Jackie Goldberg began her first day after winning election to the L.A. school board making an appearance with schools Supt. Austin Beutner, all smiles and talking about a unified vision to fix the troubled school district.
But the camaraderie belied what could be a rocky road ahead: They are two strong-willed titans of L.A.’s education universe with some fundamentally different views on crucial issues facing the nation’s second-largest school district.
Goldberg, 74, will have an outsize role on the seven-member body in confronting seemingly intractable problems such as lagging student achievement, deep-rooted financial strains and the growth and oversight of charter schools.
A political veteran who served on the board more than two decades ago, Goldberg won major support from the teachers union, which has been at odds with Beutner and with board members who support charter schools.
The growth of charters has hit the Los Angeles Unified School District’s finances hard and was a central factor in the teachers’ strike this year. Beutner has been working on plans to reorganize the district and set it on a firmer financial path.
With Goldberg back on the board, the political dynamics are changing.
Ronald W. Solórzano, education professor at Occidental College, said the central challenge is making sure that all district schools are of consistently high quality. With the election over, “now either the real education work begins, or the political battle begins.”
For the moment, Goldberg and Beutner have one huge issue that unites them: passage of a school funding measure on the June ballot. Officials say the measure is essential to improving the district’s shaky finances. And on Wednesday, Goldberg and Beutner stumped for it together.
“Our shared perspective: to help kids,” Beutner said. “I think we are going to do great things.”
Goldberg won about 70% of the vote over Heather Repenning, a district parent and former public works commissioner.
Goldberg, who also served on the City Council and in the state Legislature, benefited in her campaign from name recognition, a scandal-free record, an obvious command of the issues, a charismatic personality and the backing of the teachers union. The latter was especially helpful in the wake of a six-day January strike that invigorated public support for teachers.
More than anything else, Goldberg is stressing the need for better funding — a point of agreement among many combatants in the education wars, including charter supporters.
“We’ve been starving schools,” Goldberg said during an appearance Wednesday at Micheltorena Street Elementary in Silver Lake. “It is a crime that we are not investing in children the way they did when I was a kid.”
Beutner, the unions and charter school leaders have united behind Measure EE, a property tax that would raise an estimated $500 million a year for local schools. Expect no recriminations, leadership changes or controversial moves before June 4, when voters will go to the polls.
The California Charter Schools Assn. even expressed congratulations, though Goldberg’s election was just about the last thing its leaders wanted. The powerful association officially sat out the campaign — a result either of strategic pragmatism, internal disorganization or some combination of the two.
Repenning relied on help from Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents most nonteaching employees, and the backing of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. She and her supporters spent toe-to-toe with those backing Goldberg — well over $1 million on each side.
In recent weeks, however, the simultaneous campaign for Measure EE may have diluted efforts for Repenning, who raised less and had less spent on her behalf in the runoff, political consultant Lewis Myers noted.
The push for Measure EE became “more important to the mayor, parents, students, United Teachers Los Angeles and Local 99 than Heather winning,” said Myers, who did not work for either candidate.
Goldberg’s win turned around a losing streak for the teachers union. Until Tuesday’s election, charter school supporters, fueled by wealthy donors, were outspending the unions in L.A. school board contests. And in July 2017, candidates they backed claimed a board majority.
Charters are privately operated, mostly nonunion and compete with district schools for students and the funding that follows them. They enroll close to 1 in 5 district students. It will not be easy to find the way forward on charters, because most rules governing their expansion and oversight are made at the state level.
While the L.A. teachers union has remained a political force, its influence in local board elections was being eclipsed by charters.
With its success Tuesday, the teachers union might be riding something of a national wave, said Julie Marsh, professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education.
“We’re seeing some shifts in the narrative around charter schools,” Marsh said. Charter backers long have pointed to the bipartisan appeal of these schools, but their embrace by President Trump and his polarizing Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, “make it difficult for Democrats to associate with these reforms.”
Goldberg will fill the seat most recently held by Ref Rodriguez, co-founder of a charter school group.
Rodriguez resigned in July after pleading guilty to political money laundering, a scandal that tarnished the local charter brand. He held on just long enough to cast an essential vote needed to hire Beutner, a businessman and philanthropist, as superintendent.
Beutner accepted the job knowing that his majority on the board could become tenuous, and during the strike, teachers union leaders made him a personal target. For her part, Goldberg expressed exasperation that district leaders would choose a non-educator to lead a school system.
Even so, Goldberg insisted Wednesday — as she has before — that she has no agenda to push Beutner out.
Her presence, however, could circumscribe Beutner’s long-awaited district reorganization. In campaign appearances, Goldberg said she suspected Beutner of secretly crafting a plan that would favor charter school expansion. As evidence, she and others cited the work that consultants for Beutner had done in other districts. She vowed to oppose any such effort.
In recent appearances, Beutner has emphasized that he envisions helping district-run schools operate more efficiently and effectively.
As a candidate, Goldberg had much in common with board member George McKenna, who also had a strong base even without the teachers union. He too allied with the union to win office against a well-funded opponent.
McKenna’s win, in 2014, contributed to the departure of then-Supt. John Deasy because he defeated an opponent who’d strongly supported Deasy.
Goldberg, like McKenna, is no union vassal, although her preferred policies align closely with those of United Teachers Los Angeles. In reality, all seven board members are more nuanced in their beliefs than the stark contrasts represented by their supporters.