California’s Surprising Primary: 6 Ways This Year’s Races for Governor & Superintendent Resurfaced a North-South Divide in Education Politics

June 6 Update: Gavin Newsom & John Cox will advance to a blue-red contest in November’s general election for governor; Marshall Tuck & Tony Thurmond finish one and two for state superintendent. Read more about the results, the demographics, and the reactions in this Wednesday morning dispatch

In a state as sprawling and diverse as California, most political contests for the top seats in Sacramento can be viewed through the lens of distinct regional concerns and constituencies.

For education observers, Tuesday’s two key races feature candidates vying to be California’s next governor and superintendent of public instruction. And, true to past geographical trends, the state’s north-south divide is on full display, with issues of union politics, district reforms, and classroom equity dividing voters from both parties.

Leading Democratic candidates from Southern California have been sympathetic to charter schools and efforts to reform teacher protections like seniority rights and the time it takes teachers to earn permanent status.

Candidates from Northern California, meanwhile, are generally aligned with the teachers unions attempting to hit the pause button on charter school expansion.

Because only the top two candidates move on to the runoff, the primary could be the most significant political contest this year — either setting the stage for a November shoot-out or representing a likely foregone conclusion about who will replace Gov. Jerry Brown. Whoever emerges from each race will have the ability to impact students and school priorities for years to come.

So far, most of the energy — and money — in the race for governor has surrounded the top two Democratic candidates: front-runner Gavin Newsom, who is California’s current lieutenant governor and former mayor of San Francisco, and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Newsom is looking to join a long line of influential politicians who’ve come from Northern California — Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris among them — and has enjoyed a commanding lead in every poll so far. Villaraigosa is vying for second place against four other candidates: State Treasurer John Chiang and former state school superintendent Delaine Eastin, both Democrats, and San Diego businessman John Cox and Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen, both Republicans.

While support for Cox has surged in recent polls — even before two presidential tweets of support for the Republican candidate — the most competitive governor’s race in left-leaning California would very likely be a runoff between two Democratic candidates.

“If a Republican makes the runoff for governor, or if either candidate for state superintendent wins outright in June, it’s going to be a very different race. And there will certainly be less of a focus on children and education leading up to the November election,” said Ted Lempert, president of children’s advocacy organization Children Now.

As Brown proved with his Local Control Funding Formula, a landmark law that meant increased money for school districts with high percentages of disadvantaged students and more discretion over how to spend it, the governor wields great power over school districts across the state.

In addition to his budget-setting authority, the governor appoints members to the state Board of Education and can use the veto pen to shoot down bills — an ability Brown exercised fairly often, particularly as it related to legislation charter school advocates viewed as a threat. If the next governor signs more bills that cross his or her desk from the union-backed legislative majority, it could sway education policies statewide.

Not to be overlooked is the race to become the most important education officer in the state — superintendent of public instruction — who manages the Department of Education, allocates resources to school districts, and sits on the state Board of Education.

Jousting for the nonpartisan position are Democratic candidates Tony Thurmond, an East Bay assemblyman backed by the California Teachers Association, and Marshall Tuck, who ran both charter and district schools in Los Angeles and has support from the California Charter Schools Association. Two other candidates, both from Southern California, round out the ticket.

While the two Republican candidates for governor have been largely silent on education issues, leading Democratic candidates from Southern California fit comfortably within education reform circles. Villaraigosa and Tuck worked together to reform schools during the former’s term as mayor and embraced charter schools in Los Angeles Unified.

Newsom and Thurmond, on the other hand, both from Northern California, have each been endorsed by the California Teachers Association and have generally aligned with union talking points.

A recent poll from Emerson College highlights regional distinctions among the candidates’ support. Newsom has a commanding lead in the Bay Area, with an estimated 42 percent of the vote. Villaraigosa has strong support in Los Angeles, with the support of 19 percent of voters, but can’t crack double digits north of Fresno.

Polling isn’t the only place where regional dynamics come into play. The divide between Northern and Southern California also shows when it comes to demographics, charter school students, and the candidates themselves.

Here are six ways the primary elections in California reveal the state’s north-south divide when it comes to education:

1 More voters in the South — but more reliable turnout in the North

The majority of voters reside in SoCal, but NorCal voters have historically done a better job hitting the polls to get their candidates elected.

By this measure, Newsom is all but a lock for the runoff and Thurmond could see a big boost from reliable Bay Area voters if name recognition leads to hometown support.

The trends correspond to voting patterns. If California were halved based on voters’ geography, the midline would run through Glendale in Los Angeles County, said political consultant Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. However, 53 percent of Bay Area voters turned out for the 2016 primary, compared with Los Angeles County’s 40 percent.

One big X factor is the 39 percent of voters who remained undecided as of late May, according to an LA Times/USC poll. For Villaraigosa to edge out Cox, he’ll have to sway a good chunk of undecided voters — and fast.

