The majority of Los Angeles Unified school board seats are up for grabs next week, a pivotal election that will shape how the state’s largest school district approaches several key challenges.
The next school board will have to grapple with budget deficits, enrollment declines and achievement gaps for black, Latino, low-income and other underserved students. However, the biggest issue framing the March 3 primary, with four of seven board seats on the ballot, remains charter schools and how to handle efforts to expand school choice. A new state law giving districts a bigger say on whether or not to approve new charter schools takes effect in July.
Candidates must earn more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 3 primary election to win a seat outright. If no candidate secures a majority of votes in any given race, that would trigger a runoff election in November featuring the top two vote-getters in that race. The next school board will be seated in December.
While school board elections in California historically have been low-key contests, that is not the case in Los Angeles Unified, where in recent years the battle over charter schools has ratcheted up the stakes. So far in this election, a total of about $7.2 million has been either contributed directly to campaigns or spent on outside advertising to support or oppose candidates.
Most of that spending has come from charter school advocates and United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s largest teachers’ union. More donations will pour in if any of the races head into a runoff election in the fall.
With more charter schools than any other school district in the United States, control of the Los Angeles Unified School District board is key for charter school proponents who seek expansion of charter schools and for United Teachers Los Angeles, which favors greater investment in traditional schools rather than opening new charter schools.
Some education experts and advocates caution against the feuding, saying it diminishes LA Unified’s ability to address its challenges. Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said the divide over charter schools makes it “almost impossible” for members of the school board to come together behind a vision.
“You need to have a leadership that can focus on tackling the deep and complex problems that face the schools,” Noguera said. “… I don’t see a leadership on the board that understands how to get organized as a board to address those issues. I see lots of competing agendas.”
With about 600,000 students, the district is the largest in the state — about five times as big as San Diego Unified, the next biggest district. The success of LA Unified’s students thus has far-reaching ramifications for California.
In this year’s election, two of the four races are especially competitive.
In District 3, incumbent Scott Schmerelson, who is backed by the union, is being challenged by Marilyn Koziatek, a staffer at Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles who has been endorsed by California Charter Schools Association Advocates, the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association. District 3 covers most of the West San Fernando Valley.
In District 7, which stretches from South LA to the Los Angeles Harbor, board member Richard Vladovic is termed out and five candidates are vying to replace him.
The lines are somewhat blurred among the school board members, with their actions regarding charter schools not always lining up neatly with their endorsements. Still, those two races will likely determine whether or not the board is generally more favorable to charter schools or the union.
Assembly Bill 1505, a new law brokered by Gov. Gavin Newsom, gives school districts more discretion to deny new charter school applications and goes into effect this summer. The next school board will be seated in December because the terms for board members in districts on the ballot this year don’t expire until Dec. 13.
Among its many provisions, the law allows school districts to deny a charter school if it is “demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community in which the school is proposing to locate.” To justify that finding, school districts may “include consideration of the fiscal impact” of the charter school on the district. Charter schools whose petitions are rejected still appeal to their county office of education.
Julie Marsh, a professor of education policy at the USC Rossier School of Education, said the law is unclear.
“People are not quite clear how to interpret what they would need to demonstrate to say that they could deny a charter based on financial harm,” said Marsh. “And so who gets elected to the board will make that determination.”
Charter-backed candidates last held the majority after the 2017 school board elections, when charter-backed candidates won all three races to gain a 4-3 board majority. But that majority evaporated when then-board member Ref Rodriguez resigned in 2018 after admitting to money laundering in his 2015 school board campaign.
Charter schools then became a flash point in the January 2019 teachers’ strike, when teachers said the growth of charter schools was hurting traditional schools financially. The momentum from the strike helped lead to the election of Jackie Goldberg, a fierce critic of charters, to replace Rodriguez.
To gain back the majority they lost in 2018, charter-backed candidates need to win just one race this year. The three board members not up for election — Kelly Gonez, Mónica García and Nick Melvoin — have all been previously endorsed by California Charter Schools Association Advocates. However, García is running for city council and, if she wins that race in November, would vacate her school board seat. That would then trigger a special election to replace her.
Union-backed candidates need to win all four races in the election to form a majority on the board.
“We’re in this to change public education, to keep it for the community, to keep it for the public and to keep it for the students and not turn it over to for-profit privatizers,” said Ingrid Gunnell, chair of the teacher union’s political action committee that is backing incumbents George McKenna in District 1, Scott Schmerelson in District 3 and Jackie Goldberg in District 5. In the pivotal District 7 race to replace Vladovic, the union is supporting Patricia Castellanos, who is currently a staffer for Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
Representatives of the charter school association’s political arm declined to be interviewed on the record.
Once elected, board members do not always vote in lockstep with the interest groups that endorse them. For example, Gonez has sometimes voted in favor of policies that are tough on charters, including when she supported a board resolution last year that emerged from the strike calling on the state to impose a temporary moratorium on new charter schools in the district. That moratorium did not gain enough support in the state Legislature for passage.
