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L.A. Board Election Critical for District's Future

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Voters will head to the polls on Tuesday to pick a majority of the members of the Los Angeles Unified School District board.  Depending on who one talks to, the election is either a yawner or critically important, a done deal or a cliffhanger.  My assessment: it's not a done deal, and it is important.

Here's why.  Superintendent Ray Cortines has been able to mold, bludgeon, threaten, or somehow get the fractious school board to work together.  Changing the membership threatens this fragile stability formed after the departure-dismissal of former superintendent John Deasy.  

Election.jpgThe election will also determine the level of board support for founding and operating charter schools in Los Angeles, which lists 264 operating charters and 15 more due to begin operations in the coming school year.

Even with a stable board, the nation's second largest school district faces a world of trouble.  Contract negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) are at impasse.  Some 10,000 teachers rallied downtown on Thursday.  A strike—if there is one—could well bring political pressure to break up the district.  And the district is still crawling its way out of the technology swamps caused by the crash of its student information system and iPad purchase failure.

Two Seriously Challenged Elections

Into this clouded situation march four incumbents and at least a couple serious challengers.  George McKenna, one of the few school principals in America to have a movie made about him, won a short term last year in a bruising election and faces no opponent for a full four-year term.  And board president Richard Vladovic faces political unknown Euna Anderson, who would be the voice of early childhood education and perennial gadfly Lydia Gutierrez.  She who ran for state superintendent of public instruction last year and garnered substantial Tea Party and Republican backing statewide.  In this contest, however, she will be running in Vladovic's labor-heavy, San Pedro port neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in the San Fernando Valley, incumbent Tamar Galatzan is running for reelection against five opponents—one filed an ethics complaint against her—and she could be forced into a runoff.  Galatzan has been a strong voice for charters and parental choice. 

Most of the big money action has been reserved for the District 5 race, which Bennett Kayser won in 2011 with $1.4-million from the UTLA PAC.  He is reliably anti-charter and pro-union, the teacher union's most strident voice on the board.  The highly gerrymandered District 5 was created in 1978 as a Latino seat on the board, and while they make up 73% of the district population Latino candidates have not controlled the seat.

Kayser, who once started a charter school, told a candidate forum last week that, "The time for charter schools has pretty much passed."  He added that the district cannot afford to approve charters at the current rate for much longer... .We will go bankrupt."  The L.A. School Report also reported Kayser as promising to "undo Prop 39," the voter-approved measure that allows charter schools to take over space in traditional public schools.

Kayser faces two substantive opponents, who could win outright or at least force him into a runoff.  Refugio "Ref" Rodriguez, founded 15 charter schools—there are 37 charters in District 5— and has been appointed to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing by Gov. Jerry Brown.

In his campaign, Rodriguez has been trying to escape the "charter guy" label, but the contest is perceived in terms of unions v. charters, and heavy financial support for the candidates has come from each sector.  Because so much of the campaign money comes from "independent" sources not reported by the campaigns themselves, the full extent of support for each candidate is still unknown, but it is expected to hit the $500,000 mark.

Also in District 5, Andrew Thomas is running as a good government candidate and has secured the editorial support of the Los Angeles Times.

If Rodriguez is successful in defeating Kayser and if Galatzan is re-elected, the balance of power on the board would shift from pro-union to pro-charter.  My guess is it would also change the dynamics of the board members and threaten stability.

An Election about Stability

The stability dimension of this election draws additional importance because of a ballot measure that would change the timing of school district and city elections to coincide with the general elections rather than holding them in the odd-numbered, off years.  Proponents of the ballot measure argue that the move would increase voter turnout and make school and city elections less captive of interest groups.  Opponents argue the opposite. 

If the ballot measure is successful, the terms of the newly elected members will be extended by two years creating a longer window of opportunity to establish stable operations within the district.

Cortines, who is 84, shows no signs of slowing down, but realistically stability in an instructional program, technology, and governance will require a handoff to a new leader headed in the same direction rather than one who wants to reverse field.

What's UTLA Going To Do?

There are other unknowns surrounding this election.

The first is what's UTLA going to do?  When Alex Caputo-Pearl was elected I had thought that he had sufficiently valid progressive credentials that he could position the union as an effective player in 21st Century education, essentially a Nixon-in-China move, something so audacious that only a someone with unquestioned credentials could pull it off.  What I see now is an attempt to build union strength by demonstrating its capacity to strike. 

While every union leader can and should build a strong labor organization, the question is how and for what.  In the axis of conventional labor relations, unions battle against management and the forces of managerialism in politics, which include a big hunk of the folks who call themselves "reformers."   But this is not the only battle unions, particularly UTLA, face and not the biggest one.

The most important union battle is to save public education.  The only way they can do that is to build its capacity to operate effectively. 

There are indications that those who call themselves "reformers" have moved from trying to manage public education better to trying to replace it.  For example, venture philanthropist Eli Broad's organization has announced that it will no longer give the annual prize for best urban school districts.  Instead, if Richard Whitmire's assessment is accurate, the new moves will be to replace public school districts with collections of charters.

I believe that the big strike UTLA is ramping up for would be its last, and that a sustained strike would unleash forces to break up or radically alter the school district.  Forces on the right that have never liked unions would likely join forces on the left that believe teachers have used union power for illegitimate self-interest.  The strong appetite of Los Angeles parents for charter schools suggests a lack of belief that the politics of getting-something-done is working.  The drift of conventional LAUSD schools to charter status suggests that there's not a lot of confidence among people inside the system that the politics of getting things done is working either.

Where's The Mayor?

The second wild card surrounding the election is Los Angeles' Mayor.  Eric Garcetti's relationship to public education has been almost invisible.  He has not been a divisive figure as his predecessor Antonio Villaraigosa was in L.A. or Rahm Emanuel has in Chicago.  But he hasn't been a coalition builder either.  As he builds momentum for a second term, the question emerges whether there is a civic coalition to be put together, about what, and on what terms.

It has been nearly two decades since there was a big civic coalition supporting public education in Los Angeles; it's an open field if the mayor wants to create one.

Photo: Jeroen van Oostrom via freedigitalphoto.net.


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