Saturday, April 22, 2017

We Made a Difference! Grassroots Organizing in New Jersey Inspires Senators to Take Action on PARCC

Yesterday I went on a road trip with my twin 10 year old girls to Senate President Steve Sweeney's office where we spent time with some of the most fantastic, courageous folks you'd ever want to meet.

Why were we there?

To ask Senator Sweeney to post SCR 132, a concurrent resolution that would send NJ's new PARCC graduation requirement regulations back to the State Board of Education for a much needed re-write. You see, the regulations that the State Board passed don't match up with state statute.

The statute calls for a test of basic skills administered in 11th grade with re-testing options in grade 12. So what does the NJDOE and the State Board do? Propose and pass regulations that make PARCC Algebra 1 (taken as early as 7th grade) and PARCC ELA 10 the new exit exams.

See the disconnect?

And the best part about the concurrent resolution? It completely side-steps Christie. It's veto proof.

The Assembly already passed their version of the resolution. If it passes the Senate the regulations go straight back to the State BOE for revision. But Ruiz hasn't posted it in the Senate Education Committee, and Sweeney hasn't posted it for a vote - it's completely stalled.

The New Jersey Senate, ladies and gentlemen - where pro-public education bills go to die.

But grassroots activists don't give up and we don't give in, so we headed for Sweeney's West Deptford office to bring our message right to his door. We rallied for a bit across the street, and then we strolled over to Sweeney's office and chatted with his staff.
The crew!
Let's go see Sweeney - with a bullhorn!
Should we knock, or maybe just stand out here
and see what happens - with a bullhorn.
This is just what Sen. Sweeney's staffers wanted to see at 4:45.
That's (one of) my girl(s).

And then today, this.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the chamber's Education Committee, penned a letter to state education officials this week, indicating that the use of PARCC as a high school exit exam violates legislative intent.

If you'd like to read the letter, you can find it here.

But why did Sweeney and Ruiz send a letter? Why didn't they just post SCR 132, and allow the full Senate to vote?

The letter is addressed to State BOE President Mark Biedron and Acting Commissioner Kimberly Harrington. Governor Chris Christie and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto are copied on the letter. Was a deal struck to do this more quietly to avoid humiliating the Governor - a man who is already the least popular Governor in the nation?

Who knows.

It's anybody's guess what will ultimately become of the graduation requirement regulations, but I'm putting this one in the win column for now. There's a lot more work to be done, but this is a damn good start. And best of all, when my girls came home from school and I told them the news, one exclaimed with glee, "We made a difference!"

Yes my darling girl, we made a difference.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

$115 Million Price Tag for Christie Growth of Gulen Charters

On the heels of an explosive investigation of Gulen Charter Schools in New Jersey by The Record, comes a report today from CBS claiming that teachers at Gulen charters were forced to turn over up to 40% of their salary to the Gulen movement.

Leaving aside the insanely complex political issues for the moment, I'd like to add to the phenomenal job The Record has done investigating New Jersey's Gulen charters. 

Unbeknownst to most of us, Chris Christie has exponentially increased the number of Gulen charters in New Jersey - which will, without a doubt, dramatically increase the price tag as well. But by how much? 

Let's find out.

When he took office, four Gulen affiliated schools existed.

Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School (TEECS) - 2002
Paterson Charter School for Science & Technology - 2003
Central Jersey College Prep - 2006
Bergen Arts and Science - 2007

Chris Christie has opened three new Gulen charters, and has approved a fourth to open in September, 2017.

Passaic Arts and Science - 2011
Paterson Arts and Science - 2013
Hudson Arts and Science - 2016
Union Arts and Science - opening September 2017

Simply put, Christie has doubled the number of Gulen charters in his two terms.

How much is this costing New Jersey taxpayers in 2017?

Thanks to an Open Public Record Act (OPRA) request, I have the State Charter School Aid summaries for every single charter school in the state for FY17, so I can easily calculate that amount.

