It's no secret that the Philadelphia mayor's race has become part of a proxy war over differing educational philosophies — between "ed reformers," who have argued for increased school choice and charter school options in the Philadelphia School District, and "traditional" education advocates.
It was reported on Monday that a group of influential "ed reformers" from Bala Cynwyd, who have advocated for charter school expansion, are again lining up behind candidate and State Sen. Anthony Williams. That organization, the Susquehanna International Group, also supported Williams' failed run for governor in 2010 and has pumped almost $500,000 into two political action committees (PACs), presumably to support his mayoral campaign. But Monday's campaign finance disclosures also revealed that other ed-reform PACs are moving to back Williams.
One such organization, called Believe Again PAC, was registered back in 2012 and was later described by the Inquirer as a "fundraising vehicle" for Williams' mayoral ambitions.
The PAC had previously made a just single donation of $2,900 to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a political disciple of Williams', in 2013. Last year, the group began accumulating more political contributions, amassing some $114,000 by December 2014. Believe Again donated $10,000 to Williams' mayoral campaign in that same month.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a PAC that is closely associated with a pro-school-choice candidate like Williams, Believe Again PAC has ties to charter schools.
Believe Again PAC is registered at a condo in Northwest Philadelphia owned by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson's former campaign finance director, Wanda Bailey-Green, who was board president for the embattled New Media Technology Charter School as recently as last year.
The recent PAC disclosures also showed that the group updated its registration in December 2014 to reflect the fact that it had an unusual new chairperson — Rodney J. Oglesby, who has been the head of the Philadelphia School District's government affairs office for over five years. School district employees are not barred from political activity.
Oglesby had previously worked as chief counsel for Williams in the state senate. In his current role, he acts as a liaison between the school district and government officials.
Neither Oglesby nor Bailey-Green responded to requests for comment.
Education-reform opponents will likely be chagrined to learn that a nationally affiliated ed-reform group has also entered the political fray, although it's unclear which mayoral candidate it will support, if any.
A Washington, D.C.-based group called Leadership for Education Equity (LEE) registered a new PAC in Philadelphia on Dec. 5 of last year. The group has been widely documented as the political arm of Teach for America, a national nonprofit that places college graduates in struggling school districts across the U.S. Leadership for Education Equity is based out of an office that is two floors above Teach for America's D.C. regional headquarters and listed a TFA office number on its PAC registrations in other states.
TFA has drawn both praise and criticism, but it irrefutably has strong ties to the charter school movement. Richard Barth, CEO of KIPP, one of the largest networks of charters in the U.S., is a TFA cofounder. Thirty-three percent of TFA enrollees are placed in charters, even though such schools only make up 5.8 percent of public schools.
The group's stated purpose is to help TFA alumni "grow as leaders in their communities." LEE did not respond to requests for comment, but in the past its executive director Michael Buman has said that actually getting involved in elections was a "minority" of the group's work. Nonetheless, LEE spent about $20,000 backing two candidates in a Nevada state school board race, and $7,000 for a charter school dean running in an Indianapolis school board race. Education Week reported last year that LEE had 60 staff members and an annual budget of $3.9 million.
Much of the PAC's money comes from Arthur Rock, a California-based billionaire and TFA cofounder. Rock and Steuart Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, both donated $2,500 to the Philadelphia branch of LEE in December.
On its recent registration form, the PAC indicated it would only support "candidates in Philadelphia," as opposed to those in statewide elections. It's still early on in the primary race and the group has so far reported making only one donation to a local candidate: a meager $8.80 to at-large council candidate Tom Wyatt, who has indicated that he supports both traditional and charter school models.