'Dark Money' for Pro-Charter School Ballot Initiative Raises Eyebrows

A ballot initiative campaign to expand charter schools in Massachusetts is being financed largely by undisclosed donors, raising questions among state election officials and watchdog groups, the Boston Globe reports.

Known as Question 2, the ballot initiative would allow for the creation or expansion of up to twelve charter schools a year in low-performing districts. Great Schools Massachusetts, the "ballot question committee" leading the effort — which includes a $2.3 million television ad campaign — is backed by billionaires such as Abigail Johnson of Fidelity Investments and Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group, as well as top executives at Bain Capital. In Massachusetts, ballot question committees must adhere to specific rules about their name as well as the identity of a majority of their donors. However, four of the five top donors to the campaign — Great Schools for Massachusetts (not to be confused with the similarly named Great Schools Massachusetts), Strong Economy for Growth, Education Reform Now Advocacy, and Families for Excellent Schools — are nonprofits that, under state law, are not required to disclose their funders. The fifth, Expanding Educational Opportunities, was set up as a ballot question committee and not a nonprofit and will have to disclose its donors by the next legal reporting deadline on September 9.

According to the Globe, state and federal records show that many of the groups are led by, or connected to, investors who have spent millions on lobbying and advertising to promote charter schools in other states. Families for Excellent Schools, for instance, spent $9.6 million to lobby the New York state government in 2014, much of it to run ads blasting New York mayor Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter schools and praising Governor Andrew Cuomo for supporting them.

An $800,000 ad campaign launched earlier this month by opponents of the Massachusetts initiative arguing against the expansion of charter schools — which do not have to be unionized, typically operate independently of local districts, and are given more flexibility to set their curricula, budgets, and staffing — was backed by  the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association.

The secrecy surrounding the financing of what could be the most expensive ballot campaign in state history has frustrated election officials and underscored the proliferation of untraceable money in political races across the country, the Globe reports. "It looks like it’s designed to avoid disclosing donors," said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a political watchdog group. "That is not allowed by Massachusetts law."

"Would we like to see every donor disclosed? Absolutely," said Michael J. Sullivan, director of the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. "But the statute does not provide for it at this point. This dark money issue is a puzzle that every state is facing right now."

Michael Levenson. "Donors Behind Charter Push Keep to the Shadows." Boston Globe 08/20/2016.