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LA School Board Election Impact: Potential for Pro-Charter Expansion?

Earlier this month, a pair of school choice advocates were elected to the Los Angeles Unified School Board in what amounted to the most expensive school board campaign in American history. The changes come as school and community leaders continue to debate the impact of charter schools on K-12 enrollment and funding.

The question now for education experts is whether the change in LA amounts to a high-profile one-off victory for choice, or a sign of what’s to come nationally.

Serving some 600,000 students, LA Unified is, by most counts, America’s second-largest school district, though enrollments have been in sharp decline in recent years. With the loss of students has also come a loss in per-pupil funding.

Want more on charter school expansion? Read Report highlights funding gaps between charter and public schools. And the numbers might surprise you.

Some have attributed the loss of students to an influx of private and for-profit charter schools, many of which promise improvements over the traditional public school model. With competition between public and charter schools heating up, charter school advocates aggressively backed school board candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez ahead of this month’s runoff election. At the center of the campaign was a debate over the expansion of district charter schools by the LA-based non-profit Broad Foundation.

More than $15 million was spent by candidates on both sides, as educators and analysts pegged the election as a national bellwether for the advancement of a pro-school choice agenda, according to a report by Sarah Favot for The 74.

A ‘tectonic’ shift?

Steve Zimmer, the school board president who ultimately lost his seat to Melvoin, sees the recent election as a harbinger of school choice expansion in California and nationally. As he told Education Week:

“I think this is a tectonic shift. This was financed by private-sector reformers. You can’t get away from that […] the way that they’re going to be emboldened now, in terms of other school districts, in terms of the California legislature and beyond.”

The Broad Foundation and the California Charter Schools Association contributed nearly $9.5 million to the campaign, Arianna Prothero reports in Education Week. But, money alone doesn’t win school board elections.

Charter schools already play a prominent role in LA Unified’s school system—24 percent of students attend charter schools, Prothero reports. Familiarity with charters among local voters may have created an easier path for the winning candidates. The fact that both winning candidates were former teachers with real-life classroom experience also likely played a factor, Prothero writes.

Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, put it this way in a story by Education Week:

“If you invest in a strong set of candidates in a city that has a base of support for charter schools both in terms of the sheer number of charters and public knowledge of charters, you can impact the outcome of a board election.”

But, that same formula for success might not apply everywhere. A recent Massachusetts ballot initiative to increase the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state failed miserably, Prothero points out.

Is the LA school board race the start of a trend? Only time, and a busy slate of upcoming school board elections, will tell.

Either way, school district leaders will need to look for ways to stay competitive in this changing environment.

Is your district prepared to compete with schools of choice? Do you have a strategy for maintaining market share in your school community? Tell us in the comments.