Charter school advocates and their allies, largely bankrolled by a handful of wealthy donors, are dominating the state’s political landscape this primary season, pouring nearly $9 million into legislative races around the state.
Saying they are tired of current conditions in California schools, they are spending in 12 different districts, seeking to elect lawmakers they believe will be more sympathetic to their cause on such issues as teacher performance, tenure and the way schools are governed.
The California California Charter Schools Association, EdVoice and the charter-school funded Parent Teacher Alliance are spending significantly more than those groups committed during the last three legislative primary seasons, through Wednesday spending a third of all outside money seeking to influence legislative elections.
EdVoice, which has spent nearly $5 million in six districts since April 1, is supporting candidates it believes will be receptive to changing the education system, either through charter schools or changes in public schools, said Bill Lucia, the organization’s president and CEO.
“It’s about eliminating inequities and providing opportunities to all kids. The Legislature has an important role in that,” Lucia said. “But there are too many who are perfectly fine being defenders of the status quo.”
As they grow in popularity, charter schools have cut into public school enrollment and funding, particularly in larger urban districts like Los Angeles. Their advocates regularly clash with teachers unions in the California Legislature, the state education board and courtrooms.
But any semblance of a campaign fight with teachers unions in legislative races on next Tuesday’s ballot is decidedly lopsided.
Until last week, the 330,000-member California Teachers Association was all but a non-player in primary races around the state, two years after putting more than $5 million outside spending efforts leading up to the June 2014 primary. The group could be saving its money: a top goal for the teachers union this year is to help pass a proposed November measure to extend higher income taxes for the wealthy to support schools and other programs, a campaign that would cost millions.
This spring’s spending disparity increases the likelihood that the November ballot will include multiple candidates, all Democrats in safely Democratic districts, who advance to the fall runoff with the strong backing of self-described education reform groups. Results in the fall election could give the interests a significantly stronger voice in the union-friendly Legislature.
“Right now, we’re involved in just a handful of races in the primary,” said Becky Zoglman, a spokeswoman for the teachers union. “We’ll reassess for the November election,” she said. So far, the union has contributed almost $4 million to efforts to extend a version of the temporary income tax increases in Proposition 30 of 2012.
“It’s definitely a top priority for CTA this cycle,” Zoglman said.
The charter schools association is the sole source of money for the Parent-Teacher Alliance, which has spent $3.5 million in four Assembly districts. The charter schools association itself is spending another $264,000 in two Assembly districts.
More than 80 percent of the association’s donations since last July have come from five people: GAP co-founder Doris Fisher, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, developer Eli Broad, Texas billionaire and former hedge fund manager John D. Arnold and Carrie Walton Penner, the granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. The association’s own committee has reported about $261,000 in outside spending in two Assembly districts since April 1.
Another five people have given almost 80 percent of the money to EdVoice’s independent spending committee: Southern California businessman Bill Bloomfield, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Arthur Rock, financier William K. Bowes, and Alice and Jim Walton, relatives of the Wal-Mart founder.
Some of that money has landed heavily in the San Francisco East Bay’s 14th Assembly District.
Through Wednesday, EdVoice had spent $1.2 million on mailers, radio ads and other efforts to help Democrat Tim Grayson, a police chaplain, and oppose Democrat Mae Torlakson, the wife of state schools superintendent Tom Torlakson. The teachers association’s outside spending committee had reported $114,000 on mailers and TV to help Torlakson.
“She hasn’t had the big outside money in her favor, but I don’t think she needs to spend as much as he does,” Torlakson campaign consultant Mac Zilber said, noting Torlakson’s long civic involvement as well as the well-known Torlakson name in the area.
Grayson’s campaign website makes clear he thinks the state’s school system needs to change. In an interview, Grayson said he knew nothing of EdVoice’s decision to help elect him until he saw the first mailers.
“I am fully supportive of our teachers and public schools. But what I don’t feel is the right solution is to continue to throw money at a system that is in need of serious evaluation,” he said.
In Los Angeles County’s 43rd Assembly District, the charter school-backed Parent Teacher Alliance has spent almost $1.3 million to support Glendale Councilwoman Laura Friedman and oppose the city clerk, Ardy Kassakhian.
Kassakhian has received about $426,000 in outside spending support from real estate interests, apartment owners, and unions, including the California Teachers Association, which has sent about $48,000 worth of mailers opposing Friedman or supporting Kassakhian.
“We’re used to seeing other special interests. We’re not used to seeing this,” Sarah Dale, a Kassakhian spokeswoman, said last week. “It’s a lot of money. It becomes a game-changer for a candidate who doesn’t have resources like that backing them.”
Parke Skelton, a Friedman adviser, said Friedman is as surprised as anyone with the amount of spending by the charter school group on her behalf. But it doesn’t mean she’s an ally of charter schools, he added, calling Friedman “pro-teacher, very pro-labor.”
“We’ve had people who’ve been upset with the amount of charter school funding, and we’ve told them to come over and read the (candidate) questionnaires” completed for education groups, Skelton said. “She basically said what would drive her opinions on education is what would drive results.”
Charter school interests also have spent heavily in local races, such as last year’s Los Angeles school board race. By mid-May, they had already spent nearly $300,000 on this spring’s campaigns for seats on the Sacramento County Board of Education.
In at least one Sacramento-area race, the teachers association and EdVoice are on the same side.
Of the money the union has contributed to outside spending groups this year, $100,000 has gone to Building and Protecting a Strong California, whose other top donors are the Realtors association, grocery workers union and building trades.
That group has spent almost $89,000 to help the state Senate prospects of Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa. But that compares to EdVoice’s pro-Dodd spending: $1.4 million.
Turning the groups’ goals into action this cycle is a mix of prominent Republican and Democratic political firms.
Democratic consulting firms JPM&M of Sacramento and SCN Strategies of San Francisco, which has worked for Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democratic candidates, are among the top hires of the charter school-backed Parent Teacher Alliance.
Revolvis Consulting, a Republican firm, advises the charter school group, as does Overland Strategies, a Democratic firm. And San Francisco’s Rally Campaigns, which counts several Democratic candidates as clients, was EdVoice’s top payee.
“We have an opportunity to talk on behalf of people who really don’t have a lot of wherewithal,” EdVoice’s Lucia said. “If voters hear the strong bios and strong records uncluttered, all the better, from our view.”