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Learning Curves

Wealthy Charter Backers Flood California Schools Chief Race With Cash

The record-shattering spending on candidate Marshall Tuck mirrors the threat level that a Sacramento without Jerry Brown represents to the charter school lobby.

Bill Raden

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Photo by jcjusay

“Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to  braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


 

The state schools superintendent contest between East Bay progressive Assemblymember Tony Thurmond and onetime Los Angeles charter school operator Marshall Tuck has been what one might expect of a down-ballot race swamped by below-the-belt attack ads and low-flying slate mailers— namely, a race paid for by unprecedented levels of outside independent expenditure committee (IE) spending by conservative billionaires trying to remake California education according to their privatizing vision.

On October 28, the non-profit journalism website EdSource reported that campaign spending had pushed past the stratospheric $50 million mark, easily making it the costliest schools chief race in history. Roughly $34 million benefited Tuck, whose pair of PACs directed by charter lobbyists EdVoice outspent the lone pro-Thurmond labor IE by $28.8 million to $12.2 million. (Disclosure: Some unions financially supporting Thurmond are also supporters of this website.) Top Tuck contributors represented a Who’s Who of philanthropists who have been leveraging their personal fortunes to radically reconfigure public schools:

Contribution Contribution
1. Bill Bloomfield $6,761,900
2. The Walton Family $5,138,400
3. Eli Broad $3,216,305
4.  Arthur Rock  $3,216,305
5. Doris F. Fisher  $3,090,400
6. Richard Riordan  $2,007,000
 Total  $23,928,605

Source: Cal-Access

One problem with having the Walmart Waltons foot a candidate’s bills is the presumptive link to the far-right agenda of Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos. Carrie Walton Penner’s support for DeVos included a board seat on her pet pro-voucher organization, Alliance for School Choice. Tuck’s moneyed backers are also betting big on neoliberal neophyte Buffy Wicks (and against progressive firebrand Jovanka Beckles) to fill Thurmond’s Assembly District 15 seat. If successful, Wicks could help dilute any legislative fixes of charters before they reach the desk of Gavin Newsom, the gubernatorial bête noir of the California Charter School Association.

One advantage to having Walmart-sized buying power is traction. In mid-October, EdVoice’s $8.55 million “thermonuclear” media response to a $3 million pro-Thurmond ad buy had Tuck squeaking ahead in the polls by October 24. That lead widened in last Wednesday’s University of California, Berkeley IGS Poll, with Tuck polling 48 percent to Thurmond’s 36 (although a self-survey on iSideWith.com has Thurmond at 46 and Tuck at 34). The poll noted that 64 percent of Republicans favored Tuck, compared to 14 percent for Thurmond.

Tuck’s appeal to the right is no accident. Last week, members of California’s congressional delegation called on Tuck to disavow the $233,000 EdVoice has spent to plaster his face on Republican slate mailers around the state. During the primary, Tuck appeared on reelection mailers for key Trump allies Devin Nunes (R-CA 22) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA 23). This time out, Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA 13) complained, he’s effectively helping Republicans in districts key to Democratic hopes to flip Congress in Tuesday’s hoped-for blue wave. They include the 25th District, where 31-year-old Katie Hill appears poised to knock out Republican Steve Knight, and the 45th District, where UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter hopes to retire Orange County Trump loyalist Mimi Walters. And on Saturday, Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox tweeted his endorsement of Tuck, alongside that of Republican EdVoice cofounder Steve Poizner for state insurance commissioner.

Tuck is also taking heat for EdVoice attack ads tarring Thurmond with racially tinged falsehoods. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California objected to its name being used on a Tuck slate mailer that doubled down on debunked claims in an EdVoice TV spot that the Obama White House “reprimanded” Thurmond over mishandling of Title IX claims when he was a school board member. That ad earned Tuck an angry censure by state Democratic Party Women’s Caucus Chair Christine Pelosi and Southern Chair Carolyn Fowler, along with California-Hawaii NAACP president Alice Huffman, over the ad’s alleged use of racist “dog whistles” and for “being willing to weaponize children’s trauma.”

The record-shattering spending on Tuck ultimately mirrors the threat level that a Sacramento without Jerry Brown represents to EdVoice executive director Bill Lucia. With Gavin Newsom ahead of his Republican opponent, John Cox, by 18 points in Wednesday’s poll, Newsom’s pledges for greater accountability and a moratorium on further expansion in charter-heavy districts are the stuff that keeps California school privatizers turning in their sleep. Of the supe candidates, Tuck alone has flatly rejected a “pause” in favor of limited financial help to those districts for orderly downsizing through school closures and mass teacher layoffs. For the laissez-faire ed-reform faithful, “disruption” is proof that deregulated markets and robust competition are working.


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