School Fight Dominates Record Spending on Lobbying
With this story, The New York World launches The Lobbies at the Top, a guide to spending on political influence in New York State. The first edition takes a look at the power players of 2011, who won gay marriage, teacher concessions, a Medicaid deal and more.
The future of the fight over public schools has a fresh, highly visible face, and it’s called StudentsFirstNY.But the new school-reform supergroup, founded by former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and ex-D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, is in fact not that new at all. It builds directly one of the biggest lobbying forces in New York State, called Education Reform Now.In the last two years, Education Reform Now and the associated Education Reform Now Advocacy have spent more than $10 million to influence state law on hiring and firing of teachers, as a counterforce to the state’s two major teachers’ unions. Those funds helped force a change in teacher evaluations that unions had opposed, and also backed Mayor Bloomberg’s push for layoffs based on teacher performance in place of the current system, in which the most recently hired teachers must be the first to be let go.
The $10 million is as much money as StudentsFirstNY director Micah Lasher — until now, Mayor Bloomberg’s chief Albany lobbyist — says the new group will spend to influence the next mayoral election.
Klein chaired the Education Now board until this month, when he resigned to serve instead on the board of StudentsFirstNY. The state group will be affiliated with Rhee’s national StudentsFirst organization, which now operates in 17 states.
“They’ve always been closely allied,” said Steven Brill, author of the book Class Warfare, of Rhee’s national group and Klein’s New York State effort. The new alliance, he believes, “surfaced publicly to fire a warning shot at the mayoral candidates. It was their way of saying there would be two strong groups instead of just one standing watch over the race.”Last week, Education Reform Now’s sibling political group, Democrats for Education Reform, announced that it will be joining forces with StudentsFirstNY as part of a new statewide coalition, to be known as the New York State Education Reform Council.
“We’re going up against one of the most powerful interests in Albany,” said Joe Williams, who directs both Education Reform Now and Democrats for Education Reform, to the New York Post. “We don’t stand a chance if we’re not aligned and focused.”
Those interests are the state’s two major teacher’s unions, United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City public school educators, and United Teachers of New York State. Their combined 900,000 members hold heavy influence over the state’s Democratic legislators; combined, the unions spent $7.5 million on lobbying last year alone to Education Reform Now’s $3.8 million.
Most of that money has poured into TV and internet advertising. State lobbying records reveal that Education Reform Now / Education Reform Now Advocacy — two related groups that registered as a single lobbying entity — spent $7.5 million in 2010 and 2011 on ads via consultant SKD Knickerbocker, part of a total $10.4 million in influence spending during those two years.
That ad blitz vaulted Education Reform Now/Education Reform Now Advocacy to fourth on the list of biggest lobbying spenders in New York in 2011, just behind the state teacher’s union in spending last year and ahead of the city’s United Federation of Teachers.
Ad buys in the education wars helped drive New York State lobbying spending last year to a record high of $220 million.
Last year, the group’s spending boosted Mayor Bloomberg’s demand for a change in seniority rules, so that administrators could lay off the worst-performing teachers instead of those most recently hired.
Education Reform Now TV ads featured city school teachers opposing their union’s position. “If there have to be layoffs, we should keep the best teachers — it’s that simple,” declares Rogelio Herrera Jr., a Bronx public school teacher. “You’re talking about losing young minds.” Jane Viau echoes his words. “ Whether that means they’re a second-year teacher of a 22nd-year teacher,” she says, “you’ve got to keep great teachers.”
A 2010 ad, which aired in Albany and New York City, sought to break the legislative impasse over teacher evaluations that blocked nearly $700 million in federal funds. “Albany is listening much too much to the teachers union,” complained a woman in the commercial.