School Choice & Charters

Charter School Backers and Teachers’ Unions Square Off In California’s State Superintendent Race

By Arianna Prothero — November 06, 2018 4 min read
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A California election for an education post is smashing campaign spending records again, largely fueled by wealthy charter school boosters and teachers’ unions.

So far donors have poured over $50 million in independent spending into the race for state superintendent, according to state campaign finance records, even though, as many California news outlets have pointed out, the position has less power over directing education policy compared to other elected positions.

Only the governor’s race has attracted more money.

Charter school advocates are supporting Marshall Tuck in the race for state superintendent, while Tony Thurmond is being bolstered by state and national unions.

Teachers’ unions see charter schools and their mostly non-unionized teaching force as a threat to their membership, especially in school districts like Los Angeles where charters enroll nearly one-quarter of all public school students. Thurmond is currently an assemblyman and recently co-authored legislation that bans for-profit companies from running charter schools.

Charter school supporters, who include some of the wealthiest businessmen and -women in the United States, have invested large sums over the years in California’s charter sector. They see an ally in Tuck, who formerly ran Green Dot, one of the state’s most successful charter school networks.

Even though there is not much that is philosophically different between the two men, both of whom are Democrats, the nonpartisan race for the state superintendent post has become the latest avenue for the two camps to battle it out in bare knuckle electoral politics in a state that is home to the largest number of charter schools in the country. More than 600,000 students are enrolled in more than 1,200 of these schools in California, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

Previous elections

Pricey showdowns between charter school backers and teachers’ unions have become the norm in the Golden State.

Charter school groups dumped $23 million into Antonio Villaraigosa’s primary campaign for governor, making it the largest independent expenditure push in a gubernatorial primary in the state’s history, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The most recent school board elections for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has a lot of authority over which charter schools can operate in the area, drew in over $14.5 million in independent spending from groups and individuals, such as Eli Broad, the state’s charter schools association, and the city’s teachers’ union.

But the spending spree is not limited to California. During the last general election, the major battle ground between these two factions of public education was Massachusetts, where a ballot initiative aimed to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state.

Independent expenditure campaigns for and against the ballot measure raised more than $42 million dollars, with charter advocates bringing in more than $26 million.

While charter school advocates have had a fairly good run in state legislatures and courts lately, they have not had as much of a return on their investment in elections.

Villaraigosa lost his primary bid for the California governorship. The ballot initiative in Massachusetts failed in 2016.

And while the candidates charter school advocates backed for the Los Angeles School Board race won, tipping the board toward a pro-charter majority, another pro-charter member pleaded guilty over the summer to a money-laundering scheme and resigned from the board.

The Billionaires Backing Charter Schools

Tuck’s backers have donated heavily to political action committees supporting him and include many of the who’s who of charter school philanthropists including:

Eli Broad, who made his money in construction and insurance; Reed Hastings, the founder and CEO of Netflix; Doris Fisher, co-founder of The Gap, and Carrie Walton Penner and Jim and Alice Walton, all heirs to Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. And they’re outspending their opponents in the superintendent’s race.

Broad and the Walton family have used their sizable wealth to shape the charter school sector both in California and nationally. The Fishers helped seed today’s largest charter school network, KIPP.

While Tuck is an advocate for charter schools, he certainly has more of a Democratic education reformer’s views on school choice. While he supports charters and magnet programs, he has called for banning for-profit companies running schools and a few more regulations on the charter sector. (It’s worth noting some interesting history here: Green Dot stands apart from many other large, nonprofit charter networks because its teachers are unionized and have been since the network’s inception. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers even worked with the founder of Green Dot, Steve Barr, to unionize one of his charter schools in New York City.)

Thurmond also wants more charter regulations, and he supports pausing new charter school approvals so the state can gauge the negative impacts they have on school districts.

Both men support free preschool for all children and giving students extra counseling and mental health supports, among other initiatives.

A recent poll from UC Berkeley showed Tuck leading Thurmond 48 to 36 percent. Sixteen percent of voters said they were either still undecided or planned not to vote in this race.

Follow Education Week’s complete 2018 election coverage here, with EdWeek’s Election Watch Party.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.