With 70 days until the June primary election, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Tuesday strongly endorsed former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, while harshly criticizing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the current front-runner in the race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown.
The endorsement did not come as a major surprise, as Newsom has been endorsed by California’s teachers unions, which in recent years have launched a high-profile campaign seeking more transparency in charter school finances and operations.
But what was striking about the endorsement, made by the political and advocacy arm of the charter school association, was the vehemence against Newsom that accompanied it.
In a speech delivered at the Charter School Association’s annual meeting in San Diego, Jed Wallace, the association’s president, said that if elected governor, Newsom would “inflict major harm on our schools and claim to be our friend. ”
Newsom’s campaign, in turn, rejected these attacks as “name-calling and distortion” and that he supported “reputable” and “innovative” nonprofit charter schools.
The CCSA Advocates also endorsed Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of public instruction, as it did four years ago when he ran against incumbent Tom Torlakson.
As the former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school organization, Tuck has close ties to the charter school movement. He was also the CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, when he worked closely with Villaraigosa. It manages 18 public schools in partnership with Los Angeles Unified. Tuck’s main opponent is Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who has been endorsed by the California Teachers Association.
In his speech Tuesday, Jed Wallace, the association’s president, said Newsom had effectively adopted some teachers unions’ positions on charter schools, which includes calling for a moratorium on further expansion in the absence of more oversight. The California Teachers Association, however, says that it has not called for a moratorium on more charter schools in the state.
“This is probably the most hostile, the most threatening position (toward charter schools) that anyone this close to the governorship has ever had,” said Wallace, whom the association said was speaking as a board member of CCSA Advocates. He then praised Villaraigosa, who was in the audience and had spoken earlier, as a “courageous and full-throated supporter and champion for kids and families.”
Wallace described Villaraigosa as “a man who along the way come to realize that powerful interests have aligned to support policies that are not in the best interests of kids — and had the courage to stand up.”
Polls show Newsom’s lead over Villaraigosa and five other rivals in the race for the state’s highest office ranging from two to 14 points.
Twenty five years ago, California became the second state in the nation to pass a law allowing charter schools. Currently, about 1 in 10 California students attend the state’s nearly 1,300 charter schools.
But issues surrounding charter schools have become particularly contentious at the ballot box in recent years as candidates supported by wealthy charter school advocates have increasingly squared off against those backed by teachers’ unions in local and state elections.
Nowhere has the battle been more pitched than in Los Angeles Unified, where candidates funded by wealthy pro-charter advocates like billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Netflix founder Reed Hastings won a majority of school board seats in the 2017 board election. All told, over $17 million was spent on three school board races, in what is thought to be the most ever spent on a school board contest in the United States.
Similarly, four years ago, about $30 millions poured into the race for superintendent of public instruction when Torlakson faced Tuck, which became a proxy fight over charter schools. The combined spending by charter school advocates and teachers unions far exceeded the total amount spent on the gubernatorial campaign when Gov. Brown was running for re-election.
Among those defeated in last year’s election was L.A. Unified’s union-backed board president Steve Zimmer. The charter school association spent heavily to defeat Zimmer in his race against Nick Melvoin, whom the association, along with Villaraigosa, endorsed.
In his speech, Wallace said California’s charter school movement from its inception has enjoyed the support of governors, from Republican Pete Wilson to Brown, a Democrat. But Newsom, like Zimmer, had been friendly to charters until he got the endorsement of teachers unions and other “defenders of bureaucracies,” he said.
“In my view, what Steve Zimmer did [in Los Angeles] is what Gavin Newsom wants to see happen across the state — to inflict major harm on our schools and claim to be our friend,” Wallace said. “We have no choice but to deal with Newsom in the same way that we dealt with Zimmer.”
Wallace called on the parents of the 630,000 students in charter schools to get active in the campaign, including making what he called CPK — a “call per kid” to help get out the vote on Villaraigosa’s behalf.
Addisu Demissie, Newsom’s campaign manager, vehemently rejected the charter school association’s critique.
“It’s disappointing to see a representative of CCSA stoop to this kind of name-calling and distortion,” he said. “While CCSA’s endorsed candidate Antonio Villaraigosa literally declared a ‘holy jihad’ against teachers, Gavin Newsom has been a career-long supporter of public educators and public education — including reputable, innovative, nonprofit public charter schools. That won’t change in a Newsom administration.”
Demissie went on to say that “ensuring transparency standards for all schools that receive taxpayer dollars and basic oversight for privately operated charter schools should be policies the entire education community and all Californians can get behind — not a reason to launch political attacks.”
The “holy jihad” term was apparently a reference to a comment Villaraigosa made in 2005 when he was still mayor to the LA Times editorial board. At the time, he was reported as saying that it would take a “holy jihad” against teachers unions to win mayoral control of schools, which Villaraigosa unsuccessfully fought for at the time.
On Tuesday, Villaraigosa, who spoke before Wallace at the convention, talked about the importance of public schools in his upbringing in tough L.A. neighborhoods. He pointed to dramatically increased graduation rates in Los Angeles schools during his tenure as mayor. He also made it clear that although he was accepting the charter association’s endorsement, he isn’t anti-union and doesn’t put charter schools above traditional schools.
“I believe in unions….I’m for great schools, whether they are charter or traditional,” he said. “But we are living at a time when somehow you are anti-union because you stand up and say ‘Hey, I want to put the kids first.’”
Villaraigosa was actually an organizer for several years with the United Teachers of Los Angeles, and later was a consultant for the CTA itself. But in recent years he has become one of the most acerbic critics of teachers unions, clashing frequently with them when he was mayor and subsequently. He even backed the highly controversial Vergara lawsuit that charged that the current system of awarding tenure to teachers is unconstitutional.
In the race for superintendent for public instruction, Thurmond’s campaign complained that he and another candidate, Lily Ploski, weren’t invited to make their case before the charter association.
“It shows that the CCSA has no interest in working with Tony Thurmond or Lily Ploski, or they would have given them an opportunity to earn their support,” said Madeline Franklin, Thurmond’s campaign manager.
Update: This story was updated at 5 p.m. on March 28 to reflect that the endorsements of Villaraigosa and Tuck were made by the California Charter School Association’s political and advocacy arm, CCSA Advocates, a 501(c)(4) organization, and to clarify that the CTA has not called for a moratorium on charter school expansion.