School & District Management

L.A. School Board Race Tops Spending Records

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 28, 2013 7 min read
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The price tag to win a seat in this week’s primary election for the Los Angeles school board climbed to unprecedented levels, as a massive influx of outside cash has turned a local campaign into a national showdown pitting the long-standing influence of teachers’ unions against the expanding imprint of deep-pocketed education activists.

In the days leading up to the March 5 primary, total spending in three races for the Los Angeles board of education surpassed $4 million, roughly the same amount that Tom Torlakson, California’s schools chief, spent to win his statewide election in 2010. More than 80 percent of that spending on the Los Angeles races came through independent expenditures in behalf of candidates. Three seats are up for grabs on the seven-member board.

Much of the money poured into the Coalition for School Reform, a Los Angeles group that had been spending the cash on behalf of three candidates who back district Superintendent John E. Deasy and his agenda of revamping teacher evaluations to include student outcomes, speeding the process for firing underperforming teachers and principals, and supporting charter schools.

The coalition is closely aligned with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, who helped coax New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to give $1 million. Former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s Sacramento-based StudentsFirst organization kicked in $250,000; Eli Broad, the billionaire education philanthropist, also contributed $250,000. Mr. Broad, who lives in Los Angeles, has previously contributed to school board candidates he favored.

United Teachers of Los Angeles mounted a major effort, too, so far spending more than $600,000 and organizing in behalf of its preferred candidates, as well as opposing the re-election bid of Mónica García, the current board president and one of Mr. Deasy’s closest allies.

Vying for a Seat

Candidates who attracted big donations—either for or against them—in the Los Angeles school board race this week include, from left, challenger Kate Anderson, a lawyer and former congressional staffer; Mónica García, the current board president; and board member Steve Zimmer, a classroom teacher seen as a swing vote on the board.

Kate Anderson

Mónica García

Steve Zimmer

The high level of spending in the 670,000-student Los Angeles Unified system—the nation’s second-largest school district—is atypical for school board races nationwide even though big money has been a feature of the city’s board of education races since 1999. According to a 2010 National School Boards Association survey of elected school board members, 87 percent reported spending $5,000 or less on their most recent election, while just 10 percent of those serving in districts with at least 15,000 students reported spending $25,000 or more.

“I know I live in Los Angeles, but this is surreal,” said Steve Zimmer, a one-term incumbent whose opponent for the District 4 seat, Kate Anderson, has been the biggest beneficiary so far of the coalition’s independent expenditures.

Mr. Zimmer, a Teach For America alumnus who has been the swing vote on the school board, is getting major support from the UTLA and other labor groups. The independent expenditures on behalf of both Mr. Zimmer and Ms. Anderson in the District 4 race had topped $1.7 million as of last week.

The city’s ethics commission, which tracks campaign finances, reported last week that independent expenditures in the three board races represent a 977 percent increase over the primary four years ago, the last time these three seats were up for grabs. Local school board elections in California are nonpartisan.

Races Elsewhere

The influx of cash from influential outsiders and national advocacy groups into state and local school board contests—typically parochial affairs—has been on the uptick in recent years. A 2011 state board of education race in Louisiana attracted nearly a half-million dollars to support the candidacy of Kira Orange-Jones, the executive director of Teach For America in New Orleans, who defeated the incumbent she challenged. Mr. Broad and Mayor Bloomberg were among her supporters.

Similarly, last fall, New Orleans charter school supporter Sarah Usdin was elected to the city’s school board with more than $150,000 in campaign contributions that flowed from similar sources.

But the effort under way to shape the outcome of the Los Angeles school board election, while also challenging the long-held influence of the teachers’ union, dwarfs those efforts.

One authority on urban school governance said the spending spree may raise the profile of important education issues that voters might otherwise overlook, but it also carries risks for the activists looking to cement their preferences for policies such as charter school growth and overhauls to how teachers are hired, evaluated, and fired.

