Education

So LAUSD has a charter-backed school board majority. What now?

L.A. Unified School Board candidate Nick Melvoin campaigns in Mar Vista two days before the general election.
L.A. Unified School Board candidate Nick Melvoin campaigns in Mar Vista two days before the general election.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Listen to story

00:56
Download this story 0.0MB

When Nick Melvoin and — assuming her narrow lead in Tuesday's election holds — Kelly Gonez are sworn in as the newest members of the Los Angeles Unified School Board in July, the balance of power on the board will shift.

Their accessions will mean a majority of the seven-member board will have been endorsed by the California Charter School Association, a watershed moment on a board with which the district's main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has long held much sway.

Melvoin and Gonez join Mónica García, who won re-election outright in the March primary, and Ref Rodriguez as candidates who have the charter association's imprimatur.

But in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's vote, it's not entirely clear to John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA, what exactly that transition of power will mean — and even whether these four board members' shared endorsement history even ensures they'll end up voting as a bloc.

"It’s not entirely clear how board members like Mónica García or Ref Rodriguez are going to act moving forward," Rogers said. "I think that they have a broad view of what the district is supposed to do. I think that they are concerned that we create a system that serves all students well."

"Even though," he added, "[García and Rodriguez] have been viewed as board members who are aligned with the so-called charter bloc, I see them wanting to be more thoughtful moving forward."

Each of the candidates themselves faced the challenge of staking out nuanced position on charter schools while caught in the middle of a costly, divisive back-and-forth between political rivals: pro-charter groups and teachers unions, which oppose unchecked charter growth.

Melvoin and Gonez framed their support for charter schools as part of their broader support for expanding school choice options regardless of the school's "label" or governance structure. For them, as Gonez put it in a KPCC candidate survey, "career academies, dual-language immersion schools, magnet schools, and pilot schools" also fit this bill.

This message — and lack of access to these non-traditional school choice options — helped attract parents to candidates such as Melvoin, said Kate Braude, executive director of the group Speak Up. The organization endorsed Melvoin and organized many parents on the westside of L.A.

The parents ultimately laid this frustration at the feet of the incumbent Melvoin ousted — Steve Zimmer, the board's current president. Zimmer had pointed out he has approved many charter schools in his eight years on the board and, though he worries about their unchecked growth, believes in the initial vision for charters as incubators of innovation.

But Braude said it wasn't Zimmer's position on charter schools that necessarily drove these frustrations.

Parents "don’t look at the label of their school. They want something that works," Braude said. "A lot of the frustration came out of efforts to replicate good, high-quality schools — things that were working — [that] ran into obstacle after problem after frustrating issue."

Could those efforts fall on more receptive ears now that Melvoin and Gonez are on the board?

Superintendent Michelle King has already stated her desire to open up more school choice "pathways" in the district. The board recently approved dozens of new magnet programs.

Both Melvoin and Gonez ran on promises to shake up the status quo in L.A. Unified — and Rogers said he wants more details on how they plan to accomplish this shake-up.

"This election was run on the idea that things are terrible, trust us, and we’ll make it better," Rogers said. "That doesn’t give us a sense of what their strategy is going to be; what even their ideas with charters — even though they’ve been associated with the California Charter Schools Association — are."

Rogers returned to the examples of board members Rodriguez and García, who he said have ties to groups in their board districts whose priorities don't always gel with the charter association's agenda.

"It’s possible that these new candidates," Rogers said, referring to Melvoin and Gonez, "will also want to construct a system that is seeing itself as serving all students and is seeing charters and district schools as part of a broader whole that need to live up to a common set of standards."

But Rogers is not ready to make any predictions.

"Time," he said, "will tell."