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Eyes on reshaping charter school oversight, advocates become top spenders in state races

California State Capitol Building in Sacramento.
Jeff's Canon/Flickr Creative Commons
California State Capitol Building in Sacramento.

Californians are used to seeing outside groups — from oil and business interests to environmental and labor groups — spend millions of dollars in hopes of swaying state legislative races.

But in 2016, another sector came on the scene and surpassed them all: charter school advocates.

With a week before election day, no organization in the state has spent more outside money in the 2016 election cycle than either EdVoice or the Parent Teacher Alliance, two pro-charter committees.

Combined, they've made around $17 million in "independent expenditures" on state legislative races this year, a KPCC analysis shows.

Backed by donors like L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and Gap founder Doris Fisher, these pro-charter groups' outside spending has even surpassed traditional heavyweights in California politics: groups backed by the energy industry, real estate developers or organized labor.

Independent expenditures aren't contributions to candidates; rather, they're outside spending meant to boost one candidate — or oppose another — but made separately from the candidates' campaigns.

A response to 'backlash'

The increased spending in state-level politics comes as charter school advocates say they're having a tougher time winning political battles at the local level — particularly in the state's largest school districts, like Los Angeles Unified.

Changing the statewide statutory and regulatory environment for charter schools could help them in these local fights, said Carlos Marquez, head of government relations at the California Charter Schools Association. (Technically speaking, CCSA's companion organization, CCSA Advocates, actually spends on campaigns.)

“The way in which we have to at least attempt to do that is through the legislature," said Marquez. "Why now? The local efforts we’re seeing, the backlash against charter schools is at a fever pitch – [it] is probably worse today than it’s ever been.”

For instance, in Los Angeles, charter advocates have grown increasingly frustrated with the L.A. Unified School Board's performance as a charter "authorizer" — the entity that determines which charter schools can open, which can remain open and which must close.

Last month, L.A. Unified's board voted against renewing five charter schools' operating authority, meaning the schools will need to appeal to a county or state board in order to remain open. In recent years, the board has routinely approved almost all of these renewal requests.

L.A. Unified officials and district defenders point out these schools faced troubling questions about governance, transparency and financial oversight — and that the district's board has historically approved most of the charter requests it receives.

But charter advocates say that L.A. Unified's denials last month illustrate, as Marquez put it, "a clear politicization at the local level among school districts in the largest population centers in California … of charter school authorization and renewal efforts."

"We want to look at how the state approaches authorizing," he added.

David Plank, who runs the Policy Analysis for California Education research center at Stanford University, said it's not clear exactly what kind of changes charter advocates envision for the authorizing process.

But Plank said he believes he knows what charter advocates ultimately want: "a more rule-driven system that would make authorization and re-authorization more predictable, and perhaps, I would suppose, more driven by quality considerations … instead of relying simply on the preferences and interests of local school boards."

Charter school advocates contend that since school districts lose money when their students leave for charters, school boards have an inherent conflict of interest. 

But charter opponents point out there's a reason the state's charter law relies on local school boards' preferences: school board members are the only elected education policymakers in a district, arguably making them stewards of any public money spent on any school, district-run or not. 

And "opponents of charter schools have legitimate concerns," Plank said, "about transparency and governance arrangements and who ultimately benefits from the establishment of charter schools."

Marquez said advocates are also interested in revisiting state laws allowing charter schools to use district-owned classroom spaces under a process known in shorthand as "Prop. 39" — which, in L.A. Unified, has been another bone of contention between district officials and the charter schools they oversee.

Shifting focus to state politics

Major charter school advocates have not spent this heavily on state politics since the first charter school laws passed in 1992, said Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

"Initially [the biggest pro-charter donors] put all their money into Sacramento lobbying," Fuller said, "because they wanted to open up the statutory — the legal space. They wanted to create wide-ranging freedom to create and propagate charter schools."

That strategy then evolved, Fuller said. "Major advocates have gone locally because they realize it’s the local school boards that have acquired the most authority in creating charter schools and reauthorizing charter schools."

The shift back into state politics is relatively new for the education reform crowd — but "they've been flexing their muscle more and more over the past several years," said Rob Pyers, who analyzes elections for the California Target Book.

An early move in that direction came in 2014, when charters invested heavily in a bid by former charter school executive Marshall Tuck for state superintendent. Tuck ultimately lost that race to incumbent Tom Torlakson.

This year, EdVoice has put more than three million dollars towards defeating the Assembly bid of Mae Torlakson, who's married to the superintendent. That contest has attracted more outside money than any Assembly race in California history, Pyers said.

And it's just one of the seats up for grabs. This year represents a unique opportunity for interest groups looking to reshape state politics, Pyers said. "The next major crop of term limited legislators won't come into play until 2024," he predicted, citing new term limit laws.

The spending this year hasn't followed traditional party lines. EdVoice and the Parent Teacher Alliance have focused on races that pit two Democrats against one another.

The money behind the charter push comes from a small group of wealthy donors — several of whom have given to both CCSA Advocates (the source of the Parent Teacher Alliance's funding) and EdVoice.

The donors live outside the districts where their money is being spent, and some live outside the state.

The support of wealthy donors for charters has even become a campaign issue, as the California Teachers Association has sent out mailers claiming billionaires were "playing politics" and that the Parent Teacher Alliance is "deceptively named."