Sandra Lowe reminisced about the good old days as she addressed a roomful of Democratic activists at the California party’s annual convention last week in Sacramento. It used to be, the teachers union leader told the crowd, that it didn’t take much to win a school board race: a short statement in the election handbook, a little money for some mail and the shoe-leather to knock on doors and talk to voters.
Now, Lowe said, things are different. Wealthy donors have put big money into shaking up public education by backing candidates willing to challenge union orthodoxy. And the impact they had this month on the school board race in Los Angeles – ousting a union-backed incumbent and electing a new majority that favors charter schools – is likely to reverberate across California.
“It’s not just an L.A. situation,” said Lowe, a California Teachers Association consultant. “This is going to happen everywhere.”
The future of public education in California has become a tug-of-war between different camps within the Democratic Party. Democrats aligned with organized labor – who dominated local and legislative races for many years – are now facing formidable challenges from Democrats who see overhauling some union rules as a key to improving education.
The Democrat vs. Democrat split that played out in the Los Angeles school board election also emerged in several legislative races last year. Now, as California looks toward the election of a new governor and a new school superintendent next year, the fight over public education is bound to get hotter.
California made major changes in the schools during Jerry Brown’s last two terms as governor – putting a new Common Core curriculum in place and revamping the funding formula to send more money to schools serving needy children. Yet academic achievement remains dismal. Slightly more than half the state’s students cannot read and write at their grade level, results from last year’s testing shows, and 63 percent aren’t meeting standards in math.
Each camp has its own view of the solution. Teachers unions generally argue that society should address socioeconomic problems that can make learning difficult. Groups that want to change the system say families should have more choice about which schools their kids attend. How schools hire and fire teachers is another flashpoint, with unions favoring rules that benefit senior teachers and their adversaries saying teacher assignments should be based on students’ needs.
It’s easy to boil the argument down to a conflict between traditional schools (which employ union teachers) and charters (which are publicly funded but governed independently and often employ non-union teachers). In reality, though, it is a larger, more nuanced battle over how to mold a system that educates more than 6 million children, most of whom live in poverty.
Advocates for change include Netflix founder Reed Hastings and developer Eli Broad, who have poured millions of dollars into pro-charter groups that fund political campaigns. Their recent win in Los Angeles “portends a massive investment in the superintendent’s race and the governor’s race,” said Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant who worked on campaigns for Kelly Gonez and Nick Melvoin, the newly elected Los Angeles school board members.
“There is not a better motivator than the nectar of victory to push along the issue that you care about, and that’s improving public education and ensuring that every child in every school has a high-quality teacher,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo worked closely with Antonio Villaraigosa when, as mayor of Los Angeles, he bucked the teachers union and took control of several low-performing schools. Now running for governor, Villaraigosa has signaled that education will be a focus of his campaign. In his speech at the Democratic convention, Villaraigosa called the education split “the most important civil rights battle of our generation.”
Another Democrat running for governor, former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin, is also making education a cornerstone of her campaign. She used her convention speech to argue that the state needs to spend more on schools, saying “educating the next generation is our most sacred mission.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race, highlighted his work as San Francisco mayor to expand preschool access and contrasted his approach with that of the Trump Administration.“Unlike Betsy DeVos,” he said, “we will attract teachers, not attack teachers.”
The teachers union has not yet endorsed anyone in the governor contest or in the race to succeed Tom Torlakson as state schools superintendent, and both races may still attract more candidates. So far, the superintendent lineup is a Democrat vs. Democrat competition between former charter school administrator Marshall Tuck and Assemblyman Tony Thurmond of Richmond.
Thurmond is a former school board member who is carrying a bill to tax companies that contract with prisons to pay for expanded preschool. He typically votes with the education establishment—teachers and school boards—and recently helped kill a bill that would have made it easier for parents to send their children to a school in a neighboring district rather than their own.
Campaigning at a booth at last week’s convention, Thurmond said that addressing socioeconomic disparities is key to improving schools:
“How do kids learn when they’ve been impacted by trauma or they’re homeless or they’re hungry or they have a dental issue? We’ve got to remove the barriers that get in the way of our kids.”
Tuck is running for a second time after mounting a surprisingly close challenge to Torlakson in 2014, helped by roughly $12 million from charter school groups.
He said Californians have become numb to the large number of children who are not getting a good education.
He said California Democrats have tackled some huge issues, such as climate change and health care, but have not done enough to make sure kids in public schools are learning.
“We’ve learned to live with failing schools,” Tuck said. “Our party has not prioritized education the way we need to.”