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Lessons from L.A.

What can school boards learn from the election upsets in the City of Angels?

By Alexander Russo | Winter 2013

Education has always been political, and bipartisanship has often been superficial. But education has become more explicitly political in recent years. Battles that were once limited to partisan debates between liberals and conservatives (Democrats versus Republicans) now sometimes include conflicts between unions and reform advocates.

Nowhere was education's new hyper-political environment more evident recently than in Los Angeles, where three of the district's seven elected school board spots were up for grabs. Despite being outspent by millions of dollars, candidates endorsed by the teachers union won two of the three seats.

Neither policy positions on education issues nor personalities played as large a role in L.A. as they might have in another situation.But similar elections will take place this fall and spring around the U.S., and while few will be as expensive or elaborate as L.A.'s, it's worth understanding the nuts-and-bolts campaign decisions that shaped the race.

Candidate credibility matters to voters. Two of the three candidates endorsed by reform allies in L.A. lacked extensive experience in education. After the campaign was over, former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan excoriated reform advocates for picking "political hacks."

Newspaper endorsements can make a real difference. Conventional wisdom among campaign consultants holds that endorsements from newspapers and community groups don't really matter that much, but in low-turnout (16 percent), low-information races like these that may not be the case.

Campaign money isn't magic. Reform advocates in L.A. raised gobs of money but let their opponents turn it against them (by bragging about it), spent it unwisely (on inaccurate polls, among other things), and failed to use all of the money they had on hand (to attack opponents, etc.). An LA Weekly article described the donors as "wildly naïve."

Internal polling can be very misleading. Reform advocates spent plenty on internal polling that turned out to be misleading in some critical ways. In one race, the polling said the reform candidate was ahead by 20-plus percentage points, which encouraged allies to take their foot off the accelerator in the waning days of the runoff. They finished the race with more than $500,000 in the bank-but their candidate lost.

Absentee ballots and walking precincts matter. Absentee voting is increasingly widespread around the country, and it made an enormous difference in the L.A. races. Even before Election Day, union-backed candidates had a lead that reform
candidates couldn't erase. Plus, the teachers union, UTLA, and the Service Employees Union local both appeared to have more
people knocking on more doors in key areas.

Every race, and every district, is different. But it's clear that education is becoming increasingly political, and that school board elections like the ones in L.A. are a battleground for reform advocates, unions, and political partisans. Knowing how these races work-and what gives some candidates an advantage-is a small but
key thing for educators to understand.

—Summer 2013—

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