State charter group takes off the gloves in battle with CTA

State charter group takes off the gloves in battle with CTA

(Calif.) Wealthy supporters of charter schools have never been slow to put up big dollars backing candidates or ballot measures they believe will help the movement. But the state’s umbrella organization–the California Charter School Association–has traditionally been far more circumspect when it came to picking fights.

That may be changing.

In radio ads running in Northern California markets, CCSA is taking aim at its most powerful adversary–the California Teachers Association. Meanwhile, CCSA has also raised $4.5 million just since January, using $750,000 to aggressively back candidates for Los Angeles Unified school board and city council in Huntington Park.

Although officials at CCSA point out that they have been active in political campaigns in the past, they also acknowledge a new willingness to take on their biggest rivals using more confrontational tactics.

“We’ve transition from a service oriented organization in our early years into an advocacy organization,” said Richard Garcia, director of CCSA’s election communications. “For years CTA has commanded the political landscape of education in California going unchallenged as they hand selected candidates to represent their interests while bypassing the needs of California’s public school students and their parents.” 

Established in 2003–11 years after the first charter school opened in California–the CCSA boasts an annual budget of nearly $25 million, and membership of about 70 percent of the state’s 1,245 charter schools.

For much of its existence, CCSA’s most visible political work has been limited to the hallways and hearing rooms of the Capitol. Confident in the support of the last two governors, CCSA has also been effective both in disarming legislation they consider damaging and in winning more state dollars.

High profile political confrontations were typically left to other organizations–most notably EdVoice, whose patrons have included Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, investment banker John Doerr and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

That began to change in the November 2012 election when CCSA spent about $150,000 backing a ballot measure in San Diego and the statewide tax hike, Proposition 30. It was last spring, however, when CCSA helped spearhead campaign spending of close to $9 million in 12 legislative races across the state. They followed that up with another $9 million spent in last November’s election.

It is important to note that a lot of the money raised and spent in 2016 came from some of the same sources that have supported EdVoice in the past. And indeed, most of the $4.5 million CCSA received since January came from a handful of well-known donors including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Jim Walton, a scion of Walmart founder Sam Walton; as well as Hastings and Riordan.

It is also significant that CCSA has used the money effectively–something that has not gone unnoticed.

“When you survey the landscape from November, the charter school community feels like they did pretty well,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant based in Sacramento who worked with former state school chief Delaine Eastin’s campaign for governor.

“What is still to be determined is what that means in terms of moving a legislative agenda,” Acosta said.

It is against that backdrop that CCSA felt compelled to begin its direct assault on CTA last month.

At issue were radio ads that CTA first started running last summer that accused charter supporters of wanting to privatize public schools in hopes of generating profits. Titled ‘Kids not Profits,’ the campaign repeated charges made in the past and barely registered among the mainstream press.

But apparently, CCSA had enough and when CTA re-launched their campaign in February. The charter schools pushed back with their own set of ads they called ‘Dedicated to Students, not the Status Quo.’ Its theme was that CTA was engaging in “smear” tactics and using “alternative facts,” in hopes of dissuading parents from transferring their students from traditional public schools to charters.

Garcia said the ads are CCSA simply defending their members.

“After years of being negatively hit with what I call, big stick politics ads – whether it is CTA or (United Teachers of Los Angeles) – they are demeaning parents who are looking for different types of schools by providing misleading narratives,” he said. “So when they attack us, they are attacking more than 500,000 public education students attending California charter public schools and their parents.”

CTA did not respond to an invitation to participate in this report.

Acosta said he is interested to see the role charter groups will play in the upcoming governor’s race.

“I think there’s a sense that the charter school people will want to make a splash in the governor’s race,” he said, noting that many key donors have already given the maximum to former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

He also noted that in the recent elections for state superintendent of schools, charter candidates have lost to those backed by the teachers unions. “So the question is can they get past the CTA-backed candidate, and what does that look like for the governor’s race–who knows?”