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Charter school backers spent millions on statewide races in 2018. They still lost twice.

The ABCs of charter schools

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri
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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

When former charter school executive Marshall Tuck called Assemblyman Tony Thurmond to concede over the weekend, it marked another defeat for charter-school advocates in California.

Thurmond was elected California’s top education official in the wave that led more liberal-leaning voters to cast ballots. Although both are Democrats, Thurmond had the party’s endorsement.

He also was backed by teachers unions, who were outspent more than two-to-one.

Independent groups supporting Tuck spent more than $36 million this cycle. Prominent education reform supporters, including frequent political donor Bill Bloomfield, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and philanthropist Eli Broad were among the biggest contributors to those efforts. Tuck’s official campaign raised another $5 million.

“The group of people who have provided significant funding to candidates that are associated with a charter-friendly agenda have proven that they don’t have the ability to capture statewide offices,” said John Rogers, an education policy expert at UCLA.

It’s only the latest big loss the pro-charter school movement has suffered in California.

In June, many of the same donors were disappointed when their chosen candidate for California governor Antonio Villaraigosa didn’t make it out of the primary despite their more-than $20 million effort to bolster him.

Tuck also ran for schools chief unsuccessfully in 2014, when incumbent Tom Torlakson beat him – again with support from the teachers unions.

The California Teachers Association provided most of the more-than $16 million independent effort supporting Thurmond. His campaign raised more than $3 million. Labor unions and the California Democratic Party were among the biggest donors for both Thurmond’s campaign and the independent efforts supporting him.

The state superintendent of public instruction oversees the California Department of Education and works with the State Board of Education. The office doesn’t have much direct control over education policy in California, although it’s seen as an influential position.

In his campaign, Thurmond, who represented Richmond in the state Assembly, opposed diverting money from traditional public schools into public charter schools.

“I intend to be a champion of public schools,” Thurmond said in a statement announcing his victory. “All students, no matter their background and no matter their challenges, can succeed with a great public education.”

Tuck, meanwhile, emphasized giving parents more choices in where to send their children, including nonprofit charter schools. He also advocated for directing more money to teachers in schools with high populations of low-income students, English learners and children in foster care.

Both candidates opposed for-profit charter schools.

Despite the job’s limited power, the race attracted more than $50 million in outside spending. It was the most expensive state superintendent contest in U.S. history, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

The millions poured into the campaign illustrate tensions between factions of the Democratic Party more aligned with labor unions and others more aligned with business, especially in Silicon Valley, Rogers said.

“Those who were engaging in this funding wanted to communicate a message about their importance and the weight that they carried in statewide politics,” he said. “You would never expect an election for state superintendent of public instruction to get this much attention.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the state superintendent of public instruction works with the State Board of Education. He does not chair the board.

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