CT News Junkie | OP-ED | Are Charter Advocacy Groups Skirting CT Ethics Laws?

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OP-ED | Are Charter Advocacy Groups Skirting CT Ethics Laws?

by | Mar 6, 2015 5:00pm
() Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion

Earlier this week, a pro charter school organization called Coalition for Every Child sent a letter to Connecticut legislators complaining that the $20 million increase in funding for charter schools over the next two years in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget isn’t enough and that charter students are being treated like “second class citizens.”

Meanwhile, the Educational Cost Sharing Grant for public school districts is flat funded, which means that in real terms public school funding is being cut.

When I clicked on the link on the Coalition for Every Child website to read the letter, I was curious that its url started with www.familiesforexcellentschools.org. Curiosity led to further research.

If you haven’t heard of Coalition for Every Child, that’s because it appeared out of nowhere last December for a pro-charter rally on New Haven Green and then immediately announced a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign to highlight “an education inequality crisis barring 40,000 Connecticut children from good schools.”

According to the press release for the ad campaign, “The ads, which come on the heels of a major rally in New Haven last Wednesday with 6,000 people calling for ‘excellent schools for every child,’ urge viewers to ‘take a stand for Connecticut kids’ by joining the push to fix the crisis.”

That sounds like lobbying, doesn’t it? Yet the Coalition for Every Child isn’t registered with the Connecticut Office of State Ethics.

Let’s look at the Connecticut Office of State Ethics guidelines on lobbyists:

Lobbyist is any person who either expends or agrees to expend, or receives or agrees to receive, $2,000 or more in a calendar year to communicate directly or to solicit others to communicate with any public official or their staff in the legislative or executive branch, or in a quasi-public agency, in an effort to influence legislative or administrative action. General Statutes §§ 1-91 (k) and (l).

More from the Office of State Ethics:

Activities in Furtherance of Lobbying are expenditures for research, reports, polls, media buys, activities fostering good will, office expenses, secretarial or paralegal salaries, etc.; essentially the activities that support the actual lobbying efforts. Once you meet the definition of communicator lobbyist, and you meet the above monetary threshold, you must register with the OSE on or before January 15 or prior to the commencement of lobbying.

In the Dec. 9 press release announcing its multimillion dollar ad campaign, Coalition for Every Child stated “Both ads will air in statewide media markets and on cable and network television for several weeks starting today, and are paid for by Families for Excellent Schools (FES), a parent advocacy group that is a member of the Coalition for Every Child.”

Okay, maybe that explains why Coalition for Every Child isn’t registered. But there are no expenses reported at all in FES’s Connecticut filings in the December period 2014, and in January there was only $35,000 in expenditures reported — and that expenditure is explained by a different press release dated Jan. 29 announcing a digital ad campaign.

A little more investigation shows that ForEveryChildCT.org, the Coalition for Every Child website, is hosted on a server using the same IP address (96.126.116.7) as Families for Excellent Schools. While this doesn’t conclusively prove a connection between the two organizations, it’s certainly interesting, given the paucity of financial information filed with the Connecticut Office of State Ethics.

I emailed FES Executive Director Jeremiah Kitteridge on Tuesday evening asking for clarification on these issues. I also asked if any of the parent signatories of the March 2 letter to legislators had received “parent stipends” from FES. In an April 16, 2014, news story, CT Mirror reporter Jaqueline Rabe-Thomas raised the issue that despite claiming to be a “parent-driven organization,” FES’ tax filings showed “that in 2011, of the $970,397 the group reported spending, it spent $98,795 on ‘parent stipends’.” Kittredge said this expense was made to hire full-time parent organizers.”

Mr. Kitteridge immediately looped in the organization’s public relations person, who, as it turns out, is none other than Gov. Malloy’s former Communication’s Director, Andrew Doba.

Doba, you will remember, left his position in state government all of . . . what was it? Two month’s ago? I called Mr. Doba again on Thursday morning offering the opportunity to comment on these issues, and eventually heard back from his boss, Stu Loesser, of the eponymous strategic communications firm and the former communications director for Michael Bloomberg:

Loesser wrote:

Families for Excellent Schools (FES) is a member of the Coalition for Every Child. The Coalition itself is not a lobbying entity, and therefore is not registered as a lobbyist. However, many of the groups in the organization do lobby, and they are registered accordingly. FES provides space on their website for the coalition in the same way that a conference room might be made available to host a meeting.

There were no reportable expenses during that time period, so nothing was reported.

​The parents did not receive stipends.​

To which I responded:

This release specifically states that FES was paying for the ads to run in Connecticut. However I have checked FES’ Connecticut filings with the Office of State Ethics for both 2014 and 2015 and there is no reported multimillion dollar ad expenditure reported, yet the ads ran. How do you explain this? Surely if FES paid for these ads, under Connecticut ethics laws the expenditure should have been reported?”

A few minutes after my deadline, Loesser responded:

The ads did not meet the definition of lobbying under Connecticut law.

Asked about their basis for that claim, I didn’t get a reply.

