Charter-backed candidates win L.A. Unified majority, but can they lead from within?

As the vote totals trickled in Tuesday night and his opponent conceded defeat, Nick Melvoin grabbed a microphone and told his supporters that, by electing him to the Los Angeles school board, they had “awoken a sleeping giant.”

He described himself as “just the conduit,” the person “who was crazy enough to put my name on the ballot.”

It was not the triumphant victory speech one might expect from a 31-year-old candidate who had just defeated the school board president and brought about an unprecedented shift in local education politics in the most expensive school board race in the nation’s history.

On election day, when Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, 28, won seats on the seven-member board, they formed its first-ever pro-charter majority. They did so with the backing of groups funded by wealthy charter school supporters, who spent more than $9 million on the campaigns.

The results amounted to a stunning defeat for the incumbent, teachers union-backed school board President Steve Zimmer. Despite public employee unions spending millions in his defense, his reputation didn’t survive months of assault by better-funded outside groups.

Voters’ decision to oust the board president, replacing him with an untested candidate who taught for two years in public schools seven years ago, has set L.A. Unified on an uncertain path at a time when its future is widely viewed as imperiled.

A day after the election, the outcome was still sending tremors through the region’s education community. Many skeptics wondered if, after years of suing the school district and rallying parents to protest at board meetings, charter school advocates and the candidates they backed are prepared to lead the nation’s second-largest school district.

“It’s one thing to be a reformer on the outside,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at UCLA. “I don’t think any of them would want to be on the board when the system collapses and they would be responsible. They will have to be much more creative than simply authorizing more charter schools.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s problems are daunting. Enrollment in traditional public schools has been falling for more than a decade, partly because of competition from charter schools and partly because of declining birth rates. The loss of students, coupled with a large number of administrative positions and mounting pension and retiree healthcare costs, is sending the district hurtling toward a financial reckoning.

Under its current leadership, in which union-supported board members have a narrow majority, the board has avoided making the difficult decisions some say are needed to stabilize the district’s finances.

Melvoin and Gonez, voted in under a mantle of reform, could find themselves spending their five-year terms not expanding art, music and college counseling programs as promised but searching for ways to lay off staff and cut services.

Some allies of the movement that wants to bring elements of the free market to education have cautioned against expecting major changes from the new charter-majority board.

“When you are the board of a traditional district, there's only so much you can do to advance dramatic system change,” said Andy Smarick, an education fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Laws governing teacher tenure and seniority rights, after all, are made by state lawmakers, not school board members.

“Even if you have charter authorizing authority, you are also responsible for directly operating scores — or hundreds — of traditional district-run schools,” Smarick said. “So you are always mindful of not bringing about too much change.”

The relentless nastiness of the campaign rhetoric and the record level of spending also could have a lasting effect on the district’s governance. The profound split that already existed in education politics over charter schools, the growing influence of extraordinarily wealthy people who often don’t send their children to public schools, and the role of teacher unions has only been widened.

Melvoin’s campaign and the outside groups that directed much of the spending to promote him painted a picture of Zimmer as a failed, small-minded politician. In mailers and advertisements, they portrayed L.A. Unified as a district in ruins, delivering year after year of poor results with few consequences for inept teachers and administrators. They chose not to remind voters of the years-long role of charter allies, such as current board members Monica Garcia and Ref Rodriguez and former Supt. John Deasy, in shaping the direction of L.A. Unified.

Zimmer gained little traction when he spoke of the district’s slow and incremental progress and highlighted its rising graduation rate, improving test scores and declining suspension rate. Melvoin received 30,696 votes, 57.4%. Zimmer received 22,766 votes, 42.6%

Going forward, the more problematic legacy of this campaign may be the attacks on the district itself, said UCLA education professor John Rogers.

“In effect, they say, ‘Things are terrible, trust us and we'll make it better,’” Rogers said.

But denigrating the district does not lead to “consensus about a dramatic new way forward,” he warned. “A likely result will be further instability and further erosion of public support for public education. And that will not serve any of us well.”

Melvoin and his supporters say they are ready to lay down their arms and to work with everyone — union leaders included — to improve the education system.

That’s a tough sell for those who suddenly find themselves out of power, bruised by what they saw as unfair, dishonest tactics.

“When these candidates get supported by billionaires to privatize schools, undermine democracy and set up a system of separate and unequal education, then there is no opportunity for rapprochement,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

His strategy, he said, involves “doubling down.”

Supt. Michelle King faces an especially difficult future, Caputo-Pearl added.

“This is going to be a real challenge for Michelle King because she’s going to have a board majority that frankly is going to be led by Nick Melvoin, a majority that will be fundamentally undermining the district they’re supposed to represent.”

There is no doubt that some charter school leaders are ready with a list of demands.

Many have complained that the process for getting district approval to open a new charter school is needlessly burdensome, bureaucratic and time-consuming.

While some charter operators lease or buy private space, others have lobbied the board for more access to L.A. Unified campuses and classrooms. The district already has a process for making unused space available to charters, which is required by state law, but there have been years of litigation over the details.

Leaders of traditional public schools often complain that charter schools are offered space that they are using and need, such as rooms set aside for tutoring, computer labs, music instruction, dance or enrichment programs. Without these, they say, their schools become less attractive to parents and students, thus worsening the enrollment slide.

Charter leaders say that they don’t get enough space and much of what they do get is poorly located.

Charter advocates also want a larger share of board-controlled school-construction bonds, an issue they sued over and lost. But nothing would stop the newly charter-leaning board from changing its mind and providing more dollars.

Charter advocates also could gain some traction with the new board over their objection to investigations of charters by the district’s inspector general. Some charter leaders want to halt these investigations entirely, or sharply restrict their number and scope. Such police work, they say, should be left to law enforcement agencies.

It’s a very different view from that of those, such as the teachers union, who worry that charter schools are expanding too quickly, without adequate oversight or regulation.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

anna.phillips@latimes.com

Twitter: @annamphillips

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