What's behind all the big spending on the LA school board primary
Independent expenditure groups — most with ties to either L.A.'s teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, or the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association — spent a primary-record $5.5 million on outside ads, phone-bankers and canvassers in hopes of swaying the races for three seats.
And Tuesday's results mean the campaign isn't even over yet. In two of the three races, no candidate won a majority of votes, meaning the top two vote-getters will face off in a May 16 runoff — an election that's likely to push the outside spending totals from charter school groups and labor unions even higher.
"I think this is going to be a dog fight," said Rapheal Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University L.A. "I'm getting out of the prediction business ever since election day in November, but I would say more money is going to come in, I would imagine."
The narrative of charter groups and teachers unions battling over school board seats has gotten so familiar in L.A. — Sonenshein likens the decades-long, protracted back-and-forth to the medieval War of the Roses — that it's easy to forget why the battle exists, and why it matters to families.
For the uninitiated in this debate, let's back up: a charter school receives public funding like any other public school. They're unlike traditional district-run schools in that they're run by an outside group — most often, a non-profit organization — which hires teachers and recruits students to attend it. There are more than 220 independent charter schools operating in L.A. Unified.
To open, though, these schools need the permission of an "authorizer" which holds the school accountable for its academic performance and monitors its finances — and in Los Angeles, most often, that authorizer is the L.A. Unified School Board. To remain open, charters must go before the board every few years for renewals.
And here's where the importance of the school board's makeup becomes critical.
L.A. Unified board members have approved most charter school applications and renewals with few public questions in recent years. But the board's infrequent decisions to deny a bid for a new charter or to reject an existing charter's renewal request have caused friction.
As Joshua Pechthalt, president of the state's second-largest teachers union, the California Federation of Teachers, put it, the state's charter school advocates "don't want any constraints placed on the opening of charter schools."
But skeptical board members can serve as a check on charter school growth.
Here's an example: in late 2015, a document leaked from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation outlined plans for a massive expansion of L.A. Unified's charter school sector.
But in Jan. 2016, the school board passed a resolution denouncing the plan. In February, current board president Steve Zimmer told KPCC he was scrutinizing charter applications more than he was before. (The foundation downplayed the leaked document's importance; it has also since shifted its strategy.)
That extra scrutiny hasn't necessarily resulted in an uptick in denials for charter petitions.
Zimmer — who has United Teachers Los Angeles' endorsement and benefitted from What's behind all the big spending on the LA school board primary | 89.3 KPCC: