NEW HAVEN — The Northeast Charter Schools Network, a membership and advocacy group for charter schools in Connecticut and New York, underwent an organizational change amid a changing political landscape for the privately-operated public schools.
NECSN was founded in 2000 as the New York Charter Schools Association, but soon grew to include Connecticut in its advocacy and lobbying and adopted its new moniker. In September 2019, NECSN once again became an umbrella organization to the two sister organizations: the New York Charter Schools Association and the Connecticut Charter Schools Association.
“NECSN is a nonprofit network organization that supports the work of both the New York Charter Schools Association and Connecticut Charter Schools Association, each of which serve as the unified voices for their state’s public charter schools,” the organization says on its website. “We work to enact change in the public charter school sector that will have a significant impact on student outcomes throughout each state.”
Whereas in the past NECSN hired state directors for Connecticut and New York, it now hired or promoted executive directors of the CCSA and NYCSA. A new associate director of communications for NECSN confirmed the changes, but declined to make Anna Hall, NECSN’s CEO, or Ruben Felipe, CCSA’s executive director, available for an interview. In lieu of an interview, a tour of a local charter school was offered.
“We would love to provide you with the opportunity to see the schools first-hand and will be sure to line up a news-worthy tour in your area,” spokeswoman Kayla Paluch wrote in an email.
Paluch did not respond to several emailed questions about the organization’s legislative priorities or the organization’s reasoning for restructuring, making top personnel changes and moving NECSN’s headquarters from Hartford to Albany.
Felipe, a former chief of staff to the mayor of Bridgeport, was Connecticut political director of the pro-charter Families For Excellent Schools until that organization folded. His son, Antonio, is a state representative whose district is in Bridgeport. Hall, a former COO of a New York charter management company, has been with NECSN as its CEO since September 2018.
According to Form 990 documents, NECSN paid $174,000 to a lobbying and consulting firm in Albany in 2018, the most recent filing available. The organization did not respond to a question about what legislative priorities it supported through lobbying in Connecticut and New York.
Wendy Lecker, a senior attorney at the Education Law Center and a Hearst Connecticut Media columnist who is a charter school critic, said she believes the education reform movement is seeing fewer legislative accomplishments “because the bloom is a little bit off the rose.”
“Poor school districts are constantly saying they don’t have enough money, which was always met with derision with the education reform crowd; but now they’re saying they’re starved of state money,” she said.
The ultimate goal of education reform advocates, she argued, is to create a unitary school funding formula — all of the money in the same pool — so that money will follow students entering charter schools.
“The funds leave with the child, but the costs don’t diminish,” Lecker said. “You could have 20 kids from a district leave, but if they come from different grades, the costs don’t go down because they may be coming from different classrooms.”
Although NECSN would not comment on its legislative priorities, Education Reform Now Connecticut State Director Amy Dowell said her own school-reform minded organization’s legislative efforts for the upcoming short session centered around expanding open choice programs in more districts and to promote educational equity.
“Right now there is no open request for proposal for new charter schools here in Connecticut,” she said, although she said she and other reformers would support one. “Parents should always have the option to choose.”
Much of Education Reform Now Connecticut’s efforts are centered around the Danbury Prospect Charter School, which is slated to open in fall of this year, Dowell said.
“I think it’s an important issue for Danbury students in particular, because their school district is overcrowded,” she said. “Do we want children in overcrowded schools? Do we want to see less resources go to students? Absolutely not.”
She said that, in her belief, the charter movement in Connecticut has not necessarily stalled just because there are no active RFPs for new charters.
However, Gov. Ned Lamont has said he does not support opening new charters.
“I just worry about how we get them funded. I am trying to do no harm for our existing districts, our districts most in need,” Lamont told the CT Mirror as a candidate in 2018. “I am focused on doing everything I can to raise [neighborhood schools] up.”
Lamont’s predecessor, Dannel Malloy, was an advocate for charter schools. When he was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Democrats for Education Reform, Education Reform Now’s PAC, contributed $35,000 to the organization, according to 990 forms. In 2018, he became a member of DFER’s national advisory board.
Victoria Fosdal, director of communications for Democrats for Education Reform, Education Reform Now’s PAC, described the reform movement’s New York statehouse priorities as maintaining a Democrat majority in Albany.
On policy, Fosdal said DFER is committed to four goals. One is lifting the statewide and regional cap on new charter schools “to provide opportunity for the over 55,000 students on waitlists.” The others include desegregating schools and reforming admissions systems, increasing access to talented and gifted programs and advanced courses for low-income and black and Latino students.
“This will also be the first year that New York releases school-level spending information under the Every Student Succeeds Act. We’re looking forward to having increased transparency into school-level spending to ensure that education funds are distributed equitably and are advancing the achievement and well-being of students,” Fosdal said in an email.
Lecker said New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo is “a champion” of charter schools who helped to prop up the state’s Independent Democratic Conference, a caucus of Democratic state senators who aligned themselves with Republicans.
“Now the IDC folks are out, the new legislators who came in are very supportive of public schools and are anti-privatization. That has been a blow for the charter movement,” Lecker said.
NECSN also did not respond to questions about whether it still accepts money from the Bouncer Foundation, the family foundation of Purdue Pharma heir Jonathan Sackler, who until recently was a member of the board of the OxyContin maker. Sackler and seven other members of his family were named in a lawsuit alleging that the family peddled falsehoods to increase revenue, contributing to a nationwide opioid crisis. The company has tentatively settled for about $3 billion.
According to 990 forms, the Bouncer Foundation contributed $150,000 to NECSN in 2018, the same year it paid $174,000 for lobbyists. At least one other education reform organization has responded to the negative publicity by ending its donor relationship with Purdue Pharma; in June 2019, New England charter school network Achievement First — which received $300,000 from the Bouncer Foundation in 2018 — said it would no longer accept any donations from the Sacklers.
Sackler was on NECSN’s board as recently as 2017, according to 990 forms and archived versions of NECSN’s website. Currently, its six board members include William Morris, a retired JP Morgan executive; Jack Quinn, a former Republican New York state assemblyman with experience as a government affairs director for ExxonMobil Corporation, Vertex Pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical companies Allergan and Sanofi; and Andrew Sternlieb, a real estate investment banker.
NECSN also declined to comment on whether any of its employees are involved in any PACs. In 2016, three NECSN staff members, including then-Connecticut State Director Jeremiah Grace, were the officers of the Charters Care PAC, first discovered by Common Cause in Connecticut and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. According to SEEC filings, the PAC, which terminated in January 2017, supported mostly Democrats in urban areas, although it also supported then-Republican state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner in an unsuccessful bid to retain his seat against Democrat challenger Joe de la Cruz.
About for the future of the education reform movement, NECSN’s spokeswoman Paluch told a reporter that NECSN is prepared to showcase the positive qualities of charter schools.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about charter schools,” she said.
Dowell, with Education Reform Now, said education reformers in the state are working diligently to advocate for housing reforms in connection with public school desegregation efforts.
“We’re really oriented around student opportunity broadly,” she said.
Lecker, however, said she believes the charter movement’s moment has passed.
“I think it used to be that the Democrats and Republicans both gleefully embraced charters, and just like what’s been happening in Connecticut, communities in Chicago and communities of color are saying, ‘You’re closing our community schools and displacing our children,’” she said. “I think over the past 20 to 25 years, this charter ‘experiment’ has been shown to not fulfill the promise of bettering public schools.”