How The Charter School Wars Turned An Obscure Race Into California’s Second Most Expensive Election

Originally published in The Intercept on November 1, 2018.
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The California charter school lobby is testing its influence in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, turning an election for a somewhat obscure statewide position into a notably expensive battle.

More than $50 million has flown into the contest between two Democrats for a nonpartisan office with little statutory power. For perspective, this is more money raised than in any U.S. House race this cycle and most Senate races, not to mention every other race in California, save for the governor’s.

The race, largely understood as a proxy war for the future of California charter schools, is the second attempt by the state’s charter school lobby to demonstrate its influence this election cycle. The candidates, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, both insist that the race is about far more than charters, which currently enroll 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, though they admit that they hold different visions for the publicly funded, privately managed schools. That’s something their funders also acutely recognize.

Tuck, a second-time candidate for the position who has never held elected office, has received endorsements from the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the San Diego Union Tribune, among others. He’s is backed by the charter school movement, which has spent close to $30 million in support of his campaign. Three individuals alone — real estate developer Bill Bloomfield, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and venture capitalist Arthur Rock — have given a combined $11 million.

Tuck’s campaign has also raised over $5 million, something he says challenges the notion that he’s bought and paid for by the charter lobby, which did not directly give money to his campaign. “People focus on the independent expenditures, but I go the opposite way. We’ve raised money from over 4,000 individuals in direct contributions, ranging from high income to low income, people who support charters to people who oppose them, and everything in between,” he said. “People backing me just believe public schools aren’t working for all.”

Thurmond, a state assembly member representing a city in the San Francisco Bay Area, previously worked as a teacher, a social worker, a city council member, and a school board member. Thurmond has support of The Sac Bee and Los Angeles Times, the state Democratic Party, the California Teachers Association and other unions. He has raised close to $16 million. The California Teachers Association is Thurmond’s biggest supporter, donating $8 million to his campaign.

The charter school lobby’s interest in Tuck is not surprising. He served as the first president of the Los Angeles-based charter school network, Green Dot, and then became a founding CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a city-district collaboration focused on turning around low-performing public schools. He also serves on the board of Parent Revolution, a school choice advocacy group.

In an interview, Tuck said the amount of money being spent on the race is refreshing and an appropriate change for a state that has deprioritized public education. “There are 19 million registered voters in California, so when you take a step back, that really boils down to about $2 per voter, which doesn’t seem like an obnoxious amount of money,” he said. “I do think it’s good that we finally have a lot of resources focused on education in a statewide race. In California, it takes a lot of resources to communicate.” He pointed out that not one question was asked about education in the only debate for California’s gubernatorial race.

Thurmond, despite also pulling in millions of dollars, was more critical of the influx of money. “I really wish the amount of money being spent on this race was being provided to states and school districts to educate our kids,” he said. “I think it’s a waste. That money should be going to close the achievement gap, I’d rather see it go there.” He also lambasted the billionaires who “are spending lots of money to support [Tuck] and denigrating me and the kids that I served in a low-income district. They think they know more than the educators, and I know many of those billionaires have strong feelings against teacher unions.”

The California Charter School Association — a formidable force in state politics — is aware that this election is an important chance to show its influence has staying power. The lobby is backed by a few key repeat players—including billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — and has flexed its financial muscles in recent years, spending more than the teacher unions, which have historically dominated education politics. As EdSource reported, in 2015 and 2016 the California Teachers Association donated $4.3 million to candidates and political committees, while the charter association spent more than $17 million on state and local candidates.

In 2015, for example, the charter lobby spent more than $2 million to elect Ref Rodriguez to the Los Angeles school board, making him the first charter school operator to join the board. In 2017, education reform advocates won three more seats, giving the board a slim pro-charter majority for the first time ever. The 2017 races were the most expensive school board races in U.S. history, with the charter lobby spending $9.7 million to elect its candidates, next to the union’s $5.2 million.

The charter movement’s victory was short-lived, however. Last September, Rodriguez was criminally charged with money laundering during his 2015 campaign. This past summer, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to conspiracy and resigned from the board — an embarrassing debacle for charter advocates, and one that leaves the school board’s balance of power once again up in the air. A special election to fill his seat is set for March.

Charter advocates faced another big defeat this year when they spent $23 million backing Antonio Villaraigosa for governor. It was the largest independent expenditure effort for a gubernatorial primary in California’s history, and despite the flurry of attack ads, Gavin Newsom won the contest easily. The next governor is expected to play a major role in shaping state charter school policy, and many observers felt the charter lobby overplayed its hand by attacking Newsom so much.

California’s outgoing governor, Jerry Brown, was supported by the teachers union throughout his tenure, but he’s largely avoided placing stricter rules on charters and has steered clear of debates about their long-term future in the state. (Last month, however, Brown signed a bill, co-authored by Thurmond, that would ban for-profit charter schools. He had vetoed similar legislation in 2015, which was opposed at the time by the California Charter School Association. The association supported the bill this time around.)