In the 2016-17 school year the taxpayers of New Jersey shelled out $64,972,385 to fund seven Gulen charters.
Central Jersey College Prep: $6,203,605
Bergen Arts and Science: $14,016,818
Passaic Arts and Science: $10,857,525
Paterson Arts and Science: $6,984,518
Hudson Arts and Science: $3,816,388
Paterson Charter School for Science & Tech: $14,615,460
Thomas Edison EnergySmart Charter School: $4,667,683
Kind of shocking, no?

Here are those aid summaries, so you can see the numbers for yourself and you can see if your district is impacted. (There's a zoom feature at the bottom) I think you'll be surprised to see just how many districts are impacted, and how much money they are losing.

And as if the loss of almost 65 million dollars is not wild enough, wait until you hear about the expansions Governor Christie's administration has approved for these schools. 

Chris Christie explodes the number of Gulen charter seats

According to the aid summaries, these seven schools are serving approximately 4,797 students this year. 

Here are the expansions and new charter schools the Christie administration has approved in the last two years alone:


Bergen Arts and Science CS
Garfield, Hackensack, Lodi
Thomas Edison Energy Smart CS
Franklin Twp, North Brunswick, South Brunswick

New Charter School

Union Arts and Science CS
(240 students)


Paterson Arts and Science Charter School
K-8, 540
K-12, 897
Central Jersey College Prep Charter School
New Brunswick, North Brunswick, Franklin
K-2, 6-12, 480
K-12, 1,320
Passaic Arts and Science Charter School
K-10, 860
K-12, 1,021
Hudson Arts and Science Charter School
Jersey City, Kearny
K-5, 360
K-8, 1,021
Paterson Charter School for Science & Technology



K-12, 1,068

K-12, 1,584

And now to total up all the new seats. 

You'll notice the 2016 summary from the state doesn't make it easy to see how many seats they've added, so I had to do some digging. It looks like Bergen A&S was given an increase from 1,040 students to 1,400, a total of 360 new seats.

In the letter below, former Commissioner David Hespe says he's limiting TEECS's expansion, citing a lack of diversity, but he still allows TEECS to add an additional 200 seats. Not much of a punishment for not serving the same demographic mix as the sending districts, now is it? Read my good buddy Jersey Jazzman for more on the segregation happening at TEECS.

That makes 560 new seats just for Bergen A&S and TEECS, plus another 240 when Union Arts & Sciences opens up in September of 2017 to serve kids in K-2. Union A&S was approved to serve K-5, so at full expansion they will have 480 available seats.

Hudson Arts and Science just opened in September of 2016 to serve 360 kids in grades K-5. They were approved to serve K-8, so at full expansion they will serve 540 students, for a total of 180 additional seats.

And here's how many new seats were just approved in February of 2017.

Paterson Arts and Science: 357
Central Jersey College Prep: 840 (this includes a 360 seat new facility in New Brunswick)
Passaic Arts and Science: 161
Hudson Arts and Science: 661
Paterson Charter School for Science & Technology: 480

That's another 2,499 seats in 2017 to add to the 1,220 additional seats for Bergen, Hudson and Union A&S, and TEECS, for a total of 3,719 seats still to come in Gulen charter schools.

How much more is that going to cost?

According to the Aid Summaries above, there are 4,797 students enrolled in Gulen charters this school year. With a total of $64,972,385 spent, that's an average of $13,544.38 per student.

At that per pupil average, Christie's continued reckless expansion of Gulen charter schools will add another $50,371,549 burden to the taxpayers of New Jersey. 

After Christie leaves office, if the next administration doesn't do something to halt this unprecedented growth, the people of the fine state of New Jersey will soon spend $115,343,934 per year to support a network of Gulen charter schools.

And remember - Christie approves 'em but we pay for 'em out of our local tax dollars.

So what do we do?

If you think this is outrageous, start talking to the candidates for Governor of both parties. 

Show up at their meetings. Ask them questions. Send them letters. Let them know that if they want your vote they need to halt the charter school growth Christie has unleashed on the people of New Jersey. While you're at it, tell them they need to fix New Jersey's charter school law and give local school boards the say over new charters. 

And don't forget to tell the gubernatorial candidates that Christie made these decisions as he was about to walk out the door, sticking the next administration with this gigantic mess to figure out. 

