Steve Lopez wanted to talk to 18 students with $1 million to spend on an election. Then his invite was yanked

Steve Lopez wanted to talk to 18 students with $1 million to spend on an election. Then his invite was yanked
Students at Garfield High School. (Christina House / For the Times)

When Los Angeles high school students get a chance to spend $1 million or more on a political campaign, that's pretty interesting, right?

I thought so, and managed to get myself invited to a meeting of L.A. Students for Change.


But then my invitation got yanked.

I guess I shouldn't have written a column questioning the morality of recruiting students for a negative campaign of distortions in a school board race.

To be clear, I've got no issue with the students. Good for them for raising their hands out of a desire for an improved L.A. Unified.

But I had trouble believing that 18 students, without adult guidance, decided all they wanted to do was attack a single candidate rather than extol the virtues of other candidates. And that one candidate, incumbent Steve Zimmer, is a target of charter school proponents, which is where the million dollars came from, with former Mayor Dick Riordan as sugar daddy.

Political consultant John Shallman told me he pitched the idea of recruiting students to the folks at the California Charter Schools Assn., then assigned one of his staffers to run L.A. Students for Change. Smart move on his part. More than $3 million in independent committee spending alone has been sunk into school board races, and campaign records show that Shallman should have invested in an armored car for all his trips to the bank.

Shallman wanted to know why I didn't attend the meeting of L.A. Students for Change before writing the column.

Hey, I fully intended to go meet the students. But first, I wanted to question the way in which they were being used.

"I realize you don't like charter schools, but many if not most of these students don't attend charter schools," Shallman said in an email.

I don't have a problem with charters. Maybe Shallman didn't read the column closely, but I think some charters are excellent, some are not, and parents understandably want options — traditional schools, magnets, pilots and charters. My issue was not with charters, but with the use of students for a political agenda.

The Shallman staffer who runs L.A. Students for Change said she would check with parents to see if they wanted me to attend the student meeting, but she never got back to me.

Shallman wondered if I was going to point out that some of the mailers sent out on behalf of Zimmer — who has major backing from the teachers union — were also full of distortions.

Yes I am, and here you go:

Independent Zimmer backers have sent out mailers calling his opponents tools of President Trump and his education secretary, charter and voucher proponent Betsy DeVos.

Typical political distortion.


Zimmer opponent Nick Melvoin told me he worked as a pro bono attorney for Trump opponent Hillary Clinton and has written about his opposition to the DeVos agenda. So the attack on Melvoin is a stretch, to say the least.

Melvoin is, however, a pro-charter guy, largely bankrolled by charter proponents. He says when you have more than 100,000 students in L.A. Unified charters, with more students on waiting lists, it's important to understand what's wrong in underperforming schools, what's right in high-performing schools, and replicate the successes of charter and non-charter schools.

Fair enough.

By the way, I watched Melvoin, Zimmer, Allison Holdorff Polhill and Gregory Martayan last week in a 90-minute District 4 forum at Los Angeles City College, and I thought they all did pretty well. They targeted the district's strengths and shortcomings, covering everything from class size to graduation rates to cafeteria food quality.

I'm always inspired by those who want to serve, especially when you consider that public education is a battle zone, with long-running scrums between teacher unions, administrators and charter advocates. In California, which ranks low nationally in funding per student, the biggest challenge — in my humble opinion — is poverty. In L.A. Unified, the vast majority of kids have some catching up to do the moment they enter their first classroom.

So it's refreshing to be reminded that people are passionate about supporting those students by trying to get elected to the school board, an exhausting and mostly thankless job that pays $45,000 a year.

But here's what was really impressive at the candidate forum I attended:

It was run by high school students, and about a dozen other students were in the audience.

One spectator, Maria Garcia, told me she wants to run for office one day, and she may start with school board. She's a senior at the RFK School for the Visual Arts and Humanities.

The panelists asking the questions included Sharon Sandoval and Alejandro Salas of Ramon Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. Both have served in the United Way Young Civic Leaders program, with its focus on student advocacy and voter registration. Their friend Maria Cabrales, a Hamilton High student, was also on the panel.

The trio hit the candidates with smart questions on a range of issues, from school funding formulas to achievement gaps. Salas wanted to know why the district spends more money on police than counselors.

The moderator was Karen Calderon, a Hamilton High senior and the student member of the L.A. Unified school board. From the back of the auditorium, where I sat, I thought Calderon was an adult. She ran the forum like a seasoned pro, moving things along, reprimanding audience members for partisan outbursts and making sure candidates didn't go negative on each other.

At one point, I wished the candidates would have asked questions of the students rather than the other way around, and after the forum, Calderon seconded that opinion.

"The students — that's the most important voice," said Calderon. She added that whatever the options are in a given neighborhood, "students need to get up and fight and advocate for better schools in their area."

I'm sure L.A. Students for Change would like to be involved in school affairs in a positive way, so this is to let them know another student-run candidate forum will be held March 1, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., at Mission College in Sylmar.

Organizers tell me their attendance would be welcome, and maybe Shallman can spring for a bus to get them there.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez