The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Group tied to charter school backers spent thousands in Va. school board election

Veronica Nolan was reelected to the Alexandria school board in the 2018 race in District B. (Derek House)

The amounts were eye-popping for a school board election in a system of fewer than 16,000 students. While most contenders for the Alexandria City School Board collected contributions of a few hundred dollars or less, Veronica Nolan and Christopher Suarez outraised some opponents more than tenfold.

The source of their financial boost: Leaders in Education Fund, the political giving arm of Leadership for Educational Equity, an organization that trains Teach for America alumni to run for public office and is tied to billionaire donors allied with the charter school lobby.

Education experts say the donations may portend an effort to bring more charters to Virginia, a state with restrictive rules governing the publicly funded but independently operated schools. Nolan and Suarez, both of whom won school board seats, condemned assertions that the donations were tied to a charter school push.

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Nolan, a leadership coach and adjunct professor at Trinity Washington University who was reelected to the board Nov. 6, received $22,300 from the Leaders in Education Fund in 2018, according to finance reports. Suarez, an attorney, received nearly $18,000. Both participated in Teach for America.

Nolan rejected the suggestion she would support charter schools, noting she taught in a public high school in the District. She also said she was insulted at the notion “that I can basically be bought.”

“I don’t even think about charter schools,” Nolan said, adding that the Alexandria system has more urgent problems, including crowding and school buildings that need overhauling. “My whole career has been service toward public education.”

Suarez, who said he is opposed to charter schools in Alexandria, said he has worked to ensure “public schools remain a bulwark of our democracy.” He cautioned against making assumptions based on financial contributions and said he would not have accepted money if he felt pressured to take a political position.

“You’ve got to get to know the candidates individually,” Suarez said, noting he attended Chicago public schools. “It’s really important that we have civil dialogue in education and that we work collaboratively.”

Leadership for Educational Equity submitted a statement in response to questions from The Washington Post. It described itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit leadership development organization focused on civic change.”

“We believe that having a diverse set of equity-minded leaders with classroom experience at the decision-making table will drive the changes necessary to ensure that every child will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” the statement read.

The organization did not describe its relationship to the Leaders in Education Fund, which is listed in tax documents as a related organization, or express a position on charters. Leaders in Education, another related organization, is a political action committee, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Supporters of charters say they provide alternatives to underperforming schools. Critics contend they siphon money from traditional public schools, exacerbate segregation and are ripe for mismanagement.

Virginia leaders have given local governments control over opening charters, granting school boards authority to approve or deny applications. Schools systems have largely resisted them. Unlike elsewhere in the country where charters have proliferated, just eight exist in Virginia.

“By stacking the board . . . they can get charter schools in,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes privately managed schools.

It’s part of a pattern, Burris said, of wealthy donors who support charter schools infusing campaign cash into school board races.

The Network for Public Education examined the phenomenon by zeroing in on nine elections. Its findings were detailed in a report titled “Hijacked by Billionaires: How the Super Rich Buy Elections to Undermine Public Schools.” It highlighted more than 15 billionaires and their families who contributed to at least three races or donated more than $1 million.

Walton family steps up support for school choice with $1 billion pledge

Among them: Alice Walton and Jim Walton, of the Walmart fortune, who donated $3.1 million and $1.7 million, respectively, to pro-charter candidates or committees, according to the report. The Walton Family Foundation, the family’s philanthropic arm, announced in 2016 it would spend $1 billion in the hopes of expanding charter schools and other school choice options.

Steuart Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton and a Walton Family Foundation board member, serves on the board of Leadership for Educational Equity, according to online biographies. So does Emma Bloomberg, who recently served as chief of staff of a New York organization dedicated to fighting poverty and sits on the board of the KIPP Foundation, which trains educators to become leaders in the largest charter school network in the country.

Bloomberg is the daughter of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ardent charter school and school choice supporter.

The Waltons, Michael Bloomberg and Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and Leadership for Educational Equity board member, were among a cadre of wealthy donors who bankrolled pro-charter political action committees that steered $17 million to “charter-friendly” candidates vying for state legislature seats in 2016, the Associated Press reported.

A Walton Family Foundation spokesman referred questions to Leadership for Educational Equity. Messages to Bloomberg Philanthropies — Emma Bloomberg sits on the board of directors of the Bloomberg Family Foundation — were not returned. A message left last week at Rock’s office was not returned.

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Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, a research and policy center that does not have an ideological position on charter schools, said the Leaders in Education Fund probably threw money behind the Alexandria candidates in hopes the candidates would eventually seek state office.

Building influence in the state legislature could result in an expansion of charter schools, Cohen said.

The fund “has an agenda. The funders have an agenda,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think their agenda is to destroy public education but . . . part of the charter growth movement [is] weakening public education. Money always has an agenda.”

The Alexandria school board races weren’t the only Northern Virginia contests in whichLeadership for Educational Equity left a footprint. Finance records show the group also gave at least $25,100 to Matt de Ferranti, who ousted an incumbent on the Arlington County Board.

De Ferranti, who taught elementary schoolchildren in Houston with Teach for America during the mid-1990s, said his interactions with Leadership for Educational Equity have centered around how best to serve Arlington — not bolstering charter schools.

“I don’t think that charter schools are appropriate for Arlington,” he said. “I do think a relentless focus on the opportunity and achievement gaps that we need to close, across Virginia, is important.”

De Ferranti — who was also endorsed by the teachers union, the Arlington Education Association — emphasized that Leadership for Educational Equity’s focus is to “get leaders in office who have experience teaching in our toughest communities.”