The school board world has been shaken over the past few months as almost $5 million, most of it outside money, has poured into the coffers of Los Angeles School Board candidates. The candidates, in typical fashion, have been portrayed by the media to split along the lines of reform and status quo. However, in this case, the reform candidates actually support maintaining the status quo: current Superintendent John Deasy.
Deasy, formerly L.A. Deputy Superintendent, was hired in 2011 without a nationwide search, and previously worked for the Gates Foundation and served as superintendent of Prince George's County Schools in Maryland. He has championed reforms that Fairfax and districts throughout the country now have to contend with, like using student standardized test scores to count toward teacher evaluations and pushing for teacher layoffs to be based on these evaluations.
What has made the L.A. school board race so intriguing is the formation of the Political Action Committee “Coalition for School Reform” by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to support three reform candidates who have pledged support for Superintendent Deasy. The PAC raised almost $4 million dollars in support of the three candidates. Donors have included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($1 million); the California Charter Schools Association ($300,000); Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst ($250,000); and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (250,000). The local teacher’s union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and its supporters (including the American Federation of Teachers) spent close to $1 million on opposing candidates.
As of this morning, it looks like Mr. Deasy will keep his job. In Tuesday’s election, two of the reform candidates and Deasy supporters, Monica Garcia and Antonio Sanchez, won but still face runoff elections. In the most hotly contested race between one-term incumbent Steve Zimmer and reform candidate Kate Anderson, Zimmer won. However, Zimmer, who is often the deciding vote on many issues on the seven member board, has stated that he supports retaining Deasy as Superintendent but plans to challenge him on key issues. Thus, because Deasy will remain Superintendent, the Bloomberg-Rhee-Murdoch investments will likely be deemed a success.
However, those were expensive investments. The three reform candidates received a combined total of 57,892 votes in their districts, and the total dollar amount spent by the reformers came out to at least $66 per vote. To put that amount in perspective, in Fairfax County where I ran countywide in 2011, I received about 89,000 votes and spent about $0.23 per vote.
The question to ask, then, is: Are we likely to see such national heavyweights become involved financially in our local school board elections?
Probably not. First, Fairfax’s school system is very successful overall. Certainly, there is much room for improvement, but urban districts riddled with problems are much more likely than suburban districts to attract national attention and national heavyweight candidate contributions. Second, despite attempts by the media to paint school board members anywhere as either reformers or supporters of the status quo, such delineations fail to address the intricacies of board decision-making. As such, determining which candidates to support is not always as clear cut as it supposedly was in Los Angeles. Third, while school board elections in Fairfax are more prominent than they are elsewhere in the country because of the recognized importance of our education system to our local economy and because of our well-informed and involved community, they fail to grab national headlines.
However, never say never. As Mayor Bloomberg leaves office and focuses more on his newly-established PAC, and as other education reform groups gain political and financial power, we may yet see their influence on DC-area school board elections.