Poll Driver: StudentsFirstNY in the NYC Mayoral Race

It looks like StudentsFirstNY, the local chapter of Michelle Rhee's organization, StudentsFirst, is getting ready to make its presence known in the New York mayoral election. So far, it's been pretty quiet, especially since Micah Lasher, its first executive director left in March to become chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. But don't think that the organization, which is a separate entity and has its own board (on which Joel Klein, former Chancellor, now CEO of the Education Division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.; Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools; Kenneth Langone, founder of Home Depot, hedge fund manager Daniel S. Loeb of Third Point LLC and Michelle Rhee serve) is going to sit out the race.

They have begun a secret telephone poll of "likely voters," for which, luck may have it, my household was called. It gave someone savvy enough to know the players in the education debate a sense of how they might be attempting to drive the mayoral election. After all, when they announced themselves a little over a year ago, Lasher said they intended to raise about $10 million a year for "advertising, political contributions and other efforts."

I was home the other night last week when the phone rang and a woman on the phone asked to speak to "the youngest female member of the household who was planning to vote in the mayoral election." At that moment, that would be me. I was told that the pollster wanted me to answer some questions about my views on education issues pertaining to the NYC mayoral race. As someone who has spent much of my life teaching, or writing about education issues, I thought, why not? It wasn't one of those polls where they were surreptitiously trying to sell me a product--or were they?

The woman on the phone began to ask me what I thought of various mayoral candidates: Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner, Bill Thompson, John Liu, Bill De Blasio....I was mostly non-committal. I told her I hadn't decided whom I would vote for. What did I think of Mayor Bloomberg? I was mixed, I said (truth be told I think his stand on guns has been very good.) The UFT? StudentsFirst? It's then I started thinking about who was behind this poll.

I asked my questioner who was running the poll and she said, "We're not told. In order not to be biased." Who would be made biased by that information? The questioner or the person being questioned?

She asked me questions about a possible run off between Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson. What did I think of Anthony Weiner? Clearly they are auditioning potential candidates to endorse. (Though clearly not Bill Thompson, since he just got the endorsement by the UFT.) While in last fall's election, StudentsFirstNY spent more than $100,000, most went to Republicans, are they thinking about endorsing a Democrat? After all, Joe Williams of Democrats for School Reform, an advocacy group with similar views (pro-charter school, pro-co-location, anti-teacher's union, pro-elimination of teacher seniority etc.) said in a confidential memo, "Under current conditions, we see zero chance that a Republican candidate will win," as he went on to talk about the group's strategy for the election.

Then the pollster moved into more substantial questions about issues. Charter schools? She wanted yes or no answers. "It's complicated," I said, which I tend to think. There are lousy charter schools, which treat their students, especially poor kids of color as mere data machines who are taught to parrot back rote answers and those that actually try to engage and challenge students. Probably my refusal to commit myself got me as far as I did.

Then she asked me, what did I think of parents being able to vote to fire the principal or all the teachers in school? What about parents being able to vote to change how the school is run? Or close down a school? Parent trigger laws! I finally figured out where all this is going. Parent trigger laws, passed in three states (most prominently California) give parents of a school the power to convert it to a charter school, replace the principal and teachers or close down the school completely if 51 percent vote to do so. More charter schools? It is certainly a way around the charter school cap.

I asked her again who was doing this poll and she again said, she wasn't told "to prevent bias." But by that time she got off the phone to check with her supervisor and aborted my interview.

I called StudentsFirstNY and left a message, identifying myself as a journalist wanting to talk about the poll they were doing about the mayoral race. Chandra M. Hayslett, the director of communications, called me back but then pulled back about whether it was their poll or not. She was going to speak to Glen Weiner, the acting executive director and get back to me. That was last week. Five messages to her phones and StudentsFirstNY's office have gotten no calls back.
We'll have to see who releases the results of this poll. If you see a poll with respondents calling for parents to be able to close down failing schools and replace them with charter schools or for a New York parent trigger law, you'll know who was is behind the poll.

A year ago, Micah Lasher told Gotham Schools, "Our goal is to engage a broad swath of parents who participate in our poorest communities and have not been well-served as some, and to engage them in a policy discussion in a way that will lead to more effective policy for their kids.... We're going to do our damndest to get New York City parents organized."

When he was asked how, he said. "You'll have to find out."