Billionaires vs teachers union: Charter school fight amps up race for California governor

They are Democrats and Republicans. They are residents of California, New York and Arkansas. They have made fortunes in technology, real estate, retail and media.

What do these billionaires have in common? They aim to shake up public education by promoting charters—schools that receive taxpayer funds but are not required to follow all the rules that govern traditional schools. And their newest goal is to try to elect California’s next governor.

Several wealthy business leaders have poured millions of dollars into a campaign backing Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat and former mayor of Los Angeles. Their spending, which follows similar efforts in key legislative and school board races, has made the California governor’s race the latest front in a long-standing war.

Charter advocates see teachers unions as caring more about working conditions for teachers than learning outcomes for kids. Union leaders see charters, most of which hire non-union teachers, as threats to their livelihoods. But the two sides also clash more broadly over how to improve public education.

It’s an urgent question in California, where less than half of students meet standards in reading and math, and performance by children from poor families is almost the worst in the nation.

Today ads by the charter group are beaming Villaraigosa’s smiling face onto TVs and into mailboxes, while radio commercials by the rival teachers union criticize “out-of-state billionaires… trying to buy our politicians.”

The big-money battle has injected serious competition in the race leading up to the June 5 primary, from which only two of 27 candidates for governor will advance to the November general election. The frontrunner, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, earned the state teachers union’s endorsement after telling it in a questionnaire that he does not want to increase the number of charter schools in California. (His spokesman said Newsom wants to pause new charter approvals until there’s agreement on conflict-of-interest rules.)

Charter school supporters may be an effective counterbalance to the prevailing influence public-employee unions have long exerted on Democratic politics. But the tycoons’ spending also points to the outsized sway personal wealth can have on elections.

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