Bernie, the Billionaires, and the School Board

AP Photo/Nick Ut

Senator Bernie Sanders at a rally in downtown Los Angeles. 

Just 20 percent of eligible Los Angeles voters turned out to the polls on March 7 to vote for their city’s next mayor and school board officials, and turnout is likely to be even lower for Tuesday’s school board runoffs. And yet, this race that barely anyone will vote in has turned into a high-stakes battleground, complete with record-setting amounts of political spending and bitter negative campaigning. It has pitted some of the richest men in America against none other than Bernie Sanders, in a brawl over the future of public education in the nation’s largest state.

Incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, backed by labor, is running against the education reformer Nicholas Melvoin; in another district, labor-backed Imelda Padilla is facing off against the charter-backed Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in an open race.

Los Angeles is last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for local school board members—mayors in cities like Chicago and New York appoint their school boards, and Washington, D.C., dissolved its local school board altogether in 2007, giving education decision-making power to the mayoral-appointed schools chancellor.

Despite the current showdown, Los Angeles is hardly anti-reform. With 279 charter schools, Los Angeles has more charters than any other city in the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), roughly 156,000 LA public school students—24 percent of total enrollment—attended charter schools during the 2015-2016 school year. The second-highest city on NAPCS’s list was New York, which enrolled 93,610 students in charters that year.

But the ambitions of national reformers still far exceed the district’s appetite for change, at least thus far.

Although the L.A. school board has approved most petitions for new charters and charter renewals, charter advocates say they feel the board’s support for opening new ones is waning.

And in September of 2015, the Los Angeles Times published a confidential document from billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation, revealing plans to increase Los Angeles’s charter school market share to 50 percent over the next eight years. This transformation would require the creation of 260 new charters, at a cost of $490 million. The bombshell report sparked intense controversy.

By March of 2016, education reformers had toned down their public rhetoric and goals, emphasizing that they’d support expanding all types of high-quality schools, not just charters. The modified plan did little to tamp down tensions between charter supporters and opponents. A union-funded study released in May 2016 reported that the city’s charter sector drains upwards of $500 million a year from the school district’s budget. The teachers union and its allies charged that unmitigated charter school growth “imperils the financial stability” of the district, and limits opportunities for those students who remain in traditional public schools.

Last month, in a 4-3 vote, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to endorse three controversial bills in the state legislature that would place more oversight and restrictions on charter schools. The California Charter Schools Association strongly opposed the bills, and both Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez said they would oppose the measures if elected. (Zimmer voted in favor of endorsing the bills, and Padilla declined to take a position.)

Money from outside the city and state has been pouring into the two races. The previous record in outside donations for school board elections had been $7.4 million in 2013. As of April 29, outside spending had already reached $11.3 million, according to the city’s ethics commission campaign-finance data. As LA Weekly put it, “To say the 2017 Los Angeles election for school board is the most expensive such race in the history of the United States is an understatement: It is the most expensive by more than 50 percent.” (And this is all for a job that pays $45,000 a year.)

Nationally, charter advocates often justify their reliance on the deep pockets of billionaire supporters as necessary to compete with the spending of local teachers unions. But other sources place reform spending at least in parity with union spending. As EdSource, a nonprofit education news site focused on California recently reported, “In past years, the teachers union far outspent the [charter] association on campaign contributions. Not anymore.”

In the Los Angeles school board race, the charter advocates have outspent the unions by roughly a third, with significant money coming from billionaire donors like Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Walmart heirs Alice and Jim Walton, Gap co-founder Doris Fisher, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

And LA Weekly reports that $4.1 million has been spent on negative campaigning in the runoffs, compared with $1.1 million in the 2015 race, and under $1 million in 2013. Fifty-eight percent of the negative campaign financing has been directed by charter proponents against Zimmer.

The unprecedented escalation of the races has also attracted some high-profile, highly unusual endorsements from political leaders and celebrities.

“Billionaires should not make a profit off of public school children,” said Democratic senator Bernie Sanders in a statement earlier this month. “That’s why I’m supporting Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla for the Los Angeles School Board. They will fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda to destabilize and undermine public schools.”

Sanders’ endorsement—which links the education reform agenda of Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez to President Trump’s controversial education agenda—reflects a larger national strategy being pursued by advocates of traditional public education since Donald Trump was elected. It attempts to link charter advocates to a man Democrats despise. It also frames Tuesday’s choice as something larger than charter schools or traditional schools: an extension of a national debate about whether the public sector, including education, will be democratic and equitable, or privatized and outsourced to the lowest bidder.

Is it working? Time will tell, but Melvoin seems to be feeling the heat: in an article in LA School Report from March, he discussed pressure to dispel myths that he was a “Trump guy.”

Melvoin and Fitzpatrick-Gonez can claim support, however, from prominent Democratic charter backers. Both have received endorsements from Arne Duncan, the former education secretary under Barack Obama, while Fitzpatrick-Gonez formerly worked as an Obama administration education adviser. 

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