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Pro-Charter School Group Fined for Alleged Campaign Finance Violations

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One of the biggest backers of the effort last November to raise the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts has paid more than $425,000 to settle a campaign finance complaint.

It's the largest such fine ever collected by the state.

Families for Excellent Schools is a pro-charter advocacy group based in New York City that is known for organizing high-profile rallies with Success Academy, the city's largest charter school network.

The group was accused by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance of trying to obscure where the money it donated to the campaign to raise the cap had come from.

The ballot question to raise Massachusetts' relatively restrictive charter cap—compared to other states—was the source of a loud and expensive political battle between teachers' unions and pro-charter advocates both locally and nationally.

Campaigns for and against the ballot initiative together raised nearly $42 million.

The initiative was defeated and the cap remains. Although Massachusetts hasn't hit its statewide ceiling of 120 schools yet, some areas—such as Boston—have reached separate, regional limits.

According to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, Families for Excellent Schools solicited and received donations. The group then turned around and contributed the exact same amount to Great Schools Massachusetts, the official ballot campaign committee for lifting the cap, "in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the money."

The OCPF says Families for Excellent Schools was essentially acting like a ballot question committee and should have organized as such, which would have required it to disclose its donors.

You can read the OCPF's full statement here.

"Though we believe we complied with all laws and regulations during the campaign, we worked closely with OCPF to resolve this matter so we could move forward with our mission of working alongside families desperate for better schools," Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said in a statement that was reported by the Associated Press.

The aftershocks of the political battle to raise the cap continue to reverberate. A recent public opinion poll conducted by researchers at Stanford University found that support for charter schools dropped 12 percent since last year. The researchers hypothesize that high-profile debates over charter expansion such as in Massachusetts could have played a role in eroding public support for the schools.

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Photo: A Massachusetts ballot measure that would have allowed more charter schools to open was defeated, despite an expensive campaign to win voter approval. —Michael Dwyer/AP

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