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Campaign 2013: What Next for the Coalition for School Reform?

Hillel Aron | May 30, 2013

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CSR logo“The Reformers Are Dead, Long Live the Reformers,” ran the headline to a story by Howard Blume, noting that reformers faced an “uncertain future” after losing two out of three School Board races.

But that story was actually written in 2003 — back when Blume was writing for the LA Weekly rather than his current gig at the LA Times — and concerned a different Coalition: the Coalition for Kids, headed by then-Mayor Richard Riordan.

Ten years later, the story is pretty much the same — only the names have changed. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform just spent over $4 million on three races, losing all but one.

And, with Villaraigosa on his way out, some donors fuming at their expensive defeat, and with the very usefulness of independent expenditure (IE) campaigns fueled by big-money donations being questioned, the Coalition yet again faces an uncertain future.

Possible changes that may be discussed at a Friday meeting include dissolving as an organization, creating a year-round non-profit advocacy group, or simply changing names when the next Board elections take place in two years.

Even before last week’s shock election that saw Monica Ratliff defeat the Coalition-backed Antonio Sanchez, a meeting was already being planned for this Friday to discuss “the 2013 board elections and to discuss preparations for future elections,” according to an email obtained by LA School Report.

With a subject line “LA Board Elections Debrief and 2015 Planning” addressed to “LA Ed Reformers and Friends,” the email was sent out at the beginning of May and has been circulating among reform allies since then.

The invitees are a veritable who’s who of school reformers, including former Board candidate Kate Anderson, Partnership for LA Schools CEO Marshall Tuck, Green Dot CEO Marco Petruzzi, Camino Nuevo CEO Ana Ponce, former Board President Yolie Flores, outgoing Deputy Mayor of Education Joan Sullivan, and Jed Wallace, President of the California Charter Schools Association.

Flores said she expects the meeting to be an informal discussion.

“I haven’t been a part of [the Coaliton], so it’ll be interesting,” said the former LAUSD Board member. “Folks have been calling me asking what I think. I’m interested in challenging folks to be much more thoughtful about how they think about Board elections. There’s some pretty basic things that I was shaking my head that didn’t happen.”

For all the post-election recriminations about the candidate that was chosen and the campaign that was run, one basic question to be answered is: are these campaigns even worth it?

A number of other big-money IE campaigns —  namely the Department of Water & Power union’s campaign on behalf of Wendy Greuel’s doomed mayoral run– suffered expensive losses this year.

Though Villaraigosa has previously pledged to continue his involvement in Los Angeles education, it’s unlikely he’ll be very involved in future School Board races, and it’s unclear if Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti’s views will line up with the current school reformers.

His wife Amy Wakeland* was the Coalition for Kids’ spokesperson in 2003, but he won the UTLA endorsement and never endorsed Coalition candidates including Board member Monica Garcia or Antonio Sanchez.

“For me, this organization is a means to an end,” said one reformer who’s been invited to Friday’s meeting but didn’t want to speak on the record. “It’s a vehicle for a group of people, with Villaraigosa at the helm, to invest.There’s a variety of ways to do that in the future — with or without this particular name. Given the number of high-profile losses, maybe attaching the name to candidates isn’t the best thing to set them up for success.”

That being said, the Coalition for School Reform still has over $500,000 in the bank. It can change its name, but not its purpose, which is to elect School Board candidates.

“They have to spend their money on something,” said one pro-reform political consultant. “In two years, it’s gonna be another war.”

Indeed, four LAUSD School Board seats are up for election in 2015: District 1, covering mostly South LA (currently represented by Marguerite LaMotte); District 3, covering the West San Fernando Valley (currently represented by Tamar Galatzan); District 5, covering a hodge-podge of neighborhoods from Silver Lake to Vernon (currently represented by Bennett Kayser); and District 7, covering San Pedro, Harbor Gateway and South LA (currently represented by Dr. Richard Vladovic).

Will this year’s loss hurt fundraising in the future? One donor we spoke with, Frank Baxter, the former U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay who gave $100,000 to the Coalition, said he would continue to support similar efforts.

“I will never stop fighting for better education for our kids,” he said. “Whatever course that takes, I would like to be part of it.”

But one reformer, who’s been invited to Friday’s meeting, says that LA’s reform effort needs to morph into a more grassroots kind of effort, which might mean creating a new kind of organization.

“People in the reform community are talking about setting up a 501(c)4,” he said. “Not an [Independent Expenditure campaign] that pops up every election cycle, but that exists in between elections building up a base.”

Named for a section in the tax code, 501(c)(4)s are non-profit organizations dedicated to promoting “social welfare” that are increasingly being used by education organizations such as StudentsFirst who wish to be involved in political advocacy.

Unlike 501(c)(3)s, they are allowed to spend money on political campaigns and do not have to reveal all of their donors. Examples include the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association.

The source pointed to the 2003 Blume story as evidence that the reformers have consistently failed to learn lessons from past electoral defeats.

“We are literally living that again,” he said. “We’ve learned nothing in ten years. That has to change.”

*A previous version of this post identified Garcetti’s wife as Amy Wakefield

Previous posts: New Mayor’s Wife Has School Reform PastHow Ratliff Won (& Reformers Lost)*Reform Coalition Focuses Massive War Chest on MailersWhy the Coalition’s Going All Out to Elect Sanchez

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