Earthquake rearranges school board in Los Angeles

By Larry Sand
May 23, 2017

Aftershocks could have ramifications; teacher union leaders grouse as they plan next steps.

On Tuesday, May 6th, Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, who are more concerned with the needs of parents, kids and taxpayers than stoking the bureaucracy and complying with teacher union diktats, were elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District board. Reformers are now the majority of the seven member governing body in America’s second largest city.

Melvoin, especially, was vocal in his campaign that the school district needs a major shake-up, including a call for more charter schools. He also stressed the need for fiscal reform, which includes a reworking of the district’s out-of-control pension and healthcare obligations. In December, LAUSD Chief Financial Officer Megan Reilly told the school board that the district may not be able to meet its financial obligations in the future because it faces a cumulative deficit of $1.46 billion through the 2018-2019 school year. While that dollar amount has been disputed in some quarters, there’s no doubt that the district is facing a budgetary crisis. It’s also no secret that an abysmal graduation rate (pumped up with the help of fake “credit recovery” classes) and shrinking enrollment have taken a serious toll on LAUSD. Also, in 2015, only one in five 4th-grade students in Los Angeles performed at or above “proficient” in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Needless to say, anything that bodes well for parents and taxpayers will rankle the teachers unions, and the LA school board race was certainly no exception. Not only did the young Turks (Melvoin is 31 and Gonez 28.), defeat the unions’ candidates, they raised more money – in Melvoin’s case far more – than their opponents. This was a rare occurrence, because historically teachers unions have greatly outspent their opponents to get their candidates elected, especially in high-profile elections. But this time the unions could not compete with the likes of philanthropist Eli Broad who donated $450,000 to the campaign and former LA Mayor Richard Riordan who contributed over $2 million. Additionally, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings donated nearly $7 million since last September to CCSA Advocates (the political wing of the California Charter School Association), which spent almost $3 million on the board election.

On the union side the United Teachers Los Angeles was the big spender, pitching in about $4.13 million, according to city filings. But much of this money came from the UTLA’s national partners. The American Federation of Teachers gave UTLA $1.2 million and National Education Association, $700,000.

The spending disparity did not sit well with the unions. Upon losing, NEA claimed that parents and educators were pitted against “a group of out-of-town billionaires.” Considering that the bulk of the reformers’ donations came from three individuals who reside in California – Broad and Riordan are in LA; Hastings is in the San Francisco Bay area – it is particularly hypocritical for the DC-based union to be casting those stones. According to their latest Labor Department filing, NEA sent money to Colorado, Georgia, Maine and other states in 2016 in an attempt to sway voters. In fact, NEA is #12 in the country when it comes to voter influence, having spent nearly $27 million last year in the process, greatly outspending just about all the corporations they regularly disparage.

In a press release, California Teachers Association President Eric Heins pretty much replicated the NEA whine about billionaire spending and, alluding to charter schools, added, “Public education should be about kids, not profits.” Heins and other unionistas have been banging on this well-worn drum for years. Clearly this is nonsensical. The billionaires who donate to charter schools aren’t trying to get rich. They’re already rich. And just for the record, the California Charter School Association claims that out of the state’s 1,200 charter schools, only six are organized as limited liability corporations.

Upon hearing the election results, UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said, “We will fight against privatizing our public schools and against creating ‘separate and unequal’ for our kids….” (Loose translation: If you think the union is going to cede its power to parents and do what’s best for kids, you’re nuts.)

This is the same Alex Caputo-Pearl who said in a speech to his union’s leadership conference last July, “…the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018. There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

Later in the same speech, the union boss said, “All of the Unions representing LAUSD workers and the teachers unions in San Diego, San Bernardino, Oakland, and San Francisco share our June 2017 contract expiration date.  We have an historic opportunity to lead a coordinated bargaining effort across the State….”

And with June 30, 2017 right around the corner, UTLA will soon begin to put its heavy-handed agenda into action. With Melvoin and Gonez set to be sworn in on July 1st, the fireworks you hear in LA on July 4th may be only in part due to patriotic celebrations. We have a school district that has poorly educated students, a shameful graduation rate, shrinking enrollment, a serious financial shortfall and a rabid UTLA leader who, more than anything, wants to maintain his union’s power and will possibly orchestrate a state crisis to do so. The result, of course, would be a disaster for kids, their parents and the already beleaguered taxpayer.

How will all this shake out in LA and elsewhere? Will Melvoin and Gonez be able to make progress implementing their agenda? Will UTLA’s draconian tactics succeed? Will more philanthropists step forth and battle the forces of stagnation and union hegemony in other big cities? These questions and many others cannot be answered yet. The only sure bet is that it’s going to be a very bumpy ride.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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