2 Could the ‘charter school vote’ be a force in the South?

Just three Southern California counties — Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego — have more students in charter schools than the rest of the state combined.

Fittingly, both Tuck and Villaraigosa, the two school-reform candidates in the primary, emerge from Los Angeles.

Both races so far have been treated as a kind of proxy battle between charter schools and the teachers unions that want to beat them back. Charter school advocates have thrown a heap of cash behind Villaraigosa and Tuck, while CTA has drawn heavily from union coffers to support Newsom and Thurmond.

As of June 4, Newsom had outraised Villaraigosa $35.9 million to $34.5 million, according to campaign donations published by the Los Angeles Times and data obtained by LA School Report. Newsom’s biggest donations came from the California Teachers Association and Blue Shield of California, at about $1 million each; Villaraigosa’s largest supporter is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, a former teacher who has spent more than $7 million in supporting both Villaraigosa and Tuck.

Read more from Mike Antonucci at LA School Report: California school unions are ramping up campaign spending

Los Angeles Unified is home to more charter schools than any other school district in the country, with 241 charter schools educating 25 percent of the district’s students in 2016–17, according to numbers from CCSA.

In San Francisco Unified, for comparison, just over 12 percent of students attended charter schools the same year. Fourteen percent of students opted for charter schools in Richmond’s West Contra Costa Unified, where Thurmond was a school board member.

Villaraigosa embraced charter schools during his time as mayor and backed reform-minded candidates in their runs for school board. He hired Tuck as CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a school model focused on turning around the district’s lowest-scoring schools. Both are endorsed by California Charter Schools Association Advocates, CCSA’s political arm.

Because money follows students in California, when children leave district schools for charter schools, the money goes with them. District officials and teachers unions charge that charter schools siphon money and resources from school districts. The California Teachers Association argues that school boards should have the ability to deny charter schools the right to open if doing so would impact the district financially — a justification school boards cannot use to deny charters under current state law.

Although Newsom hasn’t exactly expressed hostility toward charter schools, he told EdSource he believes school boards should be able to consider the financial impact a charter school would have on school districts when deciding whether to let them open — the financial impact should “be a consideration, not a deciding factor,” he said — a position CCSA strongly opposes.

If Newsom is elected, his comments signal he would likely sign such legislation if — more likely when — it comes to his desk. Thurmond essentially argues the same, telling EdSource that charter schools should have to compensate districts for the financial loss they’d suffer if a charter school were to open.

On his action plan for superintendent of public instruction, Thurmond says the state is in the midst of an “accountability crisis” when it comes to charter schools, and he has pledged to root out charter school fraud and increase transparency.

3 Will Latinos turn out in the South — and can Villaraigosa count on them?

Similar to patterns for all California voters, more Latinos live in Southern California, but those living in the north tend to get out the vote more reliably.

Latino parents who care about charter schools, however, could make a difference: Data from CCSA show that for major cities in California — San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Francisco, and Oakland — Latino students make up the majority of students attending their schools. For Villaraigosa to secure a place in the runoff, he’ll need to turn out Latino voters, who polling shows make up his strongest base of support.

Registration in Los Angeles is 30 percent Latino, according to Mitchell, and represents 37 percent of the state’s Latinos. The Bay Area, on the other hand, is only 11 percent Latino.

Latino turnout is generally low, though it’s been rising in recent years. In the 2016 primary, Latino turnout in Los Angeles came in at 38 percent, while 45 percent of registered Latino voters turned out in the Bay Area.

For Villaraigosa to improve his odds, he’ll have to energize the population that should be his strongest base of support: Los Angeles Latinos.

Mike Trujillo, a Los Angeles native and political consultant who has worked for Villaraigosa, is optimistic the former L.A. mayor can pull off an upset.

“In politics, you have a favorite-son thing happening. Latinos in California, they’ve never seen a governor who looks like them, who has an awkward sounding name that nobody can pronounce, who will fight for them on the issues they care most about,” Trujillo said.

But Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of communications for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said the Latino connection alone is not enough.

“The community is very smart. The Latino community is not monolithic in any way. They know that a last name and a face that looks good on TV is not sufficient proof that someone is the best leader for the state,” Cabrera said.

All of this comes with two big caveats. The Latino vote makes up roughly 23 percent of registered voters in California, which may not be enough to carry Villaraigosa even if he does land a large chunk of their support.

And though having candidates of color on the ticket could motivate minorities to turn out in greater numbers, the numbers could very likely be offset by greater turnout of polarized white voters, as has happened historically. Those votes would likely go to Republicans Cox or Allen — neither of whom have offered many ideas on education.

