Though Election Day isn’t until Tuesday, May 16th, Los Angeles’ epic school drama unfolds now, this minute, in real time, as absentee ballots in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board race arrive in voters’ mail boxes. The drama stars public school champions – incumbent Board President Steve Zimmer and non-profit founder Imelda Padilla – vs. billionaire barons – Eli Broad and the Waltons of Walmart.
With an overwhelming majority of voters expected to vote absentee in this monumental yet little known run-off election, there’s no time to waste for Zimmer and Padilla supporters, those campaigning to protect public education from Big Money bosses pulling the strings on marionette candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez while plotting to take over or edge out proud neighborhood schools.
Yes, it’s show time in the 7.5 billion-dollar real-estate rich LAUSD, the country’s second largest school district, right behind New York City, where 95 different languages are spoken in a student version of the United Nations.
The antagonists in this drama, billionaires and their class pets, are hiding something from us, the audience. They’re not telling us that Zimmer, an ambassador for arts education, has led the District to restore arts education funding to pre-recession levels, so that Wonderland Elementary – a Blue Ribbon School – can continue its innovative choral program in which students both compose music and play the violin, the cello, the instrument of their choice – or so that Venice HS, where I teach English, can expand its two magnets: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine (STEMM) and World Languages, as well as its small learning academies that also include the Academy of Law and Public Policy (ALPS) and Sports Medicine. The antagonists in this drama – the ones jamming neighborhood mailboxes with hateful fliers – do not speak of our Venice HS students who apprentice in our graphic design shop, perform at the LA Music Center or deliver social commentary at Get Lit Poetry slams. No, the antagonists won’t tell you Venice High School is a school on the move.
Venice High School is not the only secret the billionaire boys are keeping from the audience. Zimmer’s District 4 is home to Grand View Elementary’s model language immersion program – one of 20 such LAUSD programs Zimmer champions because research shows that students enrolled in dual language programs achieve academically.
LAUSD's 7-member school board is the largest democratically elected school board in the nation. Our school board members govern a district that includes what developer friends describe as 10 square miles of “underutilized” land or prime real-estate for commercial partnerships with developers – partnerships condemned in a legislative report decades ago – and govern a district that serves over 700,000 students, which includes nearly 30,000 preschoolers, over 550,000 students in K-12 District schools, almost 70,000 students in adult education programs, and 120,000 students in inconsistent independent charter schools granted special privileges and exemptions from much of the state education code, due to state legislation.
Many people don't realize that we have an estimated one-sixth of our LAUSD K-12 students in privately operated charter schools siphoning Average Daily Attendance money from the public treasury and robbing our real public schools of much-needed resources to lower class size, buy new books, teach electives, hire nurses, keep libraries open – and enhance the already successful arts and technology programs at Venice HS.
Still others may not realize that a few billionaires – Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Waltons – conceived a plan for the District to double its market share – now at 200 charter schools -- in a move critics say softens the ground for corporate raiders to peddle Trump-touted vouchers or publicly funded coupons spent later at for-profit schools or even religious schools teaching creationism rather than science.
Let’s back up.
In September of 2015, the LA Times reported on a plan that "outlined an ambitious strategy to place half of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District into charter schools over the next eight years, a move the backers of the plan said would serve as a model for the rest of the nation. The 44 page report is dated June 2015 and outlines a campaign to raise capital and sell the public on the privatization scheme.
Fast forward and we find ourselves in the middle of election season, with the LA Times – whose education reporters are, in part, funded by a grant from charter school promoters – reporting that 'LA Schools could be on the 'brink of a dramatic power shift' as "charter school supporters have their best chance to tip the scales and win a controlling majority on the Los Angeles School Board'.
And so it's chilling and foreboding to find that in October of 2015, a mere week and a half from when the Broad Plan (as it came to be known) was first covered by the LA Times, a young lawyer named Nicholas Melvoin stepped from the shadows of near-anonymity to publish on a blog called the 74 Million (in reference to the 74 million students under the age of 18) a commentary calling for charter school operators – billionaire and millionaire lobbyists – to take over our neighborhood schools.
