The growth of charter schools is the central issue in the contentious—and expensive—Los Angeles Unified district school board races, most of which seem to be headed for a runoff later this month.
Three of the seven school board seats were up for grabs in this week’s elections, which drew a total of more than $6.6 million from contributors, according to the news website EdSource. The media outlet reports that most of the money came from teachers’ union and pro-charter groups..
What is hanging in the balance is whether the school board tilts for or against a plan to nearly double the number of charter schools, most of which employ nonunionized educators, in the nation’s second largest school district. With 279 charter schools, the district already has the most charters in the country. Pro-charter candidates needed to win in all three districts to change the tilt of the board. The board approves charter applications but also must follow state laws, which are pretty friendly to charter schools. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Howard Blume explains: “Their votes could move the nation’s second largest school system from steady, strong charter growth to swift expansion at a time when L.A. Unified is struggling with years of enrollment decline.”
Tuesday was a primary election. Candidates needed to garner 50 percent of the vote to avoid runoffs. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, just one school board candidate reached the requisite simple majority needed to avoid a runoff. Mónica García, the board’s longest serving member, was reelected last night. According to EdSource, she received $150,000 from both the California Charter Schools Association and the Service Employees Union International. According to the Los Angeles Times, Garcia is considered pro-charter, but union leaders didn’t think they could defeat the incumbent given their limited resources.
The other two races, including the reelection campaign of the current board President Steve Zimmer, will be decided by a May 16 runoff election. Zimmer came just shy of the 50 percent cutoff, receiving 47 percent of the vote.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican who supports charters, spent more than $1 million on the effort to unseat Zimmer, who was endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles.
“The vast majority of the charter schools do not have unions,” Riordan told EdSource. “And therefore, they can hold teachers accountable for doing a good job. If a teacher doesn’t do a good job, they’re fired.”
KPCC, an NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles, took a look at the race, which it called, “the most negative LA school board race in years.”
Pro-charter groups have lambasted Zimmer for his 2013 vote for a $1.3 billion plan by then-Superintendent John Deasy to put iPads in the hands of every student in the district. Those iPads came preloaded with software from Pearson, the educational publishing and software company. The initiative was widely painted as a failure, and Deasy ended up resigning over the matter. In the school board election, pro-charter groups accuse Zimmer of being an enabler of the plan. KPCC reports: “Charter groups have drawn connections between Zimmer and the iPad debacle in other ads, too, including a mailer fashioned resembling the title card of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” except swapping out a prison mugshot in the original ad for a photo of Zimmer.”
"[The ad] is unfair because everybody in this race would’ve made the same decisions with the facts that were in front of us,” Zimmer told KPCC. Even one of his opponents says Zimmer was far from the plan’s mastermind.
Also headed to a runoff is Kelly Gonez—a 28-year-old charter school teacher—considered the pro-charter candidate in the third race. She got the most votes but was far from a majority, receiving just 36 percent of ballots cast. The labor-backed candidate, Imelda Padilla, received 31 percent of the vote.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.