Updated June 7; this article was produced in partnership with LA School Report.
(Los Angeles) — A deep rift in the Democratic Party over education policy came into sharp relief in the months leading up to today's primary elections in California, as a record $28 million has been spent by outside groups on state races, one-third coming from groups supporting charter schools.
On one side, traditional Democratic players, including the California Teachers Association, are aligning themselves with candidates who have committed to protecting and bolstering the current system. On the other, new players are promoting charter schools, greater accountability for performance and less stringent job protections.
California’s move to a top-two primary system five years ago, in which the candidates who receive the most votes advance to the general election regardless of their party, set the stage for this Democrat-on-Democrat battle.
The latest example in Southern California is playing out in an open state Assembly district seat in Glendale, Burbank, La Canada Flintridge and parts of Los Angeles where an independent expenditure committee supporting charter schools has spent more than $1.2 million to back a Democratic candidate, flooding voters’ mailboxes over the past eight weeks with attack ads on a fellow Democrat supported by teachers unions.
“It’s nice to see that there’s an alternative financial base,” said Marshall Tuck, who ran for state superintendent in 2014 and is no stranger to this rift. “At a minimum having highly competitive races where people can communicate different options to the public … leads to a better solution for kids.”
Tuck ran for state superintendent in 2014 against incumbent Tom Torlakson, a fellow Democrat. The race was the most expensive
on the statewide ballot, topping $30 million and far outstripping previous races for superintendent. It was more expensive than the gubernatorial race that year.
While the CTA and other unions backed Torlakson, who is a former teacher, philanthropists and advocates who support school choice supported Tuck and poured millions into his campaign.
“I think it’s good that Democrats that do want to change our public schools and do believe that we need to shake things up and aren’t necessarily going to have a stake in the status quo” run for office and there are people willing to invest in them, he said.
Historically, he said it’s been very difficult for someone who wants to reform education policy to get elected because the “establishment” candidates have received all of the financial support.
Tuck said he thinks three things caused the change: the decision by voters in 2010 to switch to a top-two primary system, which took effect the next year; people who previously only donated to non-profits that supported education reform are now willing to give to political candidates and causes; and because of the top-two primary system, more Democrats are willing to run without the support of the status quo.
Groups supporting charter schools have been a major donor to legislative races statewide.
State campaign finance records show that about one-third of a record $27.9 million spent as of Friday by independent expenditure committees in legislative races statewide has come from three groups supporting charter schools, according to Rob Pyers of California Target Book, which provides a non-partisan analysis of state and congressional races.
In the 43rd Assembly District seat, being vacated by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Burbank, due to term limits, an independent expenditure committee called the Parent Teacher Alliance, sponsored by the California Charter School Association Advocates, has spent $1.2 million as of Friday, state campaign finance records show. Parent Teacher Alliance is not associated
with the well-known Parent Teacher Association.
Records show that donors to the CCSA Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee include Michael Bloomberg, Doris Fisher, Jim Walton and Eli Broad.
Mailer paid for by the Parent Teacher Alliance, sponsored by the California Charter School Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee.
Glendale City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian
has been backed by the California Teachers Association, which is considered among the most powerful lobbyists in Sacramento. Glendale City Councilwoman Laura Friedman
has been endorsed by the California Charter School Association Advocates, the political arm of the CCSA. The union and education reformers have clashed over education policies like teacher tenure and the expansion of charter schools.
The 43rd Assembly District also includes Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Los Feliz and Silver Lake.
Three other Democrats are running for the seat as well as two Republicans and a member of the American Independent Party.
State campaign finance records also show the California Teachers Association’s Independent Expenditure Committee has spent $47,721 on the race: $35,791 on mailers opposing Friedman and $11,930 supporting Kassakhian.
The CCSA committee has spent $910,791 supporting Friedman and $304,355 opposing Kassakhian as of Friday, records show.
“It’s shocking the amount of money that the (CCSA) PAC has put into legislative races this year, in many cases overwhelming what the candidates themselves have raised,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime political consultant who is working for Kassakhian.
Mailer paid for California Teachers Association.
Through their candidate committees, Friedman and Kassakhian have raised $1.3 million combined, records show.
“There are independent expenditures in every tight race in California and it’s been that way for many campaign cycles, but the scale of the (CCSA) investment is very unusual, if not unprecedented,” Kapolczynski said.
Friedman, a former executive in the entertainment industry, has also been endorsed by the California Nurses Association, environmental groups, Emily’s List and the union that represents faculty at Los Angeles community colleges. Friedman has also received incumbent Gatto’s endorsement.
Friedman has also received PAC money totaling $123,355 from Govern for California Action Committee and Planned Parenthood. She did not respond to requests for an interview.
In addition to CTA, Kassakhian has been endorsed by the California Federation of Teachers, UTLA and LA Unified board President Steve Zimmer. Kassakhian has been the elected city clerk in Glendale since 2005. His mother is a longtime teacher in Glendale, and his wife is a school principal.
Kassakhian has also received about $300,000 in outside money from the California Real Estate, California State Council of Service Employees, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO on Political Education.
