A few things are finally clear after yesterday’s election for three seats on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The first? There few strong reform efforts will take place the same way it did in the district between 2009 and 2011, when it embarked on its now-shuttered effort to spin off 198 schools to charter school operators, communities, and teachers. Sure, Supt. John Deasy has managed to at least talk the talk on systemically reforming the district (even as he makes rather weak moves as striking a deal with the AFT’s City of Angels local on a teacher evaluation plan that does little to actually measure the performance of teachers based on their success with the students they instruct in classrooms) and has even allowed for families at 24th Street Elementary to exercise the district’s own Parent Trigger policy and take over the school. It is unlikely that Deasy will be sacked as the district’s chief executive either this year or next. But it is hard for any strong reforms to become a reality so long as the union can count on a majority or a strong plurality featuring the now-re-elected Steve Zimmer and Richard Vladovic to largely do their bidding.
Certainly reformers can take heart in current L.A. Unified Board President Monica Garcia’s strong victory. There are also some good possibilities in the race for the seat held now by Nury Martinez, with both leading vote-getter Antonio Sanchez (an aide to outgoing L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa) and teachers’ union leader Monica Ratliff (a strong supporter of charter schools and other reforms) being reform-minded enough to help put the district on the right course. But the fact that Zimmer has kept office in spite of a strong effort by Kate Anderson to unseat him still means that he will remain in office. The good news is that thanks to the reform movement’s decision to challenge him — as well as the fact that he nearly lost office — Zimmer will now choose his votes carefully if only in an attempt to keep reformers happy enough to not mount back another challenger in four years.
Yet the fact that Zimmer will now have to do more on the reform front in order to stay in office (and avoid a recall attempt), along with Garcia’s re-election victory as well as the run-off between the reform-minded Sanchez and Ratliff should hearten the school reform movement. Why? Because the real impact of this year’s election lies not so much with the results, but in what the effort means for the evolution of the school reform movement itself. The fact that so many reformers stepped up to finance and provide cover for reform-minded candidates is a clear sign that the movement is no longer just concerned with working the corridors of statehouses and gaining the backing of federal policymakers.
Certainly it makes sense for reformers to spend much of their time on state- and federal policymaking as well as on addressing the other systemic issues at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. After all, states are charged with overseeing how teaching and curricula is provided to students, and state laws play a much-larger role in structuring how districts operate than the collective bargaining deals they strike with AFT and National Education Association affiliates. But traditional district model remains the dominant form of delivering education to children (at least until American public education moves away from that obsolete approach). Even once the Hollywood Model of Education, with independent school operators being the norm, takes hold, there will still be some areas in which traditional districts are the dominant providers — and some of them may never be placed under mayoral or county government control. So reformers will have to be competitive in school board races in order to advance reform on the ground. And this means battling fiercely with NEA and AFT affiliates which have long used forced dues payments by teachers (as well as activists within their unions) in order to render districts servile to their demands.
Unlike their peers in most parts of the country, school reformers in the City of Angels have long understood the importance of backing strong candidates for L.A. Unified board seats (as well as for seats on smaller districts throughout L.A. County). But the fact that reformers from outside the city, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who poured $1 million into a group backing Garcia, Sanchez, and Anderson), Democrats for Education Reform, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, backed their allies in the city with cold hard cash is an important sign that reformers understand that they must support allies on the ground as strongly as they lobby for teacher quality reforms before state legislatures. One of the biggest reasons why reformers haven’t always fared so well because they have poured few dollars into school board and state legislative campaigns, especially compared to the millions ladled out (with admittedly mixed success) by NEA and AFT affiliates.
While the AFT’s L.A. local and its traditionalist allies in were none too fond of this funding, and did as much as they could to characterize the dollars as being akin to carpet-bagging, the likely presence of dollars from the national AFT and its statewide affiliate (as well as the fact that traditionalists have long benefited from national alliances, including the NEA’s move last year to pour $5 million into successful campaigns to pass Prop. 30 and its $50 billion in tax increases as well as defeat Prop. 32) meant that they couldn’t play up the outside money angle as effectively as they desired. Particularly in the case of Anderson, the strong support from reformers throughout the nation made her more-competitive in her ultimately unsuccessful race against incumbent Zimmer than would have been possible with the help of local reformers alone.
Meanwhile reformers have learned the importance of holding politicians responsible for not living up to their obligations to expand opportunities for children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds. A few years ago, one would expect reformers to let Zimmer slide largely because of his background as a Teach For America trainee and occasional support for reform measures. But by backing Anderson, reformers have smartly understood that they need to back strong supporters of their agenda for transforming the district and American public education overall. This doesn’t always means reformers will always win the day. What it does mean is that the movement will be more aggressive in articulating its positive vision for the futures of children at the ballot box, as it should be. This, in turn, will force even traditionalist-minded officials to be more mindful of the consequences of their decisions on their political futures. Even school board members prefer to win re-election unopposed.
