Governor candidates square off over education at San Diego forum

From charter schools to property taxes, six California gubernatorial candidates faced off on a range of topics Saturday before hundreds of school board members from throughout the state.

The half-dozen candidates, topping public polls on who will replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018, closed out the annual conference of the California School Boards Association, held this year at the San Diego Convention Center.

There was a fair amount of agreement on the stage Saturday morning. All candidates said they believe in the value of public education and in the sanctity of the close-to-home control that local school boards provide. And everyone agreed that something needs to be done about the state’s perennial low national rankings on student performance measures.

But they differed on how the Golden State should turn its educational situation around.

Asked whether they supported for-profit charter schools, candidates broke neatly along party lines with Democrats leaning firmer in their stances that profit had no place in education.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recent polls show has the broadest base of voter support, made it clear that he sees nonprofit as the only option.

“Schools are not economic entities. They do not respond to competition as businesses do,” Newsom said.

State Treasurer John Chiang was even more direct: “They shouldn’t be in existence. They ought to be operating in the private sector. If you’re going to use public dollars, then they ought to be used for the public good,” Chiang said.

But Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) noted that, with many schools in the state not meeting educational standards, educational results should be what matters most, regardless of business model.

“What says, if you have a for-profit charter school that has great results, they can't be in existence right alongside a not-for-profit charter school or a public school?” Allen asked.

But good results, countered former state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, can be easier for charters to produce due to their broader powers of student selectivity.

“The fact is, they’re cherry-picking the best and brightest and rejecting the kids who have special needs, or they’re sending them home before the test saying, ‘You better go back to the public school because you might bring our results down,’” Eastin said, drawing what was, by far, the loudest applause from the crowd of public school leaders.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he, too, opposes for-profit charters, but added that doesn’t mean there should be tolerance for failing public schools.

“I, as governor, will shut down schools that have failed our kids for a very long time, whether they’re charter schools or traditional public schools,” Villaraigosa said.

Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox said profit is not necessarily a problem as long as companies are operating with integrity.

“I absolutely want to go after any for-profit entity that wastes money or is not transparent. But I've got to tell you, the for-profit sector does a pretty good job in a lot of areas,” Cox said.

The school board association videotaped the entire discussion and plans to post an edited version of the debate on its website, csba.org.

paul.sisson@sduniontribune.com

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