Photo by Alison Yin for EdSource

In 2016, a bill that would have greatly limited how charter schools enroll and discipline their students was gaining steam. It passed the California state Senate. It passed two committees in the Assembly by wide margins.

Major legislative muscle was behind Senate Bill 322. The California Teachers Association – the state’s largest teachers union – and the American Civil Liberties Union were backers, and it was introduced by Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who headed the powerful Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.

And then it died, garnering only 31 votes in the 80-person Assembly.

“I’ve just never seen anything like it. And it just speaks to what’s happening politically with charter schools,” Adam Keigwin, a contract lobbyist for the California Charter Schools Association told the group’s annual conference in Sacramento last month.

His point: The union usually enjoys widespread support in the Assembly, but this time it lost, in large part because of the charter association.

“They were able to stop the bill,” said Leno, who has been termed out in the Senate and is now running for mayor of San Francisco. “I don’t think I’m revealing any secret by pointing to the inordinate amount of money that [the association] spent in legislative elections.”

The charter association sees it differently. Carlos Marquez, senior vice president of government affairs at the association, believes lawmakers are responding to a realignment in the public’s attitudes about charter schools, and that the organization’s money shouldn’t be overstated. “The political center on issues related to charter public schools … has shifted in our favor,” he said.

But they do spend. A lot.

Buttressed by its roughly $18 million in political spending in 2015 and 2016 by its political action arms, the California Charter Schools Association is a rising political force in California that’s challenging the teachers unions’ prowess in shaping local and state education law, at least when it comes to anything affecting the future of charter school growth.

The group has flexed its strength with campaign cash, legislative hustle and a sophisticated ground game to score major wins for charter schools.

The association has done it through the state Legislature, pushing back on bills championed by its chief political foil – the California Teachers Association – while sponsoring its own legislation.

The association has done it with campaign contributions, raising millions of dollars in 2015 and 2016 from some of the country’s wealthiest individuals, including some who live outside California, and then spending big on pro-charter candidates running at the state and local levels. Contributions include $4.2 million from Gap clothing company cofounder Doris Fisher, $3.95 million from Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings, and more than $2 million from three members of the Walmart family.

The association is also doing it with people power – relying on its ballooning ranks of charter school parents and supporters to apply pressure on lawmakers who voice support for laws considered a threat to charters.

“We’re spending more and more money, we have a stronger lobbying effort than ever before and the charter community as a whole is stepping up,” Keigwin said at the session. “And legislators are learning.”

The association’s legislative campaign coincides with steady growth in the charter sector in California over a 25-year period. The charter school association is pushing to enroll a million students in charter schools by 2022, up from the approximately 603,000 currently and 340,000 just eight years ago. There are roughly 1,250 charters in the state, a seven-fold increase since 1998.

Charter schools in California are public schools typically operated by nonprofits that enjoy greater freedoms with staffing and instruction than traditional district-run schools. They enroll about a 10th of the state’s roughly 6.2 million public school students, a share that’s been rising steadily. Most aren’t unionized, and their growth could erode the unions’ membership.

Meanwhile, advocates on behalf of traditional public schools worry about the impact of losing more students and funding as the charters attract more pupils.

“Many school districts see charter schools as a threat to their enrollment and to their well-being, and they calibrate their authorizing (of charter schools) and their other activities accordingly,” said Jed Wallace, the president and CEO of the charter association, which was founded in 2003.

“And so it just contributes to the need for CCSA and others to make sure that charter schools can develop the protection that they need to be able to serve kids effectively,” he said.

Ground game

It’s not just financial heft that’s behind the charter group’s ascendancy. Like the teachers unions that can rely on a massive bank of teacher volunteers to call lawmakers and campaign locally, the charter association is leaning on the volunteerism of its teachers and parents – a growing network tied to the roughly 850 charter schools the association represents. By the end of 2016, the association said it had nearly 280,000 parents, alumni, students, school staff and others – which the charter association dubs “CharterNation” – that it could count on to advocate on its behalf, jumping from 81,000 in 2014.

