Pro-School Reform Group Noticeably Quiet in 2013 Election Campaign

Organization seen as counter-balance to NJEA has spent no cash on candidates, ads

B4K Screen
Founded and funded by two hedge-fund giants, the Better Education for Kids (B4K) organization and all its offshoots appeared at their creation to be a pro-reform counterweight to the New Jersey Education Association.

But while the NJEA is going all-out with multi-million-dollar campaign contributions and election ads this fall, B4K’s political arm has so far mostly stayed out of the 2013 gubernatorial and legislative elections, despite some big school-reform issues on the table and a reform favorite on the ballot in Gov. Chris Christie.

Better Education for New Jersey Kids Inc., the organization’s PAC, has yet to report any spending at all leading up to the Nov. 5 election, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission.

It’s a noticeable absence for a group that boasted it would be a political powerhouse when it was launched in 2011 with a $1 million media campaign. It then played a role in several key legislative races that year and again in the Jersey City mayoral race this year.

B4K was initially funded by financiers and philanthropists David Tepper and Alan Fournier, both successful hedge-fund managers with deep pockets.

The NJEA, meanwhile, at last count had contributed more than $6 million and counting toward the November election, through both its state PAC and its super PAC, Garden State Forward.

Michael Lilley, the group’s executive director, would not comment yesterday on the role that the PAC is — or isn’t — playing in the election, saying the race was not over yet. But he did seek to discount the notion that the group’s aim was solely to match the NJEA’s muscle.

“We’re not here to go toe-to-toe with the NJEA,” he said. “We’re here to elect candidates to help enact beneficial reforms.”

Its absence from the races so far may be a matter of expedience, with Christie far ahead of Democratic challenger Barbara Buono in both polling and fundraising. Even what were once a half-dozen tight legislative races appear to be widening, as well, according to polls.

Meanwhile, many of the group’s pet causes, led by teacher-tenure reform, appear to be progressing already under the current Democratic control of the Legislature. The group played an active role in the negotiations around the new tenure law, TEACHNJ.

Nonetheless, it is a big drop-off for the group, which did make a showing in a couple of legislative races in 2011 and again on behalf of Steve Fulop in his successful run for mayor in Jersey City this past May.

Giving more than $260,000 toward Fulop’s election effort, the group showed its close allegiance to the pro-reform former councilman, who had been instrumental in organizing parent and community activists in the city. Shelley Skinner, a close ally of Fulop in the city, is also director of Better Education Institute, a separate fund within the B4K organization.

“Steve has been a huge reformer on the education side for Jersey City,” Lilley said yesterday.

“With Steve as mayor, Marcia Lyles as superintendent, and real potential for the board, we are very excited about what is going on there,” he said.