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New School Reform Group Comes to the Table Very Well Funded

Better Education for Kids, or B4K, can dip into hedge fund money to help get its message across.

With education reform at center stage in New Jersey politics, a new political action organization is expected to launch today with a $1 million media campaign addressing teacher quality.

Better Education for Kids (B4K) has posted a press release on its fledgling website, describing itself as a 501c(4) organization, a non-profit permitted to promote political causes. It is led by prominent school choice activist Derrell Bradford as executive director and funded through two wealthy financiers and philanthropists, David Tepper and Alan Fournier.

When contacted last evening, Bradford confirmed the launch and said the group was aiming to promote issues like tenure reform, merit pay and other issues affecting teacher and principal quality.

These issues have been the centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie’s education platform, although increasingly picked up by some leading Democrats.

"Special interests have dominated our public education system for decades," Bradford is quoted in the press release, dated for today. "They like the status quo, but our parents and kids don't. It's time for us -- parents, students and concerned citizens -- to stand up and make sure our public education system puts our children's interests first."

"We can change the status quo and bring an independent voice against the special interests. We have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of New Jersey kids. And we can make that difference now."

The first television ad, which it said will be broadcast statewide, is posted on the site. The group will be based in New Brunswick, in downtown offices off George Street.

Bradford had been executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a decade-old group that has almost single-handedly led the fight for private school vouchers in New Jersey. He left to direct B4K.

The debate over vouchers has only heightened of late under Christie, a big supporter, with a tuition tax credit bill that would provide up to $12,000 "scholarships" to low-income student as close as ever to passage in the legislature.

The proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is not listed as core issue in B4K’s mission.

The creation of B4K adds another well-financed player to the fever-pitched school reform debates that have dominated Trenton for the past year, if not longer. Of course, the biggest player remains the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) , the state’s dominant teachers union, which is sure to drop millions of dollars into its own advertising campaign. Last year, with no elections, the NJEA spent $6 million.

The union is already deep into the public debate over the latest pension and benefit proposals being backed by Christie and some Democratic legislative leaders, with massive television advertising underway and thousands of union members expected to descend on Trenton today.

NJEA officials last night said they had known of the new group for a couple of weeks and were aware of the coming media buy.

"There is serious hedge fund money coming into New Jersey -- that’s who's behind this -- and this is a serious opening salvo in the public arena for those who want to privatize public education," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director.

He said the NJEA has indeed has its own expensive media campaign planned. "But whatever we spend will pale in comparison to what they’ll spend," Wollmer said. "They are bringing big money."

The individuals providing the initial backing to B4K do indeed bring significant resources. Tepper is a successful hedge fund manager, the founder of Appaloosa Management, and also known as a generous philanthropist to education and other causes. A native of Pittsburg now living in Livingston, Tepper gave $55 million to Carnegie Mellon University and what is now the David S. Tepper School of Business.

Fournier established Pennant Capital Management, also a hedge fund. He had previously worked with Tepper at Appaloosa Management. The press release said his charitable interests have included St. Anthony's High School, Community Food Bank of New Jersey, New Jersey SEEDS, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark, TEAM Schools of New Jersey and the All Stars Project of New Jersey.

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