If You Think the TUSD Board Election Was a Knock-down, Drag-out Fight, Take a Look at L.A.

TUSD went through a rough-and-tumble board election last year, but compared to what's going on in the Los Angeles school board race, it was a half-hearted shoving match on the school playground. Two seats are up for grabs in Tuesday's L.A. school board election, and so far $12 million has been dropped into the races. Between Wednesday and Thursday, two of the candidates pulled in another $800,000.

Looking at the major battles over education being waged in Arizona as well as L.A., New York, Chicago and other hot spots, not to mention the national-level furor over Trump's Ed Sec Betsy DeVos and her privatization priorities, it's clear to me we're at a pivotal moment. The nation is fighting over the very soul of education. What happens over the next decade could very well decide how we educate our children well into the future.

What's unusual about the education battles is, unlike most national issues, they don't divide along neat political lines. Arizona's statewide educational fight is pretty straightforwardly conservative/progressive, Republican/Democratic. But the TUSD board battles created some mighty strange political bedfellows, and the L.A. education wars are even more complicated.

Unlike TUSD where all the board candidates are lumped together and the top vote getters are elected, L.A. board seats are divided by district. Each of the two hotly contested district seats has a pro-charter candidate and an . . . it's not correct to say an anti-charter school candidate exactly, more like a candidate who wants to slow down charter growth. Some of the pro charter money has come from the usual conservative sources: two members of the Walton (Walmart) family and the conservative co-founder of the GAP. But giving big money to the same side are former N.Y. mayor Michael Bloomberg and Steve Jobs' widow, neither of whom are firmly in the conservative camp. And at the center of the L.A. pro-charter movement is Eli Broad, a very rich Democrat who is a major player in the "education reform"/privatization movement and has a goal of opening up enough L.A. charter schools that they'll enroll half of the local students. The candidates on the other side are getting lots of their money from teachers unions and their allies in the labor movement.

If the two pro-charter candidates win, they and their allies on the board will take over the majority, which is critical to the rapid expansion of charters in the L.A. area since, unlike Arizona, most California charters are approved by their local school districts. With Eli Broad and his wealthy allies pushing for as many new charters as possible and providing financial help to get them up and running working alongside a pro-charter school board majority to approve the new schools, charters could start shooting up like California poppies in spring, or cropping up like toadstools along the roadside—choose whichever metaphor suits your educational inclinations.

If the L.A. board retains its current majority, its slow moving charter wars will continue. If the majority shifts, it will be the place to watch for charter school expansion, the same way Arizona has been the place to watch lately for voucher expansion.