BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service) – Asked to investigate whether public education dollars financed a ballot question campaign, the state’s education department said it will defer to state campaign finance regulators, who said they will not conclude any cases before the Nov. 8 election.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge last Wednesday asked Education Secretary James Peyser and Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester to look into whether the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association used public dollars in its $100,000 donation to the Question 2 campaign.
Question 2 would allow for up to 12 additional charter schools per year outside existing statutory caps. It has been opposed by school committees and teachers unions and backed by education reformers, Gov. Charlie Baker and other school choice advocates.
The charter school association on Sept. 1 donated $100,000 to the Campaign for Fair Access to Quality Public Schools, a ballot question committee supporting Question 2.
Unlike other political donors, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association receives substantial funding from public education dollars. According to Eldridge’s letter, in fiscal 2015 the association collected $806,581 from member charter schools’ dues and $130,019 in government grants. The organization had $2.1 million in total revenue that year, Eldridge wrote, concluding the association receives “nearly half of its funding from public sources.”
Eldridge highlighted another $150,000 donation from the association’s Voter Education Fund, which the senator referred to as the group’s “advocacy arm,” to the same ballot question committee.
“No public money or resources are involved in the contributions the association is making,” Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in a statement in response to a News Service inquiry.
On Oct. 5, the Save Our Public Schools group organized in opposition to Question 2, raised nearly identical concerns to those voiced more recently by Eldridge, publicizing a complaint Boston parent John Lerner made to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance about the charter association’s donation.
“Melrose schools lost $2.5 million to charter schools last year. If it’s true that the charter school association used any of that taxpayer money for political purposes, it’s a clear violation of state campaign finance regulations,” said Melrose Mayor Robert Dolan in a statement.
Jason Tait, a spokesman for the campaign finance office, said he could not confirm or deny any complaint was received and said the office does not close cases during its “blackout period” shortly before the election. Any cases related to the upcoming election would be closed afterwards, he said.
“Generally, if a private organization is given taxpayer resources, that entity would be prohibited from making political expenditures with those funds,” Tait told the News Service in an email. “It is something our agency reviews on a case by case basis.”
Eldridge asked Peyser and Chester for a “thorough investigation” to “ensure that no public education funds were used for political purposes.”
“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is reviewing Sen. Eldridge’s letter and plans to respond,” Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the education department told the News Service in a statement. “We note that the Office of Campaign and Political Finance is the state agency that has jurisdiction over campaign finance questions and we would defer to that office on these matters.”
Eldridge told the News Service that the political contribution appears inappropriate even if the charter group also receives private donations – likening it to a public elementary school raising funds through a bake sale, which would do little to legitimize a political contribution from the school.
The charter school association is a non-profit organization, which states on its website it advocates for charter schools, “repeatedly defeating negative legislation, protecting the charter school funding formula, and advocating to increase the state cap on charters.”
“I do think it’s important to know the source of funding,” Eldridge told the News Service.
Dollars flow from public entities into the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which have legislative goals, but Eldridge said contributions to political campaigns go beyond advocacy.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said his organization cannot make political contributions because of its non-profit status and the roughly 90 percent of its revenue that comes from public sources.
“They’re under the same restriction we are,” Koocher said of the charter association. The school committees’ association plans to hold a delegate assembly Nov. 2 where they will take up Question 2, but will not spend money trying to convince the public how to vote on it. The majority of school committees in the state have passed resolutions opposing the question.
A 1978 Supreme Judicial Court decision known as Anderson v. City of Boston determined public resources could not be appropriated to support or oppose a ballot campaign. In a 1989 advisory opinion to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance determined that “physically separated accounts” should be established for spending on political matters.
“It is the opinion of this office that an auditing system designed to separate municipal funds from other funds would be insufficient to overcome the prohibition against the use of appropriated monies,” the advisory opinion stated. “It has been the policy of this office that an accounting system alone is not enough to overcome prohibitions in the campaign finance law and that physically separate accounts must be established to ensure there is no comingling of permitted and prohibited monies.”
Geoff Beckwith, who has been executive director of the municipal association since 1992, said it has never made political contributions under his tenure.
“For us it’s a blanket policy,” said Beckwith. He said, “We don’t engage in any political activity.”
The municipal association opposes Question 2.
Teachers unions, which receive funding through dues that come out of government paychecks, have funded opposition to the question.
Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, said teachers’ union dues, which are obligatory, are “private funds by the time we get them.” Union dues are not appropriated by the schools, Stutman told the News Service. They are taken out of teachers’ paychecks.
“Union dues come from the paychecks of the employees, and therefore are no longer the domain of public money, which is different from a charter school using public dollars to give to a ballot initiative,” Eldridge said in a statement.
On Aug. 25, Paul Craney, executive director of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, alerted the Office of Campaign and Political Finance to what he deemed “campaign finance violations” involving Eldridge and three other Democrats.
Craney wrote that Our Revolution, a non-profit associated with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, solicited donations for Eldridge, Sen. Patricia Jehlen, of Somerville, and Rep. Mary Keefe, of Worcester.
MassFiscal supports Question 2, writing online that charter schools are “less stringently regulated and are not in a vice grip by union bosses.”
Copyright 2016 STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE