Educators, parents, residents battle billionaire privatizers in LA school board races

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UPDATE: Despite spending millions of dollars, billionaire charter school advocates were unable to buy victory for their candidates in the 3/7 election for the Los Angeles Board of Education. Because no candidate was able to get at least 50 percent of the vote, incumbent and school board President Steve Zimmer and open seat contender Imelda Padilla — the recommended choices of educators and parents — will face off against charter-backed candidates in each of their respective districts in a May 16 runoff.

by Félix Pérez

Spurred to action by the involvement of billionaire school privatizers seeking to gain a foothold in the nation’s second-largest school district, Los Angeles educators, parents and community members have banded together to support their neighborhood public schools in the March 7 school board elections.

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The deep-pocketed, mostly out-of-state privatization investors are seeking to unseat school board President Steve Zimmer, a high school teacher and counselor in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 17 years. Zimmer’s offense? He was outspoken in his opposition to billionaire Eli Broad’s plan to place half of the district’s 640,000 students in charter schools. Broad’s scheme was not adopted.

Enter Richard Riordan, another wealthy privatizer and former Los Angeles mayor. Riordan provided $1 million to create a “student-led” group, LA Students for Change, that has distributed fact-challenged mailers going after Zimmer, who represents District 4. The 18 students “leading” the group were recruited on Facebook, paid a $500 stipend and have met twice in the past month, according to Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. The group is run by a political consultant from the firm that pitched the so-called student group to Riordan.

LA Students for change, admits Riordan, is connected to the California Charter Schools Association. As of Feb. 20, CCSA and other charter-backed groups have spent more than $1.2 million to oppose Zimmer. Despite its name, CCSA doesn’t limit its extreme agenda to California. When Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate, investor and financial backer of charter schools, was nominated as secretary of education, CCSA congratulated her.

Standing up to the billionaires’ club is a group of Los Angeles public school educators, parents, students and community members. Called We Are Public Schools, the group’s website states:

We believe a handful of billionaires have too much influence over our local elections. . . Our elections should be determined by our communities, not outside money from billionaires with a sordid history of failed privatization schemes like Betsy DeVos, the Walton family and Eli Broad. It is about our students, parents and communities deciding the best direction forward: Do we save public education or do we privatize it?

United Teachers of Los Angeles, which represents 33,000 educators and health and human services professionals, is also speaking out against the privatizers and throwing its support behind Zimmer and Imelda Padilla, a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women and former community organizer facing off against five other candidates for the open District 6 school board seat. Announcing the second round of its “We Are Public Schools” campaign last month, which includes TV, radio and newspaper ads, and billboards, bulletins and bus benches, UTLA, in a news release, stated, “From Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos in Washington, D.C., to Eli Broad and Richard Riordan here in L.A., the campaign also exposes a handful of billionaires who are unfairly influencing local elections and education policy. They also push efforts through the California Charter Schools Association to rapidly expand charter schools at the expense of our neighborhood public schools.”

Peter Dreier, professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said, “What Zimmer has going for him is a grassroots campaign led by parents, former students, and local activists who are walking precincts, making phone calls, and hosting house meetings.”

Dreier, in a column titled “Who Are the Billionaires Trying to Defeat Steve Zimmer?,” laid out in detail how wealthy corporate education reformers use a web of interconnected organizations, think tanks, front groups and candidates to spread their version of “school reform.”

He wrote:

In terms of the big picture, what they want is to turn public schools into educational Walmarts run on the same model of corporate-style ‘efficiency.’ They want to expand charter schools that compete with each other and with public schools in an educational ‘market place.’ … They want to evaluate teachers and students like they evaluate new products — in this case, using the bottom-line of standardized test scores.

The outside money pouring into election indicates how the election could be the most expensive campaign ever for the Los Angeles Unified School Board.

If no candidate receives a majority of the votes in the primary for a specific district, a general election will be held on May 16 for the top two vote-getters.

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