Swell guy, that Christie.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Demand that Senators Who Have Received DeVos Money Recuse Themselves

On January 11, 2017 The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) will hold the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Recently, Politico released the paperwork DeVos filed with the Committee prior to her hearing. I perused it with some interest, wondering what it might reveal. Not a big surprise that she's involved in numerous education reform organizations, but even I got a chuckle to learn that she's a member of not one, but three yacht clubs.

But I digress.

What I really wanted to look at were her political contributions. The unsearchable pdf wasn't user friendly - lists of Committees, Campaigns and PACs are not terribly helpful or illuminating, so I decided to use the Federal Election Commission website to see what I could find.

I wanted to see if any of the members of the HELP Committee have any conflicts with DeVos and her billions. Sure enough, a fair number of the Republican Senators do.

But before we get to the actual contributions, I need to make something very clear. For Betsy DeVos to disclose only contributions that she gave as an individual is inherently dishonest. I've spent more than my fair share of time researching campaign contributions, and if there is one thing I've learned it's that billionaire families give as a unit. If there is a $2,600 contribution limit, the husband and wife both donate the limit, and they do it as often as possible.

The DeVos's are no exception to that rule, and as you will see, if anything, when one member of the DeVos clan contributes, the whole family contributes. Their businesses are family affairs. Just because her first name doesn't appear doesn't mean her interests are not in play. 

Check back to the DeVos family tree of businesses which illustrates this quite nicely.

When we consider if a Senator has a conflict of interest in participating in DeVos's nomination hearings, we have to consider not only her contributions, but those of the rest of her billionaire brood as well.

Here is a list of the twelve Republican Senators on the HELP Committee.
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions 
Lamar Alexander, Tennessee
Mike Enzi, Wyoming
Richard Burr, North Carolina
Johnny Isakson, Georgia
Rand Paul, Kentucky
Susan Collins, Maine
Bill Cassidy, Louisiana
Todd Young, Indiana
Orrin Hatch, Utah
Pat Roberts, Kansas
Lisa Murkowski, Alaska
Tim Scott, South Carolina

Let's see how many of them we can connect to campaign contributions or independent expenditures from DeVos, her family and the PACs they have contributed to.

Alticor PAC 

Between 1997 and 2016 the DeVos family contributed at least $283,000 to the Alticor PAC. Alticor is the parent company of Amway, and as we all know (see graphic above), Amway is a DeVos family company. 

Betsy DeVos contributed $5,000 to Alticor in 2015 and another $5,000 in 2016. You can view all of the DeVos family's contributions here.

In 2015 Alticor contributed directly to Lamar Alexander's Senate campaign.

Alticor also contributed to:

Friends of Todd Young in 2016
Orrin Hatch in 2010 and 2014
Pat Roberts in 2008

So right off the bat we've uncovered that the chairman of the HELP Committee and two committee members have benefited from campaign contributions from a DeVos family company PAC.

Alticor PAC Totals:

Lamar Alexander - $2,500

Todd Young - $2,000
Orrin Hatch - $2,000
Pat Roberts - $1,000

Senate Leadership Fund 

The Senate Leadership Fund describes itself as an "independent Super PAC" and claims that its sole goal is "to protect and expand the Republican Senate Majority when Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren and their army of left-wing activists try to take it back in 2016."

This goal seems to have resonated with the DeVos family - they contributed $2,225,000 between 9/27/16 to 11/1/16. Yes - you saw that right - almost two and a quarter million in a little over a month. You can see those contributions here.

According to Open Secrets, Independent Expenditures to support Todd Young in his 2016 Indiana Senate race totaled almost $300,000. Expenditures to oppose his primary challenger Marlin Stutzman totaled $482,330, and to oppose his general election opponent the PAC spent a shocking $11,542,687. That's a total of $12,325,017 to put Young in the Senate.

Senate Leadership Fund Totals:

Todd Young - $12,325,017

Freedom Partners Action Fund

The DeVos Family contributed $2,000,000 to the Freedom Partners Action Fund Super PAC between 2014 and 2016. You can view those contributions here.

