Bookmark Email Print Font Size A A A

Governor’s ties to charter schools driving Race to Top goals?

By Steven Harmon
Contra Costa Times
December 14, 2009

SACRAMENTO — Charter school advocates were livid. The Assembly's "Race to the Top" legislation was trying to "change the DNA of charters," as one charter school leader put it, by clamping down with "stifling" oversight provisions.

They had little doubt, however, that they'd have a potent weapon to beat back the proposed changes: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger's deep ties to the charter school movement haven't been a secret. He has taken at least $1 million in contributions from charter school advocates, stacked the State Board of Education with charter school educators, overseen since taking office in 2003 more than a doubling in the number of charter schools and steered hundreds of millions of construction bond money to charter schools.

Now, with a potential $700 million in federal cash dangling before lawmakers who have seen $17 billion drained from public schools over the past two years, some critics say Schwarzenegger has used the Race to the Top competition to further his long-term goal of cutting into the powers of traditional public schools while elevating his own sacred cow — the charter movement.

"One can say that the charter school lobby has defined how the governor tries to craft school reform," said Bruce Fuller, director of the Policy Analysis for California Education at UC Berkeley. "Because he's got well-heeled donors that remain very supportive of charter schools, it's a no-brainer for the governor, given his affection for market remedies."

Schwarzenegger has blasted the Assembly's Race to the Top plan for tightening oversight measures for charter schools, calling it a "poison pill" that makes it "impossible for charter schools to survive." He has repeatedly vowed to veto the bill, ABX5-8, if it came to his desk.

Supported by most public school educators, the Assembly legislation includes tighter auditing requirements on charter schools than current law, stronger tools for measuring academic progress, and prohibitions against renewing continually failing charter schools.

"We believe charters should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools since they're on the public dime," said Dean Vogel, vice president of the California Teachers Association. "If I believe my charter school is high-performing, I should have a measure to prove it. You've got to demonstrate that high achievement and they don't want to do that."

Schwarzenegger's own plan, SBX5-1, shepherded through the Senate last month by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, seeks to streamline the authorizing or renewal of charter schools, bolster their ability to obtain state funding, and codify their own standards of auditing.

Supporters don't deny that Schwarzenegger has been an unapologetic ally of charter schools.

"It's fair to say that Gov. Schwarzenegger has been the most important champion California has ever had for charter schools," said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. "He understands and is focused on making sure nothing comes forward that would compromise charter schools."

Under Schwarzenegger, the number of charter schools operating in California has more than doubled — from 382 in 2003-04 to the current total of 809. Though the state is nowhere near its maximum of 1,350 charter schools, he wants to lift the cap — a provision in both the Senate and Assembly bills.

Schwarzenegger has packed the nine-member State Board of Education with five leaders of the charter school movement, including board President Ted Mitchell, who is president and CEO of the NewSchools Venture fund, a national San Francisco-based firm that provides startup money for charter schools.

Other state board members with ties to the charter school movement are Yvonne Chan, a principal of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, which focuses on "conversion" charter schools; Jonathan Williams, founder and co-director of the Accelerated School; Jorge Lopez, executive director of the Oakland Charter Academy; and Rae Belisle, president and CEO of EdVoice, a school reform lobbying group with strong ties to the charter school movement. Belisle defended the constitutionality of charter schools while serving as chief counsel to the State Board of Education.

EdVoice board members have rewarded Schwarzenegger, contributing at least $1 million to his various campaign committees.

Eli Broad, a co-founder of EdVoice and billionaire Los Angeles developer who has run a Superintendent Academy, which trains CEOs how to run schools, has contributed $430,000 to Schwarzenegger.

Don Fisher, the late Gap founder and a co-founder of EdVoice, and his family have donated $245,000 to Schwarzenegger, and Netflix founder Hastings Reed, also a co-founder of EdVoice, gave $251,491 in stock to the Proposition 1A-1E campaign pushed by Schwarzenegger this year.

Many of the same donors are beginning to bring Romero, the Los Angeles senator who is pushing Schwarzenegger-backed Race to the Top legislation, into their orbit. Romero, who is running for state superintendent of public instruction, has received at least $72,000 from various members of the EdVoice board, including $13,000 from Broad's wife, Edyth, and $6,500 from Hastings.

The Fisher family, deeply involved in school reform causes, has contributed $45,500 to her campaign.

EdVoice is likely to dig deep into their political treasury to finance Romero's campaign through unlimited independent expenditures against state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who will likely have the backing of public school teacher unions.

"We haven't determined to what degree we'll support her," said Bill Lucia, EdVoice's policy director and Chief Operating Officer, "but Gloria Romero is clearly the strongest candidate for education reform and promising parental choice and not continuing to be apologetic for persistent failure."

Be the first to comment