The extraordinary just happened: A well-liked and dedicated incumbent on the Los Angeles school board — the president of the board, no less — was ousted from his spot in Tuesday’s election, and by a large margin. Or maybe it wasn’t so extraordinary. Millions of dollars were spent to keep Steve Zimmer in office, but millions more were spent to oust him. Outside expenditures on both sides were poured into remarkably ferocious campaigns; Zimmer in particular was targeted with attacks that were false. It reached the point where the candidates were apologizing for what their own supporters were spewing about their opponents.
As ugly as the jabs against Zimmer were, his opponent, Nick Melvoin, who was backed by pro-charter school forces, nonetheless struck us as the stronger candidate. The Times also endorsed Kelly Gonez, another “reform” candidate, who was more qualified than union-supported Imelda Padilla.
Both Melvoin and Gonez won, creating something of a watershed moment for the board. For the first time since 2013, it will be a reform-friendly, charter-friendly majority. But that also makes the coming couple of years a test of the board’s priorities.
L.A. Unified faces wobbly days ahead. The campaign will leave bruised feelings for a long time to come. More importantly, there is reason to be concerned about whether these new board members will feel beholden to the charter school-related groups and other reform forces that put big money behind their campaigns — just as Zimmer and other board members backed by the unions have shown worrisome tendencies to heed union wishes even when those wishes clearly weren’t good for students. Zimmer’s recent support for legislation that would essentially kneecap the charter-school movement in California was a particularly wince-worthy example.
Zimmer’s view of charter schools is that only the most innovative new ones should be approved. But that’s nonsense. Charter schools that offer an excellent education, a learning environment that feels safer or better run, must absolutely be made available to students.
On the other hand, Melvoin may veer too far in the other direction. In saying that he would not limit the growth of charter schools at all and that he prefers a “free-market” system in which parental demand is all that counts, he seems to be underemphasizing the need for oversight. In fact, the school board is obligated to ensure that any school approved will provide high-quality education, to monitor those schools to make sure they’re delivering, and refuse to renew them when they disappoint.
Politics, and the money attached to it, have not served L.A. Unified well. This was true 15 years ago, when the only big money affecting school board races was wielded by unions, most notably United Teachers Los Angeles. As a result, some school board members too often parroted union lines and priorities, which were not necessarily the priorities most needed to help the district’s struggling students.
And it’s still true now that pro-charter forces and their deep wallets have produced what amounts to an opposition party in nonpartisan elections.
The result has been a binary, reform-vs.-union way of thinking rather than a smart, collective effort to improve education. There has been too much tilting back and forth from anti-charter to pro-charter sentiment. It was rigid ideology that allowed the board to foolishly accede to former Supt. John Deasy’s desire to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on iPads, instead of pushing back. It’s heartening to see that, immediately after being elected, Melvoin said his first priority would be to address the district’s structural budget problem. The current board has been shamefully remiss in this area, undoubtedly because doing so involves tough decisions and difficult union negotiations over the district’s massive and growing pension liability. But there’s little point to having a school board if it isn’t willing to take on the most obvious and difficult jobs facing the district.
The Times has consistently urged both pro-reform and pro-union board members to come out of their ideological silos, stop viewing the world in black-and-white, right-and-wrong terms, and instead to think independently, on behalf of students. That challenge now rests especially with the board’s newest members, who have an opportunity to reject labels that divide but do not serve the district.