When Highland Park resident Liz Martinez talks about charter schools, she speaks with the same kind of pride she reserves for her children's accomplishments. Her youngest daughter graduated from PUC Cals Charter Early College High School in 2010 and then Brown University. Her son graduated from another PUC charter school and was accepted to Notre Dame.
"They care about the kids," Martinez says of the neighborhood charter schools where she opted to send them. "They know the kids by name. They know us by name, too. When you come to the high school, you feel welcome."
The 46-year-old mother of three wasn't as pleased with Franklin High School, a traditional LAUSD school her older daughter attended while the other children went to charter schools.
The public school is just five minutes down the street from Cals High School, but Martinez's assessment of the two couldn't be further apart.
"There's a big difference," she says. "At the charter schools, they told them they had to go to university. In Franklin High School, they don't even care about the kids."
The experiences of families like the Martinezes are playing out in the fast-approaching May 19 Los Angeles municipal elections. Martinez is backing college professor Ref Rodriguez for the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education in sprawling District 5. Rodriguez, a political newbie looking to unseat incumbent Bennett Kayser, co-founded the 16-school charter system Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC), and is still its part-time treasurer.
Because it is rare for any incumbent to lose an L.A. municipal race, many see the May 19 runoff election as a test of the reach and strength of the charter-school movement — and the fledgling but increasingly influential California Charter School Association (CCSA).
Though there isn't a clear front-runner, white voters in areas with better schools are expected to back Kayser, and brown voters in areas with worse schools are expected to go with Rodriguez.
With many L.A. voters disengaged from municipal elections, turnout is expected to be painfully low. In an effort to mobilize people like Martinez, charter-school backers have launched an extensive effort to elect Rodriguez.
"If this election goes well for our side, I think the future is actually bright for this movement maturing," says Ben Austin, policy director for Students Matter, the nonprofit advocacy group that championed the Vergara v. California case. The case was a major courtroom loss for teachers unions that, if upheld on appeal, will end California's "last in, first out" rule, which lays off younger teachers first, and would also end California's practice of granting tenure to teachers after two years of experience.
But, Austin says of the school board election, "If it doesn't go well, I think there's going to be a lot of reassessing whether it's even possible to compete with the teachers union" — which has emerged as the official opposition to charter schools.
By early May, the statewide charter-school association had raised more than $1.5 million through two political action committees that support challenger Rodriguez. The teachers union, no stranger to throwing around large amounts of cash, had raised about $798,232 for incumbent Kayser.
The spending and bitterness on both sides have turned the tussle into a widely watched proxy war between the teachers union and the charter-school lobby.
"We look at this election as determinative of where public-education policy is going in L.A. on behalf of a lot of public school kids, who really need good schools," Gary Borden, executive director of advocacy for the charter association, CCSA, says.
Infuriating charter supporters, Kayser has consistently voted against reauthorizing charter schools in L.A. His anti-charter stance puts him in the minority on the seven-member school board. As L.A. Weekly has reported, Kayser, whose own son attended charter schools, stands out for voting against every charter school in LAUSD, regardless of its academic achievements or reputation.
Kayser backs the teachers union view that charter schools are a private takeover of public schools.
"If Ref was to be successful in his campaign, we will see a complete shift of the way charter schools will operate," warns Oraiu Amoni, political director for the local union, United Teachers Los Angeles. "They would have a spokesperson on the school board who is aligned with this corporate model of education."
Until recently, high-profile elected officials such as former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have financed political action committees for pro-charter candidates running for LAUSD's school board. Villaraigosa repeatedly said California's ailing public schools needed competition from charter schools to spur reform.
But Mayor Eric Garcetti is staying out of the school board fight, which raises a significant question: "Has the charter community grown up over the last decade so that it can stand on its own two feet without having to call in granddaddy Antonio to save us?" Austin says.
Rodriguez, 43, insists he'll be an independent voice on the board, citing his own life as an example of what L.A.'s working-class schoolchildren can achieve.
He grew up in tough Cypress Park during its bloodiest gang-war era, and his Mexican-immigrant parents enrolled him in Catholic schools. He was the first in his family to attend college, Loyola Marymount University, and in 1999 he helped launch the first of the 16 Partnership to Uplift Communities schools.
In 2009 he and others founded Partners for Developing Futures, a fund to prepare "leaders of color" to set up their own charter schools, and in 2013 Rodriguez caught the eye of Gov. Jerry Brown, who appointed him to the influential California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. He's now an adjunct professor at his alma mater, Loyola Marymount.
A short, slender, cheerful man, Rodriguez comes off as thoughtful, frequently pausing to consider questions before he speaks. He argues that compared to his opponent, he has a more nuanced approach to running the region's schools.
"He talks in absolutes, and that's just not a thinking person," Rodriguez says of Kayser. "The world isn't absolute. I'm painted [by Kayser] as Genghis Khan," he says, smiling. "I'm not even 5-foot-6."
Should Rodriguez pull off an upset by unseating an incumbent, he could significantly affect how the LAUSD school board swings not only on the growth of charter schools but also on such questions as whether to base teacher evaluations and salaries on students' academic achievements.
