Yesterday the subscriber-only political almanac California Target Book reported that spending by all independent expenditure committees (IECs) on Sacramento legislative races in the general election had topped $41 million. That brought the year’s total of outside money for state Assembly and Senate seats, including primary races, to $70 million.
But the real surprise of this election was just how much of 2016’s independent expenditure spending can be attributed to a handful of committees tied to charter school groups. According to the California Secretary of State’s Cal-Access website, charter IECs pumped close to $24 million into about 35 Assembly and Senate races, along with school board races in Alameda and Sacramento counties in the north, to Riverside and San Diego counties in the south.
Under state law, an independent expenditure is any campaign spending that is “outside” the control the candidates whom it is benefiting or opposing. An IEC can funnel unlimited amounts of money from corporations, nonprofits, and wealthy donors, as long as it does not coordinate the spending activity with candidates, who are under strict, albeit voluntary campaign limits.
California’s “school choice” movement has always benefited from generous subsidies by a narrow spectrum of big-spending entrepreneurs, many of whom are billionaires. Their wealth has helped give the state the highest number of charter schools in the US, even as their election largess has left it with the nation’s most expensive school board elections.
Capital & Main’s analysis of the latest campaign-finance records for the five largest charter school IECs reveals that those same personal fortunes are at the center of the charters’ apparent attempt to buy some Sacramento political insurance against a growing resistance among both lawmakers and the public to the industry’s unbridled expansion in the state.
The amount spent by charter IECs represents about $40 for each of California’s 581,100 charter school students, and a 300 percent jump from 2014 charter election spending — about 570 percent over 2012.