Charter School Industry’s Stunning Loss in CA Primaries

Jeff Bryant

In reviewing the losers in this week’s primary elections in eight states, one shouldn’t overlook the charter school industry, which took a drubbing in the California governor’s race where its preferred candidate former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa drew a very disappointing 13 percent of the vote.

“Villaraigosa didn’t even get support from voters in demographics you’d expect he’d get,” says Meghan Choi in a phone call, referring to Villaraigosa’s poor showing in heavily influenced Latino Los Angeles County. Choi is director of Ground Game LA, an affiliate group of People’s Action that does micro-level organizing on economic and social justice issues.

“Villaraigosa burned too many bridges in the education community,” Choi says, especially in black and brown communities in Los Angeles where he tried to privatize the schools with charter management groups during his tenure as mayor. She notes that many of the wealthy people that helped him in that effort contributed to his losing campaign for governor.

Big Money Loses in California

In the California’s quirky primary system, only the top two vote-getters could advance to the general, regardless of political party. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, finished a distant third to first place winner and fellow Democrat former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome and little-known Republican second-place finisher John Cox.

At the outset of the campaign, Villaraigosa had been nearly tied with Newsome at the top of the polls in January at 21 percent versus 23 percent, respectively. Then in April and May, the charter-school industry began pouring millions of dollars into the race to back Villaraigosa.

The charter school industry’s state advocacy group, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, created Families and Teachers for Villaraigosa to take in huge sums of money from “wealthy contributors,” EdSource reports. This independent expenditure committee helped raise $22.5 million in less than two months, which mainly went toward television and radio ads to support Villaraigosa and attack Newsome.

Among the donors to the pro-Villaraigosa committee were Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who contributed $7 million; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $3.5 million; and Bill Oberndorf who gave $3.75 million.

Hastings is a pro-voucher and pro-charter billionaire who has called for an end to democratically elected school boards. He founded and profits from the Rocketship chain of charter schools where students spend most of their day at computers being drilled for standardized tests. Oberndorf is a Republican and an ally of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Of course, Newsome has his campaign sources too, with contributions coming principally from labor groups. But in contrast to Villaraigosa, Newsome’s independent expenditure committees raised only $7.2 million while most of his funds were raised through direct contributions.

High Stakes for Charters

It’s important to understand what the charter industry believes was at stake in getting Villaraigosa elected.

California’s current Governor, Jerry Brown has been an invaluable backstop for the charter industry, who has defended charters from a state legislature that is increasingly skeptical of the academic performance and business ethics of these schools.

Brown’s support for charters is ideological, and deeply personal. Since he founded two charters in Oakland as mayor of that city, he continues to steer large donations to those schools despite their lackluster academic performance and significantly higher costs of operations.

But while Brown’s perception of charter schools has stayed firmly stuck in his past, California voters have begun to turn on the industry, based on disturbing evidence of its negative impact on the state’s education landscape.

A series of reports have found charter schools in the Golden State have wasted, lost, or confiscated millions of public tax dollars, much of it through fraud and double-dealing in the largely unregulated sector. A litany of negative news reports about charter schools continues to reveal routine practices that violate state and federal laws, produce poor academic results, and subject public money to fraud and conflicts of interest. And communities are beset with the adverse consequences of charters opening and closing whenever and wherever they want.

As awareness of the negative realities of charter schools spread, state lawmakers introduced into legislation efforts to bring more public oversight to the sector. Yet, every time state legislators have passed efforts to eliminate for-profit charter schools and bring all charters into line with open meetings, conflict of interest, and other laws, Brown has blocked them.

Clearly, charter operatives believed Villaraigosa would maintain the status quo. Yet even as billionaire money from the charter industry filled the Villaraigosa campaign’s coffers, his polling numbers steadily sank.

Dodging a Death Knell

“A Villaraigosa victory would have been a total death knell to public education in California,” says Choi.

She believes the state is situated in a history of education reform doctrine that’s made the state a “testing ground of privatized education.”

Indeed, large school districts in the state are financially on the brink due to the negative impact of charter schools.

With a Newsome victory generally assured in November, unless an unforeseen disaster arises, opposition to charter privatization of California public schools moves on to making sure this former San Francisco mayor keeps his promise to rein in the charter industry.

 

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