Education

Here’s how much charter school backers have spent on NC campaigns

From left, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Republican state Rep. Jason Saine are among North Carolina politicians who have received campaign contributions from charter school supporters.
From left, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Republican state Rep. Jason Saine are among North Carolina politicians who have received campaign contributions from charter school supporters. News & Observer file photos

The N.C. Association of Educators for years was a major voice in state policy discussions, making weighty endorsements and campaign contributions. The teacher’s organization has been the most consistent opponent of privatized education and charter schools.

As the NCAE’s influence dimmed when Republicans won control of the legislature after the 2010 elections, the power of charter-school supporters grew. Lobbying intensified and campaign contributions flowed.

Charter school advocates since 2011 have made more than $1.7 million in political contributions in the state.

Most of that money came from three people. North Carolina businessman Robert Luddy accounts for about half of that total. Luddy started a charter school and contributes widely to Republican candidates and committees.

John Bryan of Oregon gave about $600,000 to dozens of Republican candidates and GOP-run political committees.

Another major donor was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – but he didn’t always contribute to advocates of charter-school expansion. He gave $250,000 to the state Democratic Party, whose platform raises concerns about the use of charter schools to segregate students, and $5,100 to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has expressed similar concerns. Bloomberg also contributed $5,100 to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, a Republican school-choice advocate.

Some charter school supporters have made targeted donations. J.C. Huizenga of Michigan, founder of for-profit charter management company National Heritage Academies, contributed $2,000 to state Senate leader Phil Berger; $2,500 to state Sen. Jerry Tillman, who has pushed for more charter schools and charter-friendly laws; and $1,000 to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican school-choice proponent with key roles in choosing state charter school leaders.

Johnson received campaign contributions from charter advocates around the country, including Jon Sackler, an investment executive from Connecticut, and Bloomberg.

Johnson received at least $22,300 from charter school supporters, including $2,000 from Baker Mitchell, who runs a for-profit charter management company with four schools in the state; $500 from Paul Norcross, who runs a for-profit company that manages one school, and $1,000 from Gregg Sinders, who worked at the state legislature and is now the state director for a nonprofit charter school network called TeamCFA, founded by Bryan. Sinders is on the board of directors of a charter school in Holly Springs.

Johnson said campaign contributors have not influenced his thinking.

“These are things I have learned from my own experience,” he said. “If I disagree with the policy, I’m not afraid to say ‘no’ to anyone who gave me money.”

Charter Schools USA CEO Jonathan Hage contributed the maximum amount, $10,200, to Forest and Republican former Gov. Pat McCrory in the last election cycle. Charter Schools USA is a for-profit charter management company.

Hage gave smaller amounts to legislators. From 2014 to 2016, he gave $5,500 to Republican state Rep. Jason Saine of Lincolnton, who helped sponsor a new law that allows companies to employ the teachers in the schools they manage. Before the change, teachers had to work for the schools’ boards of directors. That law also allows charter schools to grow faster and authorizes the state charter school office to help the schools open NC Pre-K programs.

Saine is on the board of directors of West Lake Preparatory Academy, a Charter Schools USA school set to open next year in Lincoln County.

Saine said there was no connection between the new charter school, his support for the new law, and Hage’s contribution to his campaign.

“No connection, just good policy,” he said.

Saine signed on as one of the bill’s primary sponsors, but said that it was mostly the work of another Republican legislator.

Saine said he considers Hage a personal friend. They met five or six years ago, Saine said, when Hage’s company was developing a charter school in Mooresville.

“I’m a long-time supporter of the charter school movement,” Saine said. “Glad to know him as well.”

Forest has said he doesn’t keep track of donations from charter supporters and the money does not “in any way influence the decisions I make.”

“I make the decisions, then people choose to support me because I make the decisions. It doesn’t go the other way around,” he said.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart.

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