Charter School Advocates Spent Tons Of Money On This Election — And They Still Lost Their Biggest Races

Marshall Tuck attends a fundraising dinner at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 7, 2013. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Advocates for charter schools outspent almost everyone else trying to sway California elections in 2018.

Pro-charter groups helped break spending records trying to swing the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, the most expensive down-ballot fight in California this year. They were also the top sources of outside spending in the race for governor — and even state Senate and Assembly races.

In total, charter school advocates made $62 million in independent expenditures on this year's elections, according to a KPCC/LAist analysis of campaign finance data.

But most of that money was spent on losing efforts.

Last week, Marshall Tuck conceded the superintendent race to outgoing State Assemblyman Tony Thurmond. Pro-charter groups — most notably the advocacy group EdVoice — spent a total of $34 million trying to elect Tuck.

They were up against significant opposition: the state's largest teachers unions and the California Democratic Party spent about $20 million to support Thurmond.

The loss comes after a disappointing gubernatorial primary in June. The political wing of the California Charter Schools Association spent $22 million trying to get former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa into the general election for Governor. Villaraigosa didn't even come close.

HOW MUCH DO THE LOSSES MATTER?

So-called "education reform" organizations such as Edvoice and CCSA Advocates — the charter association's political arm — position themselves as a counterweight to teachers unions, long a dominant force in Sacramento politics.

But after coming up short in 2018, these groups will have to contend with a governor and state schools chief who are both, at best, skeptical of charter schools. Charter schools receive public funding but they're run by non-profit organizations, not school districts.

Both Thurmond and governor-elect Gavin Newsom support temporary moratoriums on opening new charter schools. The teachers unions that lended major financial and organizational support to their campaigns believe charter schools drain traditional district-run schools of critical funding.

Charter school groups "have to build some fences to the new governor," said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "That's a pretty significant loss for those forces."

In a statement, CCSA Advocates spokeswoman Brittany Chord Parmley left the door open for collaboration.

"We congratulate Gavin Newsom and Tony Thurmond on their successful elections," said Parmley, "and look forward to working with them both to ensure that all children in California have access to high quality public schools."

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa bows his head while making his concession speech at an election night party concluding his run for governor on June 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Newsom has not always taken such a tough line on charter schools. During his first run for San Francisco mayor, in 2003, he described charters as laboratories where educators can "explore new and better ways of reaching and educating our youth," according to The Sacramento Bee — a position Newsom continues to stake out publicly.

But Newsom won the endorsement of the California Teachers Association, in part, by saying he did not want the number of charter schools to increase, as both the Bee and CalMatters have reported.

Sonenshein cautioned against writing off the ed reform groups as forces in state politics. Their deep-pocketed donors — philanthropist Eli Broad, businessman Bill Bloomfield, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and others — have helped these pro-charter groups amass huge political war chests.

"Winning is completely overstated as a measure of strength," Sonenshein said.

"You do have to send a message to people in politics," he added, "that if they take a stand with you against strong opposition, you will be there when they need you."

UP-VOTE, DOWN-BALLOT

Pro-charter groups fared somewhat better in state legislative races.

Combined, EdVoice and the California Charter Schools Association spent more than $5.9 million on those races. CCSA Advocates was the largest single source of independent expenditures in state legislative races.

In a down-ballot state legislative race, an independent expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars "is a lot of money," Sonenshein said.

In all, charter groups spent money trying to sway 17 state Assembly or Senate contests. In 13 races, charter school groups supported the winning candidate; eight of these winners were safe incumbents who held their seat by a double-digit margin.

As KPCC has reported, charter advocates' outside influence has been critical in previous legislative races. In 2016, these groups shelled out more than $19 million in eight races, aiding seven of those candidates to victory.

This year, charter groups spent less — and the results were more mixed:

  • CCSA Advocates and EdVoice dished out more than $1.4 million in hopes of swaying special elections for two San Fernando valley seats — and their favored candidates both won. Democrat Jesse Gabriel won a seat in the West Valley. In an East Valley race, CCSA and EdVoice were actually outspent by labor groups — but charters' preferred candidate, Democrat Luz Maria Rivas, still prevailed.
  • In another special election, CCSA spent more than $1.4 million trying to block Democrat Tony Mendoza, who resigned from the state Senate in February, from regaining his seat. Another Democrat, Vanessa Delgado, won that race.
  • Susan Rubio appears on track to beat fellow Democrat Mike Eng in a competitive race for Assemblyman Ed Hernandez's seat in the San Gabriel Valley. CCSA backed Rubio with $354,000.
  • The biggest outside spending in the race for the 15th Assembly District seat came from a committee that pooled contributions from a hodgepodge of interests, including about $206,000 from EdVoice. This independent expenditure group supported Democrat Buffy Wicks, aiding her victory over Democratic Socialist Jovanka Beckles with more than $1 million in spending — including $300,000 in negative ads.
  • On the other hand, CCSA spent $1.1 million in both the primary and general elections trying to unseat Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens. But Garcia won by a wide margin.
  • Democrat Rebecca Bauer-Kahan appears on-track to unseat Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin — despite more than $591,000 EdVoice spent trying to sway the race away from Bauer-Kahan.
  • CCSA's $91,000-worth of negative ads also failed to trip up Democratic challenger Melissa Hurtado in her bid to swipe the Central Valley seat of state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.

THE NEXT BATTLEGROUND: L.A.

When assessing the effects of pro-charter groups' spending, "It seems we spend a lot of time thinking about their impact on [statewide races]," Sonenshein said, "when the state has a lot of other issues to look at" other than education.

But for CCSA and EdVoice, "the big action is usually at the school board level," Sonenshein said. These are the elections where, he said, spending from pro-charter groups can have the greatest impact.

Los Angeles is gearing up for just such a race.

There will be a special election for the open seat on the LAUSD School Board that Ref Rodriguez vacated after a campaign finance scandal. Fifteen candidates have formally declared their intention to run for the seat, which represents areas northeast and southeast of Downtown L.A.

That means LAUSD will be the next battleground in the ongoing war between pro-charter school groups and teachers union forces.

The 2017 school board races saw $15 million in outside spending that went to consultants, canvassers, phone bankers and advertising — with charter forces outspending the unions roughly two-to-one.

"It's a little like the War of the Roses," Sonenshein said.

The LAUSD primary election is in March. A runoff will likely follow in May.


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