This isn’t to say that reformers don’t have miles to go when it comes to playing the political game. The fact that the AFT affiliate, like its counterparts in other districts, have the advantage of bodies on the ground — and in the case of race between Zimmer and Anderson, used it to their advantage — is another reminder that the school reform movement must do a better job of building grassroots support, especially among the 11.7 million single-parent families for whose children the failures of big-city districts such as L.A. Unified prove to weigh most-heavily. The movement also needs to do better in taping the growing Parent Power movement for potential board candidates; as seen in Adelanto, Calif., where the successful effort by families to take control of Desert Trails Elementary School also fueled the defeat of two members of the district’s board, there are families more than ready to take on traditionalists who want to keep the status quo quite ante.
Meanwhile reformers, both in the City of Angels and throughout the nation, must also remember that school board races aren’t the only ones deserving of their attention. As the role of city governments and even county governments in education becomes more-prominent — and more municipal leaders understand the role that overhauling districts must play in addressing economic and quality-of-life issues — reformers must be thoughtful players in other election campaigns.
This was especially clear in the race to succeed Villaraigosa as Los Angeles Mayor. During his eight years in office, Villaraigosa has emerged as the most-prominent reform-minded politician in California (especially as Gov. Jerry Brown and Supt. Tom Torlakson have decided to do the bidding of NEA and AFT affiliates); in turn, Villaraigosa has built upon the role of the mayor as one of the most-important players in statewide education policy that first came to the forefront in the 1990s during predecessor Richard Riordan’s tenure in office. Whoever succeeds Villaraigosa will not only shape the city’s future, but that of the district as well.
Only one candidate, City Controller Wendy Greuel, fully embraces a Parent Power agenda and would likely attempt the same kind of reform efforts Villaraigosa pushed during his tenure. But as seen last night in her second-place showing in what will be a run-off for the top job, Gruel’s negative campaigning against distant rival Jan Perry as well as her overall reputation for being more talk than action ended up playing into the hands of Eric Garcetti, who won the most votes last night. This matters because unlike Greuel, Garcetti has both a reform-lite agenda and the backing of the AFT affiliate to boot, and thus, is unlikely to fully embrace Villaraigosa’s reform mantle. Although Greuel still has two months to win the run-off, she will have to do a better job of articulating her school reform agenda as well as offer more-concrete solutions for addressing L.A.’s fiscal issues (including a pension deficit that has increased by 25 percent a year for the past decade).
For reformers, both in L.A. and in other parts of the country, the lessons from the mayoral race are clear. The first: Pay closer attention to one’s choices in mayoral candidates, or simply put, pick better standard-bearers. As reformers learned the hard way three years ago with then-Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s re-election defeat (and three years earlier with the defeat of Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson), you can’t simply count on voters to concern themselves only with overhauling failing schools, especially if the candidate’s flaws — including an inattentiveness addressing quality-of-life issues, and a demeanor at which even Winston Churchill would look askance — are too much for voters to overlook. Backing a generally lightweight candidate, even if they strongly embrace a reform platform, will almost always never work out.
The second lesson? Reformers must concretely connect the nation’s education crisis to the other local issues that are of concern to voters. Thanks to the efforts of Villaraigosa and Riordan, as well as the mayoral control of schools in cities such as New York and Boston, more citizens in L.A. are aware of how failing and mediocre schools weigh down on the economic and social fortunes of cities. At the same time, there are still citizens — especially dual-income households without children who tend to populate cities, as well as those concerned with other issues — for which education policy doesn’t weigh in as a deciding factor largely because they see little concrete connection between low graduation rates and the levels of crime in their communities. It is up to reformers to connect the proverbial dots, not for residents to do so.
The third lesson: Reformers must focus on other key elected offices. This especially includes the city council, especially those on the body who represent areas plagued by the worst of L.A. Unified’s dropout factories and failure mills. Working closely with councilmembers already in office such as Bernard Parks (who as the city’s former police chief, has strong credibility on addressing the quality of life issues that are intertwined with the district’s failures in teaching and curricula, and had endorsed the stillborn candidacy of Zimmer challenger Jeneen Robinson) would help bring education to the forefront of city concerns.
Finally, reformers in L.A. must move beyond City Hall in their efforts. Given that the district stretches throughout Los Angeles County — and, unless broken apart, unlikely to ever fall under any form of mayoral control — reformers should also focus on L.A. County government itself, targeting elections for each of the five supervisors who run it. Doing so would help bring the additional pressure needed to put L.A. Unified (as well as other districts in the county) on the right path. Reformers outside of L.A should also heed that lesson. After all, in the American South, countywide districts are the norm, and more county leaders are becoming aware of the role they need to play in getting those districts up to snuff.
The good news is that reformers have gleaned some lessons from L.A. that can be applied in school district races throughout the nation. Now it is time to get to work.