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Charter schools regroup after big loss

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Charter school supporters are deciding where to direct their considerable resources after pouring money into the California governor primary to support a longtime ally who failed to move on to November’s election.

The fallout may signal future uncertainty for the school choice movement in a state with some of the most robust charter school laws in the United States.

The front-runner for governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, could hamper or threaten the progress of charters — privately run schools that use public money and have divided parents and politicians. He has mostly emphasized his support of traditional public schools and called for more charter school accountability.

Newsom’s campaign said it would seek to temporarily halt charter school openings to consider transparency issues but that “successful” charters would thrive under his leadership. In the June 5 race, he beat out former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a key ally of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates.

The powerful organization and its big-name donors, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Walmart heir Alice Walton, gave nearly $23 million to support Villaraigosa, who finished behind Newsom and Republican businessman John Cox.

Now, the group said it’s working on a new strategy that could include supporting Newsom or Cox, despite the Republican’s endorsement from President Donald Trump. The heavily blue state is helping lead a national resistance to his administration. The charter Advocates is in a tight spot after running attack ads against both candidates who advanced to the general election.

The primary is seen as a failed offensive for the charter group and a loss for advocates that won enough seats last year to control the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest U.S. school system, for the first time. Their $8.5 million added to the unprecedented total spent on a local school board race.

“I frankly can’t remember a prominent loss that they’ve had,” education policy expert and University of California, Los Angeles, professor John Rogers said of the charter movement’s legislative wins. “The California Charter Schools Association has had the power to ensure that legislation that would be against their interest can’t be passed.”

California was the second state to get a charter school law in 1992 and now boasts the largest enrollment numbers. Supporters have won a series of expansions and developments — trailblazing progress that could be at risk under a new governor.

It sets up the potential for an educational sea change in California, where some charter provisions are unheard of elsewhere. They include an appeals process for opening new schools, access to equal funding and public facilities, and flexibility over special education services.

The charter group hasn’t ruled out supporting Newsom, executive director Gary Borden said. But he was noncommittal about what the group will do, suggesting it could even cross its own political line to support Cox.

Cox’s campaign said it welcomes any support to fix California’s failing school system.

“We will have a look at the candidate’s point of view on broader issues, but we predominantly stick to an evaluation of their perspective on the charter school issue to help inform the decision on what to support and whether we’ll get involved in the race,” Borden said.

During the campaign, Newsom called the group’s spending of nearly $23 million for Villaraigosa an “extraordinary” sum for one special interest and told The Associated Press that “on a personal, not just professional, level, it’s disappointing” that they gave so much to his opponent.

But he got support from California’s prominent teachers unions, which contributed more than $1.3 million to independent efforts supporting the lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor.

The California Teachers Association president Eric Heins said the union is focused on pushing more transparency rules for charters that apply to public schools and other government agencies, such as conflict-of-interest regulations.

National teachers unions and other public school advocates reject charters as a drain on cash-starved schools and an erosion of the neighborhood schooling model that defines communities.

Supporters say charters breed better and different ways to educate kids who are consistently left behind in traditional school systems. Charters have been billed as an alternative to struggling schools, especially in urban areas where they enroll concentrated numbers of low-income and minority children.

Studies on charters’ academic results show mixed results.

A natural pivot for the California Charter Schools Association Advocates could be the nonpartisan race for the state’s top education official, but Borden said the group has not decided how much support to give its favored candidate, Marshall Tuck, a former Los Angeles charter schools executive.

Tuck is running in November against state lawmaker Tony Thurmond, whom teachers unions have backed.

Where the charter group turns next might be something of an insurance policy: state legislative races.

“We have, since our beginning, a broad portfolio of offices that we care about,” Borden said.