Kicking Charter School Money Out Might Be California Democrats’ Best Chance For Unifying Their Party

A backlash against California's powerful charter school lobby is brewing among Democrats in the state.

Photo Credit: Youtube

The mood was festive at the annual Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Dinner in Los Angeles. About 600 Democrats gathered in a hotel ballroom on an October evening to begin wrapping up the year. Community activists and party worker-bees mingled with political luminaries to celebrate top volunteers. Anybody with a (D) after their name and $135 for a ticket was welcome at this event in blue, blue California. 

Then Eli Broad crashed the party. He didn’t actually show up, but as usual in Los Angeles, his presence was felt. When his likeness appeared on a video screen displaying sponsors, the place erupted in boos. Then, as if they’d been caught on a hot mic, many attendees gasped at their collective slip of decorum.

By the time L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke, the room was composed. In fact, Garcetti couldn’t have asked for a friendlier reception. But the hometown crowd turned hostile again when former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was announced. He, too, was booed.

The common thread between Broad and Villaraigosa is charter schools. After he was elected mayor of L.A. in 2005, Villaraigosa, who’d run on a pro-labor platform, cut ties with the teachers union and adopted Broad’s agenda of school privatization. Los Angeles has long been a target of the privatizers. As the biggest school district in the country that elects its school board, it’s harder to control for the so-called education reformers, who seek to dismantle the public school system in order to create a marketplace of school choices, shifting billions of dollars in public moneys into private hands.  

Villairagosa’s political calculation paid off—at least with the billionaire education reform crowd which has been pouring money into Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial bid.

The Roosevelt Dinner should have been a victory lap for Villairagosa and his allies. Just six months before, they’d successfully taken over the L.A. school board, an effort in which the former mayor had been personally involved. They had spent more money to win the seat held by board president Steve Zimmer than has ever been spent on a school board race in U.S. history.

Backlash builds
But the huge sums of money made people skeptical of the pure-sounding claims of “putting students first.” Signs of a backlash first appeared at the State Democratic Convention last spring. In convention speeches, references to the vast resources of the charter school lobby made it sound like an occupying force. Speakers pointed out that the staggering amount of money to buy charter school proponents control of L.A.’s school board was sounding less and less democratic. It went beyond school boards, too. Last year, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) was the biggest spender in state legislative races.

The awakening has been a long time coming. Five years have passed since the L.A. County Dems demanded that the deceptively named charter promoters, Democrats for Education Reform, cease and desist from calling themselves Democrats. Since then, Betsy DeVos has finished yanking the Democratic disguise off the charter agenda. On NPR affiliate KCRW in early December, stalwart conservative David Frum lumped charter schools in with “medical savings accounts and everything else in the Republican agenda” that Democrats oppose.

And now, spontaneous outbursts showed Democrats opposing the biggest names in corporate education reform. But the clash between charter schools and Democratic ideals still isn’t obvious to everyone.

Glowing conflict

Perhaps there is no stronger metaphor for Democrats’ conflict about charters than the swag at the state party convention. During caucus meetings and on the floor of the convention, candidates and delegates alike balked at the CCSA’s brazenness in buying electoral influence. But afterhours, many of them waved glowsticks featuring the CCSA logo at the parties throughout the weekend. Maybe they thought no one would notice who bought them.

But the power of charter money is noticeable. At a State Senate hearing in October about possible charter law reforms, Jackie Goldberg, a retired grand dame of progressive politics and public education in California, seemed to hammer the whole state Democratic caucus for its failure to provide oversight.

“You got two-thirds [majority] for the first time—I never had two-thirds when I was up there—in both houses! You actually can do something about this. And I’m saying to you, it is time to say, Ya basta! Enough is enough…”

If California Democrats are calibrating their relationship with big charter money, the 2018 elections could magnify the issue. Villaraigosa will be the likely recipient of the charter cash.

However, Gavin Newsom, the current lieutenant governor and unquestioned front runner, is doing his best to avoid the topic. Newsom was caught on video telling a friendly crowd that he had no intention of taking a position on the existential battle in public education.

“I'm not interested in a stale and raging debate around which're on. ‘Are you with the charter people or are you anti-charter? Are you with the teachers or are you anti-teacher?’ I've been hearing that damned debate for ten damned years…whether Eli Broad was right or whether the CTA was wrong [sic]. I'm not interested in that debate.”

Previous news reports might help explain Newsom’s reticence to speak up against charters. Some of the original money to launch Newsom’s gubernatorial bid came from the same dark charter figures who schemed with Eli Broad to unsuccessfully defeat Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown’s initiative to fund public schools through a tax on millionaires. The schemers included one of Newsom’s early donors, John Scully, who sits with his wife on the board of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy, the politically powerful charter chain that was the recent subject of an exposé in the New Yorker. The union helped unmask Scully in its 2016 bombshell Hedge Clippers report revealing supporters of the anti-Prop 30 campaign, but it is now apparently unconcerned with Scully’s support for Newsom.

Big money, big opposition

Its anybody-but-Villaraigosa campaign resulted in the union endorsing Newsom, opening the organization to criticism that it isn’t going to help fight big charter power. Half the union delegates pushed for the candidate with a track record of working to pass common sense charter oversight legislation, current State Treasurer John Chiang. But some union delegates said leaders made sure endorsing Chiang was procedurally impossible.

Polls show 30% of the electorate is still undecided among the crowded field for the June, 2018 primary. So why isn’t CTA playing a more active role in shaping the debate about charter money during the course of the election?

The job of making charter money a campaign issue might fall to the teacher activists who led the insurgency for John Chiang at the union’s endorsement meeting. It could also fall to the Berniecrats, who now make up half the California Democratic Party and who strongly oppose the influence of big money. However, their repeated chants of “Single payer now!” at the convention and other public events leave one wondering if they have the capacity or the interest to take on the charter issue. Activist Lauren Steiner who ran the L.A. for Bernie campaign, pushes the issue among the Bernie constituency, though many of them are backing Delaine Eastin.

Given all the signs in the past year that Democrats are down on corporate charter money and Berniecrats’ natural opposition to big money in politics, this could be a unifying issue between the two factions of the party. The implications of that would reach far beyond California.

Karen Wolfe writes about public education. Follow her on Twitter @kwolfepack.

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