Los Angeles school board elections send an important signal to the nation

Learn more about Ruben Navarrette.
Ruben Navarrette
Fellow, Education Reform
George W. Bush Institute

New L.A. school board represents a big turn of events, one that might have ramifications nationally

San Diego–In the United States, it is commonly said that revolutions start in the West. Whether it was the crusade for the rights of crime victims in the 1970s, the grassroots uprising to lower property taxes in the 1980s, or the citizens’ rebellion that sought to curb illegal immigration in the 1990s, California is often the vanguard of popular movements.  

If not at the front of the line, the Golden State is usually very near the front. And often — not always, but often — other states follow.  

It’s a safe bet that, right about now, charter school advocates across the country are hoping that trend continues. The latest revolutionary development to come out of California is that — after a pair of recent school board elections — charter school advocates now control the governing body of the nation’s second-largest school district.  

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a K-12 enrollment of more than 660,000 students. It is overseen by a seven-member school board.  

And, as with most school districts in the country, the elections to fill these seats often have less to do with education than with politics. Part of the reason is that these positions have often been launching pads for political careers that might at some point in the future include campaigns for city council, state assembly, even Congress. 

But in the recent elections to fill two seats, and determine the path ahead for the district, there was another dynamic at play during months of campaigning: charter schools.  

The timing was perfect. This year marks the 25th anniversary of charter schools. The first such school was City Academy High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, which opened its doors on September 7, 1992. 

Opponents of charter schools like to spin the yarn that charter schools can afford to be picky while public schools have to take all comers.  

Nonsense. At City Academy, the targeted population is “primarily 15–21 year old students who are currently un-enrolled, underprepared, and at risk for dropping out.” More than 90 percent of students are minorities, and 86 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Before attending City Academy, more than 90 percent of its students did not attend any school at all. Some students enroll after being released from juvenile correctional facilities. 

This year, LAUSD turned out to be a major battleground in the war between charter school advocates and the water-carriers for teachers unions that want public schools to be a monopoly. But before we get into the specifics of what happened in Los Angeles, let’s spell out the rules of the game. 

When you compete with the public schools for students, you start out a novelty. Then you become an annoyance. Then you’re a threat. And finally, when you start attracting more students — and the public schools begin to lose funding — you’re a target. 

In the 20 years that I’ve followed and written about charter schools — which started with my stint as a general assignment reporter and metro columnist at the Arizona Republic, in a state that was an early leader in the charter school movement, and leads to where I am now, as the father of three kids who attend Montessori charter schools — I’ve seen this educational innovation go from novelty to threat.   

A couple of decades ago, you would not have seen teachers unions and other groups intent on preserving the educational status quo bother to go to war with charter schools. After all, back then, the whole concept of a charter school — one that is given less state funding than traditional public schools but enjoys more freedom to experiment with non-traditional teaching methods — was only a few years old. 

In one of the districts in Los Angeles, a seventh-grade science teacher named Kelly Gonez had support from charter school interests. She pledged that, if elected, she would make sure that school board decisions take into account the voices of teachers, parents and school staffers — or, as she put it, the folks “working in the trenches.” Her opponent, Imelda Padilla, a community organizer, was backed by the teachers union.  

In the other district, Nick Melvoin, an attorney and former teacher, also had support from charter school interests. He campaigned on local control and vowed to give greater flexibility to parts of the district over school structure, budgeting and staffing. He faced off against Board President Steve Zimmer, a veteran teacher who promised to regulate charter schools and enjoyed support from the teachers union. 

Gonez and Melvoin won, while Padilla and Zimmer lost. Total spending on the races exceeded $15 million. Now Gonez and Melvoin — the charter school advocates — will join kindred spirits Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez to create a pro-charter schools majority on the school board. 

Stay tuned. It’s really an amazing turn of events, one whose ramifications may spread far and wide and be felt for years to come. 

Where LAUSD goes from here is anyone’s guess. But, with charter school advocates at the helm, I can tell you where it’s not going. And that’s backwards.