Q&A: New school board member Kelly Gonez isn’t as pro-charter as many donors to her campaign

Kelly Gonez will join the L.A. Board of Education in July.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Incoming Los Angeles school board member Kelly Gonez at times sounds little like someone charter-school backers would spend millions to help elect, which they did.

In a recent interview with The Times, she said charters in general would be better places if their employees belonged to unions. (Most don’t.) And she said she’d like to see limits on the growth of charters — publicly funded but privately operated campuses that typically are set up as nonprofits in L.A. Unified. (That position, when expressed by board member Steve Zimmer, prompted a successful pro-charter effort to defeat him.)

With the May election of Gonez and Nick Melvoin, charter backers for the first time can claim a majority on the seven-member Board of Education. Here is a look at where she says she stands.

Gonez visits with supporters on election night in May. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

The top of Gonez’s to-do list

  • Making sure LAUSD graduates are ready for college-level work
  • Creating more welcoming, supportive campuses, with better access to counselors
  • Supporting teachers by involving them in training and leadership opportunities
  • Making sure community members have meaningful input
  • Bringing different factions together for the sake of students

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

The district and charter growth

“For me, charters shouldn’t be authorized unless they are actually needed,” in neighborhoods where district-run schools have struggled and where there are not sufficient alternatives, including other charters or district programs, Gonez said.

Unrestrained charter growth, she said, would be a threat to the financial health of the district by pulling away enrollment. But rather than making charters a “villain,” the district must attract families by helping traditional schools become “outstanding across the board,” she said — and by offering options parents want, such as magnet schools and dual immersion, where students receive instruction in a foreign language to become bilingual.

“Parent demand is definitely for more and different school models,” said Gonez, who taught this past school year at a charter that shares space with a traditional school.

She said she supports strong district oversight of charter campuses to ensure they are operated properly, and in principle would back legislation to compel charters to comply more fully with public-records and open-meeting laws. So far, charter advocates have opposed this legislation.

For me, charters shouldn’t be authorized unless they are actually needed.

— Kelly Gonez

The teachers and unions

Gonez wants to extend the time needed for teachers to earn the job protections of tenure beyond the current two years. Also, the standard system of rating teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory “doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Gonez said. “It … obviously doesn’t reflect the diversity of teacher performance.”

In her view, student academic growth should be part of a teacher evaluation. “But I honestly have questions about the statistical measures that are currently used to assess student progress,” she said. “The science is not settled behind them.”

Melvoin has said that measurable student growth should account for 40% of a teacher’s evaluation. To Gonez, that number is too high. Portfolios of student work and classroom observations should be part of the evaluation equation, she said.

“For this to work well, you have to have teacher buy-in,” she said.

After a divisive campaign that saw the teachers union and charter forces on opposite sides, Gonez said: “I’d like to help heal some of those wounds and really fix what I think are broken education politics in L.A.”

She added: “As a teacher who hasn’t been represented by a collective bargaining unit, I know what’s like to be an at-will employee. … The charters that are doing well could operate well with unionized staff — and probably better.”

L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King (Damian Dovarganes / AP)
(Damian Dovarganes / AP)

On L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King

“I really appreciate her collaborative approach,” Gonez said of King. “What the district really needs right now is somebody who is not so ideologically driven, but is interested in hearing and listening to all stakeholders and hopefully finding a middle path forward.”

Among other things, Gonez said, she and King have discussed the district’s record-high 77% graduation rate.

“I do have some real questions,” Gonez said. “What we’ve seen with districts and states in the past is there’s been some gaming of graduation rates because higher numbers are better and also because it’s better for students to graduate.

“But I want to make sure we’re not losing the rigor as we push toward higher graduation rates because the goal is … making sure we’re preparing students for long-term success.”