Voters send mixed signals to school reformers in L.A.

Voters keep sending signals that they have very mixed feelings about corporate-based school reform. The latest signs come from Los Angeles, where Tuesday’s races for three Board of Education seats resulted in one defeat, one win, and one runoff for supporters of school reform.

The reason it matters is that Los Angeles is the second largest public school district in the country, and people around the country were watching the elections as a kind of bellwether of public support for controversial reforms.

The biggest news was that Steve Zimmer, the school board member in Los Angeles who has proposed halting the opening of new charter schools and evaluating teachers with student test scores, beat a challenger who had backing from big reformers outside California, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Los Angeles Times said Zimmer won 52.1 percent of the vote in District 4 in a close race against Kate Anderson, who garnered 47.9 percent of the vote.

The Zimmer-Anderson race was the most expensive and publicized of three races for the Board of Education in the Los Angeles Unified School District in Tuesday’s elections. Anderson was backed by a coalition of donors, which was put together by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and included Bloomberg, who gave $1 million, and Michelle Rhee, whose StudentsFirst organization gave $250,000.

Another race for the school board was won by the exceptionally well-funded incumbent reformer, Monica Garcia, who supports Superintendent John Deasey’s reform efforts.

And reform candidate Antonio Sanchez was leading in the third race but was headed for a runoff against a union-backed candidate. The outcome is impossible to predict.

Reformers were shocked in November when one of their favorite state education commissioners, Tony Bennett of Indiana, was tossed out by voters, even though he spent far more money than the opposition. Idaho voters overturned three school reform laws, too. An effort to permit charter schools to open in Washington state passed after an infusion of millions of dollars from a gaggle of billionaires, including Bill Gates; Washington voters had rejected charters three times earlier before big money was spent to pass it.

Apparently, money can’t buy absolutely everything.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 6, 2013