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Blurring the lines

A guest opinion from Levi B. Cavener, a teacher living in Caldwell, Idaho. He blogs at IdahosPromise.Org.

As the legislature kicks into full gear this year, it’s worth taking a look at how new charter-friendly legislation is making it the Governor’s desk. The J.A. & Kathryn Albertson Foundation has invested in growing charter programs in the Gem State. In particular, Albertson provides substantial financial support for the charter-friendly nonprofit BLUUM.

The IRS prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups from engaging in any substantial lobbying activities. However, BLUUM appears to steering some of the legislation at our state’s capital. BLUUM’s CEO, Terry Ryan, even registered as a lobbyist through the Idaho Secretary of State from 2016-2018.

BLUUM and Ryan appear, in particular, to be largely responsible for pushing the charter school-friendly “Innovation School Act” into law in a previous legislative session that allows charters to wiggle out of rules all other public schools must comply with.

According to an interview Ryan provided with Idaho Business Review, Ryan partnered with former Nampa School District David Peterson Superintendent to assist him spearhead the law at the capitol building. Why would Nampa’s superintendent want to push charter-friendly laws at the statehouse?

The answer is in the money. See, a month after the governor signed the Innovation School Act into law, Nampa School District received a million dollars from the Albertson Foundation to build a new “Innovative School” in Peterson’s district that went on to become Gem Prep Nampa. Albertson just also happens to be the same entity that supports BLUUM and Terry Ryan. Quid pro quo.

One wonders if Ryan’s collaboration with Supt. Peterson to press for the law would constitute lobbying. But Ryan appears to have gone further than using Peterson as an intermediary and met with the lawmakers himself.

Disclosure forms filed by Ryan to the Secretary of State indicate that Ryan spent over two hundred dollars to host a lunch for 12 of the 15 house education committee members. Two weeks later the House Education Committee produced and passed the bill for the Innovation School Act. It is hard to believe that Ryan was talking about anything other than this legislation when these representatives were in attendance.

But it gets more complicated. Ryan was also CEO of the Idaho Charter School Network during this time. Unlike BLUUM, the Idaho Charter School Network is a 501(c)(4) which can engage in lobbying activity. Unfortunately, it is impossible to distinguish when Ryan was acting as an agent for Idaho Charter School Network or BLUUM at any given moment.

For instance, in one set of Senate Education meeting minutes, Ryan is introduced as CEO of the Idaho Charter School Network. However, the handouts and visual aid materials presented by Ryan during this same meeting were from BLUUM, not the Idaho Charter School Network. Just which hat is Ryan wearing at any given moment?

Which is the point. Ryan should have known better than to put himself in such a conflict by removing himself entirely from any equation that involved lobbying in order to safeguard the integrity of BLUUM and its nonprofit status with the IRS. By not doing, so BLUUM appears to be a central actor in lobbying for passage of charter-friendly legislation; an action that puts it at odds with its 501(c)(3) status.

Unfortunately, one can expect Albertson to continue to fund “nonprofits” in our state pushing for privatization and charter schools in the Gem state. Their infatuation in pushing these types of schools knows no bounds.
 

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