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  • In this Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015 file photo, Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, stand for a photo amid Jeff Koons sculptures at his new museum called "The Broad" in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Saturday, May 13, 2017 12:56 pm

Handful of rich school-choice donors spend big in California

SOPHIA BOLLAG | Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Much of the funding for California's pro-school choice groups and candidates comes from a handful of very wealthy donors, including the founders of Netflix and The Gap and children of Wal-Mart creator Sam Walton.

An Associated Press analysis of top donors to school-choice ballot measure campaigns around the country found 48 individuals and couples provided most of the reported contributions to those initiatives since 2000. Some of those top donors are major backers of pro-school choice candidates in California.

In the past, California teachers unions have spent big to defeat high-profile school choice candidates. Last year, several state legislative candidates backed by school choice advocates beat union-backed candidates. Looking ahead to 2018, some of the most active school choice donors are already contributing to pro-charter candidates for governor and state schools chief.

The California Teachers Association and its allies defeated a 2000 ballot measure backed by venture capitalist and former state board of education member Timothy Draper to launch a school voucher program in California. Draper contributed $23 million to the effort — the most one person has ever contributed to a single school choice measure. But teachers unions spent even more in opposition.

Draper said he became dissatisfied with the public school his kids attended, where he said school boards, teachers unions and textbook makers were looking out for themselves rather than children.

He put his kids in private school instead.

"I realized that's not fair," Draper said in an interview. "I get to yank them out, and no one else does."

Vouchers could allow other schools to break up the traditional public schools' "monopoly," he said.

Since 2000, Draper has not been a major player in school-choice politics — partly because of the high cost of his ballot-box failure. Three years ago, Draper put his own money into an unrelated measure to divide California into six separate states. That one didn't make the ballot.

Although his vouchers initiative failed, Draper says his efforts helped pave the way for the charters in California.

Charter schools are publicly funded but typically run independently of the traditional public school system. Studies on how effective they are compared with traditional public schools have found mixed results.

Since the failed ballot measure campaign, other wealthy California families and individuals have spent millions to support groups that contribute to pro-school choice candidates in state races.

Netflix founder Reed Hastings has donated more than $5.8 million to a California Charter Schools Association political committee during the past two election cycles.

Donald and Doris Fisher, the founders of clothing retailer The Gap, have donated more than $6 million to groups like California Charter Schools Association Advocates and EdVoice, an advocacy group that supports charter schools. Donald Fisher died in 2009.

Eli Broad, founder of SunAmerica and KB Home, also has donated millions to those groups.

Hastings, Broad and Doris Fisher all live in California.

Jim Carr Walton and Alice Walton, children of the Wal-Mart founder, have contributed millions to California organizations that advocate for school choice. The siblings, who are based in Arkansas and Texas, respectively, each gave $1.4 million to EdVoice last election cycle.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has contributed at least $2 million to pro-school choice groups and candidates in California since 2013. Most of that money has gone to California Charter Schools Association committees.

Pro-charter school groups and their allies spent millions on the 2014 campaign to elect Marshall Tuck, a former Los Angeles schools executive who advocated education reform, to head the state's public schools. Tuck lost to California Teachers Association-backed Tom Torlakson.

Pro-school choice groups EdVoice and the California Charter Schools Association Advocates spent more than $3.4 million on the Democrat-on-Democrat race in California's 14th Assembly District in the San Francisco Bay Area to support Tim Grayson and oppose Mae Torlakson. The CTA backed Mae Torlakson, Tom Torlakson's wife, spending nearly $1 million in the race. Grayson won.

EdVoice also outspent the California Federation of Teachers backing Bill Dodd over Mariko Yamada in California's 3rd Senate District north of San Francisco. Dodd prevailed in the Democrat-on-Democrat race.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an advocate for charter schools, has already started to see money from prominent school choice donors pour into his 2018 campaign for governor. Hastings has donated $36,400. Broad, who contributed to three of Villaraigosa's past mayoral campaigns, has contributed $112,400 to the 2018 gubernatorial bid along with his wife, Edythe Broad. They've also contributed $29,200 to Tuck's campaign to run again for public schools chief in 2018.

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Cherry Hill, N.J. , contributed to this report.