Kassakhian insisted he is not just the union-supported candidate, as he has received endorsements from the majority of school board members within the district and members of local community college boards of trustees. He said he is calling for more funding at the state level and pointed to the dramatic cuts in public education funding since the Great Recession.
“We need people who understand this, who will make education funding a priority,” he said. “Education is that silver bullet against poverty, against unemployment, against a number of issues that may present challenges.”
The state Democratic Party has not endorsed in the race.
As to the 43rd Assembly District race, Tuck said he hasn’t followed the race closely because he does not live in the district, but he said he thinks Friedman or Andrew Blumenfeld, a fifth-grader teacher and former president of the La Canada Unified School District Board of Education, would make “really good leaders for our kids.”
“I love the fact we have multiple Democrats in this race that actually have some financial resources to communicate” with voters, he said.
Blumenfeld said in an interview he thinks the outside money in the campaign has suppressed a thoughtful conversation about education reform.
He said he is not surprised that special interest groups have taken an interest in the race because it is an open seat.
“I think the volume of money has been surprisingly large,” he said
But he believes that the negative ads will suppress voter turnout.
“I’ll tell you, people are frustrated. They are confused. They don’t follow it all. They are upset,” Blumenfeld said. He said he has heard these sentiments from residents standing on their doorsteps. Blumenfeld, who has raised $187,364 as of Friday, has run a largely grassroots campaign.
He hopes that he will serve as a “refreshing alternative to that noise and nastiness.”
Blumenfeld said he believes people in the district are passionate about education because they appreciate high-performing public schools within the district in Glendale Unified, La Canada Unified and Burbank Unified.
But he said the “nastiness” of the campaign has reduced the debate to the simplest terms: pro-charter vs. anti-charter, pro-teacher vs. anti-teacher, pro-union vs. anti-union.
Blumenfeld works at Crown Preparatory Academy in South Los Angeles, a product of LA Unified’s first use of the “parent trigger
” law, which created a hybrid campus between the district-run 24th Street Elementary and Crown Preparatory Academy, a charter school that runs grades 5 to 8.
He said he has the strongest education credentials of any candidate but did not get backing from either the union or the charter school advocates.
State laws prevent independent expenditure committees from coordinating with candidates they support. They are not subject to the $4,200 individual contribution limits that affect candidate’s campaigns.
Mailers funded by Parent Teacher Alliance targeting Kassakhian accuse him of being “Un-democratic” claiming he has “botched” elections as city clerk and blocked a female school board candidate from appearing on the ballot.
The CTA’s independent expenditure committee sent out a mailer picturing presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump next to Friedman and listed some of the donors to the Parent Teacher Alliance’s committee, which include members of the Walton family, owners of Walmart.
CCSA Advocates Director of Political Affairs Carlos Marquez said the group has chosen to support Friedman because she has a “record of independence” during her two terms on the Glendale City Council.
“All of the things that she’s done over the last eight years brings a breadth of experience to the Legislature that is second to none in this race,” Marquez said.
As to the negative campaign ads, Marquez said it is an effective tool to draw contrasts between candidates.
“We know from time-tested research, when you put a message out there that clarifies someone’s record and, even if it might not be entirely positive, voters appreciate the information,” he said.
State campaign finance data as of Friday show that EdVoice, another independent expenditure committee that supports charter schools, has spent $5.5 million, mostly on legislative races in Northern California
Statewide Parent Teacher Alliance has spent about $3.7 million so far this year, and California Charter Schools Association Advocates, which funds itself from the Parent Teacher Alliance, has spent $263,085 so far this year, according to Pyers.
Those PACs have also been supporting candidates in Northern California legislative races.
Kapolczynski said she thinks CCSA has chosen to spend money on the 43rdAssembly District race in the primary rather than waiting for the general election because it’s not a sure thing that only Democrats will end up on the final ticket in November, even though 44 percent of the district is composed of registered Democrats. Republican candidate Mark MacCarley is a competitive candidate, she said.
“I think they saw how strong Ardy was and if they were going to elect a friend in the Legislature in Laura Friedman, they wanted to clear her path for the general election,” she said.
Tuck, who ran the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which turns around low-performing schools taken over by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said he doesn’t see the education reform movement as anti-union.
He points out
that Massachusetts, a blue state with powerful unions, has the country’s highest-performing students, while schools in Mississippi, a right-to-work state, rank among the lowest in the country.
He said he has begun to see a shift in Sacramento among Democrats who are willing to have conversations about education reform.
He pointed to the special election contest last year for an east San Francisco Bay Area state Senate seat that was won by Steve Glazer
, who was backed by education reform advocates.
“You’re seeing people evolve as well,” he said of sitting legislators.
He noted the introduction of Assembly Bill 934
by state Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who lost to Glazer. The bill seeks to change teacher tenure rules to allow teachers to extend the time period that teachers may be placed on probation from 18 months to three or four years and creates a professional support program for teachers who are performing poorly.
Tuck, who is currently an Educator in Residence at the non-profit New Teacher Center, said a conversation about changing teacher tenure laws wouldn’t have even happened a few years ago in Sacramento.
“We’re very close to a position where people will have that conversation and even the majority of people who would have that conversation,” Tuck said.
Disclosure: The 74 Million is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.