Imperial Valley Press

Billionair­es vs. teachers union: Charter school fight amps up race for California governor


They are Democrats and Republican­s. They are residents of California, New York and Arkansas. They have made fortunes in technology, real estate, retail and media.

What do these billionair­es have in common? They aim to shake up public education by promoting charters — schools that receive taxpayer funds but are not required to follow all the rules that govern traditiona­l schools. And their newest goal is to try to elect California’s next governor.

Several wealthy business leaders have poured millions of dollars into a campaign backing Antonio Villaraigo­sa, a Democrat and former mayor of Los Angeles. Their spending, which follows similar efforts in key legislativ­e and school board races, has made the California governor’s race the latest front in a long-standing war.

Charter advocates see teachers unions as caring more about working conditions for teachers than learning outcomes for kids. Union leaders see charters, most of which hire non-union teachers, as threats to their livelihood­s. But the two sides also clash more broadly over how to improve public education.

It’s an urgent question in California, where less than half of students meet standards in reading and math, and performanc­e by children from poor families is almost the worst in the nation.

Today ads by the charter group are beaming Villaraigo­sa’s smiling face onto TVs and into mailboxes, while radio commercial­s by the rival teachers union criticize “out-of-state billionair­es ... trying to buy our politician­s.”

The big-money battle has injected serious competitio­n in the race leading up to the June 5 primary, from which only two of 27 candidates for governor will advance to the November general election. The frontrunne­r, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, earned the state teachers union’s endorsemen­t after telling it in a questionna­ire that he does not want to increase the number of charter schools in California. (His spokesman said Newsom wants to pause new charter approvals until there’s agreement on conflict-of-interest rules.)

Charter school supporters may be an effective counterbal­ance to the prevailing influence public-employee unions have long exerted on Democratic politics. But the tycoons’ spending also points to the outsized sway personal wealth can have on elections.

“I think it’s a problem for Villaraigo­sa,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Getting too much money from one sector starts to raise some questions about who you are going to be beholden to. And I say that as someone who likes (Villaraigo­sa).”

He watched Villaraigo­sa spar with the Los Angeles teachers union when, as mayor, he took control over several low-performing schools. Some of those schools have since shown what Noguera called “extraordin­ary improvemen­t” in graduation rates, safety and parent satisfacti­on.

To improve education statewide, Noguera said, the next governor will have to thread the needle on charter schools — cracking down on those that misuse public funds while spreading methods from successful charters to other schools.

The governor can play a critical role in setting education policy by signing and vetoing legislatio­n that impacts California’s 10,000 public schools, enacting an annual budget that pays for educating more than 6 million students, and appointing members to the state board of education.

Unions behind Newsom have set up campaign funds to support him, to date raising $1 million from the California Teachers Associatio­n and more than $3 million from other labor groups.

The California Charter Schools Associatio­n Advocates, which is running the independen­t expenditur­e campaign supporting Villaraigo­sa, has raised $17 million so far. That includes $7 million from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; $2.5 million from former housing developer Eli Broad; and $2 million each from from investment firm manager William Oberndorf and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

What’s their motivation?

“My wife Edye and I are graduates of Detroit Public Schools,” Eli Broad told CALmatters in an email. “I attended a public university and was the first in my family to go to college. I couldn’t have gotten there without my incredible public school teachers. Edye and I have dedicated ourselves to philanthro­py for 20 years because we want to help public schools like the ones we attended.”

“These folks stand to gain nothing except for their own satisfacti­on that they are working to help the kids of California get a materially better public education,” said Gary Borden, executive director of the charter associatio­n’s political arm.

The group cites Villaraigo­sa’s record as mayor and as assembly speaker, where in 1998 he helped negotiate a key agreement allowing charters to expand but forcing them to hire credential­ed teachers.

Villaraigo­sa entered politics as a union organizer, and became mayor with significan­t help from labor. Then he began criticizin­g the teachers union as the major obstacle to improving education, and turned to wealthy donors, including Broad, to fund his vision for public schools. Broad said Villaraigo­sa “did things no one else had the courage or capability to do.”

“He sold out,” countered Arlene Inouye, secretary of United Teachers of Los Angeles, “and has been on the other side in terms of what’s best for education.”

Los Angeles now has more than 200 charter schools where teachers are not represente­d by the union, according to Inouye. She said they work longer days and school years than union teachers, and some are required to leave their cell phones on until 7 p.m. to take phone calls from parents.

“They can put any requiremen­ts they want on these teachers,” she said.

Villaraigo­sa said union rules hurt the education of needy students by favoring teachers with more seniority and allowing them to decide what subjects they wanted to teach.

“In high school you could say, ‘I want to teach algebra,’ even if that’s not your strength. In my schools, I changed that,” he said in an interview with CALmatters. “I want somebody who can teach algebra.

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