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Commentary: What pro-equity advocates in California can learn from their wins in LAUSD

Guest contributor | May 22, 2017

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(Note: This article first appeared on La Comadre and Education Post)

By Chris Bertelli

When the ballots were finally tallied in the early morning hours on Wednesday, those of us who work for educational equity in California’s public schools had reason to celebrate. After an expensive, hard-fought campaign, two political newcomers – Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez – were elected to the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, giving the panel a pro-equity majority for the first time in several years.

Melvoin’s upset win over incumbent board president Steve Zimmer was the biggest news of the evening. In fact, Zimmer conceded defeat early in the evening when mail-in ballots gave Melvoin a clear edge in the race. Melvoin went on to win with over 57% of the votes.

This is great news for LAUSD parents and students, whether they attend a traditional or charter public school. Melvoin and Gonez, who narrowly won her race for the open Board District 6 seat, are both advocates for choice and strong fiscal leadership from the board, two things sorely needed in the sprawling bureaucracy of the nation’s second-largest school district.

While there will be no shortage of post-mortem analyses highlighting the record spending and negative advertising by both sides of the LAUSD races, there are important lessons that equity advocates should take from this election to help them build momentum in other areas of the state.

First, equity advocates involved in the campaigns played hard and they played to win. Too often, we skirt the rough and tumble political fights in favor of studies and data that we hope will persuade voters to support our side. That almost never works. Experience shows that pre-conceived notions and self-interest are stubbornly resistant to facts and figures. That’s why we need to remember that education politics is still politics. Effective strategies, tactics, and messages aim for the heartstrings and we shouldn’t be afraid to get our hands dirty when necessary.

Second, the campaigns kept their eyes on the prize: turning out voters. For those unfamiliar with Los Angeles municipal elections, they are abysmally low turnout affairs which are scheduled at a time (springtime in off-years from other statewide and national elections) that almost seems designed to suppress turnout. The first round of voting is held in March, with runoffs in held in May for those races where no candidate received an outright majority. This makes identifying and turning out supporters an incredibly important part of the campaign. Melvoin especially did well in this regard. Not only did he maintain his election day turnout from March to May, but he trounced Zimmer 60%-40% in mail-in ballots, normally the strength of union-supported candidates.

Third, and related to the point above, Zimmer and the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) collapsed in the final stretch, a real gift to equity advocates. Keep in mind that Melvoin received 14,000 fewer votes than Zimmer in the March primary, a gap that many believed would be impossible to close. Yet a preliminary analysis of last week’s results shows that fully half of the voters who turned out for Zimmer in the primary stayed home for the runoff. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl has a lot of explaining to do. Last year, he increased annual membership dues by nearly $,1000, explaining that the extra revenue was needed to fund the union’s anti-charter campaign. In light of UTLA’s expensive failure, members will no doubt want to know how their hard-earned money was spent.

The stakes remain high for education equity advocates as we head toward the 2018 statewide elections in California. To prevail, we will have to build upon this incredible success by understanding how we succeeded in Los Angeles and how to apply those lessons as we move forward.

Chris Bertelli is the founder of Bertelli Public Affairs, an education public affairs consultancy based in Sacramento. He specializes in working with clients focused on improving educational equity in California public schools.

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