Charter Schools

School Choice Advocates Take Control in Los Angeles

School board election winner wants to see lessons of successful charters replicated within district.


Nick Melvoin

Two school choice proponents won election to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board this week, and the outcome is going to be a big deal moving forward. Their additions to the board mean that supporters of charter schools and school choice now have majority control over the seven-person panel overseeing one of the largest school districts in the country.

The response to the election helps illustrate some of the oversimplifications in analysis of school choice issues. Mother Jones, for example, wants to present it as a simply blue vs. red, Richie Rich-types versus the helpless poor. The headline emphasizes that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos must be thrilled at the election of Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez.

While it's true that DeVos is a massive fan of school choice and her leadership of the Department of Education will reflect as much, Melvoin and Gonez are hardly cheerleaders of President Donald Trump's administration. In December, Melvoin wrote a commentary at Medium criticizing Trump and DeVos, arguing that the president is using school choice as an excuse to make massive cuts to federal education funding.

Gonez's campaign site home page features her in the embrace of a president, but it's Barack Obama (whose re-election campaign she served), not Trump. She champions an endorsement not by religious conservatives, but the Sierra Club.

The fact is, Melvoin and Gonez are both Democrats. That school choice and charter schools are extremely popular in Los Angeles is not a reflection of some invasion from the right. Los Angeles remains solidly blue (Hillary Clinton claimed 72 percent of the vote for president across Los Angeles County). But that school choice supporters took the seats in an election held in May (where turnouts are significantly lower) shows precisely how much parents value the ability to control the educational destinies of their kids. Reporting may play up how expensive the race was and how much money wealthy charter supporters spent, but that also downplays how such high spending is necessary to compete with the massive amounts of money education unions in the state pay to influence election outcomes.

The political scene in Los Angeles may be heavily dominated by union leadership, but it's also been an incubator for charter schools and school choice options. The school district boasts the biggest charter program in the country, with 250 schools serving 130,000 students. Despite the constant fights between school choice advocates and unions, the district has had charter choices for decades now.

The tipping point motivating school choice-loving voters may well have come in April, when the LAUSD school board voted to support three state bills backed by teachers unions that could have severely impacted the operations of charter schools. One bill, which has been shelved for now, would have gutted the appeals process for charter schools rejected by districts and would have allowed a school district to reject a charter school if it would cause a financial hardship for the district. Whenever a student leaves a public school for a charter school, the public school loses some funding. Opponents of the bill argued that it would allow school districts to reject every single charter school that comes along.

LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer voted in favor of endorsing the bill. Zimmer's the man Melvoin defeated in order to join the board. Melvoin tells Reason that he's hoping his victory and the shift in power on the board to pro-school choice means that the school board won't have to "re-litigate" the idea of whether the district should support charter schools at every single meeting.

But to be very clear, Melvoin has no interest in shifting all LAUSD students into charters or privately operated schools. What he really wants to do is take the lessons learned by successful charters and try to bring them back to the public schools to make the quality of public schools better.

"What we need to do is learn from these schools that are high-performing and bring that to all schools," Melvoin says. "I hope that [LAUSD] is a more hospitable environment for innovations."

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles dismissed the idea that they could all work together in the Los Angeles Times and said the union would be "doubling down" on its efforts to oppose charter expansions. The fight is likely to continue.

For Melvoin, the formulation that the battle lines are public schools vs. charters, left vs. right, and rich vs. poor all represent false choices.

"Wealthy families have always benefited from school choice," Melvoin observes. "So the minute the benefits of choice get to poor families—that's something Democrats should embrace. It's mind-boggling to me. … It's pitting different constituencies [within the Democratic Party] against each other."

Now that school choice supporters dominate the leadership of the second largest school district in the country, any mistakes, poor choices, and poor outcomes of the LAUSD moving forward are likely to be magnified by critics of school choice. Lisa Snell, the Reason Foundation's director of education, believes that the election results mean that charter and other education choice options are likely to increase for parents and students in the district. It's going to be up to the school board to maintain accountability as choices expand.

"They still have to make sure that whatever schools they stand behind—district or charter—they're serving the students well," Snell says. "They have to be guardians of quality. That's not to say you're going to overregulate. But if they're performing badly, you have a contract you can close."

Melvoin says that it's valid for the school district to be concerned about losing money when kids go to charter schools. The school district faces a massive budget deficit and pension crisis that they're going to have to solve. Melvoin believes that the solution is to make the public schools more competitive with charter schools, something LAUSD hasn't been doing well, reduce overhead costs, and bring successful charter innovations backward into the public schools.

"This has never been about the number of choice but the quality of choices," Melvoin says. "Let's free principals of red tape so they can start competing."