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Big-name charter school backers donate to key governor races

Author: Sally Ho, Associated Press - July 5, 2018 - Updated: July 6, 2018

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Netflix Founder and CEO Reed Hastings. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

Prominent charter school supporters are dishing out campaign money, as key gubernatorial races in several states have now begun in earnest.

June primary contests set up a number of state battles for governor in the midterm elections this November, with both Democratic and Republican candidates that could change how public resources flow into charter and private schools in the coming years.

In Colorado, both Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton have brought up charter schools in their races for governor, although emphasizing different aspects of the issue.

Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs donated $29,200 each — the maximum amount — to Democrat Gavin Newsom’s campaign for California governor. It’s a sign that the potent charter forces in Golden State politics are pivoting toward the state’s lieutenant governor, who is widely considered a shoe-in to beat Republican businessman John Cox.

Many of the billionaire philanthropists who want to reshape America’s struggling school systems believe that charters — which are privately run but publicly funded schools — help breed better and different ways to educate students who struggle in traditional public schools, especially poor and minority children.

Some also support allowing tax dollars to fund vouchers for families that pick private schools, which don’t have public oversight. Studies are mixed when considering how those programs result in academic gains.

Critics, notably teachers unions, reject both charters and vouchers as drains on the cash-starved mainstream public schools that educate the vast majority of students. Public school advocates also loathe those programs for, in their view, eroding the neighborhood schooling model that defines communities.

Newsom has said that successful charters would thrive under his leadership, but he would seek to temporarily pause charter school openings to consider transparency issues. The moratorium would be a halting sea-change — if even for a limited time — for California’s robust charter school movement, which has for years enjoyed expansions and developments.

Newsom previously said he was disappointed that Hastings, a prolific charter schools supporter in California, gave millions of dollars to one of his primary challengers, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Newsom on the campaign trail has mostly emphasized his support of traditional public schools and called for more charter school accountability.

Jobs, who is the widow of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, also supports charter schools and runs a philanthropic group called the Emerson Collective that focuses on reshaping American school systems, among other social causes.

On the campaign trail in Nevada, the gubernatorial candidates have touted education policy plans to address the state’s dismal school system that is considered one of the worst-performing nationwide.

It’s a popular talking point after years of high-profile moves by the well-liked, term-limited Gov. Brian Sandoval. The Republican tackled the teacher shortage as a statewide crisis. But he also ushered in school voucher-like tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts meant to help families afford private schools.

Though the education savings accounts program was signed into law in 2015, it has never started because the state Supreme Court ruled its funding model was unconstitutional and legislators haven’t been able to pass a fix.

And that could be an issue settled by the next governor.

Though the American Federation for Children hasn’t given to either California gubernatorial candidate, an affiliate of the pro-voucher group previously run by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has already waded into Nevada elections by supporting state legislative candidates up for election. In June, William Oberndorf, a San Francisco investor who leads the politically active organization, also contributed $50,000 to the Nevada Federation for Children political action committee.

Republican candidate Adam Laxalt, the state’s attorney general, said he supports the voucher-like program that was once praised as the broadest school choice initiative in the country.

But Democrat Steve Sisolak, a county commissioner in Las Vegas, has declared he won’t allow any taxpayer dollars to flow into private schools over public schools.

Meanwhile, Colorado’s governor’s race has a pro-charter school candidate who also doubles as a philanthropist invested in education reform.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis became the Democratic candidate for governor after dropping $12 million of his own money into his campaign.

Considered one of the richest members of Congress, Polis has served on the House’s Education and Workforce committee and has declared support for more federal funding for charter schools. The tech millionaire, who made his money in part by starting the ProFlowers online delivery service, also founded his own network of charter schools for homeless and immigrant children.

“He believes that parents should be empowered to choose the best public school for their child,” said Mara Sheldon, a Polis campaign spokeswoman.

His opponent, Republican Walker Stapleton, who is Colorado’s state treasurer, also supports charters. But the two candidates differ on private school scholarships funded by tax credits. Stapleton supports the voucher-like program and often notes his wife’s involvement with a prominent tax-credit scholarship group.

Stapleton’s campaign said in an email: “Walker believes the more tools we have to help students succeed the better.”

During the June primary election, Hastings, the charter-supporting Netflix co-founder, donated to Frontier Fairness, a political action committee backing former state Sen. Michael Johnston of Denver. Johnston finished third in the Democratic primary.

Associated Press reporter Sophia Bollag contributed from Sacramento, California.

Sally Ho, Associated Press