Sunday, February 24, 2013
The case of LA: why an elected school board doesn't necessarily mean more democracy
Here in NYC, as is well known, since 2002 we have have a school board called the Panel for Educational Policy, with a super-majority of mayoral appointees that always rubberstamps any damaging school closing, destructive charter co-location or corrupt contract the mayor wants, even when hundreds or even thousands of parents, teachers, advocates and local elected officials speak out in opposition.
Some of us have expressed a yearning for an elected school board as exists in the rest of New York state and the country, with the thought that it would yield more democracy and more fairly take into account the real needs of our children and the priorities of stakeholders. But take a look at what is happening right now in Los Angeles for another perspective:
On March 5 there will be an election for three candidates for the LAUSD school board, which will probably determine whether their current Superintendent John Deasy remains in office. Deasy was appointed straight from the Gates Foundation and predictably follows the corporate line: he supports the expansion of charters, the weakening of teacher tenure and basing teacher evaluation on student test scores; . Monica Garcia, the incumbent school board president, Kate Anderson, and Antonio Sanchez all support the renewal of Deasy’s contract, and are running under the slate of the Coalition for School Reform.
Kate Anderson is campaigning to unseat incumbent Steve Zimmer, a former teacher and TFAer, who is an independent thinker and not a rubberstamp for Deasy. Despite the fact that individual contributions are apparently limited to $1000 per person, the pro-Deasy candidates have raised many times their opponents in donations from wealthy hedge-funders, Hollywood producers and the like; with Garcia outraising her opponents more than 10-1, and the other two more than 3-1.
Moreover, "independent expenditures" for these three candidates has gone through the roof with nearly $3 million raised through February 16. Among the biggest donors are Mayor Bloomberg ($1 million), Eli Broad and Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst (each $250K), Reed Hastings of Netflix, Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell, entertainment executive Casey Wasserman, investors Marc and Jane Nathanson, (each $100K), film producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Marshall (both $50K), and Joel Klein, now working for Rupert Murdoch ($25K). These independent expenditures include deceptive attack mailers, an expensive “ground game” and plenty of TV ads and glossy flyers. (Anyone who has lived in NYC through the last three mayoral elections knows the queasy experience of opening up your mailbox, stuffed with multiple huge mailers paid for by the Bloomberg campaign, touting his great record and/or attacking his opponents.)
There also seems to be a lot of shady and unethical politicking going on in Los Angeles. The LA Fund for Public Education is a charitable non-profit, a 501C3 started in 2011 by Superintendent Deasy, apparently modeled after NYC’s Fund for Public Schools, founded by Joel Klein. The LA Fund paid for several billboards featuring Garcia as a supporter of the arts in January and February of this year, just a few weeks before the election, until angry protests made them take the billboards down. As a 501C3, this organization is absolutely prohibited from any partisan political activity.
(Some of us may recall how the NYC Fund for Public Schools ran expensive campaigns in 2008-9, with million dollar donations from the Broad, Gates, and Robertson foundations,including television, radio, and subway ads touting the great “progress” made by the schools under Bloomberg, with the tagline “keep it going”. These took place during the months leading up to the vote over whether mayoral control would be renewed, and whether Mayor Bloomberg would be re-elected for a third term.)
In addition, the United Way of LA, another 501C3, is holding an “Education Summit” on February 27, with a panel featuring Superintendent Deasy, Casey Wasserman, Eli Broad and school board president and incumbent Monica Garcia, just one week before the election. Why is this questionable?
Again, if an organization is a 501C3 and receives tax-deductible donations, it is strictly prohibited from holding events promoting one candidate for office so close to an election without inviting his or her rivals. Oh yes, in the morning there is a panel featuring “The Education Mayors [sic]”: Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago and Antonio Villaraigosa, current but term-limited Mayor of Los Angeles, privatizers all. (United Way also was involved in the promotion, parent outreach, and screenings of the charter porn film, Waiting for Superman, funded by Gates Foundation and others.)
On February 14, the United Way held a school board candidate forum, right after news of the Bloomberg $1 million donation broke, in which Monica Garcia and other candidates were present. [Video here.] Among the questions asked: “What would you do if you were head of the UTLA (the LA teachers union), which is a rather strange question considering the candidates were running for the school board instead. Also, according to the LA Times,
“…organizers did not choose to ask a question about Bloomberg’s largesse or the fund to which he donated, which is called the Coalition for School Reform. But moderator Marqueece Harris-Dawson did ask candidates to address money given by the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which also is expected to spend big in the campaign.”
(Union officials have said they can’t match the coalition’s resources and will compensate instead by sending teachers out into the field.)
“We don’t have millions,” asserted Diaz, referring to the union. “We are broke.” Then he went back on the offensive: “Look at what happened with the New York mayor…That’s a red flag. Corporations are not citizens, but they are taking control of our public schools…We need money in the schools, not the campaigns.”
And what about that Bloomberg hefty donation? On the day the contribution was announced, the LA Times quoted Dan Schnur's commentary:
"Michael Bloomberg threw down the gauntlet today," said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "He's obviously very serious about changing education in America, and Los Angeles is now ground zero for that effort." He added: "This is a game changer."
Game changer, huh? Dan Schnur was also quoted in an article a few days later in the LA Daily News this time, about the potential impact of the Bloomberg donation, and he framed the election as a fight between the union and the “reformers”, who if they won, would make LA a “leader on education reform”:
"This is not the first time that reformers and the unions have gone head to head, but the stakes have never been this high," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "This fight isn't about John Deasy the person, but what he represents - an aggressive approach to reform that raises a lot of very high passions on both sides of the debate.
"These elections represent what it's going to take to make LA's public schools better….LA has not historically been a leader on education reform but that could very well be about to change," he said.
Who is Dan Schnur, besides the director of an Institute at USC and a former adviser to Sen. John McKean?
He’s also the brother of Jon Schnur, a prominent corporate reformer. Jon is the founder of New Leaders of New Schools, currently head of American Achieves and an adviser to Bloomberg on how to spend his personal fortune.
Unfortunately, neither of these articles mentioned that connection when quoting Dan Schnur as a supposed independent expert on the impact of the million dollar donation. Given that his brother probably advised Bloomberg to give the contribution to the LA school board race in the first place, it might be considered relevant to how independent and objective his brother’s views should be considered, that the donation is a “game changer” that will determine whether Los Angeles will be a “leader on education reform.”
Lesson: even an elected school board is not necessarily going to give us more accountability and democracy here in NYC, unless there are strict limits on contributions, restrictions on independent expenditures, and restraints imposed on foundations and non-profits from influencing the outcome. The media must also do their job and report the underlying connections between all these forces. And no one should be surprised if Bloomberg and his wealthy allies in the corporate reform movement use the same sort of tactics during the NYC mayoral elections taking place later this year.