OP-ED | Are Charter Advocacy Groups Skirting CT Ethics Laws?
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 (126.96.36.199) 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:
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.
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