Sometimes the organization uses a charged tone to rally its members. A session during the association’s March conference was called “Combat Warfare: Legislative Threats to Charter Schools and Building Momentum for Legislative Engagement.”

“In organizing, we look at power as self-interest,” Esmeralda Marcial, a parent organizer for the association, told listeners. “Self-interest drives power, whether that’s an organization advocating for self-interest or we contribute to people who will advocate for our self-interest.”

“And there’s two kinds of powers at play,” Marcial said. “Organize money and organize people.”

The group gets creative with its people organizing.

It has a battalion of charter school leaders who connect with legislators in their districts through its Capitol Advocacy Leaders (CAL) network. Courtney Miller, director of constituent advocacy at the charter school association, told the audience at the organization’s March conference that 86 members of the network have been assigned to develop relationships with 84 lawmakers in the state Legislature. Among other activities, these advocacy leaders are encouraged to give their assigned lawmakers school tours and appear as expert witnesses in legislative hearings.

The association hosted its annual Advocacy Day on Tuesday this week.

Charter school educators and parents assembled outside the Capitol building to rehearse policy talking points before meeting with their respective state representatives. Caity Heim, a spokeswoman for the charter association, said the goal is to have the attendees meet with every lawmaker in the Capitol. Both this year and last year at the Advocacy Day event, association members met with 119 of the 120 lawmakers on the Capitol, she said.

Some advocacy is indirect. Miller told the audience that charter school leaders should invite local lawmakers to their schools for tours because “it puts a really human feeling” on the work that goes on inside charter classrooms. Another speaker at the session recommended inviting lawmakers to give out student achievement awards.

Campaign finance

In past years, the teachers union far outspent the association on campaign contributions.

Not anymore.

Though the union gave nearly $29.5 million in political contributions in 2015 and 2016, most of it supported measures on the November 2016 ballot, and only $4.3 million of that went toward candidates and other committees. Conversely, the charter association spent more than $17 million in those years to help finance the campaigns of 137 local and state candidates, plus an additional $340,000 on various local and state measures.

Three of the 19 Assembly candidates backed by the charter association lost. The association committed more than $3.7 million on behalf of San Jose Democrat Madison Nguyen in her losing effort to join the Assembly.

The teachers union instead focused most of its financial fire power on ballot initiatives, having spent roughly $21 million in 2015 and 2016 to support Proposition 55 – the successful measure that sustained past increases on income taxes to raise funds for schools – and an additional $1.7 million in 2016 on Proposition 58, which largely overrode restrictions on bilingual education in public schools.

The charter school association committed just $4,678 to Proposition 55’s passing in 2016, state records indicate. Charter schools are also major beneficiaries of the revenues generated by Prop. 55’s passage. 

Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the CTA, said that without the union’s hefty support for Proposition 55, “everyone would be hurting, including the charter schools.”

The charter association has also poured millions into the school board races of the Los Angeles Unified School District, hoping to shift the balance of power from pro-union to pro-charter in the district that has the most charters and charter school students in the country. The association expects that a charter-friendly board could pave the way for more charter schools.

The group and its allies had contributed roughly $3.34 million in the Los Angeles district’s March primaries, more than the $2 million from unions. That torrent of cash is continuing in full force as both sides donate to their endorsed candidates ahead of the May 16 general elections.

The impact of the association’s electoral spending is also enhanced by another pro-charter group, EdVoice, which spent more than $11 million on candidates and committees in 2015 and 2016.

The California Teachers Association’s spending priorities are similar to the state’s other major teachers union, the California Federation of Teachers, which contributed $1.2 million toward candidates and committees in those two years.

Showing up at the Capitol 

The charter association is backing four state bills in 2017, the most in its history. Two are still in play this year – one on securing unused school district property for use by charter schools, and another to make it easier for county boards of education and the State Board of Education to approve the opening of charter schools. The group’s two other priority bills, Senate Bill 806 and Assembly Bill 1224, could get voted on before the end of the 2017-18 legislative cycle.