“What’s happening in Los Angeles raises a whole new paradigm in local board elections,” said Kenneth K. Wong, an education professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “These groups and their supporters are looking at key places that are on the threshold of reforms they favor, and they are investing their money there. Los Angeles is going to be a big testing ground for them.

“But it’s not without some risks,” Mr. Wong continued. “If they create too much political noise and a perception that they are distorting facts to get their message across, it could backfire.”

One civic and education advocate in Los Angeles finds the spending level distasteful, but necessary, he says, as a counterbalance to the sway of the UTLA, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

“I am not rooting for this, but if these [outside funders and education advocacy groups] don’t play, then nobody plays,” said David Abel, the chairman of New Schools/Better Neighborhoods, a civic organization. “And the unionists have become so strident that if you take them on, they try to crush you.”

But Mr. Abel, who is supporting Ms. Anderson’s candidacy, said neither side is having “any real debate and discussion about how to nourish and encourage student learning. I think both sides probably think they are doing that, but their adult skirmishes are not at all focused on student learning.”

Contest for Swing Seat

The battle is playing out most dramatically, and expensively, in Mr. Zimmer’s bid to get re-elected to a seat that covers a swath of West Los Angeles. A classroom teacher for 17 years before running for the board four years ago, Mr. Zimmer said he has sought to be a consensus-builder on the board.

Though the teachers’ union backed his candidacy, Mr. Zimmer said he has not always been in lockstep with its positions, and that he pushed its leaders to agree that student achievement had to be a key component of teacher evaluations.

But last year, when Mr. Zimmer proposed a measure that would have put a temporary halt on new charter schools until after a thorough audit had been done of financial, discipline, and special education practices in existing charters, he drew the wrath of the large and influential charter community in the city and the state. The board rejected the measure.

“There are charters that I would lay down on the tracks for,” Mr. Zimmer said. “But when it comes to issues around how they are serving kids in special education or requiring mandatory parent volunteer hours, I will keep raising those issues.”

Mr. Zimmer also said he does not wish to get rid of Mr. Deasy, despite his disagreements with the superintendent over how, exactly, to use student-achievement measures in teacher evaluations.

His opponent, Ms. Anderson, a lawyer and former congressional aide with two children who attend one of the district’s elementary schools, said that she viewed Mr. Zimmer’s stance toward important reforms, including charter schools and how best to use growth in student achievement in teacher evaluations, as antagonistic and that was what drew her into the race.

“We are on the precipice of real reform here,” she said. “We’ve got a phenomenal superintendent in John Deasy and we have to keep moving ahead. I feel very much like what’s going on here in Los Angeles is part of the national movement to improve education.”

Ms. Anderson has been endorsed by The Los Angeles Times. With no other candidates on the ballot, their contest will be decided in this week’s primary. The other races featured multiple candidates and could go to runoffs.

Nobody Wins?

In the District 2 seat that spans downtown and East Los Angeles and is now held by Ms. García, the board president, the stakes were also high. The UTLA focused its efforts on opposing her re-election without endorsing any of her challengers, even as other local labor groups support her candidacy.

Ms. García, a longtime ally of Mayor Villaraigosa, has been an outspoken supporter of charter schools and has received robust support from the Coalition for School Reform. The independent expenditures in support of and in opposition to her were approaching $1 million by the end of last week. She hoped to garner enough votes to avoid a runoff in May.

And in the battle for the open seat representing District 6 in the San Fernando Valley, both the coalition and the UTLA backed newcomer Antonio Sanchez. who has pledged his support for the superintendent.

David Tokofsky, a member of the school board from 1999 to 2007 and now a political strategist for the Los Angeles administrators’ union, called the board campaign a “tragedy.”

“Nobody is going to be the winner if the winner doesn’t focus on curriculum and instruction,” Mr. Tokofsky said. “I don’t see that the billionaires are going to do that, nor have my [teachers’] union friends set an agenda of learning for students.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Los Angeles School Board Race Shatters Spending Records


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