimited amounts. The charter backers will support pro-charter Senate Democrats in some general election races against Republicans this year, Brisbane said.
Informed of DFER’s strategy, other charter supporters reacted with skepticism and surprise.
“The expectation that State Senate Democrats will have goodwill towards education reform priorities is misplaced,” said one person heavily involved in education reform politics and policy.
“The only thing that will get accomplished is angering DFER’s true allies, Senate Republicans.”
As indicated by the group’s title, Democrats for Education Reform backs Democratic candidates across the country.
But in New York, that’s largely meant backing charter-supporting Democrats in primaries, not going after Republicans in general elections. And it doesn’t appear that any charter group has ever openly stated an intention to flip the Senate to Democratic control.
In 2010, DFER and its deep-pocketed donors — a number of whom have made hedge-fund fortunes — were heavily involved in backing challengers in New York City to three Democratic senators aligned with the teachers unions. All the charter-backing candidates lost soundly. After the election, the United Federation of Teachers issued a report calling the group “a letterhead stacked with super-rich backers.”
Now the union and DFER are putatively on the same side of the Senate
Brisbane said it was too early in the fundraising process to say how much would be spent. And she declined to say which districts the group will target in the general election, which means it’s not clear how much vulnerable Republicans would be impacted. (DFER is also set to back two New York City Assembly Democrats who are supportive of charters.)
Brisbane acknowledged that many members of the Senate Democratic conference don’t currently support her group’s stands — such as expanding the numbers of charter schools — but wants to make sure “more and more of them are championing our issues.” That list also includes increasing accountability through testing, another point of contention with the teachers union, and “Raise the Age” legislation increasing the age of criminal responsibility.
The Republican majority currently depends on the support of a Brooklyn Democrat, Simcha Felder, who conferences with them. And in a presidential election year, Democrats are likely to pick up seats in November, although they will still need to woo the five-member Independent Democratic Conference to join them to have a majority.
DFER’s new strategy “gives them protection for their agenda if the Senate goes Democratic without their help,” said Diane Ravitch, a prominent education historian and frequent critic of the charter movement. “If they get their favored candidates elected, then it doesn’t matter who controls the State Senate.”
Leadership of DFER has also shifted: Shavar Jeffries, who in 2014 lost a high-profile race for mayor of Newark, N.J., with the strong backing of charter supporters, became the group’s national president a year ago.
In recent election cycles, the New York State United Teachers union has spent millions to attain Democratic control of the Senate. NYSUT has endorsed mostly Democrats in swing districts this year. But with the fate of the Senate uncertain, NYSUT is also hedging its bets and supporting a Republican incumbent for a competitive Hudson Valley seat, while giving maximum $109,000 contributions to each side of the Senate battle.
Another pro-charter group, New Yorkers For a Balanced Albany, spent millions to help Senate Republicans in 2014 and again spent heavily to help Republican Senate candidate Chris McGrath in a May special election on Long Island; that race was narrowly won by Democrat Todd Kaminsky.
StudentsFirstNY, another New York City-based pro-charter group, runs that campaign group.
Brisbane, the New York director of DFER, insisted that some deep-pocketed donors supporting StudentsFirstNY — and Republican control of the Senate — would also give to her group backing Democratic control.
According to campaign finance records, there has been some overlap in the past between the groups’ donors.
For instance, DFER’s federal political action committee took a donation in 2015 from hedge fund magnate Daniel Loeb, who also gave $100,000 in June to the StudentsFirstNY campaign group. The executive director for StudentsFirst also gave last year to DFER.
A spokesman for StudentsFirst declined comment on DFER’s support of a Democratic Senate takeover.
Despite the fact that many Senate Republicans do not have many charter schools in their districts — the schools are concentrated in New York City — the conference has been a staunch supporter of their major financial backers. In the final hours of this year’s legislative session, for instance, the Republican-controlled Senate demanded a number of concessions for charter schools in exchange for granting New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a one-year extension of mayoral control of city schools.
An open question in this year’s Senate races is the degree to which Gov. Andrew Cuomo — a charter supporter who has received major support from DFER donors — will act to help his fellow Democrats win the Senate. Critics of Cuomo say he has given them lukewarm support in past election cycles in order to maintain his close working relationship with the Senate GOP.
Brisbane said her group’s support of Democrats should not be read as an indication of Cuomo’s own intentions.
“We are supporters of the governor and of Democrats who support this issue,” she said, “but have not coordinated with him on this push.”