4 Unique North-South legacies for hometown candidates

Polling shows the Bay Area to be Newsom’s strongest base, while Los Angeles is home to Villaraigosa’s core supporters. And because name recognition carries weight in down-ticket races, familiarity could very well boost Thurmond’s numbers in the Bay Area and bolster Tuck’s in L.A.

Both Villaraigosa and Newsom have left legacies in their hometowns tied to their performance as mayor that could work for or against the candidates.

Compared to Newsom, Villaraigosa was especially hands-on when it came to education, at one point attempting to gain control of the school district. He ushered in reform-minded candidates to the school board, setting the table for an LA Unified school board whose majority is today backed by charter school advocates.

School reform advocates credit Villaraigosa for boosting Los Angeles Unified’s graduation rates and for gains made at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, though by the time he left office in 2013, test scores for at least half the Partnership’s schools were still far below the state average.

Overall, the 18 Partnership schools aren’t outperforming the district as a whole, but they are posting faster growth, according to a study this year. The schools were LAUSD’s worst performers when the Partnership took them on and are in the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles — Boyle Heights, Watts, and South Los Angeles. They have higher percentages of students of color, students with special needs, and English learners than the district, and 95 percent come from poor families.

Ninety-five percent of Partnership schools increased their statewide percentile in English language arts last year, and nearly 90 percent improved in math, the study from Public Impact found. And their high schools have increased graduation rates at a faster pace than the district.

Newsom is recognized favorably for his early support of same-sex marriage, green initiatives, and universal health care during his time as mayor. There’s less to say, however, about Newsom’s direct involvement with public schools.

Hard to ignore, too, is the fact that San Francisco is home to the state’s widest achievement gap between black and white students.

As a gubernatorial candidate, he’s supported increased investment in early education and expanding STEM opportunities, but the thrust of his solutions don’t go much deeper than stating the need to send more money to school districts. In a new Los Angeles Times examination of the two former mayors’ track records, the only education-related accomplished cited by Newsom’s supporters is universal preschool in San Francisco.

And it’s issues like the achievement gap, which exist in every school district across the state, that Ryan Smith, executive director of Ed Trust–West, said public officials truly need to prioritize — regardless of who emerges from the elections.

“The narrative around charter schools and labor tends to be outsize and takes up a lot of oxygen in this discussion,” Smith said.

“Really, we should be focused on closing achievement gaps and gaps in opportunities. We should be talking about school finance, as well as how our pension system threatens the support of students. We should be talking about implementation of the state’s new content standards and how we can support the needs of undocumented students at a time when they’re being threatened in communities. These are huge issues that have been drowned out by all the political noise.”

5 Endorsements are falling along regional lines mostly

In the race for governor, endorsements from papers of record have also fallen along regional lines, with major newspapers in the north — including the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee — endorsing Newsom, and both the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune going for Villaraigosa.

Influential politicians have also weighed in. Assemblymember Shirley Weber, D–San Diego — who’s been an outspoken champion of efforts to reform schools — and Mónica García, president of LA Unified’s school board, have each backed Villaraigosa.

Oakland native Sen. Kamala Harris, meanwhile, has endorsed her longtime NorCal ally Newsom.

Gubernatorial endorsements from major newspapers have generally followed a north-south split, but endorsements for state school superintendent defy the regional divide.

The East Bay Express endorsed Thurmond, while the East Bay Times went for Tuck. The Sacramento Bee named Thurmond the best option, while the San Francisco Chronicle picked Tuck.

Southern California, too, was split, with the LA Times endorsement going to Thurmond and the San Diego Union-Tribune to Tuck.

In other words, while papers of record might give the advantage to gubernatorial candidates most familiar to their readers, endorsements for state superintendents are a wash.

 6 Will the regional charter-labor attacks actually matter to voters?

Charter schools have flourished in economically disadvantaged areas and have proven popular options for students of color not just in Southern California, but in pockets of NorCal too. About 30 percent of Oakland Unified students, for example, opt for charter schools.

Gary Borden, executive director of CCSA Advocates, frames the issue in terms of social justice.

“There’s a civil rights component to this, and that’s reflective of the broader message: In public education, we should be focusing on all kids, but with a special focus on where the need is greatest. And that’s what charter schools do very well,” Borden said.

Families in affluent areas typically have more mobility, he said. If families don’t like their nearest school, they can send their kids to private schools or schools in different neighborhoods. For many low-income families, however, a charter school may be the only alternative to a neighborhood school.

Of course, for any of this to factor into election results, charter school families will have to turn out to vote.

But while the heated debate about charter schools and teachers unions has dominated headlines, mailboxes, and airwaves, the degree to which parents actually care about the conversation is an open question.

“There’s about 10 people in California who care about the education reform versus labor debate. And five of them are from charter schools and the other five are from the teachers union,” Trujillo said.

“Moms and dads send their kids to charter schools, and half the time they don’t even know it’s a charter school. They just want their kids to have a good education.”

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