Arne Duncan, who was secretary of Education under President Obama, has endorsed Kelly Gonez and Nick Melvoin for the Los Angeles Board of Education, giving the candidates a counterpunch against opponents attempting to link them ideologically with the Trump administration.
Like President Trump and his Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, Melvoin and Gonez strongly support privately operated, publicly funded charter schools. But so does Duncan. And so did the administration of President Obama, who also maintained close ties with leaders of teachers unions critical of charters.
The union message to liberal Los Angeles voters has been that Melvoin and Gonez will pursue the Trump education agenda. But the candidates insist the more apt association is with Obama.
Duncan praised the background of Gonez, a charter school science teacher who worked for about two years during Obama's presidency in the U.S. Department of Education.
"As the only Democrat in the race with professional education experience — from the classroom to President Obama's administration — Kelly Gonez is by far the best candidate in the race to fight for California kids," Duncan said in a statement released by a campaign firm working with both candidates.
In praising Melvoin, Duncan referred to the two years the candidate for District 4 spent teaching at an L.A. Unified School District middle school before attending law school and working for charter-friendly education reform groups.
Based on his experience as a teacher, Melvoin testified in two lawsuits: Reed vs. California sought to eliminate the last in, first out seniority system for teacher layoffs; Vergara vs. California attempted to weaken a range of teacher job protections.
Vergara was unsuccessful. In the short term, the Reed outcome prevented mass layoffs at schools staffed mostly by early career teachers. It's had a modest longer-term impact.
"Nick Melvoin has shown his commitment to education as a teacher in Watts and a true fighter, even in the courtroom, for kids in this community," Duncan said.
Gonez is running to represent District 6 in the east San Fernando Valley against community and labor organizer Imelda Padilla.
"This is a local race that will be decided by local voters based on which candidate understands local issues," Padilla said. "I'm the only candidate in the runoff who grew up in this district, has worked in the district with our youth for many years during my time as a youth program coordinator, then started my own nonprofit to help youth think about college and career planning."
Both candidates have solid financial backing, Padilla from the teachers union and Gonez even more so from charter school supporters and pro-charter philanthropists. Campaign spending in their race has surpassed $1.79 million.
In a March primary with six candidates, Gonez received 37% of the vote; Padilla 31%.
Melvoin is trying to unseat school board President Steve Zimmer in a district that stretches from West L.A. to the west San Fernando Valley. Spending in the often brutal contest has exceeded $4.7 million, with charter forces behind Melvoin and unions backing Zimmer, who also has support from the local Democratic Party and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
In a primary with four candidates, Zimmer received 47% of the vote; Melvoin 33%.
"I am surprised and saddened by this announcement," Zimmer said. "It is disappointing that Secretary Duncan would inject himself into this battleground."
Zimmer met periodically with Duncan during the Obama years. The two had some disagreements over policy. Duncan placed a stronger emphasis on standardized testing and using those results as a substantial portion of a teacher's evaluation. They both supported federal efforts to improve funding and services to low-income minority students.
"I had a strong working relationship with Secretary Duncan," Zimmer said.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl said the endorsement simply underscored the ties between Duncan and charter backers, who he said support policies that undermine the public education system.