Today, Nick Melvoin – a 31-year-old laid-off Teach for America instructor, a graduate of the elite and private Brentwood School, now attorney who twice went to court to challenge teacher seniority rights – is Big Money’s candidate in a tense runoff against LAUSD veteran public servant Steve Zimmer, 17-year teacher and counselor at Marshall High School first elected to the Board in 2009, and proud of his record of stewardship, not only working with District staff to increase graduation rates from 54% to near 80% and balancing LAUSD’s budget to earn the highest bond rating, but also authoring a resolution to make our schools safe havens for immigrant children who might otherwise fear an unwelcome knock on the classroom door from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
This is a school board race that will be determined by those who vote absentee or remember to vote on Tuesday May 16th, Election Day, when little else is on the ballot, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that this election is critical to the survival of public education in America, that on May 16th we are literally fighting to save what our nation’s founders believed was critical to a democratic society. And it's all happening in an election that may be decided by a pitifully low turnout, possibly less than 10 percent.
So to improve the odds that billionaires establish majority control of the Board, Eli Broad and his Walmart friends not only established mega-million dollar independent expenditures for Melvoin in District 4 – the Westside and West San Fernando Valley – but also for 7th grade charter school science teacher Kelley Gonez, the privatizer’s favorite in the District 6 East San Fernando Valley run-off with Imelda Padilla, a community and labor organizer, formerly with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, who established her own non-profit to prepare high school students for college, who like Zimmer, is endorsed by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing 35,000 teachers in Los Angeles – and the same union spending over a million dollars on independent expenditures for Zimmer and Padilla.
Why is UTLA also starring in this drama?
Because Eli Broad’s plan to massively expand charter schools in LA sounds remarkably familiar to the GOP market-driven mantra of Trump’s informationally-challenged Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the poster child for replacing public schools with non-union charter schools employing a revolving door of inexperienced teachers toiling long hours as low-wage workers, just a notch above the dispensable Walmart workers who can’t afford health care and so must rely on public assistance to pay for their child’s middle-of-the-night emergency room visit.
This is a far cry from Zimmer’s vision of hiring and nurturing new teachers through a district intern program that allows teachers to train, teach and become union members with benefits at the same time. “I hope to usher in a new generation of public educators and make this system the best place to be a teacher in the country,” Zimmer told the press.
Teachers hired at non-union charter schools, however, must know they’re not in the best place, not when they can be hired at will at a school that plays by an entirely different set of rules.
Independent charter schools (as opposed to affiliated charter schools that work closely with LAUSD) operate free from regular audits, yet are able through shell corporations to use subsidies to buy private buildings; hire principals without administrative credentials or salary caps; recruit teachers without the otherwise required certification to teach English learners; buy from for-profit third party vendors without adhering to state protocols to discourage corruption; write craftily-written charter dismissal policies to conveniently expel struggling students right before state testing; fail to design programs to serve the severely disabled – the mute autistic, the intellectually delayed, the incontinent and wheelchair bound – in the same proportion as the neighborhood public school, and self-select their governing board that has the power to decide – should a mismanaged charter school close its doors – how its publicly funded assets will be distributed.
California charter schools are, for the most part, private non-union operations fleecing the taxpayers to the tune of 2.5 billion, according to recent April 2017 research study sponsored by In the Public Interest. According to the report, “Far too much of this public funding is spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools.”
In the meantime, parents in Board District 4 are resisting state mandates to share their neighborhood school with charter interlopers. A sentence embedded in small print in Proposition 39, a ballot measure passed in 2000 to close tax loopholes, now requires school districts to make space available for charters to “co-locate” on other district school campuses.
While co-location may sound clinical and innocuous, the reality is that imposing or threatening to impose a charter school on a public school campus triggers a jarring visceral reaction from parents, such as those at Short Ave. Elementary who objected to efforts to co-locate Citizens of the World Charter School Mar Vista on their campus.
After parents at Grand View Elementary in Mar Vista also objected to the co-location, Citizens of the World was slated to sit smack in the middle of Webster Middle School in West LA, where another set of parents – along with teachers – is pushing back, posting an on-line petition to stop the co-location, concerned that housing a second charter school on the Webster campus will limit if not doom access to the auditorium, science lab, and library.
To parents resisting co-location, the imposition of an unwelcome charter school also means their own children may lose their music room, their art room, rooms used to tutor or remediate struggling readers, time on the playground – to the interloper.
