California teacher unions are convinced that if Antonio Villaraigosa is elected governor this year, education funding for traditional public schools will erode, leaving them worse off as they compete with charter schools for enrollment.
But charter schools advocates, including at least six billionaires, see it differently. They think Villaraigosa will be a champion for their cause to protect and expand charter schools across the state, creating more choice for parents and improving educational outcomes for students.
And they're putting money behind their beliefs.
Among the wealthy tech executives and billionaire investors pumping millions of dollars to push Villaraigosa, a Democrat, into the coveted second-place spot in next month's primary election are Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles homebuilder and philanthropist Eli Broad and billionaire William Oberndorf, who took over for Betsy DeVos to head the pro-school choice American Federation for Children when she was appointed by President Donald Trump to head the U.S. Department of Education.
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All are prominent backers of charter schools, and they are united in the belief that Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles and speaker of the state Assembly, is the best gubernatorial candidate to advance an education agenda that includes making independent charter schools a major component of California's public school system.
"Mike is proud to support Antonio's run for governor because he believes that when elected, Antonio will improve schools for every California student," said Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Bloomberg, who himself championed charter schools during his three terms as mayor of New York.
Donations are flowing steadily to an independent campaign committee run by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, with the latest tally at $17.4 million, according to state campaign finance filings. The outside committee, which is legally forbidden from coordinating with Villaraigosa's campaign, is filling up voters' mailboxes and the television airwaves with pro-Villaraigosa pitches.
It sets up a potential high-stakes political fight over the future of public education in California.
Charter school backers hope to elect candidates, including Villaraigosa, who will protect current state law that says independent charters are allowed to operate outside the framework of traditional public schools by creating their own curriculum, rules and performance standards.
Unlike traditional public schools, overseen by an elected school board, charters can appoint their own boards and operate their own governing structure. They are tuition-free, exempt from most laws applicable to traditional schools (not subject to open meetings and records laws, for example) and aim to attract students from regular public schools. Supporters say they provide parents more options, especially in low-performing districts and financially strapped neighborhoods.
Teachers unions, including the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, have been pushing to subject charter schools to more government regulation, backing bills that would give school boards greater ability to reject an application for a new charter, requiring they adhere to open meetings laws and preventing charter board members from conducting business from which they stand to gain financially.
Charter advocates, meanwhile, are asking the Legislature and governor for greater freedom with their governing structure and are sponsoring legislation this year that would boost state funding for the lowest-performing students.
Critics argue that because they receive state funding, charter schools siphon taxpayer dollars away from regular public schools, competing for valuable per-pupil education funding, and undercut public teacher unions, among the most powerful forces in state politics. Teachers at most charter schools in California aren't unionized.
Unions are concerned that as charters grow – enrollment has increased 150 percent in California over the past decade, with 10 percent of the state's 6 million students currently attending charters – there is greater risk for public school closures and teacher layoffs.
In the most recent polls, Villaraigosa is trailing frontrunner Gavin Newsom, also a Democrat, by a wide double-digit margin. The two Republican candidates, businessman John Cox and Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen, are also ahead of Villaraigosa in the polls. But the charter schools advocates are making a major financial investment in Villaraigosa, funding advertisements that seek to boost his statewide name recognition, bolster his record and denounce his rivals.
"Antonio Villaraigosa has a longstanding commitment to working on behalf of our public schools, and a record of believing charter schools are a thriving and vibrant part of that," said Gary Borden, executive director for the California Charter Schools Association Advocates. "He firmly believes charter schools are part of the solution to improving our public schools in California."
The teachers union, which has endorsed Newsom, is beginning to fight back, taking aim at the donors supporting Villaraigosa.
"If you look at the overall approach to public employees and public education, this is all part of a full-blown assault on working families and union members," said Claudia Briggs, a spokeswoman for the union.
It has donated more than $1.3 million to an independent campaign committee and released an ad criticizing Villaraigosa for his failed effort to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District as mayor more than a decade ago.
Briggs touted Newsom's education record as mayor of San Francisco, noting he created a rainy-day fund for schools, prevented teacher layoffs and cuts to student programs. She believes Villaraigosa's approach alienated teachers.
"He took it upon himself to remove the educator voice from being part of finding solutions for the challenges facing so many Los Angeles-area students. He did it with with so much venom that he declared what he called a 'holy jihad' against teachers," Briggs said, referencing Villaraigosa's past comments.
"It's clear to me that these billionaires have an agenda – they want to privatize California's schools," she added. "We believe they want to take away the rights of educators and students and divert money away from neighborhood public schools and move those funds over to privately run charter schools."
Becky Zoglman, also a CTA spokeswoman, said the teachers union wants charters to be subject to the same rules governing regular public schools.
"The CTA is not opposed to charter schools – we have educators in charter schools," Zoglman said. "We want them to have the same accountability and transparency to parents as taxpayers in how those schools are run."
Villaraigosa and his supporters have boasted about his record on education, saying as mayor of Los Angeles he helped increase graduation rates and improve low-performing schools.
"We had a 44 percent graduation rate," Villaraigosa told The Sacramento Bee, referring to the Los Angeles Unified School District. "When we left, it was 72."
Newsom, for his part, said he doesn't oppose all charters but has called for a moratorium on all new charters pending changes to state law he says could improve accountability and transparency.
"I've supported high-quality nonprofit charter schools but I believe in accountability with taxpayer dollars," Newsom said in a recent television interview.
Villaraigosa and the charter schools association are also backing Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of public instruction, an enthusiastic charter schools supporter who worked closely with Villaraigosa in Los Angeles as CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. Villaraigosa helped create the partnership to help low-performing schools following his failed effort to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District in the mid-2000s.
Tuck is running against Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who has the California Teachers Association endorsement.
Teachers unions "have been gunning for Antonio Villaraigosa for 20 years," said Garry South, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist. "And teachers have a pretty golden brand, along with nurses and firefighters. It's never a good thing when the teachers go after you."