Fate of LA's Public Schools Hangs in Balance in Major Trump-Era Election

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Fate of LA's Public Schools Hangs in Balance in Major Trump-Era Election

If two industry-supported candidates unseat public education advocates on school board, they will 'squash democratic control of public schools'

The election will also serve as a microcosm of the Trump administration's vision for public schools nationwide, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos having expressed her support for privatization. (Photo: Victoria Pickering/flickr/cc)

A runoff election Tuesday in Los Angeles will determine the fate of public education in one of the nation's largest school districts, in a first major test of the influence of the Trump-era charter school industry.

Voters will head to the polls on May 16 to choose between charter school ally Nick Melvoin and current L.A. school board president Steve Zimmer in a race for District 4, and between charter school teacher Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez and public school advocate Imelda Padilla for a seat in District 6.

If the industry-supported candidates win, they will be able to "squash democratic control of public schools," wrote education historian Diane Ravitch on Sunday. That includes diverting public funds to corporate charter chains and entrepreneurs, widening the reach and power of an industry that has no system of public accountability and has been plagued by theft and fraud scandals.

The Los Angeles Times explained Saturday:

If the charter-backed candidates prevail, charter advocates will win their first governing majority on the seven-member body. If the election goes entirely the other way, unions will strengthen their influence on a board that leans pro-labor. In that scenario, the board would be more likely to limit the growth of charters in the nation's second-largest school system, which has more charters and more charter students than any other school district.

"Think of this as the great Charter War of 2017," said Dan Schnur, former director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "The stakes are unusually high, substantively but even more symbolically. The outcome of these races will determine control of the largest school district in the western United States."

The election will also serve as a microcosm of the Trump administration's vision for public schools nationwide, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos having expressed her support for privatization throughout her confirmation hearings and previously compared the controversial issue of school choice to ride-sharing apps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also referred to public schools as a "product."

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"Unregulated charter schools and vouchers allow private groups to control taxpayer dollars and—in the worst cases—profit from them," Donald Cohen of the watchdog group In the Public Interest wrote at the Huffington Post last week. "But they also help fulfill a vision of society in which government is run like a business and people—and corporations—are customers."

Billionaire Eli Broad and other wealthy supporters—including Walmart heiress Alice Walton, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings—have poured millions into Melvoin's campaign. Zimmer has been endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, teacher and labor unions in L.A., Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and other city officials. But although he received 47.5 percent of the vote in the primary to Melvoin's 31.2 percent, Zimmer faces a well-funded opposition, and Melvoin has picked up endorsements from major players in the corporate education industry, including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"Why do they want to control it? None of them has a child in the system. They despise public schools and they want to turn Los Angeles into a charter school demonstration district. It is all about power and money," Ravitch, who also endorsed Zimmer, wrote in another recent blog post. "No matter how many scandals [there] are in charter schools in Los Angeles or in California, or how many charter leaders are arrested, or how much money is stolen or misappropriated, the charter school advocates won't give up. They refuse to devote their energy and money to rebuilding the Los Angeles public school system."

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