They are Democrats and Republicans. They are residents of California, New York and Arkansas. They have made fortunes in technology, real estate, retail and media.

What do these billionaires have in common? They aim to shake up public education by promoting charters—schools that receive taxpayer funds but are not required to follow all the rules that govern traditional schools. And their newest goal is to try to elect California’s next governor.

Several wealthy business leaders have poured millions of dollars into a campaign backing Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat and former mayor of Los Angeles. Their spending, which follows similar efforts in key legislative and school board races, has made the California governor’s race the latest front in a long-standing war.

Charter advocates see teachers unions as caring more about working conditions for teachers than learning outcomes for kids. Union leaders see charters, most of which hire non-union teachers, as threats to their livelihoods. But the two sides also clash more broadly over how to improve public education.

It’s an urgent question in California, where less than half of students meet standards in reading and math, and performance by children from poor families is almost the worst in the nation.

Major donors to charter school campaign supporting Villaraigosa for governor

Today ads by the charter group are beaming Villaraigosa’s smiling face onto TVs and into mailboxes, while radio commercials by the rival teachers union criticize “out-of-state billionaires… trying to buy our politicians.”

The big-money battle has injected serious competition in the race leading up to the June 5 primary, from which only two of 27 candidates for governor will advance to the November general election. The frontrunner, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, earned the state teachers union’s endorsement after telling it in a questionnaire that he does not want to increase the number of charter schools in California. (His spokesman said Newsom wants to pause new charter approvals until there’s agreement on conflict-of-interest rules.)

Charter school supporters may be an effective counterbalance to the prevailing influence public-employee unions have long exerted on Democratic politics. But the tycoons’ spending also points to the outsized sway personal wealth can have on elections.

“I think it’s a problem for Villaraigosa,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Getting too much money from one sector starts to raise some questions about who you are going to be beholden to. And I say that as someone who likes (Villaraigosa).”

He watched Villaraigosa spar with the Los Angeles teachers union when, as mayor, he took control over several low-performing schools. Some of those schools have since shown what Noguera called “extraordinary improvement” in graduation rates, safety and parent satisfaction.

To improve education statewide, Noguera said, the next governor will have to thread the needle on charter schools—cracking down on those that misuse public funds while spreading methods from successful charters to other schools.

The governor can play a critical role in setting education policy by signing and vetoing legislation that impacts California’s 10,000 public schools, enacting an annual budget that pays for educating more than 6 million students, and appointing members to the state board of education.

Unions behind Newsom have set up campaign funds to support him, to date raising $1 million from the California Teachers Association and more than $3 million from other labor groups.

The California Charter Schools Association Advocates, which is running the independent expenditure campaign supporting Villaraigosa, has raised $17 million so far. That includes $7 million from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; $2.5 million from former housing developer Eli Broad; and $2 million each from from investment firm manager William Oberndorf and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
What’s their motivation?

“My wife Edye and I are graduates of Detroit Public Schools,” Eli Broad told CALmatters in an email. “I attended a public university and was the first in my family to go to college. I couldn’t have gotten there without my incredible public school teachers. Edye and I have dedicated ourselves to philanthropy for 20 years because we want to help public schools like the ones we attended.”

“These folks stand to gain nothing except for their own satisfaction that they are working to help the kids of California get a materially better public education,” said Gary Borden, executive director of the charter association’s political arm.

The group cites Villaraigosa’s record as mayor and as assembly speaker, where in 1998 he helped negotiate a key agreement allowing charters to expand but forcing them to hire credentialed teachers.

Villaraigosa entered politics as a union organizer, and became mayor with significant help from labor. Then he began criticizing the teachers union as the major obstacle to improving education, and turned to wealthy donors, including Broad, to fund his vision for public schools. Broad said Villaraigosa “did things no one else had the courage or capability to do.”

“He sold out,” countered Arlene Inouye, secretary of United Teachers of Los Angeles, “and has been on the other side in terms of what’s best for education.”

Los Angeles now has more than 200 charter schools where teachers are not represented by the union, according to Inouye. She said they work longer days and school years than union teachers, and some are required to leave their cell phones on until 7 p.m. to take phone calls from parents.

“They can put any requirements they want on these teachers,” she said.

Villaraigosa said union rules hurt the education of needy students by favoring teachers with more seniority and allowing them to decide what subjects they wanted to teach.

“In high school you could say ‘I want to teach algebra’ even if that’s not your strength. In my schools, I changed that,” he said in an interview with CALmatters. “I want somebody who can teach algebra. That’s not a radical notion. That’s not an anti-union notion.”

Newsom said Villaraigosa has been too harsh on teachers and is now “being rewarded” for it by donors.

“I appreciate what charters promote in terms of innovation,” he said. “But I also believe in transparency and accountability.”

Just 10 percent of California students attend charter schools, but supporters and opponents alike believe the movement has the potential to impact public education more broadly.

Unions see charters as a threat to traditional schools, pulling away students and funding while being allowed to skirt some employment and governance rules school districts must follow.

“They want to be able to cherry pick students,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “They want to do away with educator rights and they are anti-union.”

Charter supporters see their schools as an additional choice for parents, frequently offering specialized programs and less bureaucracy. In their view, charters create competition in the public system that could help all schools improve.

“It’s a ripple effect,” said Borden, of the charter school group.

The vast majority of California’s 1,275 charter schools are run by nonprofits. But 34 charters in the state are run by for-profit companies, according to a legislative analysis. Investigations have shown that some of them reap millionsof taxpayer dollars while providing a shoddy education.

Teacher unions and charter advocates have both proposed bills to crack down on for-profit charters, but they stalled in the Legislature with the two sides unable to agree on the same solution. It was one of several debates last year in which charter advocates and teacher unions killed each others’ agendas, leaving plenty of education policy for the next governor to tackle.

Key questions include whether charters should be required to follow a conflict-of-interest law that school boards must follow (as unions would like) and whether charter schools will be allowed expand their reach (as charter advocates would like).

CALmatters education reporter Jessica Calefati contributed to this report.