In turn, Freedom Partners Action Fund supported William Cassidy - and they successfully helped him defeat incumbent Mary Landrieu, spending over $1.6M to oppose her. Watch some of the commercials they produced to slam Landrieu - they're pretty heinous attack ads. 

The expenditures on Cassidy's behalf totaled $223,168 - you can see them here. In total, that's almost $2M to put Cassidy in office, and on the HELP Committee where DeVos will have her hearing. Money well spent, I suppose.

Freedom Partners spent less to support Pat Roberts, but they supported his Senate campaign to the tune of $17,507.45. See here.

Freedom Partners Action Fund Totals:

William Cassidy - $1,840,359
Pat Roberts - $17,507


ESAFund's website is under construction, but says that they support candidates who "favor enhancing free enterprise, reducing the size of government, and balancing our nation's budget." 

Between 2014 and 2016 the DeVos family has contributed over $500,000 to the ESAFund. You can see those contributions here

Todd Young's 2016 campaign received $134,086.68 from ESAFund.

As a fun aside, ESAFund also spent close to $1M to oppose Bernie Sanders' presidential bid, and Sanders is on the HELP Committee as well.

ESAFund Totals:

Todd Young - $134,086

DeVos Family's Direct Contributions

Here is a list of the direct contributions the DeVos family have made to HELP Committee Members and how much was in Betsy DeVos's name (Click on amounts to see all of the individual contributions): 

Richard Burr - $43,200 ($5,400 from Betsy DeVos)

(Contributions on FEC website)

Lisa Murkowski - $40,500 ($5,400 from Betsy DeVos)

(Contributions on FEC website)

Bill Cassidy - $67,600 ($7,800 from Betsy DeVos)

(Contributions on FEC website)

Todd Young - $48,600 ($5,400 from Betsy DeVos)

(Contributions on FEC website)

Tim Scott - $49,200 ($7,400 from Betsy DeVos)

(Contributions on FEC website)

That's a total of $296,800 from the DeVos family ($31,400 in Betsy's name) directly to sitting members of the HELP Committee.

Conservative Solutions PAC

This one is just kind of amusing. The Conservative Solutions PAC supported Marco Rubio for President. Betsy DeVos gave $50,000 to this Rubio friendly PAC in her own name, and the DeVos family gave $750,000. See those contributions here.

Open Secrets shows that while Conservative Solutions spent almost $40M to support Rubio, they also spent over $4,750,000 to oppose Trump. Can you imagine the kind of leverage this gives someone like Trump over DeVos? Do you think this came up in their meeting? Hard to imagine it didn't, isn't it?

So how much money did Senators on the Committee get in total?

At the top of this post I listed the 12 Republican members on the HELP Committee, and I have been able to connect 8 of them to DeVos money, either directly or through PACs the DeVos family has contributed to. I would be remiss if I didn't add that this is just what I was able to find combing though FEC filings. In no way are these totals exhaustive. There well could be more money and other PACs I simply wasn't able to uncover with my somewhat limited Nancy Drew style sleuthing abilities.

Senators who have received contributions and/or support from the DeVos family and the PACs they contribute to should recuse themselves

End Citizens United and Every Voice have started a petition asking senators who have received contributions from Betsy DeVosto recuse themselves. You bet I'll be adding my name to that petition, and I hope you'll join me.

I would expand that call to include senators who have received the support of DeVos family members and PACs that the DeVos family have contributed to as well. 

If you haven't yet called your senators and the senators on the HELP Committee to oppose DeVos's appointment, please call on Monday. NPE Action has a handy list of Committee Members and their contact information for you to use, as well as a call script.

It's crucial we make these calls. DeVos is on a list of nominees Democrats plan to scrutinize, and Politico has reported that they may demand a roll call vote on her appointment. Hold the senators in your state and the senators on the HELP Committee accountable. DeVos has been clear that the money she and her family contribute is meant to buy influence.
"My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections."
Don't let her buy her way into the Secretary of Education's office. Our public schools are too important, and she doesn't have a clue as to how to oversee them. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Camden Voucher Advocate, Member Of Groups With Ties To Betsy DeVos, Nominated For NJ State Board Of Ed

You've got to hand it to Chris Christie. He'll always keep you on your toes.

