Two Los Angeles Unified school board seats are on the ballot next week in an election that could shape the direction of California’s largest school district amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
With two of the board’s seven seats up for grabs, the election was already considered critical before the pandemic hit. Now, the stakes are higher. Covid-19 has forced students to learn from home since the end of last school year, exacerbating already-existing inequities for students with disabilities, Black and Latino students and other groups of students.
The next school board, which will take office in December, will be tasked with guiding the district through the pandemic and will ultimately decide when and how to reopen campuses. Other issues are also at play in the election, including the implementation of a new law that imposes greater restrictions on charter schools.
Like in the district’s past elections, charter school supporters are once again spending millions of dollars to support their preferred candidates. United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing teachers in the district, also is heavily involved in the election.
In District 3, which covers much of the West San Fernando Valley, union-backed incumbent Scott Schmerelson is being challenged by Marilyn Koziatek, a staffer at Granada Hills Charter High School in Los Angeles.
In District 7, which stretches from South L.A. to the Los Angeles Harbor, board member Richard Vladovic is termed out. Vying to replace him are union-backed candidate and community organizer Patricia Castellanos and Tanya Ortiz Franklin, a former teacher who is backed by charter school supporters.
“In my mind, the significance of the election is very much tied to the pandemic. Whoever gets elected will be helping to determine the very consequential decisions around the health and wellbeing of students, staff and faculty in LAUSD,” said Julie Marsh, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education and expert on L.A. Unified.
Governing in a pandemic
When the next school board takes office, L.A. Unified’s 600,000 students will likely still be learning remotely.
Currently, Los Angeles County is in the purple category of the state’s color-coded tracking system, the most restrictive ranking indicating that the virus is widespread in the county. Schools in counties in the purple category can’t reopen for in-person classes unless they are granted a waiver for elementary school students.
Schools in the county can apply for waivers to resume in-person learning for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. They also have the option of bringing back English learners, students with disabilities or other high-needs students in small cohorts.
L.A. Unified has yet to attempt to resume any in-person learning, a reality that is likely deepening educational inequities. In the spring, low-income students and Black and Latino students participated in distance learning at lower rates than their peers, as did English learners, students with disabilities, homeless students and foster youth, according to a district report.
And even though the district has distributed devices to students, many families have reported that they lack reliable internet access. A survey released last month of 1,100 families with school-age children in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles and Watts found that 25% don’t have broadband internet access at home, 17% have no internet access at all and 8% can only access the internet on mobile devices.
Superintendent Austin Beutner said during a recent speech that there is “no greater imperative” than reopening campuses for in-person learning.
“Young children learning to read, students learning English, students with differences and disabilities and those who were struggling before school facilities closed need to be back in classrooms. But they can’t return until it’s safe and appropriate,” he said.
The next school board will have to balance the need to get some students back in classrooms with the health and safety of students, staff and their families.
One area where the candidates agree is in their view that the school board should play a more active role in managing the district during the pandemic. Before L.A. Unified transitioned to distance learning in March, the board gave Beutner emergency powers, allowing him to enter into contracts and make purchases without board approval.
Beutner has used that authority to distribute meals to families, get internet devices to students and develop a mass Covid-19 testing and contact tracing program.
Schmerelson said in an interview that Beutner “has done an excellent job” during the pandemic but added that the time has come for the board to return to its traditional oversight role.
“We set it up this way because it was a dire emergency. But now I think we have to slow down a little bit,” Schmerelson said.
Franklin, the District 7 candidate, agreed and said the district should focus more on instruction and student outcomes during distance learning, rather than just on operational pursuits like testing and contact tracing, which has been a main focus of Beutner’s since the spring.
“This requires a real, intentional focus from our superintendent on teaching and learning and assessing student learning. And we’re not there right now,” said Franklin, who currently works at the Partnership for LA Schools, a nonprofit that manages 18 of L.A. Unified’s traditional public schools.
Franklin added that she would like to see the board have more public discussion about what a return to campuses could look like, but she added that given infection rates in the county, it’s “totally possible” that distance learning could continue for the rest of the school year.
Franklin’s opponent in District 7, Castellanos, said there should be a greater emphasis on training families on the online platforms students are using during distance learning.
Castellanos acknowledged that help is already available for families, but said support could be provided “more uniformly across the district.”
“And especially with the focus being on our highest-needs communities, because it’s difficult and it’s challenging for folks that aren’t native to technology,” she said.
Castellanos has a daughter who is a second-grade student at an L.A. Unified school. Koziatek, the challenger to Schmerelson in District 3, has two children who attend an L.A. Unified school. Both candidates said the district should be doing more to engage parents and get their input during distance learning and as the district considers whether to resume any in-person learning. Currently, no sitting school board members are parents.
“I think it’s vital that we have the perspective of a parent on the board,” Koziatek said. “It’s like literally having a seat at the table where we can weigh in on decisions that impact our kids.”
The outcome of the two school board races could have significant consequences for charter schools in Los Angeles. It’s up to the school board to decide how to implement a new law, Assembly Bill 1505, that gives boards more authority to reject new charter schools and changes the process for renewing existing charter schools.
L.A. Unified has already created a policy laying out its plans for implementing that law, but that policy faces significant pushback from charter school advocates, who say it threatens to put a moratorium on new charter schools in Los Angeles and could lead to the closure of existing schools.
Franklin and Koziatek both said in interviews that they would support revisiting the policy, while their opponents, Schmerelson and Castellanos, said they would be content to leave it as is.
The law has ambiguities that leave it open to interpretation. For example, it allows school boards to reject new charter schools if they are “unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community,” but the law doesn’t thoroughly define what comprises a community’s interests.
Charter school supporters argued that L.A. Unified’s policy would add regulations that are not consistent with the letter of the new law, such as permitting the school board to reject a new charter school based on their facilities plan if the board determines the plan doesn’t benefit the surrounding community.
“Our hope is that a new majority would rethink some of what we view as illegal and improper new regulations that they put in place,” said Gregory McGinity, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association.
Castellanos, the union-backed candidate in District 7, said the policy puts in place stricter oversight of charter schools, which she called much-needed.
“For now, I’m definitely comfortable leaving it as it is. We need to be able to make sure that before approving charters, we know what the impact is going to be on our neighborhood schools,” she said.
In District 3, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates has spent north of $3 million on advertisements supporting Koziatek and another $2.9 million on negative advertisements opposing Schmerelson, dating back to the March primary. Most of the funding for those ads has come from wealthy individuals including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Wal-Mart heir Jim Walton.
In District 7, Hastings and Manhattan Beach-based businessman Bill Bloomfield, another charter school advocate, have together spent more than $3 million on advertising to support Franklin since the primary. They have spent more than $1.8 million during that same span on advertisements opposing Castellanos.
John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies who is an expert on L.A. Unified, said in an email that public education “is not well served when extremely wealthy individuals from outside the community” pour that much money into elections.
“It strikes me as particularly troubling that dollars that could be invested in helping families struggling to get by amidst the pandemic are instead going to purchase flyers which quickly find their way into the trash,” he added.
The political arm of United Teachers Los Angeles has also purchased advertisements in the two races, but has spent only a fraction of what the charter school supporters have spent.
Marsh, the USC Rossier School professor, said the new charter school law is likely fueling much of the spending.
“I do think that the context is different in this election and we shouldn’t underestimate what that means,” she said.
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