The association is also facing strong headwinds, chief among them legislative action by the California Teachers Association and other groups pushing for restrictions on charter school growth and greater transparency on their finances.

The California Teachers Association is proposing three bills, including SB 808 that critics claim could lead to a sharp drop in charters by allowing only districts to approve petitions to open or renew charters and severely limiting the appeals process for charters whose applications to open are rejected. The charter association argues that the bill would give too much power to school districts wary of charter growth. The bill was tabled by its author after intense lobbying from charter advocates, but is expected to return before the end of the two-year legislative cycle.

While charters have traditionally gotten support from both Republican lawmakers and the last two governors – Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and the current governor, Democrat Jerry Brown  they have in recent years also increased their backing among many Democrats who control the state Legislature.

The charter schools association told its members during the “Combat Warfare” session in Sacramento that the 80-person state Assembly has 46 charter school supporters and another “11 cultivatables” – lawmakers who could be persuaded to vote in the association’s interest. The Senate, with 40 members, has 17 charter school supporters and eight “cultivatables,” according to a PowerPoint the association showed at the session. This legislative support is nearly double what the group counted back in 2012, according to its own tallies.

But the organization doesn’t count on supporters to vote their way all of the time.

“We don’t think of our supporters (in the Legislature) as folks who will simply do and say anything and everything we want,” said the association’s Marquez. “We’re not looking to elect ideologues.”

To be sure, California has been an early supporter of charter schools, becoming the second state to permit these schools to exist back in 1992. Since then, the Legislature passed additional bills that both benefited and challenged charters.

And while in past years the association partnered with Republicans to craft legislation, this year’s slate of sponsored bills was drafted entirely by Democrats. “That’s a big change for us,” Rand Martin, a lobbyist for the charter school association, told the March conference.

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  1. T. Myers 7 months ago7 months ago

    Betsy DeVos is trying to use unregulated charter schools to fund corrupt businesses and extremist causes. In Michigan, DeVos funded efforts to refuse to let standards in testing academic achievement be used to curtail any charter school. If a charter school corporation failed to educate students, then they could continue to open more charter schools throughout the state. These unregulated charter schools are just a way to steal our tax dollars.

  2. Mohammad Mordecai 7 months ago7 months ago

    Karl: Charters and public schools are publicly funded government schools but publicly funded charters are different from public schools because they are "privately" managed. California charter schools don't have to feed their hungry students for example but public schools in California are mandated by government regulation to participate in the Federal program that provides eligible students school free or reduced price meals. Charters are in competition with public schools for public education … Read More

    Karl: Charters and public schools are publicly funded government schools but publicly funded charters are different from public schools because they are “privately” managed. California charter schools don’t have to feed their hungry students for example but public schools in California are mandated by government regulation to participate in the Federal program that provides eligible students school free or reduced price meals.

    Charters are in competition with public schools for public education dollars and they grow by taking enrollment and public education funding from public schools by lobbyist in Washington and Sacramento.

    But, most of the victories of charters in accessing funding of public schools is accomplished by stealth, by California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) threatening to politically defeat politicians with their dark money if they don’t vote in their interest.

    In Oakland, the charter friendly Oakland School Board that had been elected by CCSA Super PAC dark money, put on the ballot and got passed two parcel tax measures that kept from the public any mention that parcel tax money would fund charter schools in the Board’s 74 word ballot statement that voters read in the voting booth. Voters would have to have had read the county’s voter guide’s full text of the these measures to learn that charters would be funded.

    Voters of California never have gotten a chance to vote for or against charter schools as charter advocates like it that way and keep trying to say that it is about “choice” and not the special interest political might of the charter school lobby that is growing charters.

    Until voters of California can vote up or down charters, California voters have no “choice.” They are politically helpless, just like the families and workers in privatized publicly funded charter schools that check their constitutional rights at the charter school room door and have no legal standing with a charter’s private management.

