BOSTON (AP) — A ballot question aimed at expanding the number of charter schools in the state is being funded by a network of deep-pocketed backers, with much of the money coming from outside.
Nearly half of the $12 million raised to support the charter school question comes from the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools, according to an Associated Press review of records filed with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Other funders include independent former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and two Arizona-based heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune.
There also are strong ties between the administration of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, a long-time charter school supporter, and groups supporting the question. Baker's hand-picked chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Paul Sagan, contributed $100,000 to a group pushing the question.
James Peyser, chosen by Baker to serve as the state's secretary of education, formerly served as a trustee for Families for Excellent Schools. Peyser resigned on Jan. 5, 2015, about two weeks after then-Gov.-elect Baker announced his appointment.
Baker has defended the Sagan donation, describing criticism of it as "a nothing-burger." He said the focus should on the 32,000 students on charter school waiting lists.
"If other people want to make this all about the adults, that's fine," Baker said Monday. "We're going to focus on the kids."
The ballot question is about letting Massachusetts add up to a dozen new or expanded charter schools each year outside of existing caps.
The biggest source of funding comes from Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy Inc., which made nearly $5.8 million in direct contributions and another $301,020 in in-kind contributions. What's unclear from the campaign finance reports is where the group's funding comes from.
In response to an email seeking more information, the group released a statement from its state director Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo, who described Families for Excellent Schools as a nonprofit organization that has operated in Massachusetts since 2014.
"Our mission is to ensure that every child attends an excellent school by building coalitions of families and their allies and running campaigns that change education policy," the statement said. "We currently organize families across the commonwealth who are desperate for a better education in their communities."
The group is a more familiar presence in New York. This year it filed a federal lawsuit arguing the state Department of Education failed to properly address violence in schools, depriving students of their right to a public education.
On the pro-charter side, Bloomberg contributed $240,000; Jim Walton, the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, contributed $1.1 million; and Alice Walton, the daughter of Sam Walton, contributed $704,000.
Other big contributors include Lynnfield-based Strong Economy for Growth Inc., which gave $650,000; John Douglas Arnold, a principal for Centaurus Advisors from Texas, at $250,000; Education Reform Now Advocacy, of New York, at $250,000; and Boston-based Expanding Educational Opportunities, at $250,000.
Companies including EMC Corp., Partners Healthcare, The Kraft Group and Vertex Pharmaceuticals also are backing the ballot question and gave between $50,000 and $100,000. More than two dozen people who listed Fidelity Investments as their workplace contributed a total of nearly $60,000.
The three biggest donors to the group Save Our Public Schools, which opposes the ballot question, are teachers' unions. The group has reported raising about $6.8 million.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association contributed nearly $4.2 million. The Boston- and Washington-based American Federation of Teachers contributed more than $700,000. The Washington-based National Education Association contributed $1.9 million.
The group said the $4.2 million from the Massachusetts Teachers Association comes from members' dues and includes no out-of-state sources.
Great Schools Massachusetts, the principle group running the pro-charter campaign, said it's "proud to have the support of parents and community members across the commonwealth."