Breaking from allies, charter group to back Democratic control of state Senate National charter school group set to spend big to advance state party that backs teachers unions
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 battle.
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.