The super PAC for a controversial Sacramento-based education reform group has spent more than $13,000 in the Burbank school board race, baffling the two candidates who are benefiting from the expenditures and raising the eyebrows of other local stakeholders.
StudentsFirst — led by former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — spent $6,675 each on campaign mailers and other promotional materials for Burbank school board candidates David Dobson and Charlene Tabet, according to reports filed with the city clerk. The expenditures were made through the group's super PAC, Parents and Teachers for Putting StudentsFirst.
Rhee is a controversial figure in education-reform circles. Her group — while getting involved in campaigns across the nation — has focused primarily on state policy, and recently spent $250,000 on behalf of Los Angeles Unified school board candidates who are opposed by the powerful teachers union.
StudentsFirst has drawn the ire of unions far and wide for its support of basing teacher job evaluations on student test scores and pushing for charter schools to reform public education.
StudentsFirst spokeswoman Jessica Hsiang Ng said in an email that the group seeks to enact “student-focused reforms” and “reform-minded individuals,” and that Dobson and Tabet “will be important partners in our ongoing push to ensure that every student attains a great school and is taught by a great teacher.”
The expenditure marks a huge funding boost for the two candidates, with Dobson and Tabet spending $4,500 and $3,700, respectively, according to their most recent campaign filings. Neither candidate was endorsed by the Burbank Teachers Assn.
Only candidate Armond Aghakhanian — who is endorsed by the Burbank Teachers Assn. — has spent more, filing expenditure reports for roughly $8,700.
Steve Ferguson, also endorsed by the union, has spent about $3,000. Incumbent Larry Applebaum didn't report any expenditures by the mid-February filing date.
That a well-known super PAC would get involved in Burbank, where public schools perform above state benchmarks, perplexed even Tabet and Dobson, who said they were unaware the support was coming.
“They sent me an email. But everybody sends you emails,” Tabet said, referring to inquires from a number of local groups, such as the Burbank chapter of the Sierra Club.
“I am assuming these things come to you and you're supposed to answer them,” she said.
Dobson had also recently answered a questionnaire for StudentsFirst, but was unaware of the super PAC's support until he received the mailer at his home.
“I don't know what to make of it,” he said.
Applebaum questioned StudentsFirst's involvement in the election, saying it was “unusual for this to happen in Burbank.”
“Something doesn't smell right to me,” he said. “They have every right to engage in the political process. I would certainly question as to why.”
Burbank Teachers Assn. President Lori Adams, meanwhile, said she had been “warned” about the super PAC from the California Teachers Assn.
“[The California Teachers Assn.] is very aware of them and is concerned that parents are being deceived into thinking they will improve their schools when they really just take away the professionalism of the teacher [to] make them less stable with high staff turnover,” she said.
For their part, Tabet and Dobson rejected any insinuation that they support turning public schools into charters.
“I've lived here 48 years,” Tabet said. “I don't want anything different for [Burbank].”
Follow Kelly Corrigan on on Twitter: @kellymcorrigan.