After the most expensive school-board election in the nation’s history, the LA Unified School District now has a pro-reform majority after years of unwavering support for teachers’ unions. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) pursued a grossly misleading campaign to tie leading reformer Nick Melvoin to Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, but Melvoin’s blowout victory over union-backed board president Steve Zimmer demonstrates how that strategy backfired.
Melvoin and other reform candidates support charter schools, but they have not formed a radical band of market-reform zealots. They simply offered Los Angeles families viable alternatives to the status quo, and that message resonated among voters who don’t have any kind of ideological predisposition toward school choice. Pro-union candidates failed to answer for schools’ lackluster performance, the district’s projected deficit of $1.5 billion, and the looming crisis over unfunded liabilities for retirees.
Running on a platform of more of the same proved to be a disaster. “Zimmer was defending indefensible status quo,” said Melvoin campaign strategist Bill Burton, who had previously worked in Obama’s press office. The school board had been spending money it didn’t have — in one telling episode, they gave teachers a larger raise than the union even asked for, despite facing a massive deficit.
More than dollars and cents, school performance moves voters, and in Los Angeles they decided to go with reformers’ pro-charter agenda. Melvoin supports limited charter growth, as well as increasing autonomy for traditional public schools to help them improve in the ways that charters can.
Residents are coming to support charter access because they see them working. Pacoima Charter Elementary School is one institution that came to thrive outside of district control — even though it does not draw from a socio-economically advantaged population. The school’s success is a testament to the potential of charter schools, but because unions oppose them, the school board hasn’t been friendly toward charters.
Unions and leftist activists may be exercised by DeVos and her free-market principles and purported religious fanaticism, but UTLA’s focus on her failed to scare voters. Los Angeles voters care more about their schools getting better, as reformers figured out. Now the majority supports reform, and the unions have temporarily lost their power.