Politics

Flood of spending by charter advocates leads to election victories

Voters cast their ballots at Echo Park Deep Pool in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 8, 2016.
Voters cast their ballots at Echo Park Deep Pool in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 8, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Charter school advocates flooded state legislative races with more than $19 million in campaign spending — and mostly got the results they were seeking. 

In seven of eight races where charter advocates made at least $900,000 in "independent expenditures," the candidate they supported will advance to Sacramento. That's according to a KPCC review of election results and campaign finance records.

Richard Garcia of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates said those millions of dollars were money well spent.

"It seems that the voters recognized what we recognized in these candidates," Garcia said. "It's a big win for those who value their right to choice in education."

Garcia's group is linked to the Parent Teacher Alliance, one of the two main charter spenders. The other big spender was EdVoice's independent expenditure committee. The two groups spent a combined $18.4 million trying to get their favored candidates to seats in Sacramento.

In fact, EdVoice and the Parent Teacher Alliance were the number one and two outside spenders in state legislative races, beating out groups backed by political heavyweights like the oil industry and developers.

If you add an additional $930,000 from two smaller pro-charter committees — Parents and Teachers for Student Success and CCSA Advocates's independent expenditure group — the total reaches $19.4 million from charter groups. The money they spend is separate from actual candidates' campaigns.

RELATED: Election results in the races charter groups targeted

Not everyone was on board with the charter groups' aims.

Their one big defeat came in the 27th Assembly District, representing the San Jose area. There, the Parent Teacher Alliance dumped more than $4 million into an effort to elect Madison Nguyen — the most any group spent in a single race.

Yet San Jose city councilman Ash Kalra defeated Nguyen in that race. A union group was active there, pouring more than $1.2 million into the contest, which funded a big chunk of negative spending against Nguyen.

That dynamic was flipped in the 14th Assembly District, where charter-backed Tim Grayson cruised to victory. EdVoice spent $3.3 million in that race supporting Grayson and opposing the union-backed Mae Torlakson. Her husband is the state's top K-12 education official, Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

In a Southern California race, charter-backed Laura Friedman easily beat challenger Ardy Kassakhian to represent Glendale, Burbank and parts of Los Angeles.

In most of the races where charter groups spent big, two Democrats were fighting for a single seat. In essence, voters were deciding what kind of Democrat to send to Sacramento.

EdVoice and the PTA spent to make sure they were charter-friendly democrats, in a legislature that could feature a democratic supermajority.

Rob Pyers, who analyzes elections for the California Target Book, said that all the outside spending seemed to have an impact. While it's still early, Pyers said that "in the vast majority of circumstances, spending...closely correlated with the odds of success."

The complexity of elections and privacy of the polls make it difficult to say exactly how much political spending — or any single factor — impacts elections. 

The pivot this year to statewide policy for represents a shift for education reformers, who previously had focused on local school boards. The implications for education policy in the state are still coming into focus.

With a crop of friendly legislators on their way to Sacramento, CCSA Advocates' Garcia said his group has two areas of focus. The first is changing the process of getting new charters approved, known commonly as charter school authorization. Currently, decisions are made at the local level by school boards, with inconsistent support for charters.

Garcia also emphasized access to school district facilities for charters. "Facilities issues have been problematic for us," he said.

At L.A. Unified, charter backers have grown frustrated with what they perceive as an increasingly hostile environment.