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A few rich charter school supporters are spending millions to elect Antonio Villaraigosa as California governor

Los Angeles Times — By Seema Mehta and Ryan Menezes Los Angeles Times

May 15-- LOS ANGELES-California voters have seen a barrage of sunny television ads in recent weeks touting former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's record on finances, crime and education, aired by Families & Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor 2018.

But the group is largely funded by a handful of wealthy charter school supporters, who have spent $13.7 million in under a month to boost Villaraigosa's chances in the June 5 primary-at a time when his fundraising and poll numbers are lagging. Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, jump-started the group with a $7-million check, by far the largest donation to support any candidate in the election.

Their efforts are part of a broader proxy war among Democrats between teachers unions-longtime stalwarts of the party-and those who argue that the groups have failed low-income and minority schoolchildren.

Gary Borden, executive director of the California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, which is behind the independent expenditure group, said it is backing Villaraigosa for his history of challenging the status quo in education as mayor of Los Angeles. While he led the city, he tried to take over its schools and blasted the influence of the teachers union.

"He didn't need to do the things he did," Borden said. "Some of this goes back historically, just to how strong Antonio has been on public education and our level of confidence that that's how he will be as governor."

His group's effort has raised over $17.1 million from 14 donors for the Families & Teachers committee, according to campaign finance documents filed with the secretary of state's office. Such independent groups cannot legally coordinate with campaigns, but can accept unlimited donations.

After Hastings, the biggest contributors are philanthropist Eli Broad and former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who each donated $2.5 million; and hedge fund manager Bill Oberndorf, who contributed $2 million.

Oberndorf is a major donor to Republican candidates and causes, and replaced Betsy DeVos as chairman of the American Federation for Children after President Donald Trump nominated DeVos to be his education secretary.

"I have become involved in this race to ensure that low-income and minority children in our state have the same education options most Californians already enjoy who live in a community with high-quality public schools or send their children to private schools," Oberndorf said, adding that though he is a life-long Republican, he does not believe a GOP gubernatorial candidate can win in the general election. "Fortunately, in Antonio Villaraigosa all Californians-Democrats, Republicans and Independents-have a candidate who will represent all of our interests including the most educationally underserved children in our state."

Broad, Hastings and Bloomberg did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for Villaraigosa demurred when asked about the charter school effort.

"Mayor Villaraigosa's focus is how we unite Californians to lift more families into the middle class-and keep them there," spokesman Luis Vizcaino said.

A spokesman for Villaraigosa's main Democratic rival and gubernatorial front-runner, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, sought to tie Villaraigosa's charter school backers to DeVos.

Newsom "is not a rubber stamp for any group, especially those who align themselves with Betsy DeVos. And unlike Antonio Villaraigosa, he would never brag about waging 'a holy jihad' on public educators," said Newsom campaign manager Addisu Demissie, referring to a statement the then-mayor made to The Times' editorial board about L.A.'s teachers union as he sought to take control of the city's school district.

The effort by the charter school supporters is part of a broader movement aiming to overhaul how public schools are run. Advocates have frequently clashed with teachers unions over issues including merit pay, seniority, the use of standardized testing to evaluate teachers and school choice.

While many education decisions are made at the local school district level, the state has notable power . The governor makes appointments to the state Board of Education and can use the office to influence the legislative process. Many expect California's next governor to play a significant role on policy that could reshape the state's public schools.

Education is one of the few areas where Villaraigosa and Newsom disagree.

The former big-city mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, took divergent paths on the issue.

When Newsom ran for mayor, he touted charter schools as places "to explore new and better ways of reaching and educating our youth." But as he ran for governor, he told the California Teachers Assn. that he did not believe the number of charter schools in the state should increase, according to the Sacramento Bee. A spokesman told the paper that Newsom believed that no more should be authorized until there is greater state oversight.

Villaraigosa started his career as a union organizer, and labor buttressed his campaigns, donating millions of dollars and dispatching members to turn out voters. But as mayor, he became the most prominent Democrat in California to criticize teachers groups, blasting Los Angeles' union as "the largest obstacle to creating quality schools."

He unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, arguing city schools needed to be dramatically overhauled because they were failing the neediest students. He eventually took over more than a dozen struggling campuses through a nonprofit he founded.

Borden said his group grew alarmed by reports of Newsom supporting limits on charter schools.

The bulk of the group's television ads have promoted Villaraigosa, while a smaller number have dinged GOP candidate John Cox, who polls show is Villaraigosa's main competition for the second spot in the primary. The ad paints the wealthy Rancho Santa Fe businessman as a Chicago carpetbagger who failed at multiple efforts to run for elected office in Illinois.

The charter backers also released an ad that criticizes Newsom, though not by name. The ad says as violent crime went up in San Francisco, Villaraigosa put more police officers on the streets of Los Angeles, leading to a sharp reduction in crime.

Newsom is the leader in fundraising, but he too has the support of well-funded independent expenditure groups, notably a labor committee that has raised $3.8 million.

He has been endorsed by the California Teachers Association, one of the most potent forces in California politics. The union contributed $1 million to another pro-Newsom independent expenditure committee on Monday, and sent mailers to California voters last week saying that billionaires are trying to "buy the election" for Villaraigosa and Marshall Tuck, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, "to privatize California schools and take away the rights of educators and students."

Eric Heins, the president of the CTA, declined to say how much the union would spend boosting Newsom. But he pointed to Villaraigosa's attempt to take over Los Angeles' schools, as well as the billionaires backing his bid, to explain why they are supporting Newsom.

"You can tell who bought Antonio by where his money is coming from," Heins said.

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The California Federation of Teachers also contributed $125,000 to a pro-Newsom group on Monday.

The fight between the teachers unions and the education reform movement comes at a time of changing political dynamics for both groups.

The CTA has long been a kingmaker in Democratic politics. But the union faces challenges, notably a Supreme Court decision expected in June that could stop public employee unions from collecting dues from everyone they represent.

Meanwhile, charter school backers have been increasingly active in California, spending tens of millions of dollars on elections in recent years, with varying levels of success.

Gov. Jerry Brown's greatest focus on education was changing the school funding formula in a way that sent more K-12 dollars to disadvantaged communities. But he largely avoided wading into the debate between teachers unions and charter school backers.

The next governor will probably have to more forcefully address the schism.

"The money is lining up the way it is because the choice (for governor) moving forward is likely to be more consequential," UCLA's Rogers said.

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