California’s largest charter group pushes its agenda with money and people power

May 3, 2017

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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