How big a factor is Trump's school choice support in the LA charter school debate?

Two young attendees of an anti-Trump rally, led by the United Teachers Los Angeles labor union, hold signs ahead of a march on Jan. 19, 2017.
Two young attendees of an anti-Trump rally, led by the United Teachers Los Angeles labor union, hold signs ahead of a march on Jan. 19, 2017.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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Luna Cruz, 9, pushed through the crowd at the teachers union rally in front of her school, Grand View Boulevard Elementary. A teacher had asked if she would speak in front of the gathering — a protest of President Donald Trump on the eve of his inauguration.

The crowd had swelled beyond the "dozens" the union had expected. Hundreds turned out to hear speaker after speaker denounce what they termed Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric — and also to criticize the president for his nomination of private school voucher and charter school advocate Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education. (A Senate committee voted Tuesday morning to send her nomination to the full chamber.)

In front of the large crowd, Luna, a fourth grader, couldn't gather the nerve to speak. But later, after the crowds around her west Los Angeles school had begun to disperse, she said this was what she wanted to tell the president:

"It’s not fair that you’re doing this," she said. "You shouldn’t be doing this. You need to stop."

Stop what? "Trying to turn public schools into charters."

President Trump has promised to spend $20 billion on expanding "school choice" — meaning, policies which give students more chances to attend private or charter schools. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and prominent Republican donor, was critical in bringing charter schools to her home state of Michigan.

But in deep-blue L.A., some charter school leaders say the Trump administration’s embrace of school choice has complicated the local political debate over charter schools.

They're worried Trump's support at the federal level might prove toxic enough that it ends up helping local opponents of charter schools  — publicly-funded schools run, not by a school district, but by an outside organization such as a non-profit.

"It would be much more valuable for me, frankly, if [the president] just said he hates charter schools," said Caprice Young, chief executive officer and superintendent of the Magnolia network of charter schools.

"The fact," Young added, "that Trump supports charter schools gives the opposition to charter schools in California an opportunity to equate charter schools with the things that Trump cares about, that most Californians are opposed to."

"Certainly what’s happening at the national level is trickling down," said California Charter Schools Association spokesman Jason Mandell. "And yes, it does provide folks who don’t like charters to make charters an issue and equate them with Trump … It’s a shame. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with."

Even if Trump poses a public relations challenge for L.A. charter schools, he could also bring measurable benefits to the sector. The federal government spends annually to help new charter schools start up and existing ones expand — a program whose $333 million appropriation grew nearly two-thirds under the Obama administration, and which could see even further increases under Trump and DeVos.

"Next to philanthropy," said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Association for Public Charter Schools, "the federal government has been one of the steadiest and best friends of charter schools."

But charter school leaders and interest groups say most of the laws and decisions that affect them most are not made in D.C., but at the state and local level.

Already, pro-charter school interests are influential players in those spheres. They were this past election cycle's biggest outside spenders in California races. Charter school "independent expenditure" groups went toe-to-toe with teachers unions in eight state legislative races last November; in seven of those races, the charter-backed candidate won.

At the local level, too, charter schools and teachers unions are doing battle. Three Los Angeles Unified School Board seats are up for election this spring, and charter school-allied candidates are currently out-fundraising union-backed opponents by wide margins.

In L.A., the charter school debate has historically played out among liberals: the traditionally-Democratic teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, versus a largely-progressive corps of charter school leaders. The president's name is also beginning to surface in the debate, indicative of a broader fight on the left about whether opposing Trump means opposing charter schools.

During a speech at that rally, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl tied together Trump, DeVos and Eli Broad — the L.A.-based pro-charter philanthropist and political donor.

"We’ve got to make sure," Caputo-Pearl said, "we are saying to Eli Broad and Democrats in California, 'Are you with Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, or are you with students, parents, and teachers?'"

Young said she worries those linkages between charter schools and Trump's policies — no matter how tenuous — could be a liability.

"It worries a lot of my charter school buddies," Young said, "because … we’re mostly lefties and we care about the environment and we care about healthcare. We care about marriage equality … and we don’t want to be equated with the kind of hate speech that the president has been promulgating."

Indeed, Young points out many charter schools were set up specifically to serve minority and immigrant populations most unnerved by Trump’s victory.

“We have our most vulnerable populations feeling so unsafe and afraid,” said Ana Ponce, who runs Camino Nuevo charter schools, which enroll significant English Learner and immigrant populations. She noted some charter schools have declared themselves "safe school zones" for immigrant students. (The L.A. Unified board has taken a similar stand.) 

“They are the populations that are feeling the most threatened," Ponce added. "The rhetoric is targeting them … Whether it’s physical or emotional safety, they are in an environment with a lot of tension and a lot of fear right now.”

Ponce said whether charter schools would see benefits under Trump's administration "remains to be seen." She said saying public educators ought to demonstrate unity in support of their students and "really find that common ground."

Cristina de Jesus, CEO of Green Dot California's network of charter schools, said it's not yet clear whether Trump will be a liability in local political debates.

"I would say the issues that are flaring up have been issues that have been there for years now," de Jesus said. "Unfortunately, we as an education community in Los Angeles have not been able to come together in ways that matter for children."

"I believe," she added, "that discriminatory practices of any kind are against the core values of this country as well as the core values of our organization, plain and simply. I would say that yes, if the administration is linked to those types of practices, it could give the opposition more material to go off of in order to oppose the growth of charter schools…

"I would just ask we try to separate the issues," de Jesus said. "I know that's difficult to do."

UPDATED: This post has been updated with the result of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee's vote on DeVos' nomination.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misidentified Cristina de Jesus as head of Green Dot Public School's network of charter schools in California, Tennessee and Washington state. She is CEO for Green Dot California.