Candidates supported by teachers unions' financial muscle have positioned themselves as defenders of traditional schooling. Backers of charter schools, which are mostly nonunion, spent even more money to put forward an opposing group of candidates.
In recent elections, the two sides have been vying for control of the nation's second-largest school district. On Tuesday, charter advocates won one race by reelecting Monica Garcia. The other two contests will be settled in a May runoff that could hand charter supporters control of the board.
Tuesday's elections did little to answer the question of whether charter school supporters have mustered the political backing to overpower the unions. But they did all but assure that the lead-up to the runoffs will be more heated, more expensive, and nastier.
Whoever prevails, the debate will continue over charter growth in a district that has the most charters and charter students of any school system in the nation, about 16% of enrollment. Predictions about what will happen if their numbers increase sharply split along the charter/union divide.
The traditionalists believe that these privately operated charters — by siphoning off enrollment and funding — are on their way to eroding L.A. Unified's ability to serve its remaining students, especially those, such as the disabled, who are more expensive to educate. Charter partisans see the opening of academic opportunity for students stuck in schools that have performed poorly for generations.
If the charter faction attains its first board majority, it will break a longstanding ideological deadlock, said Charles Kerchner, senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University's School of Educational Studies.
"In the past the losing side has always fought back," Kerchner said. "But charters have more political clout now, so the change could be a tipping point."
The growth of charter schools is hardly L.A. Unified's only worry. Enrollment decline — caused not only by charter growth but by gentrification, lower birth rates and reduced immigration — has hurt a school system with high fixed costs related to building maintenance, lawsuit settlements and underfunded pension and health-benefit obligations. Although all state school districts face a financial bind caused by an underfunded state pension fund, L.A.'s financial woes are exacerbated by its decision, years ago, to provide retiree health benefits, and by the extension of benefits to part-time, low-salaried workers and their families.
But the charter vs. union controversy has become a kind of shorthand for each side's hopes for L.A. Unified's future, often obscuring other issues.
Both sides say they also see the local contests as a leading indicator of how California's education landscape could shift.
"This race in L.A. has huge state implications," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, head of United Teachers Los Angeles. "The state has to deal with the issue of either regulating charters in some way or losing the civic institution of public education."
"L.A. sets the tone for education policy in the state, and so we want to be able to be part of that discussion and that's why we're engaged in these types of races," said Richard Garcia, elections director for the California Charter Schools Association.
Both sides are likely to pour more than a million more dollars into the most expensive school board elections in the country.
One runoff is in District 6, the east San Fernando Valley, where charter-backed Kelly Gonez will face union-supported Imelda Padilla. The other is in District 4, which includes the Westside and part of the west Valley, where school board president Steve Zimmer, with union support, will face charter ally Nick Melvoin.
The financial might and influence of charter advocates seems to be growing. The number of charter parents is increasing and the number of teachers represented by unions is decreasing, which limits union financial resources. The ability of unions to collect automatic dues from teachers also is under assault at the national level.
But pro-union Los Angeles, in a state with a powerful teachers union lobby, is well situated to resist. And while the ascent of the pro-charter Trump administration portends more federal help and funding for charters, it's local political poison. The state charter association may have praised the selection of new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, but its endorsed local candidates denounced her.
Regardless, if the charter-backed candidates prevail, "it means there will be a very clear and uninterrupted pathway toward large-scale expansion of new charter schools within L.A. Unified," said Zimmer. "It means much less oversight and accountability for the charter schools already authorized."
A probe by the district's inspector general recently led to an FBI raid on Celerity Educational Group, a nonprofit that manages that six charter schools in L.A Unified.
For their part, charter operators have complained that district oversight is needlessly bureaucratic and burdensome — and occasionally hostile.
Zimmer says the district is making meaningful progress on graduation rates, student achievement and restoring morale in its workforce, and that a pro-charter majority would threaten that.
The district is certainly calmer since the departure of Supt. John Deasy in late 2014. With the backing of philanthropists and key civic leaders, Deasy had pushed hard for shutting down or restaffing persistently low-performing schools, for using test scores as a significant portion of teacher evaluations and for limiting teacher job protections. He also wanted to end seniority rights that led to the layoff of younger, lower-salaried teachers during times of budget cuts.
One such young teacher who was laid off and later hired back is Melvoin, who taught for two years in the district before going to law school and working for education-reform groups.
"One of the main themes of our campaign has been change versus more of the same," he said Wednesday in an interview in which he cited ongoing budget woes and below-the-state-average student achievement.
"For voters who want something new and who want a more collaborative approach to the charter-district relationship and more urgency around student achievement, that's what we are offering," he said.
"Yes or no on charters is an irrelevant question," Melvoin said at one candidates forum. "Charters are one part of that solution," he said, until there are "zero families" on waiting lists to get into them.
There could not be a bigger contrast between candidates, said Jeanne Allen, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, which backs expanding options for parents, including charters and government-supported scholarships for private schools.
"The status-quo backed Zimmer wants voters to give a broken system another chance, as they have asked and received year after year. The reform-backed slate believes — justly — that it's time for L.A. to have a innovation mindset, to have people who seek to see and act in wholly new ways, to … break free from the top-down, monolithic structure known as LAUSD."
Education historian Diane Ravitch, who endorsed Zimmer, interprets the divide differently.
"Reformers have grand ideas for shaking up the system — blowing it up, changing everything, blowing up teacher education, imposing national standards overnight, turning schools into teacher-proof institutions," she wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "Reformers are impatient. It is good to be impatient. But it is even better to understand the consequences of what you propose."