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School Choice Advocates Take Control in Los Angeles

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

Nick MelvoinNickMelvoin.comTwo 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."

Photo Credit: NickMelvoin.com

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  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    "What we need to do is learn from these schools that are high-performing and bring that to all schools," Melvoin says.

    I don't think he's gonna like what he finds.

  • Devastator||

    The problem isn't schools, it's parent who don't care about their kids' education and think little Jimmy is a special snowflake instead realizing that he's most likely average. The problem isn't with public schooling, schools in the Scandanavian countries continuously prove that, it's with parents and their fucked up priorities. If you are going to add a +1 human be ready to nurture him or her and not blame public schools if he under-performs blame yourself.

  • Devastator||

    To add to this; it isn't public vs private, it's American parental attitudes vs successful cultural attitudes toward education.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    About 10% of Swedish children attend publicly funded "independent schools" similar to US "charter schools" (Wikipedia: "education in Sweden").

    Sweden has substantially higher taxes on high incomes than the USA, but often embraces market solutions that would surprise some of their progressive admirers in the USA.

  • timbo||

    The system of illiterate and belligerent union teachers seems to be working just fine.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    People need to be vigilant, there is a chance that lefties are saying they are for school choice to get elected and they are not actually for school choice. There are jurisdictions that only Republicans can get elected, so politicians claim to be Republicans but are RINOs.

    Its like people who claim to be Libertarians but their actions speak volumes about their lefty agenda.

    I just find it hard to believe that Democrats are for destroying the public school system.

  • Nuwanda||

    "I just find it hard to believe that Democrats are for destroying the public school system."

    I agree. As I say below: "It's the illusion of choice, which the Left have always been good at constructing and follows from the principle that controlling the terms of reference is all that matters; what folks do within those terms is immaterial."

  • Blargrifth||

    Most urban Democrats support school choice because they actually get to see its impact. Only the wealthy WASP Democrats like Blumenthal and Warren oppose school choice.

  • tommhan||

    They owe too much to the unions. Politicians bought all the time.

  • lafe.long||

    "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."

    A slight spark of recognizing the left's cognitive dissonance?

    Melvoin would do well to consider other issues where this might be the case.

    ... but I seriously doubt that would ever happen.

  • Devastator||

    It's not left vs right, it's libertarian vs nonlibertarian. Both parties are at fault. Republicans want a return to the mythical 1950s, democrats think government can fix everything if you throw enough money at the problem. Both attitudes are simplistic and inadequate.

  • Calidissident||

    It's pretty rich that Mother Jones and progressives of that vein cast themselves as the protectors of the poor here. The same poor families that overwhelmingly want to send their kids to charter schools. Fucking disingenuous hypocrites.

  • sarcasmic||

    SCHOOL "CHOICE" MEANS THE GOVERNMENT WILL BE FUNDING CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS!

    THAT'S THE SAME AS OUTLAWING ABORTION!

  • Nuwanda||

    This illustrates the confusion between school choice and private education. As the two electees illustrate, they're in favor of continued levels of state funding, and no doubt of continued union involvement, of the school system regardless of whether it's public schools or charter schools. Actually, they're in favor of the same system, just Balkanised.

    A system that continues to receive state funding, is dominated by union staff, and is required to teach a state-mandated core curriculum, is as far from actual choice as you could imagine. It's the illusion of choice, which the Left have always been good at constructing and follows from the principle that controlling the terms of reference is all that matters; what folks do within those terms is immaterial.

    It's certainly not private education free from state control.

  • Galane||

    Every student that gets to go to a charter school is another one the education unions (hopefully) won't be able to indoctrinate into the socialist/communist/SJW/right side of history ideology.

    Is your kids' social studies teacher actually a socialist studies teacher? The one I had in 8th grade sure was. What a nut! A genuine leftover 1960's hippie.

  • ||

    "This has never been about the number of choices but the quality of choices, Melvoin says". ?? There it is. If you ever wondered how a statist could support less control, there's your answer. How can we discover "quality" choices without experimentation, which requires lots of choices. Melvoin and his bureaucrat friends will decide for us. So much for choice.

    I'm surprised no one asks the question: "If charter schools take students away and cut revenue, then why isn't that a good thing?" (Why should the public school system be more important than the parents/students it is supposed to serve? Why should parent choice be sacrificed to the govt. school system?)

  • Nuwanda||

    "Why should parent choice be sacrificed to the govt. school system?"

    Because the parents can't make quality choices about education. This relates fully to your first paragraph. Only the experts know what constitutes quality education. The parents don't. They can't. Actually, that's true. But that's not the point, since if preemptive expert opinion trumped individual choice, well, game over, no point in debating the necessity for freedom of action. Just appoint lots of experts and problems solved; the technocratic solution, which assumes infallibility, which the market solution never does. And if the technocracy admits to being fallible, they collapse their own raison d'etre.

    Good reply, by the way.

  • Davulek||

    "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."

    Because, as I've always said, it's not "for the children", it's "for the district employee's".

    Government schools are a failure. They exist for the employee's only. From a taxpayer's perspective, it's "feeding the monkeys to watch them shit".

  • Trainer||

    Compulsory education is a prison sentence even if you get to chose your child's prison. Educational freedom is what will change schools and children's lives for the better.

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