Blog: The Educated Reporter

L.A. School Board Election Seen as Victory for Charter Advocates

The Los Angeles school board is about to undergo a political sea change, as two candidates backed by charter school advocates won victories in a bruising runoff election that shifts the panel’s balance of power.

The Los Angeles Times describes the outcome as “a watershed moment with huge implications” for education in the nation’s second-largest city.

“The charter school movement has long been a major force in Los Angeles school circles,” write reporters Howard Blume and Shelby Grad for the L.A. Times. “But the victory Tuesday night by pro-charter forces — who dramatically outspent rivals in what was the most expensive election in school board history — gives them the opportunity to reshape the district.”

The story says the election also “marks a defeat for teacher union forces, who have long been a power center in L.A. school politics.”

District Is Primary Charter Authorizer

The runoff election for the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education has ousted board President Steve Zimmer, defeated by Nick Melvoin. The Times describes Melvoin as an attorney who has worked for pro-charter groups; he’s also a former teacher. Kelly Gonez, a charter school teacher, defeated community activist Imelda Padilla.

Los Angeles is home to more students in charter schools — about 156,000, as of 2015-16 school year — than any other U.S. city, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It had nearly 300 charters at that time, the group said, accounting for about 24 percent of students within the LAUSD boundaries.

The school district itself is the primary authorizer of charter schools. That role has drawn a lot of attention lately, as the district by most accounts has become stricter in approving applications for new schools, and extending the lease on life for existing ones. Critics say politics rather than reasonable judgment is behind some of those actions.

The election outcome is likely to make it easier for charter schools to get approved, and may well help spark further growth in the sector. At the same time, of course, the new board will have no shortage of challenges in working to improve conditions in the sprawling school system, amid declining student enrollment and major financial challenges.

By the Numbers

EdSource reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn offers detailed analysis on spending for the school board election, including not just the two candidates in the runoff but the earlier victory in March by incumbent Monica Garcia.

In all, the race generated some $17 million in campaign spending, a “massive sum that signaled the importance these races represented for both charter school advocates and teachers unions as they battle over the direction of charter school growth in the state,” Zinshteyn writes.” He notes that charter advocates outspent the unions by more than two-to-one on the Zimmer/Melvoin matchup.

Over at KPCC Southern California Public Radio, Kyle Stokes provides a close look at the election and its outcome, noting the strong emphasis on negative campaign advertising by both sides.

“Measured dollar for dollar, most of these attacks came from charter school groups targeting Zimmer, in particular, and Padilla to a lesser extent — but no candidate was exempt from outside mudslinging,” Stokes explains.

KPCC produced interview-based profiles of incoming board members Melvoin and Gonez earlier this year. Melvoin called for more “school autonomy and flexibility,” letting teachers and principals “do their jobs.” He also highlighted his support for school choice, but cautioned, “we need to make choices more accessible to all parents so that we don’t see choice exacerbate opportunity gaps.” And he outlined steps to shore up the district’s difficult financial situation.

Zinshteyn of EdSource also offered a sobering reminder on the paltry election turnout. The primary, in March, ultimately drew just 17 percent of registered voters in Los Angeles County, he notes. And, while final tallies were not available, only a “small minority” of those eligible cast a ballot for the runoff this month.

A Proving Ground and Battle Ground

Earlier this year, Howard Blume of the L.A. Times moderated a discussion for the Education Writers Association that spotlighted the charter school debate in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles has been both a proving ground and a battle ground for charter schools,” Blume said in setting the stage for that discussion at the EWA conference on covering charter schools. (Listen to an audio recording of the panel.)

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said a key problem he sees with the rapid growth of charters in Los Angeles is the lack of a clear plan.

“Where should [charter schools] be? Who should they serve? What’s the strategy here?” he said during the panel. “To me, there’s no strategy here. … This is where civic leadership has fallen by the wayside.”

LAUSD board member Ref Rodriguez, who also founded a charter school, agreed on this point.

“There’s no plan,” he said during the panel. “As a school district, there is no plan, and that’s unfortunate. … I would love to see a blue-ribbon commission come together.”

Noguera was quick to say the district itself faces severe challenges.

“The district is in trouble and is going to be in trouble for several years,” he said. “The challenge is how to shrink the district but at the same time improve schools. That’s a huge challenge.”

Even as Noguera offered criticisms of the growing charter sector, he said he can understand parents seeking other opportunities.

“When we look at the loss of enrollment, we can’t blame the parent for getting into what they think are better schools,” he said. “Middle-class parents have been doing that forever.”

‘Hit the Pause Button’

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the United Teachers Los Angeles, which put a lot of political muscle and funding behind the school board election, argued on the panel for a halt to charter growth.

“You need to hit the pause button,” said Caputo-Pearl, arguing that the issues of charters’ fiscal impact, their “equity impact,” have been unstudied. “We are not reflexively opposed to charters,” he said, “but we are opposed to a billionaire-funded effort.”

He added: “Planning is difficult to do when one sector won’t agree to common-sense accountability.” And Caputo-Pearl noted a “rising number of scandals” in charter schools.

Board member Rodriguez acknowledged that the district has been uneven in its oversight role for L.A. charter schools, but said the issue goes far beyond that.

“I do believe we need strong oversight for all of our schools, not just our charters,” he said. “We spend more time talking about our charters than the rest of our schools.”