LOS ANGELES On Tuesday, voters in Los Angeles will go to the polls for a mayoral primary. But much of the attention will also be on the three races for the school board, a battle that involves the mayor, the teachers' union and a host of advocates from across the country including New York City's billionaire mayor who have poured millions of dollars into the races.
The outcome of the political fight for the school board seats will have a profound impact on the direction of the nation's second-largest school district. But the clash has also become a sort of test case for those who want to overhaul public education, weakening the power of the teachers' union, pushing for more charter schools and changing the way teachers are hired and fired.
After years of pressing to take power away from local school boards, some advocates have directed their money and attention to school boards, as unions have done in the past, in the hope that board members will support their causes.
Last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1 million to a coalition formed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to help elect candidates who will support the current superintendent and the policy changes he has promoted. StudentsFirst, a national advocacy organization created by Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, donated $250,000 to the same cause.
So far, the total spending from outside groups, including the teachers' union, has reached $4.4 million as of Friday, according to the city's ethics commission. And Villaraigosa has said he expects to raise even more in the final days for his group, the Coalition for School Reform.
In 2006, Villaraigosa tried to gain control of the city schools, as Bloomberg and many other big-city mayors were doing across the country. But after his efforts failed, he moved to back school board candidates who he said would support his vision for drastic changes in the city's schools. And this vote, just months before he will end his final term in office, could determine his legacy.
The mayor sees the election as a referendum on the future of education changes in the city. If the three candidates he is backing lose, he said, it would mean "losing reform in Los Angeles as we know it."
The superintendent, John E. Deasy, has generally been a far less divisive figure than some of his counterparts in other large urban districts, such as Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City schools, and Rhee when she ran the Washington school district. But the current campaign has turned particularly nasty, and many here say they believe that Deasy could lose his job if the mayor's slate of candidates loses.
"We would lose part of the heart and soul of the education reform movement," Villaraigosa said. "The reason I've raised as much money across the country as I have is because people get that."
Warren Fletcher, the president of the teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, declined to comment when asked whether the board should remove Deasy as superintendent. In one race, the union is backing all three opponents to school board President Monica Garcia, who is seen as Deasy's strongest backer.
The union has spent nearly $450,000 to help elect its candidates, but Fletcher bristles at the involvement of Bloomberg, Rhee and others from outside Los Angeles and their attempt to influence the results.
"We don't elect a superintendent, but school board races are a way to take the temperature of whether people like the direction schools are going in," Fletcher said. "This is a race for Los Angeles, not the school board race of America. It would be really tragic if the voices are drowned out by folks who have no sense of what is going on here to begin with."
Bloomberg donated about $100,000 to political education causes last year, according to his aides, with most of it going to state legislative races and independent political groups. Los Angeles is one of only a handful of school board races he has gotten involved in, said Howard Wolfson, a New York deputy mayor and counselor to Bloomberg, who added that Bloomberg had responded to a direct appeal from Villaraigosa.
"If you care about education, this is a place to make a difference," Wolfson said. "For years, the expenditures in these races were one-sided from the unions. Now they are not happy there is a counterbalance to their efforts, but they are going to have to get used to it."
Rhee's group has donated to only two other school board races, in West Sacramento and Burbank. She said that while she still believes mayoral control of urban schools is the best way to make aggressive changes, Los Angeles is proving to be a testing ground for what kind of policy changes could be enacted through a school board.
"It will be interesting to see what kind of impact we can have by investing heavily in this race," Rhee said. "It could determine whether or not we should move in this direction."