Last year, the power of the local teachers union seemed to be on the wane while charter schools’ prospects were rising. Los Angeles Board of Education members backed by charter supporters were in control, and they’d pushed through a new superintendent whose background had nothing to do with education.
On Tuesday, voters showed how quickly things can change.
Jackie Goldberg, the union-backed candidate, easily outpaced nine others on the ballot in a special election that could shift the balance on the school board — thanks in large part to public support cultivated during a six-day teachers’ strike in January.
The 74-year-old veteran public official didn’t quite get the majority needed to win the District 5 seat outright, but she claimed 48% of the vote, making her the strong favorite in a May 14 runoff against a second-place finisher who trailed her by 35 percentage points.
Goldberg, who served on the board for two terms until 1991, proclaimed herself part of a larger movement to bring more resources to education — and also to rein in charter schools.
“This is the beginning and not the end of putting together all those people who came together around the teachers’ strike — not just here but in Oakland and the folks in Madera and the folks in Fresno that are all trying to make these things happen,” Goldberg said. “People moved to California when I was young for our schools. And since then we have starved them, and we cannot continue starving them. This movement is about that.”
It’s not yet clear who Goldberg will face in the runoff, but it will either be Graciela Ortiz or Heather Repenning, who at last count were separated by 53 votes. Neither would be a clear-cut option for charter supporters. The candidate with the strongest pro-charter position, Allison Bajracharya, finished fifth.
Ortiz is a school counselor and a member of the Huntington Park City Council. Repenning is a former public works commissioner and longtime senior aide to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Their order of finish will be settled by mail-in and provisional ballots. The vote count can continue as late as March 19.
A timely candidate
Goldberg’s success was partly due to her own brand: She served on the school board, on the L.A. City Council and in the state Legislature; she’s well-known and well-regarded by many.
But her success also was built on teacher activism, including last year’s strikes in other states and this year’s walkouts in Los Angeles and Oakland. Union leaders in L.A. followed up their January strike by immediately launching a campaign that spent about $660,000 on Goldberg’s behalf. She also raised about $200,000 for her own campaign — and she noted Tuesday night that she’d benefited from 1,300 small contributions and 800 volunteers.
Her activism goes way back to the UC Berkeley free speech movement of the mid-1960s — an era, she noted, in which students paid no tuition for their higher education. The state, she said, needs to find its way back to a deeper investment in its children.
Charter schools, too, would benefit from increased education funding, but charter advocates strongly — although quietly — opposed Goldberg. They worry about her calls for limiting the number of new charters and imposing more stringent regulations on them. (Both would require changes to state law.)
Goldberg aligns with those who say that privately operated charters — which compete with district-run schools for students and the funding that goes with them — are undermining public education. Charter backers counter that their schools have provided healthy competition and high-quality choices for families. About 1 in 5 local public school students now attend a charter — and wealthy pro-charter donors want further charter expansion.
Anti-charter themes were a regular refrain of striking teachers, and they seemed to strike a chord with people who may not previously have been familiar with the arguments.
A survey of L.A. Unified School District residents during and just after the strike found that about 3 in 4 said the focus should be on improving existing public schools rather than on alternatives such as charter schools, said Brianne Gilbert, associate director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
Although the charter lobby remains powerful, it also suffered a setback at the state level last year, when it ran campaigns on behalf of candidates who lost the races for governor and the state superintendent of public instruction. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom — who has signaled his openness to more regulation of charter school — signed legislation that would compel charters to follow laws on public records and public meetings.
Tuesday’s outcome also marked a new direction in another way. In several previous elections, pro-charter funders outspent everyone — to good effect. In 2017, candidates they backed claimed their first-ever L.A. school board majority. And a charter school founder, Ref Rodriguez, became president of the board.
Rodriguez represented District 5 — the region on Tuesday’s ballot, which takes in neighborhoods north of downtown and then cuts a narrow path east of downtown to the cities of southeast L.A. County. He was supposed to serve through 2020.
Two months after Rodriguez became board president, however, prosecutors charged him with political money laundering. He stepped down as president but remained on the board for nearly a year, just long enough to cast a crucial vote for hiring businessman Austin Beutner as superintendent.
Goldberg said she would have voted to hire an educator rather than Beutner, but she also said she would try to work with the superintendent.
Rodriguez resigned in July after pleading guilty to one felony and three misdemeanors. His crimes, his delay in leaving office and his willingness to cast important swing votes during that time did not sit well with some parents and voters.
For this week’s primary, charter backers were never able to coalesce around an opponent to Goldberg. Bajracharya, an executive at a charter organization, had substantial support from charter allies but not the overwhelming sums provided by mega-donors in recent elections.
Four candidates raised enough money to get their message out: Goldberg, Bajracharya, Ortiz and Repenning. And each also had donors who funded independent campaigns on their behalf. The teachers union’s spending on Goldberg was a relative bargain compared to what it spent in recent races — often in a losing cause.
But the biggest spender in the primary was Local 99 of Services Employees International Union, which represents most nonteaching district employees. It put nearly $1 million into a campaign to elect Repenning, who also had the endorsement of L.A Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Part of Local 99’s money paid for a misleading campaign against Goldberg, describing her as a career politician who is “always looking out for #1” and who favored prisons over schools, slashed education spending and presided over a failing school system.
Even if their campaign helped force a runoff, Repenning finished so far back that Local 99 now must ponder how much it wants to continue fighting Goldberg, with whom the union previously has gotten along.
Many observers assumed that the pro-charter funders — organized under the group California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates — were simply holding their fire till the runoff. Goldberg’s strong showing could affect that calculus.