On the one hand you have Steve Zimmer, a two-term incumbent, a mensch, who saved arts education, early childhood education and adult education from devastating budget cuts, who launched Student Recovery Day to send staff into the community twice yearly to bring drop-outs back to class, who – though he approved more charters than he rejected – promoted school choice in over 50 magnets and language immersion programs to keep students – and their attendant state funds – inside a District that could collapse if Broad’s plan becomes a reality and saddles the larger district with the entire burden of covering fixed costs – building maintenance, electricity – as well as legacy costs – pensions, health care, and debt service.
In contrast to Zimmer, you have Melvoin, an ambitious Harvard University graduate and Brentwood Community Council member who declared that one of his first priorities if elected would be to audit all LAUSD campuses to co-locate more charter schools.
Electing Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla will not change the language of Proposition 39, the co-location mandate, but their victories can send a strong message to Trump and DeVos – we do not want your privatization of education – and to voters who – if the California Teachers Association is successful – will have a chance to pass a ballot initiative to eliminate the co-location clause.
Electing Zimmer and Padilla will also send a message to our next Governor in the hope that new Sacramento leadership – unlike the charter-happy Jerry Brown who as Mayor of Oakland ushered in a military charter school – will translate into finally-signed legislation to either impose a moratorium on new charter schools or, at the very least, cap the number of independent charter schools draining the public treasury, require charter school boards be popularly elected and their schools subject to regular audits, tax the 1% to fully fund our public non-charter schools, now nearly at the bottom in comparative state funding, and deliver world-class thematic and culturally relevant education that differentiates instruction while allowing all students to access stimulating curriculum.
Additionally, the political will solidified behind a Zimmer-Padilla victory could force the State of California to close charter schools with what the ACLU described in a 2016 landmark report as exclusionary and illegal enrollment practices (requiring parents to volunteer hours or donate money; requiring students enter with a certain grade point average or test score), and fully invest the power to issue, renew, or rescind charter authorizations to local Districts charged with oversight but currently the target of lawsuits by charter schools who, having their charters denied or rescinded, can appeal to the County Board of Education and if that doesn’t work to the State Board of Education for reconsideration of their application.
Defenders of independent charter schools argue choice is a good thing, as it breeds competition to close the achievement gap and improve education for people of color—and the statistics show, at least in Los Angeles, that charter schools attract a greater number of African American students than traditional LAUSD public schools. While this argument – charters as gap closers – may resonate, there’s a reason both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter are calling for a moratorium on new charter schools and an end to school closures, also known as reconstitutions. The organizations assert that the privatization of education – shifting public dollars into private, sometimes opaque charter operations – ultimately weakens neighborhood schools, tears apart the fabric of a community that is stronger when united, captures the best and the brightest and the privileged whose parents can meet a legally questionable requirement to volunteer time in the classroom – and leaves the rest dependent on a depleted public school system struggling to pay off the bond debt incurred in the construction of classrooms now occupied by charter schools.
What if Walmart’s Waltons, Eli Broad, and the billionaire class – instead of committing their largesse to carving out a separate and unequal school system – invested in our existing LAUSD public schools to provide more of what Zimmer and Padilla advocate: wrap around services – health clinics and job training – to make our schools the locus of the community, thereby increasing family engagement in education? What if the super rich, heavy with hubris and we-know-best pomposity, invested in enhancing and replicating innovative LAUSD programs, like the STEMM magnet at Venice High School or the dual language immersion program at Grand View elementary?
With so much of the billionaire’s money flowing in the opposite direction – toward elimination not innovation in neighborhood public schools, toward eventual closure of publicly-funded and publicly-operated schools – similar to the way Walmart forced local vendors with a sense of community identity to close their doors – it may be too late to change the dynamic of independent charters as the colonizers and public school districts as the colonized, but the other option – the Broad plan to elect perceived yes-men and women, Melvoin and Gonez, to rapidly facilitate the transfer of half of the district’s 550,000 K-12 students into charter schools – a plan rightfully opposed by Zimmer and Padilla – can only accelerate the end of public education as foundational to democracy.
Don’t let that happen.
Support our neighborhood schools.
Vote absentee today or at the polls on Tuesday, May 16th.
Vote for the public school champions: Steve Zimmer in District 4 and Imelda Padilla in District 6 for LAUSD School Board.
A 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Marcy Winograd now teaches English and social communications in the special education department at Venice High School. Co-author of the Lola Zola tween novel series, she also volunteers on the Zimmer for School Board 2017 campaign.