StudentsFirst forming small donor campaign fund for local, state elections

February 10, 2014

Sacramento-based StudentsFirst is seeking to expand its political clout in California by asking its members to contribute to a new election campaign fund. The advocacy and lobbying organization wants to set up a small contributor committee, Californians for Putting Students First, that would give money directly to state and local candidates.

“This committee will be able to make direct contributions to candidates, giving us a powerful new tool to push education reform in the Capitol,” read an e-mail to members.

With a large number of smaller donations, we can show that fixing education in the state is a priority by highlighting our most important resource: you and your fellow members.”

Created by former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee, StudentsFirst is active in 18 states, including California. The group advocates for the elimination of teacher tenure; teacher evaluations that include test results as a factor; results-based teacher pay; parental choice that includes charters and vouchers; and pension reform. StudentsFirst supported the adoption of Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula.

StudentsFirst already has been a big campaign donor, though mainly to races outside California. Education blogger and author Alexander Russo reported that in the 2012 campaign cycle, StudentsFirst donated about $3.7 million to 105 candidates, including about $1 million to three Democratic candidates to the California Assembly, two of whom, Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernadino, and Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, won. In addition, it gave money to school board races in West Sacramento and Burbank. It also gave $350,000 to the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee that donated millions last year to candidates for the Los Angeles Unified school board. The biggest donation to that committee was $1.35 million by then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

StudentsFirst made the California contributions through a separate independent expenditures committee, or super political action committee, called Parents and Teachers for Putting Students First. StudentsFirst gave the PAC $2 million in 2011-12 (go here for contributions the committee made in 2011-12 and here for contributions in the current, 2013-14 election cycle). Independent expenditure committees aren’t bound by campaign donation limits but they also can’t donate directly to candidates or coordinate their efforts with the candidates’ campaigns.

Because StudentsFirst created the super PAC, it didn’t have to list the names of individual donors. That would change under two bills before the Legislature. Senate Bill 27, introduced by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, would require non-profits that gave at least $50,000 per year to an independent expenditure committee to list the donors who gave $1,000 or more, with additional disclosure of top 10 donors who gave at least $10,000 each. Senate Bill 52, by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would require an ad paid for by an independent expenditures committee to disclose the top two donors.

Donors to the new campaign committee, Californians for Putting Students First, will be limited by state law to giving $200 per calendar year. If it qualifies as a small donor committee, with at least 100 donors giving at least $50 each, the new campaign fund will be able to bundle donations to individual candidates. The big advantage of creating a small donor committee is that it can contribute $8,200 per election and $16,400 per election cycle (the primary and the general election) directly to the campaign of a candidate for the Legislature. That’s twice what a standard political action committee can give. The committees can also give twice the $6,800 donation limit per election that individuals, businesses and standard political action committees can give to races for state constitutional offices such as lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The exception is the race for governor; both standard political action committees and small donor committees can give up to $27,000 per election for governor. Campaign donation restrictions for school board races – if there are limits at all – are up to the districts to set.

StudentsFirst spokesman Francisco Castillo said that StudentsFirst has not set a fundraising goal for the new campaign committee. The first report to the state will be in late March. StudentsFirst reports having 250,000* members in California, but this total includes anyone who receives e-mails from the organization. It also has outreach directors who organize locally, Castillo said.

*Correction: An earlier version mistakenly said there were 350,000 members.

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