The Los Angeles teachers union squeaked out a victory in yesterday’s L.A. school board election, beating back corporate donors who flushed millions of dollars into an effort to unseat an independent school board leader.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, not satisfied with pushing his corporate vision on public schools in his own city, was one of many wealthy outside donors, dropping $1 million on the L.A. school board races.
But incumbent Steve Zimmer, a former teacher and community leader, defeated Kate Anderson, a parent and lawyer, by a margin of 52-48 in District 4, covering the west side of Los Angeles.
“He won because of a lot of boots on the ground: parents and teachers and others who have had enough,” said Crenshaw High School teacher Alex Caputo-Pearl.
While a majority of the board still generally supports district superintendent John Deasy, Caputo-Pearl said Zimmer’s victory reflects dissatisfaction with Deasy’s push for privatization—and a rejection of corporate cash in local elections.
“It just really rubs a lot of folks the wrong way,” he said.
The L.A. school board race quickly became a national focal point for corporate education interests focused on standardized testing, privatizing, and weakening teacher protections; news of large outside donations, however, also bolstered their critics. To compete with the nearly $4 million raised for the three candidates endorsed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the teachers union (UTLA) and grassroots education activists had to increase their on-the-ground activity and cough up more money.
A Moving Target
It might not seem that a Teach for America graduate—who, since he was elected to the school board in 2009, has voted to authorize and keep charter schools open—would be a target of charter school advocates. Zimmer poses a threat mainly because he is independent and occasionally opposes or tries to soften Deasy’s moves. He once promoted a school board motion advocating more accountability for charter schools.
The reason for the push against Zimmer is simple. Los Angeles, unlike New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, has an elected school board that selects, and can replace, the superintendent. Ousting Zimmer would give the board a clear, unquestioning majority of Deasy supporters. Three out of seven school board spots were open.
One race prompted a run-off, so it is possible an underdog candidate could unseat Villaraigosa-supported Antonio Sanchez.
Zimmer has supported Deasy but often worked out compromises on structural changes. He brokered a deal on teacher evaluations with consensus from the union. His opponent Anderson, in contrast, wanted to get rid of teacher seniority.
Caputo-Pearl has experience working with Zimmer and sees him as reasonable, though not necessarily an ally. “He is viewed as someone we can work with,” Caputo-Pearl said, “who has done some very important things on the board in terms of equity and access for students and fighting for what teachers need in the classroom.”
Villaraigosa is known for his failed attempt to take over the schools in 2006, and he has pushed dramatic privatization plans since then. Los Angeles has the most students in charter schools of any city, one in six—but this still leaves room for expansion. Pro-corporate education activists saw this election as an opportunity to win complete control in order to expand charter schools, bring in consultants, and weaken teachers’ job security and other contract protections.
Like Bloomberg, Villaraigosa is on his way out as mayor, but he played a key fundraising role for the school board races. Financial backers of his endorsed slate (Kate Anderson, Antonio Sanchez, and incumbent board president Monica Garcia) read like a Who’s Who of corporate education interests.
On top of Bloomberg’s donation, money came in from Michelle Rhee’s Students First, former New York Schools chancellor Joel Klein, who now works for one of Rupert Murdoch’s media corporations, the California Charter Schools Association, and the Broad Foundation, a philanthropic organization in line with Students First and other market-driven education models.
In addition to beating back the attack on Zimmer, the teachers union was hoping to either defeat board president Garcia or force her into a runoff, by supporting several candidates against her (although not funding them as they funded Zimmer’s race). The school employees union, Service Employees Local 99, split from UTLA to back Garcia, while also supporting Zimmer.
Garcia has been president of the L.A. school board since 2006 and has pushed an agenda—in line with the departing mayor and current superintendent—of school closures, reconstitutions, and replacing public schools with charters.
One unpopular reconstitution pushed by Deasy was resisted by students, parents, and teachers at Crenshaw High School, where Alex Caputo-Pearl teaches. The superintendent pushed to convert Crenshaw High School into smaller magnet schools, even after significant student gains.
The teachers union objects to dramatic restructures like these, not only because closing schools can be disruptive for students and communities, but also because many create parallel schools where union teachers are replaced by non-union teachers or teachers with limited collective bargaining rights.
While Zimmer’s win has averted immediate catastrophe, it doesn’t mean the board will ultimately reject the superintendent’s agenda. Caputo-Pearl says the union needs to think beyond defensive school board races and fight for a proactive vision of public education.