    The claim that charters are public school is as misleading as the claim that their growth is about family choice.

    Choice is the last thing charter schools want for the voters of California.

  3. CarolineSF 7 months ago7 months ago

    In response to Karl -- charter schools are privately run, minimally overseen by toothless overseers, and unaccountable but run with public money. It's questionable whether to refer to them as public. I choose not to because I don't view them as public. I oppose charter schools because they harm public schools, the children in those public schools and the institution of public education. I don't care in the slightest what district staff think. As for the … Read More

    In response to Karl — charter schools are privately run, minimally overseen by toothless overseers, and unaccountable but run with public money. It’s questionable whether to refer to them as public. I choose not to because I don’t view them as public.

    I oppose charter schools because they harm public schools, the children in those public schools and the institution of public education. I don’t care in the slightest what district staff think. As for the notion that if the parents in the charters like them, no one has a right to complain — no, that’s wrong (and immoral). If the parents in the charters like them while they harm public schools, the students in public schools and the institution of public education, the greater good is what’s important.

  4. Eileen Skone-Rees 7 months ago7 months ago

    I believe some of the animosity towards charters by school districts could be alleviated if charter teachers and the charters were required to contribute to CalSTRS. Pension issues will become an ever-increasing problem for young charter teachers when they realize that their pay is low now and pension plans are not as secure and portable as they might wish.

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  5. Wayne Steffen 7 months ago7 months ago

    So this is a story about how everyone is spending money on government influence. Looks like the CTA still spends more, just in different places. Of course both sides have the kids at heart … right?

    Replies

    • mike 7 months ago7 months ago

      It would be nice to get both sides in real dialogue with each other, instead of polarizing politics.

  6. Sonja 7 months ago7 months ago

    Parents and children don't stand a chance against the money-machine that is CCSA. What everyone seems to miss is the fact that their CEO is thrilled about the appointment of Betsy DeVos, probably the least qualified Ed Secretary ever. http://www.ccsa.org/blog/2016/11/charter-schools-have-contributed-significantly.html Their agenda is take-over of our public buildings, property. The children are an afterthought. Oh, and those moderate/severely disabled, English language learners, foster and homeless youth? Nah, we don't want … Read More

    Parents and children don’t stand a chance against the money-machine that is CCSA. What everyone seems to miss is the fact that their CEO is thrilled about the appointment of Betsy DeVos, probably the least qualified Ed Secretary ever. http://www.ccsa.org/blog/2016/11/charter-schools-have-contributed-significantly.html

    Their agenda is take-over of our public buildings, property. The children are an afterthought. Oh, and those moderate/severely disabled, English language learners, foster and homeless youth? Nah, we don’t want them – too expensive to teach. But, hey! We’ll take those “easy” kids and the funding attached to each (including special education) to use as we please in a block grant. Oh, and we don’t need laws requiring more accountability. We don’t want you to discover that those “Best Practices” we were supposed to be creating and sharing don’t really exist. It is illegal for regular public schools to practice discriminatory “exclusive” enrollment to only have those students (and the involved parents) we want.

    The CCSA and their astro-turf Parent Teacher Alliance (created to confuse folks into thinking they’re the 100-plus year old Parent Teacher Association that believes in “Every Child – One Voice”) are ruining public education for those they leave behind. Starving schools that only have the most needy and difficult to teach, combined with awful “teach to the test” grading that judges a school by test scores and teachers instead of by each student’s improvement is so wrong. The system has been created (with many charter supporters/lobbyists) to benefit a select few, destroying communities and causing dissent in neighborhoods.

