Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

With Tuesday's school board loss, charter advocates recalculate

Poll workers await voters at Angeles Mesa Elementary school during a special run-off election for the Los Angeles Unified School District board of education seat in District 1.
Poll workers await voters at Angeles Mesa Elementary school during a special run-off election for the Los Angeles Unified School District board of education seat in District 1.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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After Tuesday's defeat of another of their candidates to the Los Angeles school board, charter school advocates are rethinking how to support local candidates.

"The area where I would like to see us continue to make strides is reliably marshalling a grassroot support of voters," said Gary Borden, executive director of the California Charter School Association Advocates.

Alex Johnson garnered 13,153 votes, losing George McKenna by less than 2,000 votes during Tuesday's runoff. District One being home to about 15,000 charter school students.

Johnson ran on a message of reform, advocating for the expansion of charter schools and tying test scores to teacher evaluations, amongst other criteria. He was much more successful in attracting independent expenditures, garnering $860,000, more than four times the outside financial support as McKenna.

The charter school advocacy arm alone donated $275,000 to Political Action Committees supporting Alex Johnson - more than five times the starting annual salary for Los Angeles teachers, and by far the greatest contribution from a single entity in this election.

"This is the second largest school district in the country, and has the largest number of charter schools nationwide," Borden, executive director of CCSA Advocates said. "The decisions that school board makes about charter schools is quite important."

McKenna's primary financial backer was a Political Action Committee supported by the teachers union.

McKenna benefited from name recognition. His time as principal of Washington Prep High School was the subject of a 1986 TV film staring Denzel Washington. 

McKenna replaces Marguerite LaMotte, who passed away mid-term. LaMotte reliably voted with the teachers union's position, and McKenna shares her values.

Adding-up campaign contributions and outside expenditures, two million dollars was spent by and for Johnson and McKenna ahead of Tuesday's election.

It won't be long before donors are asked for more support: McKenna's seat is up for reelection next year.

Disclosure forms filed with the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission and the California Secretary of State show 93 percent of funds to PACs supporting Johnson originated outside the boundaries of the school board district, which is limited to areas of West and South LA.

Sony and AT&T contributed to PACs supporting Johnson as did Austin Beutner, the new publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times and Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, records show. Some funds came from as far as Sacramento and Washington, DC.

Records show the money was spent on newspaper ads, polling, canvassers and consulting services. 

Roy Behr, a campaign consultant for Alex Johnson, said the investment showed results. He said Johnson received 2,400 more votes in the runoff than in the initial election while McKenna received 5,000 fewer - although the turnout itself was lower, down to about 8 percent from 10 percent.

"As people became more informed, they changed their mind about who they wanted to vote for," Behr said.

Tyrone Howard, a UCLA education professor, said the ground gained by supporters of education reform may be fruitful in future elections.

"I think you are seeing a swinging of the pendulum," Howard said.