Hollywood Insiders Battle Over Charter Schools

Guy Shield

It's industry creatives vs. Reed Hastings as California bills restricting new options are up for vote: "The people backing charters [are] really problematic."

When LAUSD board member and charter school advocate Ref Rodriguez pleaded guilty in July 2018 to a felony count of conspiracy, it seemed that Los Angeles' charter school movement had hit a critical low. Rodriguez's unraveling over campaign finance violations tipped the balance of power on the seven-member board that oversees the nation's second-largest school district, weakening its charter school block.

Tensions between proponents of public schools and of charter schools — which are started by parents, teachers or community groups and receive government funding but operate independently of state school systems — were already high. The January teachers' strike won concessions for LAUSD public schools ranging from smaller class sizes to hiring full-time nurses but was marked by heated anti-charter rhetoric. Critics of charters say they continue to drain much-needed resources from public schools. "If LAUSD were properly funded, then I think the choice that a charter school gives would be a nice one," says writer Audrey Wauchope (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). "Unfortunately, it often seems that going charter is now just another way for parents to leave behind their neighborhood school."

Public-school proponents contend that charters operate without sufficient oversight (proof of which came in May when California authorities arrested two men for allegedly stealing more than $50 million in state funds via a network of online charter schools). For their part, charter school operators argue that they provide parents with other, better options than LAUSD, which they say is failing many of the city's underprivileged kids.

And as they furiously lobby in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C., both sides see bogeymen at work. The charter schools say the teacher unions are trying to crush them out of existence: California Teachers Association (CTA) spent $4.3 million on lobbying this year, much of it on anti-charter-school legislation. On the other side, CTA and the other major union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), contend that charter schools are a front for libertarian, union-busting billionaires. The deep pockets of Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Netflix's Reed Hastings — who has poured tens of millions of dollars into California charter school initiatives — have helped the movement grow from 250,000 to about 630,000 students over the past decade. "Aside from the people who are backing charters, which is really problematic, any time we as a society say, 'We're not going to deal with this problem, so let's start this exclusive thing over here' — that worries me," says producer Justin Halpern (Harley Quinn).

In most states, charter schools are exempt from collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions. But while they’re not required to be unionized, they're also not prohibited, and a growing pool of charters are opting for unionization. The majority, however, are still not unionized.

Hastings in particular has emerged as one of UTLA's favorite betes noires. In 2016, Hastings created the $100 million Hastings fund, which is run by Neerav Kingsland, who previously ran a network of charter schools in New Orleans. In 1998, Hastings helped lead a successful effort to loosen California's charter law, and he has served on the boards of the California Charter Schools Association and the KIPP Foundation and has given millions to groups that back charter-friendly politicians. "It's really bad right now," says screenwriter Lindsay Sturman (Teen Wolf, Rizzoli & Isles) of the in-fighting and lobbying. Sturman, who founded Larchmont Charter school in 2004 and has helped launch several others across the city, says she has never seen the debate between charter- and public-school advocates as vindictive as it is now.

The entertainment industry hasn't exactly been sitting this one out. Producer Mark Gordon and Kristen Bell occupy seats on the board of Citizens of the World Charter Schools, which has three L.A. schools serving over 1,300 students. Ava DuVernay was a keynote speaker in July at the annual summit of KIPP, a network of 242 U.S. charter schools, in Houston. LAUSD school board member Nick Melvoin — the son of screenwriter and former Writers Guild officer Jeff Melvoin — is considered one of the most effective charter school advocates in the city. And Hollywood executives and talent, from David Nevins to Colin Farrell, send their kids to L.A. charter schools.

The battle has put progressive Hollywood in an ideological pickle. On the one hand, charter schools help underprivileged students greatly outperform their peers at local public schools. Yet the entertainment business remains one of the last unionized industries in America, while charter schools, the majority of which are not unionized, work to undermine California's teachers unions. And President Donald Trump's 2017 selection of pro-charter billionaire Betsy DeVos has been charged by public-school proponents as a sally to privatize education, prompting Democratic charter supporters to re-evaluate their positions. Several Democratic presidential candidates who had previously supported charters have pivoted away from them. When asked about the issue during the campaign, former Vice President Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have all used language that has signaled more tepid support of charter schools than in the past. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has even called for a halt to all federal funding, and an outright ban on for-profit charters (California already has a ban).

In September, the California Assembly is expected to vote on two bills that, if passed, would place strict new limits on how and where charter schools can be opened in California. The bills (AB 1505 and AB 1507) will require the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently faced off against Hastings and California Charters School Association (CCSA). The lobby had spent millions of dollars attacking Newsom in last year's gubernatorial race. (A spokesman for the governor declined to comment.) Says Myrna Castrejón, CCSA president: "This started from an existential threat where our opponents wanted to kill us, and we've been digging ourselves out of that."

Halpern would not be sorry to see charters wane, saying: "I feel like the industry has been moving towards a more civic-minded attitude when it comes to public education." On the other end of the spectrum is Sturman, who waxes nostalgic over the early days of Larchmont Charter School. "Both sides have a lot to bring to this table, and we need to have an honest conversation about what's working and what's not, because we all share the same goal," she says. "I deeply believe that teachers need to have a voice. That said, I feel like the fight is against Trump and this feels like we're wasting our energy."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.