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School choice advocates bring in cash to Atlanta school election

Wealthy backers of Atlanta charter schools and school choice are pouring money into the city’s Nov. 5 Board of Education elections in an effort to put their slate of candidates in power.

If successful, the well-financed candidates backed by school choice advocates could win a majority of seats on the nine-member school board. Four incumbents aren’t seeking re-election, creating an opportunity for major turnover on the board.

Six candidates have received money from charter school supporters and Teach for America, which has close ties to charter schools, according to an analysis of campaign contributions by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One in 12 students in Atlanta Public Schools are already enrolled in charters, a higher ratio than any other school district in the state.

“This election is being bought,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers, which had given $8,075 as of Sept. 30 to candidates running against those supported by charter school advocates. “They put people in leadership positions to set policy, and that policy puts big bucks into private hands.”

But candidates receiving cash from Teach For America and pro-school choice groups said charter schools are one way to improve public education. School board candidate Jason Esteves, a TFA graduate and attorney, said charter schools should be “laboratories of innovation” that can test new ways of teaching that can then be applied more broadly in traditional schools.

“I support charter schools, just like I support great traditional schools. I want to see the division between charter schools and traditional schools bridged,” said Esteves, a lawyer at McKenna Long & Aldridge, which has a team of 33 attorneys representing charter school industry clients, according to the firm’s website.

Teach for America is a program that recruits college graduates and professionals to teach in low-income communities, often in charter schools.

TFA has received heavy funding from school choice advocates and supporters of charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded. For example, the Walton Family Foundation, which as the charitable arm of Wal-Mart’s founders is one of the leading donors to charter school programs in the country, recently announced a $20 million grant to Teach for America.

Much of the money has come from out-of-state donors. The four have collected more than twice what the other 22 candidates have raised from outside of Georgia.

Contributors include Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, whose foundation has supported Teach for America; national board members of TFA; former Republican presidential candidate and school choice advocate Herman Cain; individuals tied to Democrats for Education Reform; and board members and employees of the nation’s largest network of charter schools, KIPP, which runs six schools in Atlanta.

The influx of campaign cash comes at a crucial time for education in the city, as the newly elected school board will pick a new superintendent, choose whether to continue creating more charter schools and decide how much privatization it wants in an education system struggling with a 51 percent graduation rate.

Besides Esteves, the other Teach for America graduates who are candidates for the Atlanta Board of Education are former elementary teacher Eshe Collins, school board member Courtney English and high school history teacher Matt Westmoreland.

Some benefactors have given to all four candidates, as well as two others: Mark Riley, real estate developer, and Leslie Grant, who runs a small business promoting healthy eating. Riley, a former board member, supports decentralization of schools and education customization, and he has long been director of a foundation that has contributed to TFA and KIPP, as well as many private schools in Atlanta. Grant was involved in the founding of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School.

As of Sept. 30, Teach for American’s political arm, Leadership for Educational Equity, had given about $4,300 worth of services to the four TFA candidates. The group helps TFA alumni who want to run for office, but it doesn’t push charter schools or any particular education philosophy, said spokesman Michael Amodeo.

“We have a lot of different viewpoints among our members. These folks in many cases believe there are different paths to achieve educational equity,” said Amodeo, who previously served as communications director for the Obama for America campaign in Colorado. “We don’t advocate for specific policy positions. We hope to be one source of leadership.”

Collins and English had received about 28 percent of their campaign funding from outside Georgia. Westmoreland had raised about 21 percent from out of state, and Esteves about 17 percent.

Atlanta Public Schools hires about 75 TFA recruits each year, and there are a total of about 300 TFA corps members in metro Atlanta classrooms this year, according to the organization’s website.

Critics of TFA say its teachers frequently leave the profession after a couple of years, and they don’t receive as much training as traditional teachers who go through a university education curriculum.

“What you have is TFA refining a strategy of trying to control school systems,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a charter school critic who has backed three non-TFA candidates. “It seems to me they ought to be up front about what they are trying to do. These folks are committing themselves to teaching, but when you see their agenda of electing and controlling school systems by using money and misdirection, it is something voters in Atlanta ought to be concerned about.”

Another prominent donor in the school board race is Mayor Kasim Reed, who with members of the city’s business community has formed an independent committee to support a slate of candidates with more than $90,000 raised so far, including $75,000 from the mayor. Reed endorsed the four TFA candidates, but he’s also supporting board Chairman Reuben McDaniel over Riley and incumbent Brenda Muhammad over Grant.

National charter school groups were active in Georgia last year during the campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to make it easier to approve charter schools. Backers of the constitutional amendment outspent opponents — mostly local public school advocates — more than 10-1, with most of the money coming from out-of-state advocates and for-profit companies that run charter schools.

Blank and members of his family gave a total of at least $36,000 to candidates including the group of six TFA alumni and other charter school proponents. Blank’s chief of staff declined an interview request. Blank’s family foundation contributed more than $800,000 to Teach for America since 1999.

TFA candidates said they won’t be influenced by the contributions.

“We’re not going to jump in there and hand over control of the school system to some for-profit charter monster,” Westmoreland said. “Just because someone gave me a political contribution, if they come at me with an idea that I don’t think is in the best interest of everyone in the city, I’m going to say no.”

English said it’s natural for candidates to receive financial support from people with similar backgrounds, pointing out that his opponent, Nisha Simama, brought in significant donations from employees at the private Paideia School, where she’s worked for 20 years. Simama brought in $5,755 from people associated with Paideia School, according to campaign finance records.

“I’ve got a history and a track record of standing up to powerful interests,” English said. “Nothing I’ve done in my record would indicate that I’m heavy-handed in my support of charters. It’s a good idea for people who know what the inside of a classroom looks like to make policy decisions.”

Parent Michelle Constantinides said she worries that charter schools divide public school systems. While any student in the city can enroll in charters, they don’t provide as many special education programs, and they tend to attract students from families with involved parents, she said.

“It leaves behind those most in need,” said Constantinides, who has three students in Atlanta’s traditional schools, including one in special education programs. “Aren’t public schools there to provide everyone the opportunity for a good public education?”

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