Group forms to fight back against NJEA attacks on Christie

June 17, 2011

Two wealthy North Jersey hedge fund managers and a Newark school choice advocate have formed a nonprofit group designed to counter the New Jersey Education Association's broadcast campaign against Gov. Chris Christie.

Better Education for Kids (B4K), a new 501(c)(4), went on the air Thursday with a $1 million TV ad campaign touting "bipartisan reformers" like Christie and questioning the NJEA's motives.

"President Obama supports education reform. Gov. Christie too," the announcer says. "So why is the teachers union spending millions attacking Christie and bipartisan reformers?"

"It's time to stop special interests' domination of education, reform tenure, reward teachers with merit pay, and bring accountability to our schools ."

North Jersey hedge fund managers David Tepper, a Democrat, and Alan Fournier, a Republican, are the trustees and funding sources for B4K. Executive Director Derrell Bradford left Newark-based E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone) last week to run the new organization.

Asked how long B4K had been around, Bradford laughed and said, "A day."

Tepper, a billionaire, is well known for having bet on the federal government's 2009 rescue of Wall Street. His firm, Chatham-based Appaloosa Management, made nearly $8 billion as a result.

Tepper also made news last spring for announcing plans to tear down a $45 million summer home he purchased from former Gov. Jon S. Corzine's ex-wife and build a much bigger home in its place.

Bradford pointed to Tepper's and Fournier's history of philanthropy when asked to explain their interest in New Jersey public education.

"What they saw is there is just no one speaking up in the court of public opinion or in the media in a way that was comparable to what the status quo was doing," Bradford said. "The launch of the campaign is about giving visibility and sensibility to policies that put great teachers in front of kids and make our system more transparent and accountable."

Tepper's philanthropic interests include Rutgers University and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. Carnegie Mellon University's business school is named for him. Fournier also has ties to New Jersey SEED (a Newark-based educational nonprofit), the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark, and TEAM Charter Schools of New Jersey.

Public education advocates expressed alarm at B4K's insertion into the New Jersey schools debate.

"The people behind this are hedge fund operators," said Steve Wollmer of NJEA. "These are people who see education as an investment opportunity ."

Wollmer also disputed B4K's claims of bipartisanship.

"That's an obvious ploy. I don't think Obama and Christie see eye to eye on many things," Wollmer said.

Obama administration official Juan Sepulveda told the Courier-Post in March that both the president and Christie had been unfairly accused of attacking public school teachers in their push for reform.

"We're not against the unions," Sepulveda said. "This is about what does the 21st century compact look like between us and the teachers?"

Nonprofit advocacy groups classified by the IRS as 401(c)(4) do not have to disclose their donors even while engaging in political activities. Such groups have become significant players in recent elections, drawing scrutiny from lawmakers in Washington.

Deborah Howlett, a former Corzine official who runs the progressive New Jersey Policy Perspective, was suspicious about B4K.

"It's one of dozens of these groups that are now popping up to push an agenda," she said. "They're no different than a lobbyist for any other special interest group except the new rules allow for much greater latitude in who can give and not much transparency up front."

B4K's ads hit the air the day after the NJEA targeted state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and unofficial party leader George E. Norcross III. Norcross, who prefers a low profile when it comes to politics, spoke out against the NJEA on Wednesday alongside Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Gov. Jim Florio at a Cinnaminson press conference.

"I am not involved nor have I made any contributions" to B4K, Norcross said Thursday.

Norcross said his support for school choice he is building new charter schools in Camden was based on high respect for teachers and anger about failing schools systems like one in Camden.

"Over the past 18 months the actions of the NJEA union leaders, and in particular President Barbara Keshishian, would seem to suggest that they are really plants from the Republican administration," Norcross said.

"Their actions are so stupid and so arrogant that they must have been planted here because they've made Gov. Christie a national political figure overnight."

The NJEA spent nearly $7 million last year combating Christie's education policies. But Tepper is a billionaire, Norcross pointed out.

"(The NJEA's) money has bought them a lot in the last two decades," Norcross. "But their money is pocket change compared to folks that have net worths in the billions that are prepared, like this fellow apparently is, to spend money to effect change."

Bradford acknowledged the formation of B4K signaled the school choice movement in New Jersey was professionalizing its efforts.

"This is the necessary evolution of the backbone of the movement," he said. "We started with policy and advocacy and we worked forward."

Bradford, a Democrat, did not dispute his kinship with the state's Republican governor on the issue.

"We're all part of the same school reform family," Bradford acknowledged.

"What's more important is that kids, great teachers, the taxpayers, and reformers have not had an equal voice in the public because the NJEA in particular is able to spend so much of their members' money on advertising," he continued.

Marie Corfield, a Flemington teacher running for the Assembly in the 16th district, said she had no complaints about how the NJEA was spending her annual dues.

Once you introduce private sector reforms into education you lose a certain measure of accountability and it becomes a for-profit program," she said, fresh off addressing a crowd of public workers at a rally in Trenton.

"When you couple that with dismantling collective bargaining rights, it becomes an all-out attack."

"When they use the term status quo they're just talking about Camden and Newark," said Wollmer of NJEA. "The status quo somehow has resulted in New Jersey having some of the best public schools in America."