L.A. teachers union faces tough questions in wake of charter election wins

Los Angeles’ teachers union, for decades a dominant political force in school district politics, suffered a crushing defeat this week that speaks to a larger power shift away from labor and toward the growth of the well-heeled charter school movement.

Two candidates opposed by United Teachers Los Angeles — Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez — won seats on the Los Angeles Board of Education, creating the board’s first-ever, pro-charter school majority.

Particularly stinging to the union was the loss of school board President Steve Zimmer to Melvoin, who supports weakening teacher job protections.

In a third race, the union did not even attempt to unseat incumbent Monica Garcia, who also is counted as part of a charter-friendly bloc.

The election losses amount to more than just the back and forth of politics, with one party on top now and another later, where ground lost today can be made up tomorrow, according to observers from various perspectives. It is unclear whether the union can recover the territory.

One widely expected outcome is that charter schools will continue to grow in number and influence. That could benefit students and families looking for alternatives to their local public schools. But because most charter schools are not unionized, their growth threatens the teachers union — and possibly other local public-employee unions.

Unions, after all, just lost big in pro-union Los Angeles. The steady increase in the number of charter schools and charter students — about 16% of district enrollment — has translated into a growing voting bloc that sees the teachers union as an enemy.

In L.A., as in other cities with many charter schools, it has become increasingly difficult for politicians to ignore or oppose their pro-charter constituency, said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C.

“In D.C., where you’ve got half the kids in charters, they are untouchable,” Petrilli said. “You cannot run for mayor of D.C. and be anti-charter. There’s a reason the unions fight so hard to keep the charter school movement small. They know things are going to get tougher for them the larger it gets.”

In L.A., he added, “the politics from here on out are going to be different and difficult for the unions.”

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, a statewide union, called L.A.’s election day upset “a monumental shift.”

“This was clearly the California Charter School Assn. flexing its muscles,” he said of the millions of dollars spent by pro-charter advocates to get Melvoin and Gonez elected. “They want compliant school board members and legislators who are not going to push back in any way on charter school expansion.”

Charter backers, however, see irony when teachers unions talk about the clout of charters, especially in California, where unions remain among the most powerful lobbies shaping legislation and state policy. Teachers unions also spent millions in the L.A. board races.

Charters are privately managed public schools that typically operate as nonprofits.

Parent Sylvia Wilson said she looked at local traditional schools but preferred a charter operated by Citizens of the World Mar Vista, partly because the parents there are so active.

That involvement included organizing against Zimmer. While Zimmer voted to approve the vast majority of charters to come before him, he also supports limiting charter growth to preserve resources for district-run campuses.

Although the campaign led by charter backers was marked by spurious and exaggerated claims against Zimmer, the claims resonated with those who felt that the school district has performed poorly or let them down. And charter partisans recruited supporters directly from schools where parents felt slighted by particular Zimmer decisions.

Many of those who supported the charter-backed candidates said that they believe the union squandered its lengthy period of power by putting the best interests of members ahead of students.

“I understand why there is a union — I get it — but there are lots of teachers who should not be teaching anymore,” said Gwen Vuchsas, a resident of Playa del Rey. “I don’t personally care for a lot of unions because I think they go to an extreme.”

Vuchsas sent her children to parochial schools and her grandchild attends a Catholic school, but she works with schools of all kinds in her role as chairwoman of the education committee for LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce. She campaigned for Melvoin.

“It reminded me of when Trump got elected,” Vuchsas said of the school board races. “I felt a lot of people were not Trump supporters but were tired of the same old, same old. They voted for the other guy because they wanted change. They were tired of way the district handles things. They were tired of Mr. Zimmer’s leadership.”

Of course, the anti-Zimmer money, from a small group of wealthy individuals and foundations, also was instrumental. Charter forces can and will outspend unions, said Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, who said they were part of a system “rigged toward people who have money.”

Inside UTLA, there also is criticism of how the union conducted the campaigns. Some insiders, for example, felt the union should have taken on Garcia. One of her opponents was a teacher, well regarded in her community, but she raised little money and her campaign never gained momentum.

If the union had fought Garcia, they reason, charter backers might have diverted some resources to that race, perhaps allowing Zimmer to win in the primary, avoiding a runoff.

UTLA also spent much less money than the charter side in the early weeks of the campaign, and 60% of voters mailed in ballots, making their decisions early. Zimmer did somewhat better among voters who cast ballots at polling places, but still trailed Melvoin.

“The election was essentially lost four weeks ago,” said former UTLA Vice President Gregg Solkovits. “UTLA has always been outspent in elections, but we always won by getting ourselves organized in the schools, having a plan with an election timeline that made sense.”

UTLA stretched financially for this election, borrowing from its strike fund even though it is still paying back a past campaign debt to this same fund.

The money equation is just one numbers worry for the union.

UTLA had 45,000 members in 2008, when there were more school-age children in L.A. and fewer charters. It now has 32,000 teachers, counselors and nurses.

To win back some of those members, the union is attempting to organize the largest local charter group, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Three years ago, Caputo-Pearl defeated incumbent Warren Fletcher on the promise of a more active, effective union. He counted the departure of Supt. John Deasy as one victory, and the cancellation of Deasy’s plan to evaluate teachers based on student test scores as another.

Union leadership was pleased last year with the selection of district insider Michelle King as superintendent. She’s worked well with the union in the past.

Caputo-Pearl also persuaded members to raise their dues to $1,000 a year, a move that members had previously rejected. In the community, the union under his leadership launched a campaign to work with families on increasing services at schools.

In February, members reelected Caputo-Pearl.

But now events have turned south, and no one is clearer about that than Caputo-Pearl.

“We expect to see promotion of unchecked charter-school growth, which will threaten the very existence of the school district,” he said. “And we expect to see a direct attack on employees — on their health benefits and other things.”

The union, he said, is prepared to take on that battlefront by working with Supt. King and the school board when possible, but organizing demonstrations and resistance when needed.

“We have just begun to fight,” Caputo-Pearl said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

anna.phillips@latimes.com

Twitter: @annamphillips

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An earlier version of this article said that incumbent Steve Zimmer finished first among those who cast ballots on Election Day but lost the mail-in tally. He trailed in both counts, but was closer among voters on Election Day.
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