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Will a Pro-Charter Victory in Los Angeles Build Momentum in Other Districts?

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In a major upset last week, pro-charter school advocates won a majority on the Los Angeles school board—a turf they've been seeking to stake out for several years.

Los Angeles Unified is the largest district in the country governed by an elected board, and the race for its control and for the commanding influence over its future direction pitted pro-charter forces who want an expansion of that sector against teachers' unions who don't.  The election's price tag—which brought an unprecedented $15 million in independent spending—capture just how high the stakes are in this clash of the titans' storyline.

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Among the defeated candidates was the union-backed school board president, Steve Zimmer, who was first elected to the board in 2009. Zimmer, who says that he doesn't believe his loss represents "a mandate for charter school expansion," expressed frustration that the race wasn't focused more on that issue. 

I called him to discuss the election's outcome and what this newly configured school board will mean for Los Angeles and the country. Our conversation is below and has been edited for length and clarity.

Zimmer: There were a lot of pieces of this campaign that were never covered, that were never explained. First of all, and I know this is filtered through me and what I'm experiencing two days out. The campaign was not about any of the real issues. The campaign, if you followed it, was about an extraordinarily expensive but ultimately successful effort to create a narrative of failure about me, obviously, but also about our district.

[...] The election was really about control of the school board, and the election was about the expansion of charter schools, and the election was about, does someone who is kind of a moderate [regarding charter schools] but definitely a pro-regulatory leader, are they able to defend themselves against somebody who is in favor of large-scale expansion, and a much more de-regulated environment and other areas of school reform.

I take full responsibility that I wasn't able to cut through all of the madness and play that kind of offense. [...] The issue that you're writing about wasn't nearly debated enough in this campaign. It's not like voters cast a ballot saying, "I'm in favor of more charter schools." Voters cast a ballot saying, "We think Steve Zimmer failed" because of the narrative that [my opponents] built.

Ed Week: Will there be ripple effects beyond L.A., and if so, what do you think they will be? Why does this matter beyond your city?

Zimmer: I think this is a tectonic shift. We're the largest democratically elected school board in the nation. Yeah, all eyes were on this. And, look, there's two dangers, well there's a lot of dangers. But the biggest danger right now is whether it's in the state legislature in California, or whether it's in other school boards across the country, this was financed by private sector reformers. You can't get away from that. [...] the way that they're going to be emboldened now, in terms of other school districts, in terms of the California legislature and beyond.

[...] Prosecuting an election is different from governing a school district, and it remains to be seen how a new ideological majority will balance their responsibilities in a district that is still overwhelmingly neighborhood public schools that are not independent charter schools.

I understand the positions of the new majority extend well beyond just charter schools, but when we have reached the level of saturation [of charter schools] that [Los Angeles has], no honest analysis says that we can do large-scale expansion of charter schools without doing great damage to our neighborhood district public schools. That's a hard question to wrestle with when 80 percent of your schools are still LAUSD district neighborhood public schools. You can't do large scale expansion without damaging them.

There's no getting around that. And so you can win an election with that ideological perspective, and win an election because you created a narrative that the majority of voters believe, whether it's true or not, but to then govern and lead is a very different thing. And none of us know what that's going to look like.

Ed Week: In 2013, record amounts were spent on the local L.A. school board race, then. A lot of money was spent to unseat you, but it didn't work. What changed this year?

Zimmer: It's not that it's a completely different model, it's just that they perfected their model. And it's just grown exponentially in investment in the amount of money spent. It's grown exponentially in aggression and in the viciousness of the attacks. [...] They expanded their precision and focus. These are very smart people. We were facing kind of like, their version 4.0 was much better than their version 1.0.

Ed Week: But charter advocates outspent opponents in Massachusetts and it didn't matter. They poured a ton of money into that election and in the end, they lost the ballot initiative to raise the cap on charter schools in the state.

Zimmer: From a private sector perspective, that's a pretty good investment. We don't think about things like that in the public sector. I know that wasn't your question, but like, the amount of money they spend—the people who are spending this money, this is nothing to them. If they lost, they would just wind up and try again. Don't think that Massachusetts is over.

Again, in version 1.0 here, they lost. I was able to beat it back. [...] The successes that we have in playing defense are illusionary. Look, I'm not a big hockey person, but the reason why so many goals are scored on power plays is because there are less defenders. When you attack, and attack, and attack, better, and better and better, ultimately, if you're skilled, and they are, you're going to be successful. It doesn't mean you're right, and it doesn't mean that's what should happen.

So, I don't say that there's no comparison to Massachusetts, just don't assume Massachusetts was a one-time loss.

To read a Q&A with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' Nina Rees and her take on the Los Angeles school board election and what it means for charters nationally, click here

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