Equally important, the often-conflicted school board will soon hire the next superintendent to replace the temporary one, Ramon Cortines. Rodriguez could swing the decision away from the applicant preferred by the teachers union.
"It bothers me that the governing body is so polarized, and nobody's actually having dialogue," Rodriguez says. "People go into these meetings already knowing what they're going to vote for."
For Kayser, there's little to discuss when it comes to whether charter schools should be permitted by the school board. He is steadfastly opposed.
The retired science and health teacher was narrowly elected in 2011 with $1.4 million in backing from the teachers union. Living in the same house in Echo Park for decades, he and his wife helped start one of the L.A.'s first charter schools. He argues that the charter system has since ceased to incubate significant innovation and now functions largely as a corporate-backed, profit-driven institution.
Kayser is close to the local teachers union, reliably voting for everything from teacher raises to speedier investigations of suspended educators who are relegated to so-called "teacher jail," mostly due to allegations of physical, sexual or verbal abuse of their students.
Soft-spoken, the 68-year-old comes off as avuncular and tough. He's clearheaded but also is slowed by Parkinson's disease. "I must be doing something right with the amount of resources that the charter-schools association is spending and the crap that they're doing to defeat me," he says stoically.
Kayser insists that traditional public schools have improved enough to deserve taxpayers' full backing. He points to LAUSD's graduation rate of 68 percent in 2013, up from 62 percent in 2010.
While well below California's statewide average of 80 percent, it has been steadily edging up. Now, he argues, is the time to double down on traditional public schools.
"Charter schools wanted to give the public schools a kick in the pants, and the public schools have responded," Kayser says. Traditional schools in Los Angeles have improved sufficiently that, he says, "Now it's time to call the family home."
In their battle during the March 4 primary, which drew a headline-making 10 percent voter turnout, Rodriguez bested Kayser 39.9 percent to 35.89 percent in a three-way contest. The runoff election will likely come down to which side can talk its core supporters into returning absentee ballots or going to the polls on May 19.
Although Rodriguez got more votes than Kayser in March, the Weekly recently reported that liberal Los Angeles still votes heavily by skin color. In this battle, that could mean that white voters — who turn out in higher numbers than Latino voters — may gravitate to Kayser, even those white voters who support charter schools. Meanwhile, Rodriguez may find that Latinos are excited about his candidacy and ready for change — but not enough to participate at the same rate as his opponent's voters.
The heavily gerrymandered and bizarrely shaped District 5 is divided between a mostly middle-class whiter half, and a mostly working-class Latino half, connected by a miles-long ribbon of land that narrows to just a few blocks in places. The whiter, richer half contains Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Mount Washington, Glassell Park, Silver Lake and parts of Atwater Village and Los Feliz. The Latino, much poorer half contains Vernon, Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, South Gate, Walnut Park and Huntington Park.
While Rodriguez seemingly has strong support in immigrant neighborhoods in southeastern suburbs such as Bell and South Gate, many voters in the more upscale neighborhoods, such as Silver Lake and Eagle Rock, have backed their LAUSD schools. Some parents satisfied with traditional public education harbor deep suspicions of the charter-school system.
"What's at stake is power on the board to move toward more privatization of the schools," says Mark Jovanelly, a retired teacher in Eagle Rock, who sent his six children to traditional public schools. "It depletes our public school base of funding, and it's getting worse."
To Kayser and his supporters, the growth of charter schools threatens not only UTLA, whose paying membership rolls are being hurt by teachers who choose to work at non-unionized charter schools, but also LAUSD itself.
State funding is doled out largely on a per-pupil basis, and the district loses those dollars each time a student makes the switch to a charter school. Parents of all races have fled LAUSD to charter schools at an eye-popping rate: The number of charter-school students doubled, from 67,274 students in 2010 to 135,831 last year in LAUSD, according to state Department of Education data.
That's roughly one in five students who've opted out. Add to that the fact that far fewer families with children now move to Los Angeles than in the past, and student enrollment in the district is taking a significant hit.
While fewer students means LAUSD can spend less to keep classrooms open and hire new teachers, administrators, maintenance staff and others, the district has large fixed costs that don't go away. Those include pensions for retired teachers and bond payments for school facilities that, in some cases, LAUSD no longer needs.
"Basically, we're on the pathway to insolvency if we keep losing students to charter schools the way we are," Kayser says. "My opponent is a charter-school operator, and I don't think [he] is sensitive to what's happening to the rest of the district as a result."
Rodriguez says that if schools are half-empty, they need to find "innovated approaches" to dealing with the situation, such as renting out space to a charter school or another nonprofit.
"He is not right," Rodriguez says of his opponent. "It's a very simplistic answer to a very complex situation."
The district's financial problems shouldn't prevent parents from having access to high-performing charter schools, the charter association's Borden says. "More and more parents are demanding access to charter schools in Los Angeles. We're not charter-school zealots. We don't think it's the only way. But we think there should be a board that's open to charter schools."
