by David Safier
I've watched TUSD school board candidates scramble to rub a nickel and a dime together to mount their campaigns, so when I read that the recent L.A. School Board primary generated more than $5 million in spending, it made me sit up. When 80% of that money came in the form of independent expenditure campaigns, it was evidence that school board elections are turning into a playing field for the Billionaire Boys' Club.
The largest amount of independent expenditure money — about $4 million — went for candidates who supported charter schools as well as teacher evaluations linked to student outcomes and sped-up firing procedures — in other words, supporters of the conservative "education reform" movement. The sources of funds show that the movement isn't purely right wing Republican.
Donations to the coalition included $1 million from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; $300,000 from the California Charter Schools Assn.; $250,000 from StudentsFirst, the advocacy group headed by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee; and $250,000 from a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
When you get Murdoch on the far right on the same side as swings-both-ways-politically Bloomberg, you know there's a strange-bedfellows coalition happening here. And knowing that L.A.'s Democratic mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is in that same bed makes the coalition even more unusual.
On the other side are the local and national teachers' unions that spent close to $1 million.
The primary results have one of the "education reform" coalition candidates and one of the union-backed candidates winning outright and a third election to be decided in May, so it's hard to know how much influence the outside money had.
Personal preferences aside, I see this as an ominous sign of things to come, where school board elections will turn into independent expenditure media circuses with the billionaires doing everything they can to determine local school policy. As usual, most of the money is on the more conservative, anti-union, pro-privatization side.