On Wednesday, FES staged a press event in Albany for the benefit of New York legislators. By Kitteridge’s own admittance, “FES, a 501c3 organization covered all of the expenses.” Busloads of charter students were withdrawn from school in order to attend this “civic field trip.” Kitteridge wouldn’t answer questions about whether the students were marked absent if they chose not to attend because he is “not an educator.” (It’s nice that someone who is trying to have so much influence over education finally admits that.) Connecticut legislators and the Office of State Ethics should read the Times Union report and watch the press conference video.

An examination of FES’ 990s reveals that despite claiming to be a grassroots parent organization, they are funded by many of the usual charter promoting suspects: the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, StudentsFirstNY Inc., and the Peter and Carmen Lucia Buck Foundation Inc.

Then there’s the Tapestry Project Inc., whose director, Eric Grannis, just so happens to be the husband of Success Academy Director Eva Moscowitz. Moscowitz is a believer in the idea that “charter schools deserve taxpayer money without paying rent or being subjected to public audits.

At a time when Gov. Malloy is proposing cuts that affect the most vulnerable members of our state, legislators should not allow themselves to be fooled by astroturf groups — particular groups like FES, which are funded by self-interested donors who want public funds, but appear to think that ethics laws and financial transparency are for little people.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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Comments

(10) Archived Comments

posted by: Linda12 | March 6, 2015  6:29pm

Please watch the FES press conference video with this Kitteridge guy….pretty sketchy. Can’t say how many buses, kids…won’t say how much they paid Ashanti, whoever she is. Civic field trip?  Wouldn’t answer if students were marked absent if they didn’t come or if there was even school that day. Wouldn’t say who paid for the trip. But he did say he wasn’t an educator.  I think Eva left home the fur though so the kids wouldn’t feel bad.  Since well, this is the civil right$ i$$ue of our time and it’s all for the kids!

posted by: ParentandEducator | March 6, 2015  10:29pm

Here are some more things that Families for Excellent Schools does when they are not lobbying:
FESA TOOK POLITICAL ACTION BY REGISTERING VOTERS CANVASS ING IN COMMUNITIES AND DEVELOPING PARENTS AS CANDIDATES FOR OFFICE.

posted by: ParentandEducator | March 6, 2015  10:43pm

Why not become a National Tactics Director for this non-political, non-lobbying group? 
From a recent job ad:
BACKGROUND

Founded in 2011 through a partnership between schools and families, Families for Excellent Schools works to build coalitions of families and their allies and running campaigns that change education policy.  As an organization, Families for Excellent Schools envisions a future where every child attends an excellent school. Currently, Families for Excellent Schools works with 41,000 families and over 100 allies in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts
OPPORTUNITY
Families for Excellent Schools seeks a talented leader and organizer who will design and implement small and large-scale campaign events across its three states. Working closely with national program and state staff, the National Tactics Director will plan and execute various mobilization events seamlessly to support integrated campaign activity across three states
February 25, 2015
[jobsthatareLEFT] Families for Excellent Schools: National Tactics Director, Flexible (New York City, Connecticut, or Massachusetts) http://www.leftjobs.com/2015/02/jobsthatareleft-families-for-excellent_47.html

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | March 7, 2015  8:00am

Even more interesting, Parent and Educator. Thanks for helping me make my case. Because I think the Office of State Ethics will now want to check FES and FESA’s reporting expenditure statements from Oct to Dec again.

These are many of the same actors, acting under a different front organization, that spent a fortune a few years ago trying to change the Bridgeport charter so that Mayor Bill Finch could appoint the Board of Education rather than allow the taxpayers of Bridgeport to elect it and hold it accountable. The OSE, legislators and taxpayers might want to look into how well it has turned out to have appointed Boards in terms of oversight and accountability - I mean look at Hartford, where Michael Sharpe and FUSE were held up by both the HBOE (with a few laudable exceptions) and the State Board (not to mention the Hartford Courant Editorial Board) as as model of “Excellence” to be “replicated” even hours before the FBI raided the premises.

posted by: Fisherman | March 7, 2015  9:13pm

After reviewing past exposés and the definition of a “Lobbyist”, my question is this: Is Sarah Darer Littman registered with OSE?

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | March 8, 2015  6:01pm

And, as a journalist, who would I be registered as lobbying for, pray tell? CT Taxpayers?  People Concerned with Ethical Behavior? The CT Coalition of Law Abiding Citizens?

posted by: Fisherman | March 9, 2015  8:18am

CEA.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | March 9, 2015  12:22pm

Why does wanting to hold Charter Advocacy groups accountable for Ethics laws automatically mean that I am advocating FOR the CT Education Association? That’s a strange position to take. Unless, of course, you don’t care about ethics laws.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | March 9, 2015  12:24pm

But I’m sure the CT Office of State Ethics would be happy to rule on that if you asked them. Why don’t ask you ask them, if you are so concerned?

posted by: Bluecoat | March 11, 2015  10:26am

New Project being proposed in Bridgeport.
Renovation of vacant industrial buildings and turn into approx. 325 affordable housing units.
In the middle of this development will also be a new Charter School.
Why are we jumping on this dense housing band wagon?
The people that would live here wouldn’t be paying enough in taxes to support the school, let alone all the social service that will be needed.
There goes the neighborhood school forever…....