As reported in NJ Spotlight yesterday, the Governor announced nominees for long vacant seats on the State Board of Education yesterday, and in a move no one saw coming, he ousted the Board's President, Mark Biedron. John Mooney also noted one particular nomination, and what it may mean.

Christie added to the board well-known Camden activist Angel Cordero. A former mayoral candidate from the city, Cordero a few years ago was among the state’s biggest advocates for private-school vouchers, a topic that may see a revival in Christie’s last year.
A look at Cordero's Twitter account is, well, disturbing. His handle is @Christie_Guy_. The bulk of his tweets fall into three categories; love letters to Christie, hatred for the teachers' union, and more than a few that are just straight up bizarre. 

Here are some representative samples.

Let's start with the straight up bizarre ones to give you a sense of the guy Governor Christie thinks should get to vote on the future of our state's public schools.

From here the bizarre melts into hatred for the teachers' union.

And then there are countless tweets of pure, unadulterated love for the man himself.

Greatest human being he's ever met? A great man with a heart of gold? 82% of New Jersey residents disagree, as Christie's approval level just hit an all time low of 18%.

But back to Cordero. He's on the Board of Delegates of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey. In 2011, during Christie's strongest push for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, then LLANJ President Martin Perez was a strong supporter.
In this post-election period, the Legislature has a chance to make a real difference in the lives of thousands of students shackled to low-performing schools. It’s a chance that leaders genuinely concerned about the future cannot afford to let slip by. The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is ready for the final few steps of the legislative process and could be on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk by the end of the month if lawmakers do what they know is right for their constituents.
In 2012 Perez and his wife, Patricia Bombelyn, were behind Vargas v. Camden Board of Education, a lawsuit that sought to free parents from the "failing" schools in Camden and pay them to go to the private school of their choice. 

And Angel was right at their side.
One of those advocates is Patricia Bombelyn, the New Brunswick attorney who led the Crawford case and has been closely aligned with Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), the decade-old group that has largely led the push for private school vouchers in the state. E3 is helping sponsor the challenge.
Her law partner, Martin Perez, was also in attendance. Perez heads up the Latino Leadership Alliance. Also present: Angel Cordero, a Camden activist and former mayoral candidate, and former U.S. Rep. Richard Zimmer, a member of the E3 board. 
So it crystal clear that Cordero has been at the heart of the movement to bring vouchers to NJ, and it is likely that Christie is rewarding him for his allegiance with this seat on the State Board of Education. But Cordero must have some other qualifications, right?


Cordero by darciecimarusti on Scribd

It's hard to know where to start with this resume. The only experience offered, other than his work with the LLANJ and NJ reform heavyweight E3, is the Community Education Resource Network (CERN) and East Side Preparatory High School. I can find no reference to East Side anywhere other than in this Scribd document which was posted by "The CERN Program." Cordero describes his role at East Side as "Co-founder/general stuff."  

How illuminating.


No, certainly not the CERN. Cordero's CERN has been described as an "an alternative school for dropouts" in Camden. And while this is certainly a laudable endeavor, it is clear that Cordero has used the school as a political tool to pass voucher legislation. Cordero wants public money to fund his school when, as seen in this highly produced video of CERN's 2014 graduation (created by NJ Public School Options no less), their graduations are held in a church.

And this article about CERN's 2011 graduation makes it very clear that the ceremony was little more than a political rally (again, at a church) with the Governor himself in attendance.
Politicians urged audience members to call lawmakers, school officials praised the program’s virtues and workers at the door handed out bright yellow T-shirts saying "one failing school is one too many." 
"They said everyone had to wear a shirt," said Charles Washington, 24, of Pennsauken. "You couldn’t get in without a shirt." 
Some of the state’s most powerful people attended the ceremony for the approximately 100 graduates of the Community Education Resource Network, an alternative school for dropouts. It also showcased the alliance — at least when it comes to education — between Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and George Norcross, a Democratic power broker from South Jersey. Both are pushing the scholarship measure, which has stalled in the Legislature despite the support of Democrats and Republicans alike.
Just imagine a public school handing out mandatory t-shirts at graduation, with pleas for attendees to call their legislators to support public education. Something like that might inspire Christie to accuse the teachers' union of using students as drug mules...

