Education Funding Opinion

A Shameful Big-Money School Board Election in L.A.

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 23, 2017 8 min read
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(Updated 6/12/17 to distingish between Ross Valley and Ross school districts)

Remember the little dog you used to have: the one that chased cars but was smart enough not to ever catch one? Nick Melvoin caught the car. Now, he and his big money backers have to figure out what to do with the nation’s second largest school district.

Melvoin upset school board president Steve Zimmer winning 57% of the vote in school board District 4, and Kelly Gonez more narrowly defeated Imelda Padilla, 51% to 49%, for an open seat in District 6. Monica Garcia had won reelection in District 2 in the March primary. They join Ref Rodriguez, a former charter school operator, to form a solid majority of charter-friendly members on Los Angeles Unified School District Board

Melvoin won his race against Zimmer with the backing of uncounted millions in visible and dark money from charter school backers. Howard Blume followed the visible money in the Los Angeles Times. Counting just the money that has been reported so far, nearly $15-million poured into the election. Charter backers spent $144 a vote in the Zimmer-Melvoin contest, making it by all estimates the most expensive school board race in the nation’s history.

In comparison, Donald Trump spent about $5 a vote in direct campaign contributions and Hillary Clinton about $10. (This doesn’t count the estimated $5-billion in free media coverage Trump’s campaign of outrage attracted.)

Charter school backers outspent Zimmer’s main support—United Teachers Los Angeles and other labor organizations—nearly 2 to 1.

All this money produced one of the most negative, nasty, and slimy electoral contests in history. The group called “LA Students for Change” was actually a pro-charter political action committee that promised students cash for their participation.

The slime runneth over. My home is about 40 miles away from theschool board district involved in the Melvoin-Zimmer election, but when I retrieved my Los Angeles Times on Sunday before the election I was greeted by a rap-around ad featuring a smiling Melvoin. On the inside sheet was an attack ad against Zimmer with the incumbent’s face artificially darkened: a favorite racist campaign trick; make the opponent look dark and scary.

This was the opposite of money laundering. The more that these folks spent, the dirtier they looked.

Soiled or not, the dog has caught the car.

Trench Warfare

The election is being touted as the beginning of something new because charter-friendly members hold a board majority. It’s not. Instead, it represents just one more charge in the trench warfare that has dominated LAUSD politics since 1999. The board majority has turned over at least three times since then. There is no reason to believe that this board majority is to be any more stable than any of the previous ones.

In an election night interview, Melvoin repeated his passion for kids, parents, and school choice, adding “The district as a district is like an abstract concept.”

Guess what, it’s about to become a lot more real. LAUSD’s chronic financial problems, which plagued its school boards for at least four decades, are now on Nick Melvoin’s and Kelly Gonez’s heads.

A blue ribbon review panel called together by former superintendent Ramon Cortines projected a $333-million budget deficit by 2017-18 and a $600-million deficit by 2019-20, driven primarily by pension and health care costs.

The report concluded, “Thus, if the District desires to continue as a going concern beyond FY 2019-20, capable of improving the lives of students and their families, then a combination of difficult, substantial and immediate decisions will be required. Failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD and the loss of local governance authority that comes from state takeover.”

Charter schools add significantly to the fiscal threat. Enrollment drives revenue in California, where stable property taxes make up only a small part of the schools’ revenue base. And over the last decade, LAUSD has lost 100,000 students, significantly more than the entire student population of Long Beach. About half the decline is attributable to changes in demographics: aging families and a decline in immigration. But the other half represents students who have left district-run schools for charters, 50,000 of them.

Welcome to school board reality.

Then, there’s the matter of the labor contracts. United Teachers Los Angeles’ contract expires in June, along with labor agreements with 10 other unions. UTLA, whose core strength is fighting, will come to negotiations with a war chest fattened with dues increase to $1,000 a year passed last year in anticipation of a strike.

No Easy Way Forward

Charter school advocates glibly mouth the phrase “that a Zip code should not determine the educational quality that a student receives,” and that parenthetically student choice answers that problem.

But it doesn’t.

(Side note to Nick and Kelly: the Zip code slogan has become a favorite of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in her stump speeches. If you want to retain any street creds as a Democrat, you might think about erasing that from your language system.)

One of the lessons from school reform efforts in other cities is that it is very difficult to expand charter offerings and improve district-run schools at the same time. Newark, New Jersey’s, reform scheme tried to do both, but it left Cami Anderson, the superintendent brought in to implement district reforms, with a hopeless task. Charters were disproportionately attracting “the choosers.”

Despite demographic similarities, the populations attending district and charter schools are different. "[P]arents who are savvy and proactive about their children’s education—the kinds of parents who give their kids a head start on their schooling—are more likely to find out about charter schools in the first place, attend their meetings, enter the lotteries for admission and then help their children succeed at those schools,” said a Los Angeles Times editorial.

The effects of more motivated students and families moving to charter schools has implications that go beyond losing attendance-based state and federal revenue. As the editorial said, “another important question as the number of charter schools grows is what the effect will be on the culture of schools and on their achievement levels as more motivated parents and their children abandon district schools.”

The “chooser” issue will be particularly important as the demographics of Los Angeles change. In a reversal of the trend over the past half-century, the core of Los Angeles is becoming popular as a place of residence for the young and well educated. The critical question for LAUSD is whether its schools will be attractive to them or whether they will shun district schools in favor of charters or private schooling. The idea of “common schooling,” an American hallmark since the early 19th Century, hangs in the balance.

There is a peace dividend, a big one, which I’ll write about in future posts. Because the current battle lines in the charter war perpetuate stalemate, a productive peace requires creating a new goal, so that the question becomes how to design a 21st Century school system rather than whether the old system should have more or fewer charters.

Charter Wars Spreading Statewide

When I wrote about the Broad Foundation plan to increase charter enrollment to more than half the school population, I predicted a charter school war and that it would spread statewide.

By all evidence, it has. The California Charter Schools Association and its allied political action committees spent more than $19-million in legislative races last fall. And they mostly won.

In the legislature this spring, charter school money successfully defeated a bill (SB322) heavily backed by the California Teachers Association and supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. In this well-researched EdSource report, Mikhail Zinshteyn details the growing charter financial and political clout.

The politics of charters will be front-and-center in statewide races in 2018. Marshall Tuck, who is running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, was at Melvoin’s victory party. So was former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is running for governor. Tuck sent out a “great news” email and linked his candidacy to Melvoin’s campaign strategy.

Meanwhile, there are rumblings from wealthy districts where residents see charters as exclusive enclaves promoted by self-indulgent parents. The politics they cause in tiny districts, such as Ross Valley (a 2,200 student elementary district in Marin County) are as bitter and divisive as those in Los Angeles. (Ross Valley serves the communities of San Anselmo and Fairfax and not the community of Ross, which has its own one-school district.)

“It’s a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, and it actually creates a problem that need not exist,” Manor Elementary School PTA President Heather Bennett told Capital & Main reporter Bill Randen.

An even more bitter controversy has raged for years in the high performing and wealthy Los Altos Unified School District, where even richer parents in Los Altos Hills ignited a litigious and long running battle over the Bullis Charter School. Just as in Los Angeles, charter backers are heavily financing local board candidates.

Cars Are Hard To Digest

I have a lot of empathy for the folks on the L.A. School board. They are faced with extremely challenging and very real problems. But they are both the product and the victim of dysfunctional politics, and the chances that they can think outside of the trenches they’ve dug are remote at best.

They need a better idea and a better organizing principle than charter schools.

As for Gomez and Melvoin, I’m certain they will find that chasing the car was much more fun that actually catching it.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.