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Charter-Union Showdown in Los Angeles: Massive Spending on School Board Race

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UPDATE: To read about the election results for the Los Angeles school board race, click here.

Two seats on the Los Angeles Unified School District's board of education—the second largest district in the nation—are up for grabs in an election today (Tuesday).

The more than $14 million that has poured into the candidates campaigns', as well as some high-profile endorsements, reveal how important the race is to charter school supporters and groups that hope to curb charter growth in Los Angeles.

The outcome of Tuesday's runoff election could push the school board's pro-charter members into the majority for the first time. And it's the board that has the power to decide which new charter schools get to open up in the city.

Spending from organizations, including the California Charter Schools Association and the United Teachers of Los Angeles, has surpassed the $14 million mark, and endorsements have been coming in from well beyond Los Angeles. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has thrown his weight behind union-backed candidates Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla, while Arne Duncan, the former U.S. education secretary under Barack Obama, has endorsed candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, who are also favored by the charter school establishment.

Los Angeles school board races have a history of being expensive endeavors. Spending in the 2013 school board race was also driven by a heated battle between charter- and-union backed candidates and broke spending records at that time. 

What Makes Los Angeles So Important to Pro- and-Anti Charter Advocates?

Although LAUSD is the second largest district in the country, it's the largest governed by an elected board. With wealthy pro-charter school backers, like Eli and Edythe Broad, and the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles in its backyard, the district has become well-trod turf in the proxy wars between charter supporters and unions.

As I wrote last year for a story on the 25th anniversary of the first charter school law, Los Angeles, in many ways, embodies the rapid evolution of the charter concept nationally and the direction in which philanthropy has pushed it. The city is a major beneficiary—or target, depending upon whom you ask—of foundation dollars. 

Charter schools currently enroll 24 percent of students in Los Angeles, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Although that's nowhere near the market share that charters have in the District of Columbia and Detroit (where charter students make up 40 percent or more of the student population), charters in Los Angles must win approval from the local school board before they can open.

Charter advocates, including several wealthy philanthropic backers, such as the Broads, the heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton's fortune, and Netflix founder Reed Hastings, see major potential—and demand—for growth.

Meanwhile, the 35,000 member-strong United Teachers of Los Angeles sees a threat in the schools which have been steadily expanding and are not required to have unionized staff. Although UTLA has been working to unionize the staff at some charter schools, they remain mostly non-union. 

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