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Why This Year's LAUSD Election Isn't The Slugfest Over Charter Schools We've Come To Expect

A series of campaign mailers, all printed on glossy cardstock pages, are spread on the floor. Both feature women posed smiling toward the camera and campaign messages for the candidates, Rocío Rivas and María Brenes.
Mailers from this year's race for the District 2 seat on the L.A. Unified School District's Board of Education.
(Photo illustration by Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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The 2017 Los Angeles school board election was a big, expensive coming-out party for the charter school movement. Pro-charter groups outspent their arch-rival — the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles — propelling their preferred candidates to victory in all three of that year’s races.

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Kelly Gonez was one of those winners. The California Charter Schools Association’s campaign arm spent more than $3.4 million to swing the race in the East Valley’s Board District 6 to Gonez — and to attack her UTLA-backed opponent.

But a lot can change in five years. When teachers union members met earlier this year to interview candidates and recommend an endorsement in the 2022 school board races, whom do you suppose they chose?

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Gonez — even though her field of challengers this year includes a UTLA member, Marvin Rodríguez, and even though there’s a pro-charter PAC with Gonez’s name on it. Despite all that, choosing Gonez wasn’t controversial, said Phylis Hoffman, vice president of the UTLA political committee that handles endorsements.

Teachers unions don’t like that charter schools compete with district-run schools for public funding, and that they often are not unionized. But the union has broader policy priorities, and when UTLA examined Gonez’s record, it found several big issues on which they agree — and that Gonez is no ideologue about charters.

“We share some of the blame of painting her as a complete privatizer,” said Hoffman. (“Privatizer” is union shorthand for a supporter of charter expansion.)

"When you weigh Kelly’s record of what she’s done and how she’s voted, it was very difficult to overlook that,” she said.

‘It’s Always Easier To Point To A Bad Guy’

Over the last decade, the electoral proxy war between charter advocates and teachers union groups has been a basic fact of L.A. Unified School District politics. These are usually the two groups with the most money to spend swaying elections. They rarely back the same candidates in school board races. They have deeply contrasting views on key policy issues.

That means the choice for voters often boiled down to: Do you prefer “the pro-charter candidate” or “the teachers union candidate”? This was always an oversimplification, but it was at least a useful frame of reference for voters not steeped in school board nuance.

But UTLA’s embrace of Gonez is one of the clearest signs that the “charter versus union” framing won’t be useful to voters this year.

Many teachers wear red shirts and carry signs as they gather together in protest outside of a school. One woman has her back to the camera and her arms in the air, leading a chant.
LAUSD teachers and allies of United Teachers Los Angeles at a 2018 protest at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex in Koreatown. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)
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UTLA and pro-charter groups are not going head-to-head in any of the three LAUSD races on the ballot this June. The teachers union didn’t endorse a challenger to Nick Melvoin, the charter-allied incumbent in the westside’s Board District 4 seat. The California Charter School Association isn’t officially involved in the election at all. Spending by outside political groups — which set a new record in 2020 school board races — is way down.

“No one is seeing this race as an existential choice about the future of the school district,” said UCLA education professor John Rogers — at least in the sense of “whether charter schools will take over the public education sector, as seemed to be the case just a handful of years ago.”

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Charter school supporters gathered outside LAUSD headquarters in Jan. 2019 to oppose a proposed temporary moratorium that school board members were voting on. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

The new LAUSD board will instead have to grapple with different existential questions, most relating to two years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: What happens if LAUSD cannot reverse the accelerating trend of enrollment decline? How should LAUSD prioritize funding for schools and address staffing shortages, especially after the last of the federal pandemic aid runs out in 2024? How should LAUSD safeguard student mental health and ensure racial equity? And as activists renew a push for further cuts to LAUSD’s police department, how should the board respond?

With high-level charter politics fading into the background, groups with different priorities have stepped forward to answer these questions. The differences between their answers are more nuanced, so candidates and interest groups won’t be able to rely on the us-versus-them politics of years past. (And voters will have to do their homework!)

“You don’t get to just point to a boogeyman,” said Lester Garcia, political director of SEIU Local 99, the labor union representing LAUSD front-office staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other school employees. “It’s always easier to point to someone and say, ’That’s the bad guy’ … It’s more difficult to focus on policy issues, to focus on questions of what do our schools need and what do our schools deserve?”

A Dichotomy Beyond Charter Schools

The most wide-open race this year is in Board District 2, which covers much of the eastside, downtown and a sliver of East Hollywood. Four candidates are running for the open seat: María Brenes, Rocío Rivas, Miguel Ángel Segura and Erica Vilardi-Espinosa.

Campaign finance totals suggest Brenes and Rivas are in the strongest position to advance to the general election in November. UTLA has spent more than $383,000 so far to support Rivas.

Maria Brenes, the longtime director of the Boyle Heights-based advocacy group Inner City Struggle, doesn’t fit neatly into either the “teachers union” or “charter school” camp.

Brenes has been involved in LAUSD politics as a leading figure in a third camp: a coalition of advocacy groups that, for years, has pushed the school system to prioritize its most at-risk students, and those from the lowest-income backgrounds, in budget decisions and academic offerings.

