School & District Management

Will Pro-Charter Victory in Los Angeles Spread to Other Cities?

By Arianna Prothero — May 30, 2017 6 min read
Nick Melvoin, newly elected to the Los Angeles school board, greets supporter Amy Baker, right, at his election night party in May. Melvoin, with millions of dollars in backing from charter school supporters, unseated a two-term incumbent who was heavily supported by the city’s teachers’ union.

Now that pro-charter-school forces have taken control of a coveted piece of K-12 real estate—the Los Angeles Unified school board—proponents of school choice are hoping the expensive and hard-fought victory in the nation’s second-largest district will lead to a more robust expansion of charters around the country.

After years of trying, charter school supporters succeeded in seizing the majority of seats on the Los Angeles board in a runoff election earlier this month, guaranteeing that the panel with broad powers over the 640,000-student district will support stalled efforts to expand the city’s charter sector.

It was a stinging defeat for the city’s teachers’ union, long the dominant player in the district’s politics.

Los Angeles Unified is the largest district in the country governed by an elected board, and the race for influence over its future direction pitted pro-charter forces who want to significantly grow charter schools there against teachers’ unions that have been aggressively fighting to hold the line on charters.

The election’s price tag—which brought an unprecedented $15 million in independent spending—underscored the tactical importance these groups see in Los Angeles.

Some view the Los Angeles race as a harbinger for battles over school board elections in other cities, and possibly bigger legislative battles in states over the expansion of the charter school market.

“I think this is a tectonic shift,” said Steve Zimmer, the union-backed school board president and one of two incumbents who were ousted.

“This was financed by private-sector reformers,” he said. “You can’t get away from that [...] the way that they’re going to be emboldened now, in terms of other school districts, in terms of the California legislature and beyond.”

Zimmer, a two-term incumbent, lost his seat to Nick Melvoin, whose candidacy was heavily bankrolled by pro-charter forces, including billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. (The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has provided support to Education Week.)

With wealthy pro-charter-school backers like Broad and Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and the powerful 35,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles in its backyard, the district has become well-trod turf in the proxy wars between charter supporters and unions.

Spending in the 2013 school board race—the last time Zimmer was up for re-election—was also driven by a heated battle between charter- and union-backed candidates and broke campaign spending records at that time.

Marketplace for Charters

But while charters have made meaningful inroads into Los Angeles, they have nowhere near the market share that charters have in Detroit, the District of Columbia, and New Orleans, which enroll 40 percent or more of students in their respective cities.

Twenty-four percent of Los Angeles students attend charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nationally, charter school growth has remained relatively flat in recent years, with just about 5 percent of public school students enrolled.

Upping the ante in this election was the future of an initiative spearheaded by the Broad Foundation to expand the number of charters in the city.

Initially the plan, which was leaked in its preliminary stages to the Los Angeles Times in 2015, called for doubling the number of charter schools in the city. After strong pushback, the plan was subsequently revamped to include investments in district schools. Any charter school expansion depends on the school board, which gets first crack at approving or denying new charter school applications.

“I certainly think that the elections signal an appetite for reform as opposed to a status quo,” said Myrna Castrejon, the executive director of Great Public Schools Now, the organization that was set up to carry out the Broad plan for charter expansion.

The group is currently developing grant programs to create new schools and tackle other issues such as teacher retention and recruitment for charters and noncharters.

“I think this election opens up the possibility for the district to increase innovation … and that should happen in both sectors,” Castrejon said, “and we stand ready to be part of that citywide conversation.”

The city is already home to several fast-expanding, nationally recognized charter networks run by nonprofit management organizations.

A Confidence Booster

Nationally, charter school advocates are trying to glean lessons learned from the election’s results and how they might replicate their success in Los Angeles to other jurisdictions. The victory in Los Angeles comes a few months after a bruising defeat for the charter sector in Massachusetts.

“If you invest in a strong set of candidates in a city that has a base of support for charter schools both in terms of the sheer number of charters and public knowledge of charters, you can impact the outcome of a board election,” said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the country’s largest charter-advocacy group.

“The fact that it happened in Los Angeles is very significant; it gave us confidence that we can play in these school board races and win,” she said.

Rees said outspending opponents is no guarantee of victory. Charter advocates are still smarting from last fall’s loss in Massachusetts, when their pricey ballot initiative to lift the cap on the number of charters in the state was soundly defeated.

The effort to keep the cap was organized and mostly funded by teachers’ unions.

Although charter backers spent handsomely on their campaigns—$26 million was poured into lifting the cap against the $16 million raised to keep it—62 percent of Massachusetts voters sided with the unions.

Governing Realities

In Los Angeles, the California Charter Schools Association (and various groups it funds) and Broad accounted for nearly $9.5 million of the almost $15 million in independent expenditures that flooded the school board race, according to campaign-finance records.

“It’s important to note that what the key distinguishing factor was between these two scenarios was the fact that a lot of people were already familiar with charter schools [in Los Angeles],” said Rees. “Whereas in Massachusetts, you only had a handful of people impacted by charter schools.”

The winning charter-backed candidates also had backgrounds working as teachers in Los Angeles Unified, an important asset, Rees added.

But even with a newly configured school board that’s supportive of robust charter growth, those ambitions may shatter against the realities of running the vast school district, said Lawrence Picus, a professor of education finance and policy at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.

All the school district’s baggage—declining enrollment and a largely failed effort to put iPads in the hands of every student—which haunted Zimmer throughout his campaign, remains.

“The school district faces what appears to be some difficult financial times due to declining enrollment,” said Picus, who lives in the district that was represented by Zimmer.

“The new board members will find themselves enmeshed in very complex budget challenges that will distract them from more charter schools.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Charter Win Brings Big Shift to L.A. Unified

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