    If our schools had proper funding and our teachers and admins proper training, this “choice” business would be a moot point. “Choice” was created by corporate reformers who were looking for new and innovative ways to steal public money, not so much “help” children. Starving public schools of funding so they become poor “performers” (What do corporate reformers think education is, Dancing with the Stars?) and then turned over for charter take-over is not how you keep neighborhoods healthy and families involved. By leaving behind the most vulnerable and most difficult to teach, charters place regular public schools in a position to have these difficulties. The 2008 recession started the downward spiral and John Deasy’s appointment to LAUSD’s superintendent continued it. I still remember seeing on Eli Broad’s “Broad Academy” website long ago (before they realized it was being viewed by the general public) there was a “toolkit” called “How to Close a School and Reconvert it to a Charter.” It is a deliberate plan to dismantle public education. I’ve been saying it for years. And charters have no interest in ALL children as regular public schools do.

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    • Sandra 7 months ago7 months ago

      Thanks, Sonja, for demonstrating how supporters of the teachers unions support "choice" (i.e., democratic freedom) in pretty much every aspect of society except the one over which they used to yield exclusive control. While many traditional public school teachers have long had amazing hearts of commitment to kids and their academic opportunities, this has never been true of the teachers unions. They are only interested in collecting their forced union dues from … Read More

      Thanks, Sonja, for demonstrating how supporters of the teachers unions support “choice” (i.e., democratic freedom) in pretty much every aspect of society except the one over which they used to yield exclusive control.

      While many traditional public school teachers have long had amazing hearts of commitment to kids and their academic opportunities, this has never been true of the teachers unions. They are only interested in collecting their forced union dues from these dedicated, hard-working teachers to further enrich their overpaid bosses, to elect their favored politicians and promote their political agenda.

      Of course the unions hate charter schools. Charter schools infringe on their monopolistic control and give teachers an option not to have a portion of their paycheck stolen for uses they do not support, and they also allow families a choice about how and where to educate their children. How outrageous! Before you know it, people will start thinking for themselves, too!

    • Don 7 months ago7 months ago

      Given your laundry list of charter villainy and transgressions, I wonder why the sector is growing leaps and bounds? According to you, Sonja, they are creaming off the best students who are somehow blind to the scam perpetrated upon them by a industry that doesn’t give a damn about kids.

  7. CarolineSF 7 months ago7 months ago

    Thanks for doing this story -- it's a useful guide to the "follow the money" landscape. It's a fact that charter schools harm public schools by draining away resources (in a situation where expenses for public schools aren't reduced). That's the looming background that needs to be made explicit rather than described in a "some say" manner. Charter schools hurt the children in public schools. Charter schools are notorious for requiring their teachers to "volunteer" and … Read More

    Thanks for doing this story — it’s a useful guide to the “follow the money” landscape.

    It’s a fact that charter schools harm public schools by draining away resources (in a situation where expenses for public schools aren’t reduced). That’s the looming background that needs to be made explicit rather than described in a “some say” manner. Charter schools hurt the children in public schools.

    Charter schools are notorious for requiring their teachers to “volunteer” and for imposing required work hours on their parents. The ACLU and Public Advocates did a report on the illegal mandatory parent work hours at many charters, but they were only able to target the charter schools that were unsophisticated enough to post the illegal requirement on their websites. In the real world, many/most charter schools impose these requirements. So, many of those parent “volunteers” are working off their illegally required work hours. Otherwise, you really won’t find true grassroots support for the charter sector or the greater education “reform” sector — not that they need it, with the billionaire money behind their operations. Some charters are notorious for shutting down school for a day to bus parents and children to this or that legislative event/demonstration, in their matching T-shirts and bearing their professionally made signs, with attendance required, though I haven’t specifically heard of that in California charters. The controversial Success Academy charter chain is flamboyant about doing it, for one. It would be surprising if no California charters were doing the same thing, though.

    Also, an evenhanded description would not be charters vs. teachers’ unions but charters vs. public schools.

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    • Karl 7 months ago7 months ago

      California charter schools are public schools. What you evidently dislike is public dollars being drained from a public school district and allocated to a public charter school, even if that’s what parents and students want (since they must choose to switch to a charter).