There’s no one label that’s emerged to describe the groups in this third camp. UC Berkeley education and public policy professor Bruce Fuller calls these groups “new pluralists.”

One iteration of this coalition — which includes Inner City Struggle — calls itself “the Equity Alliance.” In the campaign finance column, it's backed by SEIU Local 99, which this year has spent $241,000 to support Brenes.

“María represents … this third space that exists outside of the labor versus charter dichotomy,” said Local 99's Garcia, “and is really about building coalitions, bringing parents together and asking questions of, ‘What does a quality school look like?’”

There is overlap between the Equity Alliance’s goals and UTLA’s agenda.

Both camps supported downsizing the L.A. School Police Department and the creation of a new Black Student Achievement Plan, which divides funding slashed from the police budget among the highest-need schools with sizable populations of Black students. Both have called for improved technology and internet access for LAUSD’s students.

“We’re aligned with them in the fight for racial justice and equity,” UTLA’s Hoffman said. “How we get there is where we can have our disagreements."

The union’s agenda for equity in schools emphasizes smaller class sizes and higher teacher salaries. UTLA also favors limits on standardized testing beyond the exams the state requires; the Equity Alliance’s agenda says “formative assessments” are an important tool for measuring which students need the most help.

The Equity Alliance emphasizes distributing funding to the highest-need schools. The group recently successfully convinced the LAUSD board to distribute even more money — $700 million — through the “Student Equity Needs Index,” which uses socioeconomic data, academic metrics, asthma rates, gunshot injuries and reports of on-campus fights to determine which schools need the most funding.

While these third-wave groups have been influential in LAUSD politics for at least two decades, Fuller said it’s been years since they’ve had their own bloc on the school board. That might change after this year’s election.

If she won, Brenes would succeed current District 2 representative Mónica García — a longtime Equity Alliance ally.

Board District 7 member Tanya Ortiz-Franklin came up through the Partnership for L.A. Schools — another member of the Equity Alliance.

Gonez — if she can hang on in Board District 6 — has also sided with the Equity Alliance on several key votes, especially on the equity index.

“I think that would be a remarkable new reality, politically,” said Fuller, who wrote about the “new pluralists” in a new book. He said for years, “this third wave of civic advocates has had to go to Mónica [García] time and time again” to carry legislation.

“If they had three members,” Fuller added, “who repeatedly went toward a pro-fairness agenda … that would be an unprecedented political base on the board for the new pluralists.”

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Parents at Arminta Street Elementary in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sun Valley protest the proposed co-location of a charter school on their campus on March 1, 2017. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

Are LAUSD’s Charter Wars Over?

It’s too early to say whether the charter school wars are over for good.

In 2017, the year when pro-charter groups emphatically swept the races for Board Districts 2, 4, and 6, charter school enrollment was still rising steadily. Deep-pocketed charter school advocates were musing about massive expansion. Since then, charter growth has slowed considerably. Around the same number of charter schools are open in LAUSD today as there were in 2017 — and last year, enrollment fell in L.A. charters too.

On the other hand, United Teachers Los Angeles still feels some urgency around charter school issues in LAUSD: “The possibility of schools being closed is urgent,” said Hoffman. The union worries that in some neighborhoods, an overabundance of charter schools are compounding LAUSD’s struggles with enrollment. The state law compelling LAUSD to share its campuses with charter schools — known as “co-location” — also continues to cause tension.

In District 6, one of Gonez’s opponents is Marvin Rodriguez, a longtime Spanish teacher, whose platform is clear: “We cannot allow privatizers to continue to weaponize charter schools to undermine our public education system by creating conditions, which force our schools to compete for funding and resources,” he writes on his website.

In other measurable ways, charter school politics are still shaping the race.

In UTLA’s endorsement process, Rivas likely had the inside lane to begin with — she works as an aide to District 5 board member Jackie Goldberg, the union’s staunchest ally on the board. (Among other issues, Rivas is a staunch opponent of charter co-locations.)

Yet Hoffman stressed that Brenes also “was a big contender” for the union’s endorsement; UTLA invited both Brenes and Rivas for second-round interviews. “They both aligned so well on the racial justice equity issues.”

To be clear, union officials genuinely preferred Rivas: “We found a candidate that just — wow — really blew us all away,” Hoffman said.

Brenes is also a close ally of Mónica García, whose ties to the pro-charter school camp make UTLA suspicious. Hoffman said the link to García would’ve made a hypothetical Brenes endorsement hard to sell to UTLA members.

But those are just the optics within UTLA. Brenes’ (and García’s) history with charter schools is far more complicated, as Fuller documents in his book, When Schools Work, which traces the origins of these third-wave advocacy groups and their entanglements in L.A. Unified politics.

Fuller noted that in 2009, as LAUSD was entertaining bids from groups hoping to operate schools as part of the “Public School Choice” initiative, García and Brenes steered the district toward community-rooted teacher groups — and away from charters.

“The charters wanted to take over the brand new facilities” that LAUSD was building at the time, Fuller told LAist. “María and Mónica argued that was not a good thing, that it was an imperial act by the charter world.”

It’s one more example of how LAUSD’s day-to-day politics are far more complicated than the forces that paid for its elections.

“This whole charter-union dichotomy,” said Lester Garcia, “is ... a lot of smoke and mirrors.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).