A coalition of labor unions and liberal advocacy groups has launched a campaign to tie Mitt Romney to supporters of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's "failed education policies."
New Yorkers for Great Public Schools released a report Thursday, titled "
Students First Romney First," claiming that StudentsFirst NY is using a plan developed by Bain & Company and "advocating actions that will treat public schools the way Romney's Bain Capital treated companies." It's also calling on political candidates to reject contributions from StudentsFirst NY. (Read the full report below.)
StudentsFirst NY, the state's chapter of the national StudentsFirst organization headed by former D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, was formed this April. But the group butts heads with union supporters. The labor-backed New Yorkers for Great Public schools is fighting to repeal controversial policies supported by the Bloomberg administration -- like issues surrounding teacher evaluations and shuttering struggling schools to replace them with non-union charters -- and claims in its report that Romney is receiving contributions from StudentsFirst NY supporters.
"StudentsFirst NY is supporting market-driven restructuring and privatization of schools that goes even further than what Mayor Bloomberg has implemented in the past decade," according to the report.
Members of StudentsFirst's board also include hedge fund managers Daniel Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones, vocal critics of Obama administration's handling of the economy and founders of the Robin Hood Foundation. Loeb and Jones were once supporters of President Barack Obama, but have recently crossed party lines, fundraising to help the Republicans defeat him in this year's election. The two also each donated $75,000 to StudentsFirst last month.
The report carries the tagline, "How Romney donors and Republican insiders plan to use their political capital -- and Bain Capital -- to control NYC education." It points to shared views on education by Romney and StudentsFirst NY, from teacher pay based on student test scores to expanding charter and online schools as well as high-stakes testing.
In a section titled "The Bain of Public Schools," New Yorkers for Great Public Schools likens Rhee's reform efforts of closing struggling schools and firing unsuccessful teachers to Bain's practice of closing factories and outsourcing labor "as a way of reducing costs to maximize short term profit."
But StudentsFirst NY officials are denying the claims.
"Virtually every line in this report contains charges that range from absurd to dishonest," deputy executive director Glen Weiner said in a statement, according to The New York Times. "Clearly, the teachers' union is so desperate to suppress a serious conversation about improving teacher quality and expanding school options for kids that it has set up a front group to threaten elected officials and concoct conspiracy theories."
The StudentsFirst NY board does also include several major Democratic donors, but the United Federation of Teachers argues that StudentsFirst has endorsed Republicans over Democrats in the past 68 percent of the time, the New York Daily News reports.
Since the report's release, the city's 2013 mayoral candidates have come forward on whether they would accept contributions from StudentsFirst NY. Comptroller John Liu told GothamSchools he would reject support from the group, though he is unlikely to receive offers from the chapter because he is perceived to err on the side of unions. A spokesman for Speaker Christine Quinn told GothamSchools they would readily accept StudentsFirst NY contributions.
Similarly, former Stuyvesant High School teacher Tom Allon told Capital New York that he "will gladly accept donations from any group that has a strong education agenda," but Bill Thompson, former head of the city's Board of Education, said he isn't sure yet.
"The allegations in the report, if true, raise questions about StudentsFirst NY's financial backing and reporting," Thompson said in a statement to Capital New York. "The last thing we need is super-PAC-like organizations attempting to influence education policy with little transparency and accountability. I reserve judgment for the moment and look forward to learning more about the organization and its agenda."
The Bloomberg administration has been faced with a handful of setbacks in school reform efforts in recent years, suffering yet another defeat last month when a judge upheld a decision that the city does not have the authority to shutter 24 schools, remove thousands of their teachers and administrative staff and reopen under new names.
The city could also miss out on $60 million in federal grants because the New York City Department of Education and the unions have failed to agree on a new evaluation system for teachers and principals. Bloomberg and the unions have also been embroiled in a heated debate over disclosure of teacher performance data.
And the Bloomberg administration's practice of shuttering and replacing failing schools has not improved the academic standing of city students, according to a New York Daily News analysis last month. Of 154 public elementary and middle schools opened under Bloomberg, almost 60 percent were found to have lower passing rates than the average school of similar socioeconomic demographic. While 47 percent of all city students passed reading exams, just 38 percent of students at new schools passed.
While the new schools were supposed to yield improvements in test scores and educator quality, 15 percent of new schools graded last year earned Ds and Fs -- exceeding the city average of 10 percent.
In an op-ed for the Daily News, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew offered alternatives for improving schools that preclude closures. The key, they write, starts with a new approach of negotiations and collaboration between the city and teachers.