Groups that support the expansion of charter schools in California are spending big this year to support the campaigns of sympathetic Democrats vying for open seats in the state Legislature.
One charter group alone has spent more than $1 million in the Southern California contest to replace Assemblyman Mike Gatto. The committee bears a lengthy name: Parent Teacher Alliance, sponsored by California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee.
Statewide, the Parent Teacher Alliance – which is not affiliated with the national volunteer organization Parent Teacher Association – has spent more than $3 million on legislative races so far this election cycle, according to records from the Secretary of State.
The California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee has spent another $470,000. (The California Charter Schools Association and its political arm, CCSA Advocates, are major players in the state's education debates, including in Los Angeles. The group and its allies frequently battle teacher's union-backed groups.)
The spending by both groups has already outpaced the $1.65 million "dark money" spent by the CCSA independent expenditure committee in 2013 and 2014 races for state senate and assembly seats.
A third education reform group, EdVoice, has been spending heavily in a separate batch of Northern California races this year.
Spending by these groups are known as 'independent expenditures', because they're separate from campaigns themselves.
Colin Miller, acting Senior Vice President for Government Affairs at the CCSA, said that making it easier to charters to open and expand schools is the group's top legislative priority in Sacramento.
The power to open charters falls mostly to local school districts, which don't always support charter expansion. Charter advocates hope to create new paths.
A bill to transform charter authorizing stalled in the legislature this year, but Miller said it contains proposals his group hopes to return to.
And charter advocates are also fending off legislative attacks on the schools, including an audit of whether Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a network of 27 Los Angeles-area charters, improperly used public funds to battle a unionization effort. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted to authorize that audit on Tuesday.
Charters' interest in Sacramento
Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that success for the charter movement involves engaging with lawmakers, not just school boards.
"If we're going to be successful in the long term and be a sustainable form of public schooling, you know, there's a political game that we need to engage in," Ziebarth said.
He said traditionally, charters haven't had the same oomph in Sacramento as the California Teachers Association, which often battles charters – a pattern in other states as well.
"We were fighting with relatively limited tools as compared to our opponents, who at least in some states have some of the deepest pockets in terms of political activity," he said, referring to teacher's unions.
The California Teachers Association has yet to spend in support or in opposition to candidates this year, not just in Southern California but anywhere in the state.
Legislative spending by charter-friendly groups this year has still not reached the $10 million that groups funneled into the 2014 state superintendent race, which became a flashpoint in K-12 politics.
The reform candidate, Marshall Tuck, was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat Tom Torlakson. A CTA-backed group supporting Torlakson spent more than $7.5 million that year.
Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative races, said that at their current pace, independent expenditures could break records in California this primary season.
Statewide, Pyers said just two charter groups, the Parent Teacher Alliance and EdVoice, had accounted for about one in three dollars in more than $17 million in outside spending on legislative races this year.
"Folks are having to spend a lot more to get their message out this election cycle because there's a lot on the ballot in June," said Carlos Marquez, political director for California Charter Schools Association Advocates. "Getting your message out as a candidate or an organization happens to be more of an expensive proposition."
Spending translates into full mailboxes
Pyers agreed, speaking about the Southern California race.
"With five Democrats splitting the vote against one viable Republican, both sides have an interest in ensuring that their preferred candidate advances from the top-two towards a near-certain victory in November, so spending in the primary race is obviously key," he said.
That's the case in the 43rd Assembly District, which represents Glendale, Burbank, and some Los Angeles neighborhoods including Los Feliz and Atwater Village. Termed-out Democratic Assemblymember Mike Gatto is vacating his seat.
It's likely that the next Assemblymember will also be a Democrat, as the district hasn't sent a Republican to the Assembly since the 1990s.
And charter school advocates are fighting to make sure that the Democrat chosen by the district is one sympathetic to their interests. The flurry of charter group spending has stuffed mailboxes in the district with glossy mailers.
KPCC has gathered a stack of mailers from the contest as part of the station's #WhoMailedIt project. They show a nasty race pitting two Democrats against each other: Glendale City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian and Glendale City Councilmember Laura Friedman. Few of them mention charter schools or education policy.
Most of the $1 million CCSA-affiliated Parent Teacher Alliance has spent in the 43rd District Assembly has gone to support of Friedman.
But about $250,000 has been spent on attacks against Kassakhian, funding a series of negative mailers. Kassakhian has been endorsed by the California Teacher's Association.
CTA spokesperson Claudia Briggs said that union members believe he "has the experience and the dedication necessary to deliver what our students and educators and schools need" – the kind of argument usually made in school board races, where candidates would have a direct, day-to-day impact on teaching and learning.
Carlos Marquez of CCSA Advocates said that mailers, including the negative ones, were critical to getting information in front of voters.
The Glendale News-Press reported last week that Kassakhian held a press conference to denounce the mailers. "I'm hoping that voters will reject the special interest trying to buy a seat for a candidate that will do their bidding in Sacramento," he told the newspaper.
In recent days, Kassakhian's campaign has fired back with at least two negative mailers bearing messages such as "Laura Friedman: She's Only Out For Herself".
Unlike the Anti-Kassakhian mailers, these have been funded by a candidate's campaign, not an outside committee.
CCSA Advocates' Carlos Marquez said it was impossible to predict how much groups supporting charter expansion might spend this year. "We haven't landed on any one number and won't know that until the day after election."