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Friday, June 24, 2011

Millionaires verses Teachers

From the Star Ledger and staff

TRENTON — A new political action group started by two New Jersey hedge-fund financiers aims to put money — a lot of money — behind an education reform agenda shared by Gov. Chirs Christie and reviled by the state’s largest teachers union.

Formed in March, Better Education for Kids promotes teacher evaluations based on student test scores and tenure that is harder to get and harder to keep, issues the New Jersey Education Association has been spending millions to battle against.

The group’s founders, David Tepper and Alan Fournier, first met as co-workers at Appaloosa Management, a multi-billion dollar hedge fund started by Tepper. Fournier now has his own fund, Pennant Capital Management, but the two are partnering once again in a bid to improve New Jersey’s public schools.

They say now is the right time and Christie is a dynamic leader.

"My mother was a public school teacher in Pittsburgh, and I attended public school in Pittsburgh," Tepper said. "I know as well as anyone that having a good education system is vitally important to the future of our country."

Better Education for Kids is entering the fray as private organizations are poised to play a larger role in education in New Jersey. Christie wants more charter schools, and he’s pushing legislation that would allow private companies to take over struggling public schools.

Last week, the fledgling group launched a $1 million campaign to advertise its mission and solicit donations. Unlike traditional non-profits, Better Education for Kids is a type of non-profit not required to disclose its donors.

Though the group cannot formally coordinate its work with lawmakers, it will be advised by two of the state’s top political consultants: Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist with close ties to Christie, and Jaime Fox, a Democrat who served as former Gov. James E. McGreevey’s chief of staff.

DuHaime and Fox declined to comment.

Derrell Bradford, the group’s executive director, said Better Education for Kids will push for policy changes that "put students first" and take on what it considers the biggest opponent to those types of changes – the New Jersey Education Association.

Bradford previously served as executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a traditional non-profit that advocated for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would give students in failing public schools vouchers to attend private schools.

"In the past, the NJEA has been more organized and had more money to spend on messaging and candidate support than any other player," Bradford said. "We aim to change that, and we are in it for the long haul."

The teachers union and the governor have been locked in a bitter battle over the types of reforms Better Education for Kids and the governor both support since he took office. Christie has called the union leadership greedy and intractable, and in response, the union spent $6.6 million last year attacking the governor’s state aid cuts.

The union has launched several ad campaigns this year whose total cost tops $7 million, said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer, including one campaign accusing Christie of supporting millionaires while shafting public schools,

Wollmer said Better Education for Kids is part of a national movement to "push corporate education reform that aims not to improve education, but to attack unions."

The group is not the first to advocate an agenda aligned with Christie’s. Last year, Reform Jersey Now, a group run by Christie’s top advisers, used mailings, phone calls and radio ads to promote the governor’s proposal to cap the annual growth of property taxes.

Bradford said Better Education for Kids has no formal budget yet.

Rutgers Newark law professor Paul Tractenberg said organizations not required to disclose their financial backers are dangerous for the future of New Jersey’s public schools, especially when the group appears to have an unlimited amount of money to spend on its advocacy.

"I’m increasingly alarmed by the many ways the line between public and private education decision making and reform efforts seems to be a line that’s blurring," Tractenberg said. "The more big, private money is brought to bear on public opinion regarding these issues, the more problematic that is."

By Jessica Calefati and Chris Megerian/The Star-Ledger

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