August 23, 2019

Melvoin: ‘New blood, new ideas’ and charter schools

Nicholas Melvoin, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate running for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) District 4 board seat, has a law degree, social justice credentials and Southern California good looks. He is also ambitious, charming and, at present, unattached.

“On the campaign trail, I meet a lot of grandmothers that want to set me up with their Jewish granddaughters,” Melvoin confessed with a sly smile. “Until they realize what the school board pays” — a modest $45,000 a year — “and then they’re like, ‘Nope. Sorry.’ ”

Melvoin is one of three challengers fighting to oust school board President Steve Zimmer, 46, a two-term incumbent, to represent a wide swath of Angelenos from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley. The others are public relations specialist Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill, an attorney who has taught on the high school level. The primary is March 7, and if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers compete in a May 16 runoff.

[Zimmer: District headed in the right direction]

With spiky blonde hair and blue eyes, Melvoin looks more like an actor or agent than a guy who started his career teaching at a middle school in Watts. On the day we met in Beverly Hills, he wore a sport coat accented with a red pocket square and left the top buttons of his shirt undone in the calculated style of Bernard Henri-Levy. Melvoin’s image is an accessory to his political ethos; he presents himself as the suave, idealistic change-maker who will reanimate the financially struggling school district with new ideas and needed reforms.   

Part of his challenge is to unseat an incumbent with whom he has much in common: Melvoin and Zimmer are Jewish, Democrats and adjunct college professors, and both got their start in public education working for the nonprofit Teach for America.

“Me and Steve could be brothers,” Melvoin said. “We’re both these bleeding hearts.”

Yet, despite his professed admiration for Zimmer, Melvoin doesn’t hesitate to argue that Zimmer has failed to improve the district.

“Steve’s weakness is that he’s had eight years,” Melvoin said. “District finances are in shambles, student achievement is not improving, and charter schools keep cropping up. Despite what I think are very good intentions on Steve’s part, there just haven’t been results.”

Through the most recent reporting period, Melvoin has raised more than $296,000 to Zimmer’s $93,000; he’s also won endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, former Los Angeles Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan and the California Charter Schools Association.

Zimmer has received strong financial support from two of the city’s most powerful unions: United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.      

Although Melvoin and Zimmer hold some shared values, there is a sharp contrast in their approach to dealing with LAUSD’s most pressing issues: a potential $1.5 billion budget deficit, with an additional $13.6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities; the exodus of 100,000 students from public schools to charter schools over the past decade; and ever-sensitive issues regarding teacher tenure and accountability. 

In fact, they sharply disagree on just how much they disagree.

“I’m torn,” Melvoin admitted, “because I like Steve a lot as a person.

“Do Steve and I want the same thing at the end of the day? Yes. My thing is not anti-Steve at all. It’s new blood, new ideas.”

“I appreciate the compliment,” Zimmer said in response, when reached by phone. “But you know, when you make the decision to challenge a reasonably well-liked and reasonably successful incumbent, the only way to do that is to unleash a ferociously negative campaign. [Nick] made the decision to do this, and that just raises some questions about how deep that respect really runs.”

At play in the struggle between them is nothing less than a debate about the state of LAUSD itself: Is it a flawed agency getting incrementally better under Zimmer? Or a broken institution, owing to years of failed leadership? To win, Melvoin will have to prove that youthful idealism is enough to surmount an entrenched bureaucracy.

“One of the reasons I’m so passionate about education is that the whole promise of America, which was true for my family and lots of Jewish immigrant families, is that in spite of where you started, you will succeed — because we have free public education,” Melvoin said.

Melvoin considers himself a beneficiary of public education even though he only briefly attended public school growing up in Brentwood. With two successful, working parents — his father is a television writer and producer; his mother, a photojournalist —  Melvoin attended elite prep school Harvard-Westlake then earned his undergraduate degree in government and English at Harvard University.

After graduating, he was hired by Teach for America for a two-year fellowship at Markham Middle School in Watts. The disparity between his background and that of his students’ was stark: “When I got there, there had been five principals in 3 1/2 years; only 4 percent of eighth graders were proficient in algebra and 6 percent in English. I thought, ‘How are they supposed to succeed?’ ”

Melvoin was laid off twice in the two years he taught at Markham, both times due to budget cuts. The district’s policy of seniority — known as “Last In, First Out”— protects teachers who have tenure, which means that new, young hires are generally the first to lose their jobs. When nearly 70 percent of Markham’s teaching staff was laid off, Melvoin felt the layoffs disproportionately affected low-income population schools such as Markham, so he partnered with the ACLU in 2010 to bring a lawsuit, Reed v. California and L.A. Unified.

“We argued that it was unconstitutional that these layoffs disproportionately impacted poor students of color and violated their right to a quality education,” Melvoin said. The case was settled in 2014, with the promise of new investment into 37 LAUSD schools.

Zimmer, a teacher for 17 years, and Melvoin sharply disagree on issues of teacher tenure and accountability. Melvoin asserts Zimmer is so beholden to the teachers union that he is reluctant to enforce performance measures that could weed out underperforming teachers. Zimmer paints a more complicated picture.

“We have dismissed more ineffective teachers in the last five years than in the previous 25 years combined,” Zimmer said.

Melvoin decided after the ACLU lawsuit that he could have a greater impact on education through policy than teaching in a classroom. He received a full scholarship to study civil rights law at New York University and spent the next three summers burnishing his credentials with various internships — including with the ACLU, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and finally, the Obama White House.

But his friendly disposition toward charter schools — something he shares with new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — has led some to compare Melvoin with Trump’s White House. And not in a good way: Zimmer criticized Melvoin for supporting a 2015 plan from philanthropist Eli Broad that some regarded as an effort to privatize public education. “That would be the end of the LAUSD school district,” Zimmer said.   

Melvoin said the financially troubled district has no business turning away philanthropic investment. “It’s not like Eli Broad, an 87-year-old with $6 billion, is making money off his investments in public schools. That is just a conspiracy theory that doesn’t hold,” Melvoin said of Broad, who has contributed to his campaign. “The negative motive the union and Steve ascribe to these people is really toxic. It’s kind of like Trump-like.”

Melvoin said he supports charters “as long as they’re outperforming district schools and parents want them.” He points to 107,000 kids in LAUSD charter schools, 16 percent of total enrollment — with another 40,000 on a wait list — as the clearest “indictment of a failed school district.”

But even though charters provide a better option for some students in the district, it remains the province of the district’s public schools to protect the integrity of a public educational system that is often the only path forward for countless students, especially those from low-income or minority communities.

At Markham, Melvoin said he saw firsthand what happens when schools do not adequately prepare students for their future. “The one chance [some of these kids have] to get on their feet is a good school,” Melvoin said. “We [can’t mess] that up.”