Still, both the teachers’ unions and charter advocates are aggressive in their attempts to gain as much influence as possible on the board. They have wrestled with each other for influence in the district since the 1999 school board elections, according to Charles Kerchner, a professor emeritus of education at Claremont Graduate University who has written extensively about the conflict. In 1999, a slate of pro-reform candidates supported by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan won a majority of school board seats. Since then, the majority has changed at least four times.
This year, the conflict is especially noticeable in District 3, where the charter school association has so far spent about $2.4 million in an attempt to unseat Schmerelson, a close ally of the teachers’ union, in favor of Koziatek.
The charter group’s spending in District 3 has been split between advertisements supporting Koziatek and advertisements attacking Schmerelson. In one recent advertisement, Schmerelson is depicted wearing a gold chain and holding cash alongside a misleading claim that he “tripled his own pay” while on the school board. In reality, the board’s salaries are set by an independent Los Angeles city commission.
“I am absolutely stunned at the viciousness of the advertising,” Kerchner said.
Schmerelson, who is Jewish, in a statement this month called the advertisement “blatantly anti-Semitic.”
The union has spent about $544,000 to support Schmerelson’s campaign.
Also vying for the District 3 seat is Democratic Party activist Elizabeth Badger, who also ran unsuccessfully in 2015.
The other competitive race is in District 7. The union’s political arm has spent about $600,000 on advertisements supporting Castellanos in that race.
Castellanos told EdSource she wants the next school board to “be confident in the authority” it will be able to exercise under AB 1505, the new charter law.
“I’m not saying no charters ever, but I think the important thing that AB 1505 does is to be able to analyze and look at how those schools are impacting our neighborhood schools,” she said. “I want to see our neighborhood schools succeed and I don’t want anything to get in the way of that.”
The charter school association has not endorsed any candidate in District 7 but Manhattan Beach-based businessman Bill Bloomfield, who is a longtime supporter of charter schools, is spending heavily to support two candidates, Tanya Ortiz Franklin and Mike Lansing.
Franklin is a staffer at the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that manages 18 traditional public schools in LA Unified. Lansing is the executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor and previously held the District 7 seat from 1999 to 2007.
Bloomfield has spent about $700,000 on advertisements supporting Franklin and another $300,000 on advertisements supporting Lansing. He has also spent about $380,000 on advertisements opposing Castellanos.
The other two candidates in District 7, Silke Bradford and Lydia Gutierrez, have not received significant support from either side and say they would be independent voices on the board. Bradford is a former teacher and principal who has also worked as a charter school authorizer in Oakland, Los Angeles and now Compton. Gutierrez is a teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District.
The contests in Districts 3 and 7 will be settled in March if one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. If not, the top two vote-getters in each race will face each other in a November runoff.
Elsewhere, McKenna is unopposed on the ballot in District 1 and Goldberg, who was elected by a landslide in a special election last year, is running against one opponent, Christina Martinez Duran, in District 5. Those races will be settled in March.
In District 5, Bloomfield has spent $467,000 to support Duran and $744,000 on advertisements attacking Goldberg.
Whoever emerges from each of the races will need to address issues including the wide achievement gaps in the district. Those gaps affect a number of different student groups, including black and Latino students, who lag far behind their white and Asian peers in math and English performance.
To some advocates, the charter school debate is partly to blame for those disparities.
“There’s been so much fighting about charters that people forgot to educate black kids,” Isaac Abdul Haqq, a black education activist in Los Angeles, told EdSource. “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. African American students have been the grass in these charter school fights.”
Other major issues facing LA Unified include financial concerns and declining enrollment.
The district says it is spending at a deficit and could run out of money by 2021-22. The union says those predictions are overstated but has acknowledged that the district is spending its reserves and needs a plan to fix its budget.
Meanwhile, the district’s total K-12 enrollment has declined each year since peaking at about 747,000 students in the 2002-03 school year because of factors including declining birth rates and increased cost of living in Los Angeles.
Noguera, the UCLA professor, said LA Unified has struggled to respond to those challenges, something he says is partly explained by turnover in the district’s leadership that stems from the board’s often changing dynamics. The district has had six superintendents since 2000. Depending on the outcome of the election, the next board could opt to replace current superintendent Austin Beutner, Noguera said.
“It would be a reflection of the dysfunction of the board, but it’s possible,” he said. “If you look at … urban districts that are making progress, they have continuity in leadership. They have a leadership that is focused on education, not politics.”
Some school board candidates, such as Bradford, have called on the board to put the charter battles to rest and focus on addressing the district’s other challenges.
In her role as a charter school authorizer, Bradford has recommended both the approval and denial of charter schools, something she says is evidence she is neither pro-charter nor anti-charter. She also worked in both charter schools and traditional schools when she was a teacher and a principal.
“This fight hasn’t advanced either sector,” Bradford said. “Both sectors have their problems. I’m just hoping that the board can move beyond the warring faction of the campaign to actually working on improving both sectors because all the kids are still our kids. It doesn’t matter what school they’re going to.”