December 13, 2016

Teachers’ Union Spent Thousands Fighting AC School Vouchers

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To fight a proposal that would have given Atlantic City residents a $10,000 voucher for private schools, New Jersey's Education Association spent at least $56,000 on direct marketing and mailing.

The NJEA spent big to end questions over school vouchers for private education in Atlantic City. But the movement seems to be spreading in South Jersey.

New Jersey’s teachers’ union spent more than $115,000 this election period to oppose a public question, according to filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC).

The money was funneled through a campaign finance cash-pile set up just weeks before the election and dubbed the NJEA November School Elections Committee, the filings show.

About half of that money was used to fight a non-binding question posed on Atlantic City’s ballot that would have introduced school vouchers of $10,000 for private education. The referendum question was defeated by 503 votes, with 3,813 voters supporting the introduction of school vouchers. The voucher campaign’s chief proponent says he will seek to return the question to the ballot again and other communities in South Jersey may also follow suit.

Officials at the New Jersey Education Association said the union spent $56,800 on direct mailings and phone calls to NJEA members to fight the Atlantic City school voucher question. The remainder of the $115,338.02 spent by the committee went to another campaign, that Kathy Coulibaly and Steve Baker, spokespeople for the NJEA, declined to name.

Spending Big

The committee’s spending was split between four companies, but Coulibaly and Baker said that the $58,538.02 the union spent with New Jersey-based company Publitics was for the separate, unnamed campaign. The spending on the Atlantic City voucher question went on digital ads provided by the Washington, DC-based New Media Firm, telephone calls arranged by a Texas-based company called The Tyson Organization and $30,600 on “mailing expense” with Seattle-based consultancy Cerillion N4 Partners.

The report filed with ELEC shows the committee that spent the money was formed in October, less than a month before the election. The only other detail on the filing that formed the committee is that it listed support of public schools as its objective and interest.

It is possible that the $58,538.02 that went to Publitics was spent more broadly on marketing materials to support public schools in Atlantic City, without directly addressing the topic of the public question. Publitics declined to comment.

NJEA spokeswoman Coulibaly said the union sent mailings to its members in Atlantic City to make sure they understood the question. “It was just to kind of make sure that they understood what was going on, what this issue was about and that they had all the information that they might need and an understanding of what the vote entailed,” she said. The Atlantic City school district has been struggling – like the city – amid casino closures and foreclosures, and recently about 250 teachers were laid off, she said. “The members  in that community have definitely seen their dues come back to them,” Coulibaly said, explaining that NJEA provides all kinds of services including professional development and grants for its members.

“For a member who lives in the area and is an Atlantic City member and questions the expense I would say this is what NJEA does for you…When we see public education threatened we come in there, even for a non-binding referendum, and we work our hardest to educate people so that they can make an informed decision and they’re not buying into a false promise,” she said. The vouchers were a false promise because they don’t lead to the best schools, she said, citing as example Milwaukee, where vouchers have existed for 25 years, but where “a generation of children have really not gotten the services they deserved.”

It is not clear how many NJEA members live in Atlantic City, but the ‘no’ school voucher campaign spent $13 per vote, which is more than this year’s presidential candidates spent per vote.

Filings from the ChoiceAC campaign that worked with Councilman Jesse Kurtz reflect 0 dollars in campaign contributions and expenses. Kurtz said in a phone call that there were some minimal expenses but he referred questions about those expenses to his campaign manager, who did not respond to an email.

Kurtz, who is an NJEA member, said he thought some of the union’s mailings distorted the question. “When I saw how my dues and other members’ dues were used, a lot of it was used to mis-characterize the issue,” he said. “So much of the NJEA strategy was based on scare tactics and distorting the issue.”

There was a second part to the ballot question that drew a lot of flak personally for Kurtz. The follow-on question proposed a $10,000 tax credit to homeschooling families. The NJEA did not hold back from pointing out that Kurtz, who homeschools his kids, stood to benefit from a yes vote on the question that he put on the ballot. That part of the proposal was defeated by 4,575 votes to 2,848.

This is the two-part question, as posed on the November ballot to Atlantic City residents.

Kurtz said he would not try to repeat that question on homeschooling. “I absolutely hear the voters on that, I’m dropping that for the time being.”

Some people hoped the vouchers would persuade more families to move to Atlantic City, which has seen its population shrink amid rising unemployment as five casinos have closed since 2014 and property taxes have skyrocketed.  The voucher program would also be a saving on the $27,000 that Atlantic City pays each year per child in its schools, proponents argued. But others, including the NJEA, said local schools could lose state aid if enrollment dropped and the cost savings would depend on whether schools closed or teachers were let go as a result of the program.

Ballot Question Likely To Return

Kurtz said he is optimistic about the outlook for school vouchers in Atlantic City. “I still believe it has a lot of potential to transform Atlantic City both now and into the near future,” he said, adding that he will continue to work on the subject by talking with different groups and advocating for school choice.

“I’m convinced that if we had adequate resources and were to do this again next year, we would win,” he said. “I have no doubt about that.”

The response to the voucher question is also likely to be on the radar of Atlantic City’s recently-appointed state overseer, Kurtz said. “Our financial situation in the city I think really justifies doing some type of trial program in Atlantic City on the voucher scholarship idea.”

Kurtz said he has also heard from people in nearby communities who are interested in putting similar questions about school vouchers on their ballots, possibly as soon as 2017. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the very near future you see other communities adopt this same approach – a referendum to see what the people actually think about the ideas,” he said.

The NJEA’s Coulibaly said the union would fight any effort to bring school vouchers onto the ballot again. “If it did become a public question again I think we would work even harder with our partners in the community,” she said, adding, “We had a lot of people that wanted to work with us. We primarily focused our efforts on our members but I think if this happens again we would definitely expand that even further and make sure we were working with people even more.”

You can view the full election results here (page 10 shows the results of the Atlantic City school voucher question).

Here is a table of the full spending disclosed by the NJEA November School Elections Committee:

Dollar amount SpentName of VendorAddress of VendorDate of campaign spendingPurpose of campaign spending
$5,000The Tyson Organization1351 Mistletoe Drive, Fort Worth, TX 7611010/14/16telephone calls
$30,600Cerillion N4 Partners500 Union St, #909, Seattle WA 9810110/24/16
mailing expense
$32,530.58Publitics Solutions354 Bloomfield Ave #203 Caldwell, NJ 0700610/23/16direct mail
$26,007.44Publitics Solutions354 Bloomfield Ave #203 Caldwell, NJ 0700610/17/16direct mail
$21,200New Media Firm1730 Rhode Island Ave NW, Suite 213 Washington DC 2003611/2/2016digital ads

This is the front page of the final filing by NJEA’s November School Elections Committe:


This is the front page of the final filing by ChoiceAC, which supported the voucher referendum:

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