LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday, voters in Los Angeles will go to the polls for a mayoral primary. But much of the attention will also be on the three races for the school board, a battle that involves the mayor, the teachers’ union and a host of advocates from across the country — including New York City’s billionaire mayor — who have poured millions of dollars into the races.
The outcome of the political fight for the school board seats will have a profound impact on the direction of the nation’s second-largest school district. But the clash has also become a sort of test case for those who want to overhaul public education, weakening the power of the teachers’ union, pushing for more charter schools and changing the way teachers are hired and fired.
After years of pressing to take power away from local school boards, some advocates have directed their money and attention directly to school boards in the hope that they will support their causes, as unions have done in the past.
Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City donated $1 million to a coalition formed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles to help elect candidates who will support the current superintendent and the policy changes he has promoted. Students First, a national advocacy organization created by Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, donated $250,000 to the same cause.
So far, the total spending from outside groups, including the teachers’ union, had reached $4.4 million as of Friday, according to the city’s ethics commission. And Villaraigosa has said he expects to raise even more in the final days for his group, the Coalition for School Reform.
In 2006, Villaraigosa tried to gain control of the city schools — as Bloomberg and many other big-city mayors were doing across the country. But after his efforts failed, he moved to back school board candidates who he said would support his vision for drastic changes in the city’s schools.
The mayor sees the election as a referendum on the future of education changes in the city. If the three candidates he is backing lose, he said, it would mean “losing reform in Los Angeles as we know it."
The superintendent, John Deasy, has generally been a far less divisive figure than some of his counterparts in other large urban districts. But the current campaign has turned particularly nasty, and many here say they believe that Deasy could lose his job if the mayor’s slate of school board candidates loses.
Warren Fletcher, the president of the teachers’ union, United Teachers Los Angeles, declined to comment when asked whether the board should remove Deasy as superintendent. In one race, the union is backing all three opponents to the school board president, Monica Garcia, who is seen as Deasy’s strongest backer.
The union has spent nearly $450,000 to help elect its candidates, but Fletcher bristles at the involvement of Bloomberg, Rhee and others from outside Los Angeles and their attempt to influence the results.
“We don’t elect a superintendent, but school board races are a way to take the temperature of whether people like the direction schools are going in," Fletcher said. “It would be really tragic if the voices are drowned out by folks who have no sense of what is going on here to begin with."
Two of the school board races are likely to go to a runoff to determine who will get a spot on the seven-person board. But the third race, with only two candidates, incumbent Steve Zimmer, a Teach for America alumnus, and Kate Anderson, a lawyer and former congressional staff member, is expected to be decided Tuesday, making it the most watched — and most expensive — contest.
Zimmer portrays himself as a middle-of-the-road deal maker, sometimes siding with the teachers’ union and other times backing Deasy. He has often been the swing vote on issues that have divided the board. That he is being challenged so vociferously, he said, is a sign of “the need for orthodoxy in the reform community."
“People aren’t very interested in reform or middle ground and instead there’s a tremendous interest in continuing this warfare," he said.
Anderson, for her part, says that changes in Los Angeles schools need to come more quickly, particularly in the ways teachers are laid off or fired. Like most public systems, layoffs in Los Angeles are based on seniority, which Anderson calls “absurd."
“L.A. should be leading the nation, but instead we have been failing our kids for a long, long time," she said. “Now we are on the precipice of real reform, but we need to support the superintendent to really be able to do so."