Cordero has absolutely zero experience in or around a public school. While his dedication to the people of Camden is commendable, his push for vouchers, and his willingness to use the students and families he serves as pawns in his political game, is highly suspect. 

And his connections to organizations like E3 and LLANJ are deeply troubling.

Betsy DeVos, E3 and LLANJ

How in the world does Betsy DeVos come into this?

Back in 2013 I was concerned about a candidate running for the New Brunswick Board of Education. He too was a voucher supporter, and an ally of Patricia Bombelyn and Martin Perez. When I looked into the money behind these vouchers champions, I found DeVos. 

At the time, I had no idea who she was.

Here's what I wrote in 2013. (Sadly, a bunch of the links no longer work.)


And in case you're thinking Bombelyn and Perez's connections stop at the NJ border, you're wrong. When Bombelyn and Arocho ran on the same ticket, their campaign received a $2,600 donation from the "New Jersey Federation for Children PAC."

Note the address; 1660 L ST, NW STE 1000, Washington DC. This just happens to be the address for the American Federation for Children. Who's behind it? Reformy glitterati such as Betsy DeVos.
...American Federation for Children (AFC), the powerful national network of billionaire campaign contributors that has been pouring millions into school privatization fights across the country.
Organized by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos, Americans for Children is officially nonpartisan. But Dick DeVos is a former Republican nominee for governor of Michigan and Betsy DeVos is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Together, they have poured tens of millions of dollars into the ideological and electoral infrastructure that supports school privatization.
“Dick DeVos has used his family’s fortune and status to create an intricate national network of nonprofits, political action committees and federal groups known as 527s that effectively fund the political arm of the school voucher movement,” notes a People for the American Way study of the political projects of the heir to the Amway fortune and his wife. “Nowhere is the impact of the DeVos family fortune greater, though, than in the movement to privatize public education.” 
AFC chair Betsy DeVos has for decades been a high-stakes political player on behalf of school privatization. (emphasis mine)
Great.  Just when I thought I had a handle on all the reformers with their claws into public education in New Jersey, it turns out there's ANOTHER one breathing down our necks.

Other notables behind AFC are "venture capitalist" John F. Kirtley, and investment banker and banking heir Boykin Curry, who is also on the board of Democrats for Education Reform, and a co-founder of a chain of NYC charters called Public Prep.

To bring this full circle, it's important to note that AFC is part and parcel of another entity called Alliance for School Choice, which has identical board members and the same address. Who funds Alliance for School Choice? (As if these folks need more money??)  In 2011 the Walton Foundation gave them $1,202,000.

And here comes the trickle down. 

Between 2006 and 2010 Alliance for School Choice gave $113,500 to none other than Martin Perez's Latino Leadership Alliance. Not surprisingly E3, (remember Perez is on the board) is listed as their only ally in New Jersey.

In turn, the LLA NJ donated $2,700 to Bombelyn and Arocho's campaign.


Angel Cordero may have been nominated for a seat on the New Jersey State Board of Education but he has not yet been confirmed by the Senate (See page 6 in the link for current status of his nomination). He has absolutely no experience in public education, and is clearly hostile to the teachers' union. His appointment by one of the least popular Governor's in New Jersey's history must be challenged. 

Appointments to the State Board of Education are for 6 years, and there are no minimum requirements to serve, other than those that relate to the make-up of the Board as a whole

So left to his own judgement, this is who Governor Christie nominates. But there is a process that must be allowed to unfold. This is a nomination, not an appointment. As noted in the NJ Spotlight piece above:
All the appointments require Senate approval, and the nominations this week only start the process of vetting and interviews before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Nevertheless, it is rare when a nomination to a state board is reversed. 
It may be rare for a nomination to be reversed, but Cordero is an unusual nominee, to be sure. If ever there was a time for the Senate to intervene, this is it.