September 18, 2019

Charter schools the key issue as Jewish candidates seek LAUSD seat

Update: Steve Zimmer, LAUSD board president, conceded the May 16 runoff election for the District 4 seat, encompassing most of West Los Angeles and the West San Fernando Valley.

Ceding the race, Zimmer said he would not call his opponent, according to the Los Angeles Times. The contest between Zimmer, who has the support of unions, and Nick Melvoin, 31, backed by pro-charter school forces, was bitter at times, featuring sensational negative campaign ads and mailers.
Together with a win for pro-charter candidate Kelly Gonez in the Valley, Melvoin’s win signals a shift in favor of charter schools on the seven-member board. Election returns were not immediately available.

What normally might be a sleepy contest over a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board has instead become the latest proxy battle between teachers’ unions and charter schools.

The runoff between school board president Steve Zimmer, a longtime educator, and reform candidate Nick Melvoin has taken on an outsized significance and drawn record-setting campaign chests. Teachers’ groups, primarily United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), have worked toward electing Zimmer, while the California Charter Schools Association and other pro-charter forces have spent heavily for Melvoin. More than $7 million has been spent on the two candidates, records show.

The result is a race whose implications reach far beyond District 4, the Westside Los Angeles district the two men are competing to represent. All the major players — both candidates and the president of the teachers union, Alex Caputo-Pearl — are Jewish.

The two candidates face voters in a May 16 runoff after neither captured a majority of votes in a four-way primary in March. Zimmer came the closest with 47 percent, followed by Melvoin, with 33 percent.

To hear the teachers union say it, the race is about its very existence.

“It’s about whether we continue to have a civic institution of public education,” said Caputo-Pearl, standing outside the union’s Koreatown headquarters as a May Day march kicked off.

The march, he said, signaled the union’s participation in a national campaign “to resist all of the movements that we see coming out of the Trump administration.” Most presciently for the teachers is the fight against efforts, backed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to promote what supporters call school choice and opponents like Caputo-Pearl brand as privatization.

UTLA’s rhetoric proposes an axis that runs through President Donald Trump, DeVos, billionaires such as Eli Broad who dabble in education reform, and Melvoin, who in 2015 expressed support for a Broad proposal to put half of Los Angeles students into charter schools.

“They intend to create a school system that is not for all kids and is a privatized system,” Caputo-Pearl said.

In a statement, Melvoin disputed that characterization, saying L.A. Unified already is failing students by graduating 7 out of 10 students without basic math skills.

“To me, that’s not a district that’s serving all kids,” he said in the statement.

For his part, Zimmer describes a district that, while not perfect, is trending upward.

“I’m not saying we’re doing well enough, but we are doing better,” he told the Journal earlier this year. “An honest narrative is: This is a district that is improving.”

By contrast, in an op-ed in 2015, Melvoin asserted the district was ripe for a “hostile takeover.” UTLA took those as fighting words.

“Sounds a lot like Steve Bannon saying everything needs to be blown up,” Caputo-Pearl said, referring to the Trump administration adviser known for his disdain for big government.

Melvoin dismissed Caputo-Pearl’s barbs as “childish taunts” in the statement.

A victory for pro-charter forces in District 4, along with another seat up for grabs in the San Fernando Valley between seventh-grade teacher Kelly Gonez, backed by charter advocates, and community organizer Imelda Padilla, with support from unions, would spell a power shift in favor of charter schools on the seven-member school board. Although the district is cautiously favorable to charters — it currently has more charter students than any other school district — pro-charter victories in the two runoffs could mean a board disposed even more favorably to growing its charter enrollment.

Melvoin paints his approach as an all-of-the-above stance rather than an indiscriminately pro-charter one.

But charter forces apparently see an opening in him. Parent Teacher Alliance, a group funded by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), has mounted a muscular independent expenditure campaign on his behalf, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him defeat Zimmer. Others who have spent heavily for him include Broad and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican.

Richard Garcia, a spokesman for CCSA’s advocacy arm, says it supports Melvoin because “he’s open to listening to all voices,” whereas Zimmer would “remain beholden” to unions.

UTLA has responded with a campaign of its own, blanketing the city with mailers supporting Zimmer and attacking Melvoin. One branded Melvoin the candidate most likely to “implement the Trump/DeVos education agenda in L.A.”

Caputo-Pearl doesn’t expect to be able to outspend his ideological opponents in this race. Instead, he’s relying on the union’s manpower to help re-elect Zimmer.

“What we have,” he said, “is the credibility of educators going door to door, being on the phones and standing up for a public education system for all students.”