Kayser's solutions for the district's failing schools align with the union's: Improve the conditions and pay for teachers, which, they argue, will result in higher-quality educations for students. While Kayser and his team recognize the success of many charter schools, they say gains are unsustainable, alleging that the schools work teachers around the clock.
"I have friends who taught in charters, and they were gone in three years," says David Estrada, Kayser's senior policy director. "Now they're back in the district. It's just tough when you have to kill yourself for that long."
Rodriguez suggests the issues are more nuanced. He acknowledges that there's a potential downside when charter schools abandon traditional labor protections for employees. On the other hand, about 20 percent of charter school teachers are unionized.
"This thing about burning out teachers and having large turnover does concern me," he says. However, Rodriguez and other charter-school advocates argue that students' needs must take priority.
"Listen, I will never be the one to argue that teachers are overpaid," says Myrna Castrejón, CCSA senior vice president for government affairs. "But I will not accept that [low teacher pay] should be an excuse for not creating better conditions where we can."
For many parents who favor charter schools, the fiscal challenges of integrating more charters into the massive district seem irrelevant.
"Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is my kids' education," says Diana Gomez-Lopez, a 48-year-old mother of four who moved her children from LAUSD into charter schools. "It doesn't matter to me — corporate and all that. To me, what matters is they're pushing my child to get a better education."
The popularity of charters isn't only due to some teachers and administrators pulling 12-hour shifts. Because they are nonprofits largely exempt from the education code, charter schools have a lot of local control, which, in turn, has given many parents and educators a sense ownership and has raised moral.
Unlike top-down LAUSD, each charter-school nonprofit has a board that makes local budget decisions. While the LAUSD Board of Education restricts who can sit on the charters' decision-making boards, most of these boards incubate new ideas through board-advisory committees staffed with teachers and parents.
"We're getting a lot of support because of this thing around 'schools belong to the community,'" Rodriguez says. "Parents feel really disconnected at some district schools. Even the most engaged parents feel like they're fighting with the system to get something done."
Like some of the better LAUSD schools in the higher-income suburbs, many charter schools have engaged working-class parents to volunteer and help with fundraising, Rodriguez adds. "That's the way you start the relationship," he says.
Often, wealthier LAUSD neighborhoods supplement school funding through parent-led foundations. But without such resources in many working-class and poor areas, charter schools have turned to philanthropy to bring in extra cash.
The sources of that money and whether strings are attached to the funds are major sources of concern among critics of charter schools.
With about 248 charter schools in the district, it can be hard to keep track of just who is getting what from whom. But elections can be revealing. Since September, well-known contributors each gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the political action committees supporting Ref Rodriguez, including Jim Walton of the Walmart family and two longtime, outspoken and wealthy education activists: Netflix top executive Reed Hastings, a former California Board of Education member, and ex–New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who pushed through extensive changes in New York schools.
The teachers union says that these contributions make charters beholden to corporate America. "If I'm wearing my educational-policy hat, I'm saying, 'I don't know where this is going because people are making profits off tax dollars intended for the classroom,'" says Kayser supporter Mike Finn.
Parents such as Finn, who lives in Silver Lake and has three sons in district schools, fear that charter schools are shifting tax money to corporate interests. The savings from maintaining a non-union staff, critics argue, allow charter schools to spend more on student food services, classroom tech providers and other outside contractors who do business with schools.
Estrada says it's possible for these supply firms to influence their school contracts by also donating to a charter school's foundation. "It can create collusion within a marketplace," he says.
Rodriguez agrees that such a system comes with pitfalls. On the separate issue of high-end philanthropists who donate to elections and then try to get their way, he acknowledges that some contributors have a "big agenda" aimed at specific school reforms and want schools to "fit into their box.
"When we think about philanthropic support for charters, we often say, 'God, we wish we could get more Walton funding' — because they have the least strings attached to their funding," he explains.
On the other hand, Rodriguez and other charter fans argue that collaboration with big business could be the only hope for improving education in working-class neighborhoods.
"I actually want to have corporate partnerships with schools," Rodriguez says. "I want to start apprenticeship programs because vocational education has gone by the wayside. Right now, we're so afraid of corporations, we don't even want to partner with businesses."
A victory for Rodriguez could signal the beginning of the end for traditional public schools, according to union rhetoric. However, it's far from clear exactly what kind of politician voters would get if the charter-school founder from Cypress Park is elected.
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According to Kayser, a vote for his challenger could trigger the unraveling of the teaching profession as we know it.
Kayser says that a Rodriguez win would "degrade the level of education for everyone ... by having teachers in a system that says when they've taught for two years, that's long enough, it's time to move on.'"
Kayser rarely criticizes LAUSD's failing schools. Rodriguez, by comparison, freely criticizes CCSA and the charter-school movement as a whole, saying that about 20 percent of charter schools need to improve or be shut down.
"I think the union wants to do what's best for kids," Rodriguez says. "I think Kayser wants to do what's best for kids. I think what people don't want to [do is] have ... hard conversations, and uncomfortable ones — and debate."