ALBANY -- Charter school proponents were the biggest special-interest group in state politics in 2014, outspending teachers' unions by better than a 2-to-1 ratio, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which regulates lobbying, also found that an all-time high was spent on lobbying -- $226 million -- in 2014. The previous record was $220 million in 2011.
And it showed that a lobbying firm headed by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato has climbed to No. 2 in the state, based on billing, up from No. 4.
The education spending reflects the national debate over education policy, as well as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's escalating war with teacher unions over teacher evaluations, experts said.
Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter-school group backed by Wall Street financiers and allied with Cuomo, spent more than $9.6 million on lobbying in 2014, primarily on ads rather than hired lobbyists, JCOPE reported. That's more than double the $4.7 million combined spending by New York State United Teachers, a statewide group, and the New York City-based United Federation of Teachers.
Families for Excellent Schools is part of a charter-school lobby that has risen dramatically in the past two years. The group, along with Students First and Students First/NY, has generally supported Cuomo's call to increase the number of charters, which are publicly funded, privately run schools; change teacher evaluation mandates; and allow charters to take over underperforming public schools.
Paul Appelbaum, a venture capitalist who heads Rock Ventures, is chairman of Families for Excellent Schools; it receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which backs education initiatives, among others.
A spokesman for Families for Excellent Schools declined to comment Wednesday.
"Education is experiencing a genuine populist rising and the question of whether it has legs is not proved yet," said Gerald Benjamin, dean at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a longtime state political observer. "It's a big fight over a major social function."
Benjamin noted that Cuomo, unlike his predecessors, apparently has "mobilized" allies to get special interests to support his agenda instead of just playing defense against critics. Earlier in the Democrat's tenure, a group called Committee to Save New York, which was backed by big business and gambling companies, spent more than other special interests while promoting Cuomo's flat-spending, property-tax-cut agenda.
A NYSUT spokesman said that despite spending less than its adversaries, the teachers unions beat back Cuomo's efforts to expand charter schools.
"What it shows is that parents and educators fighting for what all kids need is more important than dollars," said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. "Educators and parents can never compete monetarily with hedge fund billionaires, but they know what's right for public education."
But the State Legislature largely did back Cuomo's initiative to change teacher evaluations, which the unions opposed.
The report covers money spent on lobbying only and not campaign contributions. Charter school proponents and teachers' unions also were among the biggest spenders on New York elections.
JCOPE's report showed that Park Strategies, the firm headed by D'Amato, climbed to the No. 2 lobby firm in the state, with $7.8 million in billings in 2014. Park Strategies grew dramatically in 2013 when it began to merge with a firm led by former Pataki administration officials.
David Catalfamo, managing director of Park Strategies, said the firm "is proud of the work that we perform on behalf of our clients in New York State, New York City and around the country. The ranking is reflective of our outstanding team of professionals and the talent, integrity, and focus on client service that we strive for as a firm."
With Michael Gormley