A prominent charter school network is joining several national organizations in rejecting further donations from members of the Sackler family, who are being blamed for fueling the nation’s opioid crisis.
Achievement First, the charter network that runs 36 schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, says it’s done with donations from longtime booster Jonathan Sackler. It’s a notable shift for the organization, which said a few months ago that it could face a financial crisis at its Connecticut schools without that outside funding.
“Achievement First has decided not to seek further funding from the Sackler family or any of their affiliated foundations,” the network’s co-founder and co-CEO Dacia Toll said in a statement in response to inquiries from Chalkbeat.
“We are grateful for the generous philanthropy from all of our donors, including Jon Sackler. This support has made it possible for thousands of students to receive the education they need and deserve.”
A spokesperson for Achievement First said the $350,000 funding gap that would exist without money from Sackler will be made up for through donations by three board members.
Earlier this year, Toll told students in a meeting that the network was still receiving money from the Sackler family, members of which have been accused in numerous lawsuits of contributing to — and profiting from — addiction to opioid medications produced by its company Purdue Pharma. The company and Sackler family have denied the allegations.
Tax filings show that Jonathan Sackler, an early board member of the network, gave Achievement First $1.6 million through his foundation between 2013 and 2017. A spokesperson for the network said its last donation from Sackler came during the 2017-18 school year.
Achievement First’s decision not to accept additional Sackler money mirrors that of some cultural institutions that have benefitted from the family’s largesse, many under pressure from activists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim, among others, have said they will not accept donations from the family. Some Sackler family members have halted donations as backlash has grown.
“The refusal of Sackler funds was spreading most prominently in the art world,” said Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State University professor who studies education philanthropy. “The decision by Achievement First suggests the movement in the art world is spreading more broadly.”
Many other organizations don’t appear to have taken such a step. The University of Connecticut and Yale, for instance, have faced pressure but have not publicly renounced further donations.
Achievement First isn’t the only K-12 education organization to have received substantial backing from Jonathan Sackler, who has long been involved in education reform-oriented causes, though.
They include a handful of individual charter schools and pro-charter groups, an after-school program in Chicago, and a network of district schools in New York City. In March, most of the U.S. education groups that received money from Jonathan Sackler’s Bouncer Foundation in 2017 either declined to comment on recent fundraising or did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat.
Jonathan Sackler’s involvement with Achievement First led him to help found and chair the board of ConnCAN, a pro-charter advocacy group in Connecticut. That organization eventually helped birth a national network of similar groups known as 50CAN.
Sackler “played a leading role in the creation of ConnCAN after he became excited by the possibilities in urban public education by seeing the great results that [Achievement First] was achieving,” ConnCAN’s founding executive director wrote in a 2007 Yale business school case study. ConnCAN aimed to “ripen the environment for AF and other high performing charter management organizations to expand.”
In March the organization told Chalkbeat that “neither 50CAN nor ConnCAN has an active funding request” before any member of the Sackler family. A spokesperson for 50CAN declined to comment for this story.
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