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June 18, 2017


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One important lesson I learned from my colleague Professor Tom Ferguson’s book Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems is to “treat published campaign contributions . . .  as the tip of an iceberg” in investigating efforts of wealthy individuals to command public policy. Thus my recent research brings me to the intersection of philanthropy and dark money.

My descent into darkness led me to decipher the hidden funding of Families for Excellent Schools, a New York based organization that poured over $17 million in dark money into the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee for 2016’s Question 2 on charter schools. That brought me to the initial funding to get FES up and running in Massachusetts, which came from a Boston based Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3) charity called Strategic Grant Partners. The investments from SGP are consistent with the practice of wealthy individuals using charitable entities to influence the direction of public policy, a topic I explored in Unmasking the Philanthrocapitalists Who Almost Bought Massachusetts Schools. One way for wealthy individuals to grease the path to their public policy goals is to fund organizations that undermine teachers unions, a topic I took up in Philanthrocapitalists Brandish BEANball at BTU.

In the course of this research I have created a database of all Strategic Grant Partners’ publicly available grants since its inception, from its Form 990PF tax returns. The non-profit has dispensed many grants for family support and educational purposes over that time to about seventy grantees, only five of which I would characterize as engaging in political activities: advocacy/organizing/mobilizing for three of them, adding lobbying activities for two, Stand for Children and Families for Excellent Schools. There were no grants to political activities organizations until Stand for Children in 2009, and then no other such organization received a grant until 2013 when Education Reform Now and Families for Excellent Schools received funding.

(One note on reading these tables. For year I use the year of the Form 990 PF tax return for SGP, which operates on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year. So when you see the year 2015, that period runs from July 1, 2015 through July 1, 2016).

The Stand for Children donations coincided with Stand’s involvement in a 2012 ballot proposal and the 2013 Boston mayor’s race. Here are SGP’s contributions to Stand for Children, which ended, along with the mayoral campaign, during 2013:

Let’s look at the other political recipients, starting in 2013:

FES received a total of $1.8 million. (In earlier posts I misread contribution information concerning amounts committed in one year for distribution in a future year, leading to a double count of some funds and somewhat inflating the FES amounts. Rookie mistake. I apologize for the error). Education Reform Now got $138,400.00 in 2013-2014. It is the dark money funder of Democrats for Education Reform Massachusetts.

That leaves us with Educators for Excellence and Leadership for Educational Equity, both of which received $810,000 between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016. We met LEE in Philanthrocapitalists Brandish BEANball at BTU. It serves as a campaign school/networking/advocacy/organizing arm aiming to put former Teach for America alums in elected and appointed leadership positions.

Educators for Excellence has also earned the ire of the Boston Teachers Union, which called out E4E as anti-union here and here. The group holds itself out as an alternative voice for teachers and is funded nationally by the Walton Foundation, Arnold Foundation, Gates Foundation, etc. So $810,000 in local money get the group up and running in Massachusetts got the BTU’s attention.

But wait! There’s more!

The sums in the latest table are contributions committed in those years but for payment in future years. We don’t have the 2016 tax returns now and the fiscal year doesn’t end until the end of this month, but we can be pretty sure that neither E4E nor LEE has been starving this past year.

But wait! There’s even more!

There’s even more because Strategic Grant Partners’ Managing Director Joanna Jacobson is also President and Trustee of The Jacobson Family Foundation Family Trust and in each of 2014 and 2015 the JFFFT donated $1 million to Educators for Excellence. That means that the “launch” of E4E in Massachusetts has benefited from at least $2.8 million from July 1, 2014 up through June 30, 2017 and probably more, given the future funding commitments. That’s much more than either Stand for Children or Families for Excellent Schools received for their campaigns.

Of these five political operations, four  are from out of state. The purpose of the grant in three cases was to "launch organization in Massachusetts." The purpose for the Stand for Children grant was "capacity building." Stand was already in Massachusetts, but it is headquartered in Portland, OR. In its early years it was involved in community based organizing but by 2009, with funds from the Gates Foundation and other wealthy interests, it transformed into an effective opponent of teachers unions.

The Stand for Children and Families for Excellent Schools initiatives both led toward the ballot box and thus we could look at OCFP reports; but these days the reports only tell us which dark money front is laundering for which elegantly named shell. That’s the tip of the iceberg. But there is much more.

The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Strategic Grant Partners, dark money

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