      Are you upset because the students and parents are unhappy, or because the district staff is unhappy there are alternatives available to families?

    • Don 7 months ago7 months ago

      Any school that successfully competes for students will impact the loser, Caroline, be it an alternative public school, a magnet, a charter or even a private school. This overused criticism is a canard. People want to have choices, and you have advocated for choice in San Francisco. Just not if the choice includes charters. But your other choices like Lowell and SOTA, the San Francisco School of the Arts, have the same effect upon the … Read More

      Any school that successfully competes for students will impact the loser, Caroline, be it an alternative public school, a magnet, a charter or even a private school. This overused criticism is a canard. People want to have choices, and you have advocated for choice in San Francisco. Just not if the choice includes charters. But your other choices like Lowell and SOTA, the San Francisco School of the Arts, have the same effect upon the rest. So let’s stop pretending it is a charter thing.

    • CarolineSF 7 months ago7 months ago

      Sorry, I posted a response to Karl above, where he may not see it, so here it is as a reply: In response to Karl — charter schools are privately run, minimally overseen by toothless overseers, and unaccountable but run with public money. It’s questionable whether to refer to them as public. I choose not to because I don’t view them as public. I oppose charter schools because they harm public schools, the children in those public … Read More

      Sorry, I posted a response to Karl above, where he may not see it, so here it is as a reply:
      In response to Karl — charter schools are privately run, minimally overseen by toothless overseers, and unaccountable but run with public money. It’s questionable whether to refer to them as public. I choose not to because I don’t view them as public.

      I oppose charter schools because they harm public schools, the children in those public schools and the institution of public education. I don’t care in the slightest what district staff think. As for the notion that if the parents in the charters like them, no one has a right to complain — no, that’s wrong (and immoral). If the parents in the charters like them while they harm public schools, the students in public schools and the institution of public education, the greater good is what’s important.

      Repeating myself a bit to respond to Don: I oppose charters because they drain funds away from district schools, thus harming the students in those schools; because they’re undemocratic; because they’re coated with Teflon and thus impossible to oversee and entirely unaccountable; because they are routinely shoved into districts and “co-located” in existing schools against the will of the district and school community; and because the charter sector has waged ongoing legal and propaganda wars against public schools for years. Well, among other things. While magnet schools like Lowell and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts do drain particular types of talent from other schools, they don’t inflict that kind of harm on school districts, public schools and the students in those schools.

      I’m not a full-throated supporter of SFUSD’s choice system. Here’s commentary I recently wrote to clarify that system, posted on Beth Weise’s blog.

      http://elizabethweise.com/2017/05/07/myths-and-facts-about-sfusds-assignment-process/

      • Don 7 months ago7 months ago

        I wasn't referring to choice as it is known in SFUSD with its unique school assignment system. I was thinking of choice as in different types of schools, not just schools in different parts of town. Caroline, when you say coated with Teflon you are not providing much info. As a family with a student who attended a charter but no longer does, I can speak firsthand. I don't disagree with many of your depictions. … Read More

        I wasn’t referring to choice as it is known in SFUSD with its unique school assignment system. I was thinking of choice as in different types of schools, not just schools in different parts of town. Caroline, when you say coated with Teflon you are not providing much info. As a family with a student who attended a charter but no longer does, I can speak firsthand. I don’t disagree with many of your depictions. I disagree with the broad brush you use to paint them. It is categorically untrue that schools like Lowell and SOTA in SF do not drain away funds from other schools. Every other other school is significantly smaller and academically weaker because of these schools, especially Lowell given its size.

        When you say, “while magnet schools like Lowell and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts do drain particular types of talent from other schools, they don’t inflict that kind of harm on school districts, public schools and the students in those schools.” Really? That talent you refer to inhabits a body of a student. You haven’t made a very convincing case that the traditional public schools don’t exact the same kinds of damage as charters. Again, I contend you don’t mind competition as long as it is not in the form of a charter, even if the result is the same.