School Choice & Charters Q&A

Los Angeles Offers Playbook for Charter School Expansion Efforts Nationally

By Arianna Prothero — May 24, 2017 5 min read
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Los Angeles has long held strategic importance to charter school advocates looking to expand their footprint in America’s cities, and last week, they notched an important victory when charter supporters clinched a majority of seats on the city’s school board in a runoff election.

The $15 million in independent spending that went into the board election from the state’s charter schools association, local and national unions unions, and deep-pocketed doners, among others, underscores the tactical importance these groups saw in Los Angeles.

For more on what the ripple effects of this election might be locally and nationally, I spoke with Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the nation’s largest charter advocacy group. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ed Week: What does the outcome of the election mean for Los Angeles’ charter schools? What is the importance of this?

Rees: It shows that 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 families benefiting from charter schools and public knowledge about charter schools, you can impact the outcome of a board election. The fact that it happened in Los Angeles was very significant. It gives us confidence that we can, in fact, play in these school board races and win if we have strong candidates and messages that resonate with the voters.

Ed Week: If you could put it in context. Have charter advocates gotten a victory of this scale in other school board elections?

Rees: Well, Los Angeles is unique in so many ways. ... First of all, they have had a charter law in California for a very long time, and Los Angeles is the city that has the largest number of students in charter schools. You also have charter schools in different communities. It’s not just a phenomenon that’s taking place in certain neighborhoods and only targeting poor students. In that respect, to the extent that you have dynamics like that, the playbook in Los Angeles can definitely translate into other places.

The reason that it’s significant of course, it’s on the heels of the defeat of the ballot measure in Massachusetts for instance, and that was a very different scenario. 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 L.A.], whereas in Massachusetts, you only had a handful of people impacted by charter schools and that effort was confined to one region.

... I think to the extent, districts don’t have large robust charter markets, I don’t know if there are other lessons in terms of how they messaged and how they got those who didn’t have a stake in the game to show up.

Ed Week: I remember covering Massachusetts and it seemed the unions there were very good at getting their message out. But the United Teachers of Los Angeles is such a strong union. Did they just not have as strong a ground game this time? In the past, the union-backed candidates have won in L.A., and it’s just now shifted after years of these kinds of efforts. Was it the strength of the charter school messaging or did the union fall asleep at the wheel a little bit?

Rees: It’s probably a little bit of both. ... I think it’s telling that one of the [winning charter-backed] candidates was in fact a teacher herself, so we weren’t putting candidates out there that that had nothing to do with education. The other one also had a background in education. [Both the winning candidates, Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, have worked as teachers in Los Angeles Unified School District schools.]

I do think that given that they are the strongest union in the country that this definitely doesn’t bode well for them. But what they know how to do, and this is worth mentioning, they do know how to fight, win, and go onto the next fight. And when they lose, they are quick to pick up and focus on the next fight.

So, if anything, this will probably embolden them to be ready for the next fight. For us, if anything, we just need to be aware of the fact that, yes, we had this one victory should celebrate today but we should quickly gear up for the next fight and understand they are not going to just fold because of this one instance in Los Angeles.

Ed Week: You talked about strong candidates and messaging, that these things really mattered, but what was the impact of money? Critics have said that the California Charter Schools Association and Eli Broad outspent the unions and that this is a bought election. What do you say to that?

Rees: The other side also spent quite a bit. If you were to just base it on expenditures, the pro-charter side should have won the Massachusetts ballot initiative. I don’t know that money alone can make the difference. But the idea that we shouldn’t spend money is very naïve. This is ultimately going to depend on voter turnout and making sure that people are getting up in the middle of a timeframe when you’re usually not going to the ballot box, to show up and vote in a runoff election is going to require investments.

Ed Week: Anything else that strikes you as interesting in the election results?

Rees: For us, just the fact that this is a heavily Democrat city and state, and that so many prominent Democrats supported these candidates also furthers the case that charters are a bipartisan issue.

... [T]here is definitely the push by the unions to conflate charters with choice, and broader plans to expand choice. I don’t know how consistently they’re going after that, but definitely the embrace of the Trump administration of charters, is something the other side is trying to leverage. I think there is something to be said about how this election was won, and how charters are still very popular with the Democratic base.

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Photo courtesy of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.