Twenty minutes into my interview with Los Angeles Unified School Board member Mónica García, as I paused to record the sound of the loud street where we were sipping coffee, she fired an unprompted question back at me.
"Who says that I'm a 'charter school advocate?'" asked García, who's running for her third full term on the board. I laughed — she meant the question partially in-jest. But García also didn't seem to mean it rhetorically – she really wanted to know how she acquired the label.
García's overriding goal during her 12 years representing central and East L.A.'s District 2 has been, she said, to shake up L.A. Unified. When first elected in 2006, that goal attached García to then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bid to take more control over the school board.
Now, García said, "charters are one part of the solution" — but, she argued, her candidacy was about much more.
L.A. Unified faces titanic challenges: falling enrollment, rising benefits costs and persistent student achievement gaps — all issues that the winners of this spring's elections to the city's school board will be charged with tackling. Voters in three districts will cast primary votes for 13 candidates on March 7.
But the issue that motivates the biggest campaign spenders is charter schools.
More than two-thirds of the outside money pouring into the L.A. Unified race – money that pays for phone bankers, campaign mailers and consultants – has come from pro-charter school groups. Another quarter of those "independent expenditures" comes from charters' chief political rival: L.A.'s main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
This outside money has flooded the race at a remarkable pace. With less than a month until election day, outside groups have spent more than $2.9 million on L.A. Unified races, nearly twice the amount that had been reported by this point in the 2015 school board campaign.
That financial dynamic means that school board candidates are often pigeonholed as the "pro-charter" or "pro-teachers union." Some candidates embrace these labels. Others chafe at them.
Like García. "It’s interesting," she said, "when you run for office… we have a society that comments. What I want to make sure they talk about is that our graduation [rate] is at 75 [percent]."
Imelda Padilla, one of six candidates running for the District 6 seat in the East San Fernando Valley, also dismissed the charter-versus-union framing.
"In this community," explained Padilla, who won UTLA's endorsement, charter school groups and teachers unions "have won together; and in this community, they've lost together."
But it's less relevant whether candidates embrace their labels as "pro-charter" or "pro-union" as it is whether one of those two sides embraces you, said Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra.
In District 6, UTLA and the Service Employees International Union have together made more than $161,000 in independent expenditures — which by law cannot be made in consultation with candidates' campaigns — to support Padilla.
Kelly Gonez, also running in District 6, has benefited from more than $331,000 in outside money from pro-charter school groups.
Both Gonez and Padilla have also raised more in direct campaign contributions than their closest competitor, Araz Parseghian, who has not benefited from any independent expenditures so far. Outside money from California Charter Schools Association Advocates funded a mailer against a fourth candidate in the race — former California Assembly member Patty Lopez. The other two candidates, Jose Sandoval and Gwendolyn Posey, have not reported any campaign contributions.
"As a candidate, if you do not have the support of one or the other, your chances of winning are very slim," Guerra said.
Nowhere is the charter-versus-union clash more apparent than in the race for District 4 seat on the L.A. Unified board, where independent expenditure groups have already poured $2.1 million into the race.
Much of that total comes from a reform- and charter-oriented group, L.A. Students for Change, which has spent more than $1 million in outside money to oppose incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, who has UTLA's endorsement. Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan recently gave L.A. Students for Change a $1 million contribution to help it target Zimmer.
The union's political arm has responded with more than $119,000 in outside spending to oppose Zimmer's charter-endorsed challengers, Nick Melvoin and Allison Holdorff Polhill. (No independent expenditures have so far been reported either opposing or in support of a fourth candidate, Greg Martayan.)
In District 2, García has the California Charter Schools Association's endorsement — and has benefited from contributions from pro-charter philanthropist Eli Broad. But most of the outside money supporting her so far has come from the Service Employees International Union, not charter-aligned groups.
García is more fired-up by the district's self-described "all-hands-on-deck" effort to increase high school graduation rates. She was there in the beginning, as chief of staff for then-L.A. Unified School Board member José Huizar, when the board first adopted the state's "A-G" college graduation requirements in 2005.
"Our job is to be the best school district we can possibly be," García said. "And so for people who have the interest or the perspective of limiting this between this and that, that’s not what I get stuck on. I get stuck on, 'Why can’t we do more faster?' … We’re not there yet."
Doesn't it feel, I respond, like a zero-sum game between charters and district interests?
"But it's not," she said. "But it's not."
García's opponents differ with her on this point.
“I think the charter forces sometimes forget the kids that are actually enrolled in the district get left behind. Mónica García has been particularly guilty of that," said Carl Petersen, who moved from Northridge to unincorporated East L.A. late last year specifically to challenge García.
Both Petersen and challenger Lisa Alva have so far opposed García on shoestring campaign budgets. Alva remains a full-time teacher at Bravo Medical Magnet High School.
Alva was motivated to jump into the race by President Donald Trump's victory, saying she felt compelled to assist the district in "drawing a protective circle" around students and teachers who feel threatened by his policies — both in education, and in areas that would impact their lives, such as immigration.
But concerns about "privatization" in the school district motivated Alva, too. During her 15-year stint teaching at L.A. Unified's Roosevelt High School, Alva watched with dismay as her brightest students started to disappear from her class to enroll in the charter school that opened nearby.
“The tide started to go out," Alva said. "And we lost more and more kids and we lost good teachers because we didn’t have the enrollment to sustain them.”
UTLA has not endorsed either of García's challengers, and though Alva recently picked up the high-profile endorsement of the L.A. Times, it’s an endorsement that doesn’t pay.
As of late January, Alva had raised $7,400 for her campaign.
García’s raised more than $163,000 in direct contributions so far.