Compared to the governor, the State Superintendent for Public Instruction commands far less power over education policy, but has an influential soapbox that many expect will be important as California charts its future on public education. The outgoing state superintendent, Tom Torlakson, has spoken out about the need to retool some of the state’s charter school authorization policies.

Reached for comment, the California Charter School Association referred questions to EdVoice, a separate pro-charter organization said to be handling media for the state superintendent race. EdVoice did not return multiple requests for comment.

The race has gotten more heated in the weeks leading up to Election Day, with EdVoice funding an attack ad against Thurmond that focused on his time serving as a school board member of the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The ad misleadingly suggested that Thurmond had been sued personally by the American Civil Liberties Union and reprimanded by the Obama administration. “Tony Thurmond failed the students he was supposed to help,” it states.

In 2012, the ACLU sued the district over its school facilities, and Thurmond, as a board member, was a named defendant in the suit. The ad, however, does not mention that four other board members were also sued, as were the superintendent and the associate superintendent. In 2013, the Obama administration’s Office for Civil Rights released a report finding that West Contra Costa had failed to promptly respond to the sexual harassment of students, though Thurmond was not a board member at this time. He said his campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter in response to the ad.

The California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus chair also issued a statement in response to the ad, calling it an exploitation of the #MeToo movement, while the California NAACP sent a letter to Tuck calling him out for “using lies and fake news to smear prominent leaders of color.”

The Thurmond campaign, for its part, has been running its own misleading ad, calling Tuck a “former Wall Street banker” and a “paid backer of charter schools,” who is “backed by Donald Trump’s education adviser and financed by the same billionaires behind Betsy DeVos.” The adviser referenced in the ad is Bill Evers, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who wrote an op-ed in support of Tuck in September and served on Trump’s education transition team. But the ad zooms in on a picture of DeVos, confusing viewers into thinking that the education secretary herself endorsed Tuck

Tuck sent his own cease-and-desist letter to the Thurmond campaign, calling its ad dishonest for implying that he was backed by DeVos and that he was on the charter movement’s payroll.

Tuck told The Intercept that his campaign is weighing whether to sue for libel but that it would be an expensive endeavor, and they would have to prove that the ad had long-term damage. “We’re still actively investigating it, and if I could sue knowing it wouldn’t cost us $50,000, I would do it tomorrow,” he said. “It’s just the financial calculation, but we shouldn’t normalize lying being OK.”

In terms of education policy, Tuck and Thurmond’s visions have some broad similarities. They both speak passionately about ending the achievement gap and better serving the state’s neediest children. They both condemn the fact that California ranks 44th in the nation on K-12 education, according to the U.S. News & World Report, and they both want to increase state funding for schools, address the state’s teacher shortage, and expand prekindergarten.

But their visions for charter school growth are substantially different. While Tuck said ineffective charter schools should be shut down more quickly and that there needs to be “really strong accountability and transparency” for the schools, he supports opening more charters in neighborhoods where traditional public schools are producing low academic results. “I don’t think we should stop charter schools on the state level,” he added, alluding to a fierce ongoing debate over whether the state should step in to curb charter expansion.

Tuck stressed that, despite his support for charters, “the vast majority of the focus has to be on traditional public schools because that’s where the majority of the kids are.” He said his opponent has called for a “moratorium” on charters — a term Thurmond strongly contests. He prefers the word “pause.”

Thurmond, for his part, said he does not want to limit the ability to open a new charter “that has merit” but that the state must be more “intentional” about charter growth. “As a legislator, I think we have to ask ourselves, where is the tipping point at which we hurt the entire public?” he said. A study on the impact of charter schools, including “the good, the bad, and from the standpoint of what we can afford — how much more we can handle,” would be useful, he said.

Tuck is skeptical of using financial impact measures as a reason to halt new charters. “Finance should be a focus in every decision, but I don’t believe that if charters take additional kids, that would impede your ability to provide a quality education,” he said. “It would only have an impact if you don’t change your behavior at all.”

With less than a week until the election, the two candidates will continue to battle it out over their qualifications to lead California’s schools. Thurmond has the more weighty endorsements, but Tuck is outspending his opponent more than 2 to 1.

poll released Wednesday by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found Tuck leading Thurmond 48 percent to 36 percent, with Tuck’s advantage “underpinned by the strong backing of Republicans” and a majority of Democrats supporting Thurmond. Independent voters in the poll backed Tuck 5 to 3, while 16 percent of likely voters remain undecided.

While Thurmond points to his tenure in politics as proof of his experience and readiness for the job, Tuck has cast him as a career politician who won’t buck the status quo. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction “has been held for the last quarter century by politicians,” Tuck told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You can’t solve these problems with a bunch of bureaucrats in Sacramento.”

“I am proud to be a politician and a public servant,” said Thurmond. “The state superintendent has to work with the governor and legislature, and I have a record of doing just that. I love my job, and I could stay in the assembly if I wanted to, but I want my political legacy to be about helping kids.”

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