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Who Will the Los Angeles School Board Represent?

Election Day Update: Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp has made a last minute contribution of $250,000, as revealed by this document filed on Saturday, March 3. The filings show the California Charter Schools Association also kicked in a ninth hour contribution of $300,000.

I wrote last week about how what has been termed the "Billionaire Boys Club" are filling Los Angeles airwaves with TV ads supporting their preferred "reform" candidates.

While many groups claim to be putting children first, the donors pitching in to help the corporate reform slate include people with some decidedly adult interests at stake.

Joel Klein, who works for Rupert Murdoch's education division, which includes Wireless Generation (now rebranded as Amplify), contributed $50K. Klein also is on the board of StudentsFirst, which reportedly received funding from Murdoch and contributed another $250K for this school board race.

What hasn't been reported is that Wireless Generation, the creator of DIBELS, a student assessment tool, already has a big contract with LAUSD. Here's what we know:

• LA Unified used DIBELS for all K-3 Students. According to the Los Angeles Unified School District's website,

The use of DIBELS, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, will give all K-3 students in LAUSD three benchmark assessments throughout the school year--beginning-of-the-year, middle-of-the-year and end-of-the-year, and it gives teachers the opportunity to monitor student progress in between assessments. Most importantly, these assessments will help teachers to match instructional support to specific student needs." [Emphasis added]


• Wireless Generation echoes that on its website,
Effective July 2011, all general education students in grades K-3 and students with mild/moderate disabilities in grades K-5/6 will be assessed using mCLASS®:DIBELS Next®(replacing SOAR).

By chipping in $50K from his pay as an employee of Murdoch, Klein is able to support a school board candidate who is likely to be receptive to continuing and growing the LAUSD-Murdoch partnership.

Another company that markets educational services is also in the mix. Les Biller, who is CEO of Knowledge Universe, founded by junk bond king Michael Milken, donated $25,000. The Knowledge Universe web site claims they are the "largest private early childhood education (ECE) provider in the US."

The big squeeze on donors is apparently coming from Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who reportedly raised $1.2 million for school board candidates in 2011, but appears on track to triple that amount for the current race. This level of spending is unprecedented.

We can guess what Joel Klein might have to gain with the election of a school board majority devoted to data-driven instruction. Campaign filings reveal a variety of other donors whose motives are less clear. Many seem to be allies of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villariagosa, who has openly taken credit for bringing in a million dollar contribution from New York mayor Mike Bloomberg. And he seems to have pulled out all the stops in getting others to contribute as well.

Here are some of the other LA movers and shakers who have ponied up. Some are familiar names - the company that brought us the parent trigger movie Won't Back Down, Anschutz Corporation, donated $100,000, and Eli Broad himself pitched in $250,000.

Other Hollywood names are prominent as well. Entertainment executive Casey Wasserman has donated $100,000. Donating $50,000 each are Monica Horan Rosenthal, who played Amy on Everybody Loves Raymond, the head of Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and one surprise donor, producer Kathleen McGrath, who co-produced The People Speak, a documentary based on Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States.

Mayor Villaraigosa, who will not be able to run for mayor again, seems determined to use this campaign to elevate himself onto the national stage. According to this report,

...the termed-out Mayor took credit for raising what he claims to be $3.7 million for the Coalition thus far.
"I'm the one raising it," he said. "If we lose Los Angeles and New York, we lose the heart and soul of the education reform movement. And the reason I've raised as much money across the country is because people get that."

The teachers and service workers unions have reportedly raised about $1 million to support the candidates they have endorsed, and are drawing on their members to attempt to counter the barrage of TV ads running against them.

This campaign is going to be fascinating to watch, because it shows the raw power of the wealthy supporters of corporate education reform, and their ability to bring that power to bear on a local school board race. The issues at stake are central to the direction of education reform. Will charter schools continue to expand at the expense of traditional public schools? Will teacher evaluations give more weight to test scores? Will seniority and due process protections be eliminated? The big question hanging over all of this is this: Who will a locally elected school board represent? The interests of its constituents - or the billionaires who paid for their campaigns?

What do you think this election tells us about the state of education -- and democracy -- in 2013?


Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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