Is America’s Romance with Charter Schools Fading Despite Gobs of Political Money from Its Promoters?

Last week’s election produced a couple of significant indicators that the public may be growing weary of charter schools.  At the same time the public seems increasingly aware that adequately funded public schools may be a better way to help the children our society has left behind.  This is despite an enormous political investment by wealthy investors in the future of the charter school movement.

Consider the race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction. Last month for The Intercept, Rachel M. Cohen explained what this highly contentious, non-partisan race between charter proponent Marshall Tuck and his opponent Tony Thurmond has really been all about: “The California charter school lobby is testing its influence in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, turning an election for a somewhat obscure statewide position into a notably expensive battle.  More than $50 million has flown into the contest between two Democrats for a nonpartisan office with little statutory power.  For perspective, this is more money raised than in any U.S. House race this cycle and most Senate races, not to mention every other race in California, save for the governor’s. The race, largely understood as a proxy war for the future of California charter schools, is the second attempt by the state’s charter school lobby to demonstrate its influence…. The candidates, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, both insist that the race is about far more than charters, which currently enroll 10 percent of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, though they admit they hold different visions for the publicly funded, privately managed schools. That’s something their funders also acutely recognize.”

On election night, Marshall Tuck, the former president of Green Dot Charters and an advocate for expanding California’s already huge charter sector, was ahead by 86,000 votes. But as mail-in and absentee ballot have been counted, Thurmond has progressively caught up. By Saturday night, EdSource reported, Marshall Tuck was still ahead by 38,251 out of 6,934,591 votes counted by that time. However, by yesterday morning, the California Secretary of State was reporting Tony Thurmond had pulled ahead with a 3,500 vote lead. By last evening, each candidate had cornered roughly 50 percent of the vote, with a tiny 1,808 vote margin for Thurmond. Four years ago in an initial run for state superintendent, Marshall Tuck was defeated by then incumbent,Tom Torlakson.  A week after the election, this year’s race has not yet been called.  Update: Here is an update from EdSource published soon after this blog was posted.

While Tuck was the pro-charter school candidate, Tony Thurmond shaped his campaign around policies to strengthen public schools.  In an endorsement of Thurmond, the Network for Public Education explained: “Assemblyman Thurmond has been a member of the State Assembly since 2014.  He serves on the Assembly Committee on Education, and has made education policy his top priority.  Before serving in the legislature, he was on the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board for four years… His public school education prepared him for a 20-year career in social work, where he ran after-school programs and taught life skills and career training… He understands that class size has proven to be one of the most important factors in a child’s learning.  Thurmond said that he will ‘support legislation, policy changes, funding to reduce class sizes.’ ”

The tightness of this race is especially surprising when you consider the amount of money contributed to Marshall Tuck’s campaign—$28.5 million—by billionaire backers of charter schools, many of them from out-of-state.  Writing for Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan describes Tuck’s donors: “The money has come from a who’s who of charter school backers and K-12 philanthropists, including Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Lynn Schusterman, Julian Robertson, Laurene Powell Jobs, Laura and John Arnold, Dan Loeb, Michael Bloomberg and his daughter Emma, and three Waltons: Carrie Walton Penner, Alice Walton and Jim Walton.  Among Tuck’s biggest backers was Helen Schwab… who gave $2 million to EdVoice for the Kids PAC, which managed independent campaign committees for Tuck; Arthur Rock, the venture capitalist, gave $3 million to EdVoice, while Doris Fisher gave over $3 million… A less familiar name on the list of top backers to EdVoice is businessman Bill Bloomfield.  In fact, Bloomfield was the single biggest supporter of the PAC this year, with $5.3 in donations.”

Callahan adds: “(I)n an era when most economic gains have gone to top earners, the wealthy have more money than ever to press their public policy preferences. California’s education system has been dramatically changed in the past 15 years by the rise of charters.  Much of this change wouldn’t have happened without the backing of rich donors.”

Then there is New York, where the state senate flipped, creating an all-Democratic legislature. For the NY Times, Eliza Shapiro reports that charter schools faced a backlash in last week’s election, where charter school-supporting Republican legislators were ousted and replaced by a Democratic majority: “Over the last decade, the charter school movement gained a significant foothold in New York, demonstrating along the way that it could build fruitful alliances with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other prominent Democrats. The movement hoped to set a national example—if charter schools could make it in a deep blue state like New York they could make it anywhere.  But the election on Tuesday strongly suggested that the golden era of charter schools is over in New York. The insurgent Democrats who were at the forefront of the party’s successful effort to take over the State Senate have repeatedly expressed hostility to the movement.  John Liu, a newly elected Democratic state senator from Queens, has said New York City should ‘get rid of large charter school networks.’  Robert Jackson, a Democrat who will represent a Manhattan district… promised during his campaign to support charter schools only if they have unionized teachers.  And… Julia Salazar of Brooklyn recently broadcast a simple message about charter schools: ‘I’m not interested in privatizing our public schools.'”

Shapiro emphasizes that, while nobody plans to shut down existing charter schools: “(I)t seems highly likely that a New York Legislature entirely under Democratic control will restrict the number of new charter schools that can open, and tighten regulations on existing ones.”  She adds: “The defeat is magnified because Mr. Cuomo, a shrewd observer of national political trends with an eye toward a potential White House bid recently softened his support for charter schools… Now charter school supporters are wrestling with the unpleasant reality that a supposedly bipartisan movement… has been effectively linked to Wall Street, Mr. Trump and Ms. DeVos….”

Here are some of the challenges charter school promoters will face in New York’s newly all-Democratic state legislature: “The Legislature may not even bother to take up charter advocates’ most pressing need: lifting the cap on the number of charter schools that can open statewide.  Fewer than 10 new charters schools can open in New York City until the law is changed in Albany.  That means the city’s largest charter networks, including the widely known Success Academy, will be stymied in their ambitious goal of expanding enough to become parallel districts within the school system… And charters will now be partially regulated by the movement’s political foes.  State Senate Democrats, with the lobbying support of teachers’ unions, are likely to push laws requiring charter schools to enroll a certain number of students with disabilities or students learning English. Previous proposals indicate that those politicians may force charters to divulge their finances, and could make it harder for charters to operate in public school buildings. Those legislators could even impose a limit of about $200,000 on charter school executives’ salaries.  At least two operators made over $700,000 in 2016.”

Shapiro concludes, reminding readers that last year, Daniel Loeb, a hedge fund manager and huge backer of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network , was forced to resign as chairman of the Success Academy board because, in a statement widely shared in the press, he said that, “a black state senator who has been skeptical of charter schools had done more damage to black people than the Ku Klux Klan.” “On Tuesday,” explains Shapiro, “that senator, Andrea Steward-Cousins, became the next leader of the New York State Senate.”